Narnia: In Which Little Happens

[Narnia Content Note: Animal Mistreatment. One gif from the Frozen 2 trailer.]

Narnia Recap: Digory and Polly used their rings to flee from a dying world but found to their surprise that the mysterious Queen Jadis was able to come with them through the power of the rings.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 6: The Beginning of Uncle Andrew's Troubles

When we last left our heroes, they were rocketing at high speeds away from Charn towards the Woods Between Worlds (though, through what medium they are traveling, I could not say) and they had an unexpected tag-along. 

   “I’m not touching you!” said Digory.
   Then their heads came out of the pool and, once more, the sunny quietness of the Wood between the Worlds was all about them, and it seemed richer and warmer and more peaceful than ever after the staleness and ruin of the place they had just left. I think that, if they had been given the chance, they would again have forgotten who they were and where they came from and would have lain down and enjoyed themselves, half asleep, listening to the growing of the trees. But this time there was something that kept them as wide-awake as possible: for as soon as they had got out on to the grass, they found that they were not alone. The Queen, or the Witch (whichever you like to call her) had come up with them, holding on fast by Polly’s hair. That was why Polly had been shouting out “Let go!”

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks urges that, in the event of zombie outbreak, you either cut your hair short or secure it in a manner that will be difficult for grasping hands to seize. This scene readily demonstrates why Polly is not sufficiently prepared to survive a zombie outbreak.

   This proved, by the way, another thing about the rings which Uncle Andrew hadn’t told Digory because he didn’t know it himself. In order to jump from world to world by using one of those rings you don’t need to be wearing or touching it yourself; it is enough if you are touching someone who is touching it. In that way they work like a magnet; and everyone knows that if you pick up a pin with a magnet, any other pin which is touching the first pin will come too.

A very big problem with all the Uncle Andrew parts thus far is that his character is impossible to the point of immersion breaking. His claim is that he received a box of dust from a dying woman, and knew that it was magical and that it would be unwise for him to touch it. So, using a variety of "knowledge" he picked up from goodness-knows-where, he transferred the dust into little rings and put the rings on small rodents in order to observe the effect. Some of the rodents blew up. One of them de-materialized into thin air. Instead of then performing more experiments--say, for example, dropping a ring on a small rodent which was lashed to another small rodent and seeing if they both de-materialize together, Uncle Andrew instead decided to trick a little girl into using a ring and sent his nephew after her, hopeful they could both return.

You see the problem? Anyone this reckless would've touched the dust on his own. Anyone this unscientific wouldn't have been able to make these rings. And yet Uncle Andrew was somehow scientific enough to make the rings and cautious enough to never touch them. We have arrived, in short, at Point B with a character whose essential character would normally make it quite impossible for them to have traveled here from Point A.

   Now that you saw her in the wood, Queen Jadis looked different. She was much paler than she had been; so pale that hardly any of her beauty was left. And she was stooped and seemed to be finding it hard to breathe, as if the air of that place stifled her. Neither of the children felt in the least afraid of her now.
   “Let go! Let go of my hair,” said Polly. “What do you mean by it?”
   “Here! Let go of her hair. At once,” said Digory.
   They both turned and struggled with her. They were stronger than she and in a few seconds they had forced her to let go. She reeled back, panting, and there was a look of terror in her eyes.
   “Quick, Digory!” said Polly. “Change rings and into the home pool.”
   “Help! Help! Mercy!” cried the Witch in a faint voice, staggering after them. “Take me with you. You cannot mean to leave me in this horrible place. It is killing me.”
   “It’s a reason of State,” said Polly spitefully. “Like when you killed all those people in your own world. Do be quick, Digory.” They had put on their green rings, but Digory said:
   “Oh bother! What are we to do?” He couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the Queen.
   “Oh don’t be such an ass,” said Polly. “Ten to one she’s only shamming. Do come on.” And then both children plunged into the home pool. “It’s a good thing we made that mark,” thought Polly. But as they jumped Digory felt that a large cold finger and thumb had caught him by the ear. And as they sank down and the confused shapes of our own world began to appear, the grip of that finger and thumb grew stronger. The Witch was apparently recovering her strength. Digory struggled and kicked, but it was not of the least use. In a moment they found themselves in Uncle Andrew’s study; and there was Uncle Andrew himself, staring at the wonderful creature that Digory had brought back from beyond the world.

Lewis can't think of a reason for the children to bring Jadis to their world. That's fair; I can't think of one either. This is a common first-draft problem: you know what needs to happen but you don't know how to get your characters to do it. Sometimes you have to start adding new features or complications in order to nudge them along, like putting a monster in the Woods and having it forcibly hurt Jadis at the children when they try to leave. Sometimes you have to tinker with a character's essential character, like making it so Digory or Polly have very firm feelings against leaving someone helpless and in pain, no matter how much of an enemy they were before. And sometimes you have to go back and change things, perhaps by making the Queen less patently evil so that the children trust her at this point and want to save her.

Or you can, I guess, just make the decision moot: Digory and Polly decide to leave the Queen behind but it doesn't really matter because it turns out she's magically not as weak as she was a moment ago. And they don't see or hear her approach from behind because... I don't know. And she's able to reach out and grab a young boy as he disappears from a pool he just jumped into because... look, I just work here. I got nothing. Because magic.

In terms of getting a plot point lined up to where it needs to go--the plot point in this case being "the Queen visits Earth"--this is clunky and inelegant but it gets the job done. However, it would seem Lewis forgot something rather basic with regards to the story he wanted to tell. The Magician's Nephew's story is a heavy-handed reference to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve and the Serpent, with Jadis playing the part of the tempting serpent and Digory pulling double-duty as Eve and also, kinda, the serpent's First Cause in that he's supposedly the reason Jadis came to Narnia and therefore responsible for her presence. We'll talk more on that when we get here but here's a major link in that logical chain broken: Jadis escaped Charn because she grabbed onto Polly without her consent, and Jadis reached Earth because she grabbed onto Digory without his consent.

Yes, Digory woke her up but it's hard to place the blame for "Jadis in Narnia" on the shoulders of a little boy whose only crime so far is... ringing a bell because he was curious what would happen. I'm saying that an act which crosses a moral event horizon needs to have a little more agency and intent, I feel, in order for the punishment to not seem like arbitrary bullshit.

   And well he might stare. Digory and Polly stared too. There was no doubt that the Witch had got over her faintness; and now that one saw her in our own world, with ordinary things around her, she fairly took one’s breath away. In Charn she had been alarming enough: in London, she was terrifying. For one thing, they had not realized till now how very big she was. “Hardly human” was what Digory thought when he looked at her; and he may have been right, for some say there is giantish blood in the royal family of Charn. But even her height was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness. She looked ten times more alive than most of the people one meets in London. Uncle Andrew was bowing and rubbing his hands and looking, to tell the truth, extremely frightened. He seemed a little shrimp of a creature beside the Witch. And yet, as Polly said afterward, there was a sort of likeness between her face and his, something in the expression. It was the look that all wicked Magicians have, the “Mark” which Jadis had said she could not find in Digory’s face. One good thing about seeing the two together was that you would never again be afraid of Uncle Andrew, any more than you’d be afraid of a worm after you had met a rattlesnake or afraid of a cow after you had met a mad bull.

I've been hankering lately to start up Twilight again and this section reminds me why: the whole "too pale to be pretty" trope is an annoyance of mine that Twilight plays with off and on for days. Of course it is entirely possible for people to look wan and sickly and therefore not vibrantly virile and beautiful, but the issue there is that they look sick, not that they look too white. There is no such thing as "too white to be beautiful" in a white supremacist culture; there is no massive viral online petition demanding that Disney stop making Elsa from Frozen so disgustingly ugly.

Elsa from Frozen 2 with her white-blond hair down in a white dress.

So in the passages above we have a Jadis who looks too pale to be pretty when she's in the Woods but then, whoops, she's right back to being one of the most beautiful women on Earth. (Before the end of the chapter Uncle Andrew will be smitten by her and halfway to believing there are wedding bells in their future.) Probably Jadis' instantaneous recovery is meant to be a magical indication of her weakness to the Woods: she is pale and sickly there, but never elsewhere.

But it's honestly just as possible that Lewis forgot what he wrote a few paragraphs before, because "too pale to be pretty" wasn't a thing in his culture and it's not one in ours, no matter how often white writers employ it. Do some individuals not prize paleness as beauty? Certainly. Are many pale girls urged to become darker in certain contexts? Sure. I lived through the Tanning Booth Boom, and remember it well. I know how readily capitalism will convince even the relatively privileged among us that they too need to spend more in order to achieve Beauty.

So, no, I'm not saying paleness is objectively beautiful or that all people admire it. What I am saying is that writing stuff like this as a white writer from within a white supremacist culture is a bullshit move, especially when everyone in your book is lily-white. There were Black people and brown people in London when this book is set; Lewis could've made the new Queen and King of Narnia--and parent of all humans therein for centuries to come--any color humans come in, but he picked white. But, hey, it's not like he values whiteness in and of itself and here's proof because he describes one white character, briefly, as too pale to be pretty. So no one can accuse him of not having diversity in his books because he values whiteness. It was just an unplanned accident. /sarcasm

   “Pooh!” thought Digory to himself. “Him a Magician! Not much. Now she’s the real thing.”
   Uncle Andrew kept on rubbing his hands and bowing. He was trying to say something very polite, but his mouth had gone all dry so that he could not speak. His “experiment” with the rings, as he called it, was turning out more successful than he liked: for though he had dabbled in Magic for years he had always left all the dangers (as far as one can) to other people. Nothing at all like this had ever happened to him before.

This entire section--the two paragraphs here--should have been cut entirely. It does not make sense why Digory thinks the "witch" is more magician than the magician, nor how he defines the term, nor what this is even supposed to mean from the perspective of a small boy who is supposed to be frightened because this giantish woman has just barged into his universe by grabbing him without his consent.

The only point of the aside is to throw scorn on Uncle Andrew, but it doesn't make sense: of course the witch from a magical world is more magical than the man Digory thinks of as his bumbling uncle, and why should that be phrased like a compliment when their type of magic has only been used to kill people and terrorize Digory and Polly. It makes about as much sense, in short, as Digory thinking: "Pooh! Him a dangerous serial animal torturer? Now she's the real thing." The statement is both true and yet wildly inappropriate both for the situation and for the fact that this isn't some kind of contest where coming in first place is an admirable thing worthy of competing for.

Second, it's unclear why Uncle Andrew is afraid nor why his experiment is "more successful than he liked": he doesn't yet know Jadis is dangerous and even after he is informed he will soon go on to believe she's fallen in love with him so why this sudden, unbidden, and out-of-character flash of insight that the tall woman in his study is dangerous to him? I do think there was a good idea here--that the Uncle Andrew who was suave and confident and dangerous with children is a gibbering frightened mess when faced with someone actually powerful--but she needs to be allowed to do something powerful first, not merely stand there.

   Then Jadis spoke; not very loud, but there was something in her voice that made the whole room quiver.
   “Where is the Magician who has called me into this world?”
   “Ah—ah—Madam,” gasped Uncle Andrew, “I am most honored—highly gratified—a most unexpected pleasure—if only I had had the opportunity of making any preparations—I—I—”
   “Where is the Magician, Fool?” said Jadis.
   “I—I am, Madam. I hope you will excuse any—er—liberty these naughty children may have taken. I assure you, there was no intention—”
   “You?” said the Queen in a still more terrible voice. Then, in one stride, she crossed the room, seized a great handful of Uncle Andrew’s gray hair and pulled his head back so that his face looked up into hers. Then she studied his face just as she had studied Digory’s face in the palace of Charn. He blinked and licked his lips nervously all the time. At last she let him go: so suddenly that he reeled back against the wall.
   “I see,” she said scornfully, “you are a Magician—of a sort. Stand up, dog, and don’t sprawl there as if you were speaking to your equals. How do you come to know Magic? You are not of royal blood, I’ll swear.”
   “Well—ah—not perhaps in the strict sense,” stammered Uncle Andrew. “Not exactly royal, Ma’am. The Ketterleys are, however, a very old family. An old Dorsetshire family, Ma’am.”

Look, I'm not going to denigrate BDSM play because I love me some good fun BDSM play, but I will say that if you've written a scene in a children's book that reads like BDSM play, you might want to have an editor go over the details and see if anything could be changed to be a little less, uh, fucky.

   “Peace,” said the Witch. “I see what you are. You are a little, peddling Magician who works by rules and books. There is no real Magic in your blood and heart. Your kind was made an end of in my world a thousand years ago. But here I shall allow you to be my servant.”
   “I should be most happy—delighted to be of any service—a p-pleasure, I assure you.”
   “Peace! You talk far too much. Listen to your first task. I see we are in a large city. Procure for me at once a chariot or a flying carpet or a well-trained dragon, or whatever is usual for royal and noble persons in your land. Then bring me to places where I can get clothes and jewels and slaves fit for my rank. Tomorrow I will begin the conquest of the world.”
   “I—I—I’ll go and order a cab at once,” gasped Uncle Andrew.
   “Stop,” said the Witch, just as he reached the door. “Do not dream of treachery. My eyes can see through walls and into the minds of men. They will be on you wherever you go. At the first sign of disobedience I will lay such spells on you that anything you sit down on will feel like red hot iron and whenever you lie in a bed there will be invisible blocks of ice at your feet. Now go.”

I feel I would actually like this section were it not for the fact that the author...sorta agrees with Jadis here. There is a weird and uncomfortable divide in Narnia between the good magic one is born with (or gifted or given by authority) and the bad magic one goes out and learns and tears from the world by experience and trial and strength of will. This is, of course, wrapped up in the authoritarianism and theology of the books: good people take what god and/or the king gives them and makes do; bad people grasp for something above their station.

If Lewis didn't agree with this passage, I could assume we're not supposed to because the villain is speaking. We'd have a woman who was born into the highest privilege, position, and prestige, who was gifted magic at birth as her birthright, telling a man who is much closer than she to the working class than he is to the noble class that he's a low and dirty animal for choosing to better himself. You can just imagine how well that would fly over for me. And yet, I don't think we're supposed to read this as anything other than the truth: Jadis was born with magic and Uncle Andrew went out and learned it in books, and though they're both bad people he's the one who is to be scorned for his... ambition? being born small and insignificant? both?

The rest of the passage is, of course, comic relief: she wants a flying carpet or a dragon, despite no evidence of either in Charn, hoho, what a clever ironic joke. She wants, too, jewels before she starts conquesting which is an odd detail that smells of some kind of anti-femininity; surely jewels are traditionally obtained as part of the conquest, not a prelude to it. And the question "you and what army" has never seemed more appropriate here.

We must leave off here because I have to take a nap. Take care, my friends.


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