Narnia: Those Who Take and Never Give

[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny]

Narnia Recap: Digory and Polly have returned home, but have accidentally brought Queen Jadis with them. She has ordered Uncle Andrew to procure means of transportation so she can begin her world conquest.

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

(I'm back? Not sure what to say about that! Hi! The new Blogger interface is awful!)

   The old man went out, looking like a dog with its tail between its legs.
   The children were now afraid that Jadis would have something to say to them about what had happened in the wood. As it turned out, however, she never mentioned it either then or afterward. I think (and Digory thinks too) that her mind was of a sort which cannot remember that quiet place at all, and however often you took her there and however long you left her there, she would still know nothing about it.

One of the reasons I wanted to do the Narnia series in publishing order rather than the in-universe "chronological" order is that it matters to me how the tone and style of Lewis' writing changed over time. We've gone from a relatively straightforward approach which was tinted with cozy elements (here thinking of the sewing machine in the Beavers' home) to the more dreamy style which I think Lewis preferred in his later writings and which I'm very much not a fan of, at least in his hands. I think this passage is a good example of this tonal shift: instead of Jadis having a logical reason for not confronting the children over their attempt to leave her in the Woods, Lewis postulates that she's just...forgotten about the place. Indeed, that she is entirely incapable of remembering it, no matter how long she is there.

I'm sure there's some religious parallel he's trying for here, but I will admit I don't understand it. The peaceful Woods both hurts and harms her (it seemed to be tortuously draining the life out of her!) yet she can't remember the place even enough to avoid returning to the torture? The two seem almost mutually exclusive; I can almost believe the Woods would be torture for Jadis, and can almost believe she can't remember being there, but trying to believe both at the same time throws an Out Of Cheese error in my brain.

There is a much more mundane reason not to confront the children about their actions in that place: it would be admitting weakness, which Jadis cannot do. In order to tell them never to try that shit again she would need to admit--both to herself and the children--that she was in pain and danger. That they had, however briefly and tentatively, power over her. For abusers like Jadis, a moment of weakness is so much easier to just sweep it all under the mat and pretend it never happened. The "missed" moment of warning your victims not to try that again is an acceptable trade-off for not giving your victims ideas that escaping you might be possible and worth future attempts.

Now that she was left alone with the children, she took no notice of either of them. And that was like her too. In Charn she had taken no notice of Polly (till the very end) because Digory was the one she wanted to make use of. Now that she had Uncle Andrew, she took no notice of Digory. I expect most witches are like that. They are not interested in things or people unless they can use them; they are terribly practical. So there was silence in the room for a minute or two. But you could tell by the way Jadis tapped her foot on the floor that she was growing impatient.
   Presently she said, as if to herself, “What is the old fool doing? I should have brought a whip.” She stalked out of the room in pursuit of Uncle Andrew without one glance at the children.

I have to laugh at Lewis ascribing this sort of "practical" (which of course is meant to read as assholery) behavior to Jadis after books full of material in which Lewis has shown no interest in things or people that he can't use to make whatever religious metaphorical point he wants. Ah, yes, only the evil witches care about Important People They Can Use, which is why we have spent eleventy billion of these books following Narnian royalty and giving no fucks whatsoever for how the common Narnian folk live and survive all these winters and wars that fascinate Lewis. (From whence does the marmalade come, et cetera.)

I don't necessarily have a problem with books and histories that follow the Important People--they have their place, after all--but for Lewis to act like this is beneath him somehow and it's a trait unique to witches is hilarious. Hell, Jadis hasn't ignored Polly more than Lewis himself has ignored her; narratively, her role so far is to give Digory a "sin" to feel bad about and that's pretty much it. Speaking of Polly, what is she thinking about this dangerous woman with world-ending magic who has openly announced her determination to take over this new world and/or destroy it utterly if it does not submit to her heel?

   “Whew!” said Polly, letting out a long breath of relief. “And now I must get home. It’s frightfully late. I shall catch it.”
   “Well do, do come back as soon as you can,” said Digory. “This is simply ghastly, having her here. We must make some sort of plan.”
   “That’s up to your Uncle now,” said Polly. “It was he who started all this messing about with Magic.”

Ah. Polly, like a silly girl, is worried about her parents grounding her for staying out late playing. She hasn't noticed that, if Jadis has her way (and they have no reason yet to believe her doom-magic won't work in this world) there won't be anymore parents or bedtimes anymore because there won't be a world anymore. Or at least it won't be any world that Polly recognizes. I don't see Polly thriving in the future Jadis plans, the one where the world has been enslaved and languishes bloody and broken at her feet.

Yes, Polly is a child, but she's a child who was previously characterized as being terrified by Jadis. Now that the queen has left the room, she's forgotten all her fear and is preoccupied with the far inferior threat of her parents. It's as though she has no concept of object permanence, a thing most babies have established at 8 months of age. Digory, on the other hand, is taking this seriously because he's the male insert character for Lewis and not a silly girl focused on her hurt feelings.

   “All the same, you will come back, won’t you? Hang it all, you can’t leave me alone in a scrape like this.”
   “I shall go home by the tunnel,” said Polly rather coldly. “That’ll be the quickest way. And if you want me to come back, hadn’t you better say you’re sorry?”
   “Sorry?” exclaimed Digory. “Well now, if that isn’t just like a girl! What have I done?”

I think possibly one of the reasons I stopped posting for this book (which I really do intend to see through to the end) is that the misogyny is so thick and I don't feel like I'm adding useful commentary by just waving at it and typing, "See? See this shit?" But, like, do you see this shit?

   “Oh nothing of course,” said Polly sarcastically. “Only nearly screwed my wrist off in that room with all the waxworks, like a cowardly bully. Only struck the bell with the hammer, like a silly idiot. Only turned back in the wood so that she had time to catch hold of you before we jumped into our own pool. That’s all.”

Polly is entirely right, so it is vexing that Lewis tried to make her sound catty and irrational.

   “Oh,” said Digory, very surprised. “Well, all right, I’ll say I’m sorry. And I really am sorry about what happened in the waxworks room. There: I’ve said I’m sorry. And now, do be decent and come back. I shall be in a frightful hole if you don’t.”
   “I don’t see what’s going to happen to you. It’s Mr. Ketterley who’s going to sit on red hot chairs and have ice in his bed, isn’t it?”
   “It isn’t that sort of thing,” said Digory. “What I’m bothered about is Mother. Suppose that creature went into her room. She might frighten her to death.”
   “Oh, I see,” said Polly in rather a different voice. “All right. We’ll call it Pax. I’ll come back—if I can. But I must go now.” And she crawled through the little door into the tunnel; and that dark place among the rafters which had seemed so exciting and adventurous a few hours ago, seemed quite tame and homely now.

Once again: Polly is a silly girl who (somehow??) thinks the terrifying woman with world-ending magic is now entirely the problem of the man she is using in her attempt to subjugate the entire world. Digory is focused on Jadis as a lethal threat, but in the very narrow sense of "what if my weakened mother saw her". Unlike Polly, he seems to at least recall his terror of Jadis and reasonably fears that the terror might be felt by his mother if they were to meet, but neither of them seem scared of Jadis' plans to conquer the world and make everyone her slaves.

I suspect Bad Writing here: Lewis knows that Jadis' powers don't work and her plans will come to nothing more than a mild traffic-jam, so because HE is not scared for the world, then neither Polly nor Digory are. The result is that this entire book feels bereft of stakes or drama; Lewis gives us the most dangerous woman in the world, his actual metaphorical stand-in for Satan, and can't bring himself to make her realistically frightening because his misogynistic contempt got in the way. That's a hell of a cock-up, when your Satan figure provides little more than slapstick.

   We must now go back to Uncle Andrew. His poor old heart went pit-a-pat as he staggered down the attic stairs and he kept on dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief. When he reached his bedroom, which was the floor below, he locked himself in. And the very first thing he did was to grope in his wardrobe for a bottle and a wineglass which he always kept hidden there where Aunt Letty could not find them. He poured himself out a glassful of some nasty, grown-up drink and drank it off at one gulp. Then he drew a deep breath.

Andrew dresses up in his finest weddings-and-funerals best (including top hat and monocle) and downs enough liquid courage to convince himself that the beautiful woman who came through his magical portal would fall in love with him and come to admire him for... well, it's not really clear what she would admire him for, but presumably for his magic.

   You see, the foolish old man was actually beginning to imagine the Witch would fall in love with him. The two drinks probably had something to do with it, and so had his best clothes. But he was, in any case, as vain as a peacock; that was why he had become a Magician.

This is one of those parts that rings both true and false: yes, it's a very privileged cis man thing to assume a woman will fall for a man just because he wants her to, but Lewis has been writing such thrilling romances as "Caspian and that nameless girl he spoke to once" and "Rilian and that witch whose only defining feature was being lovely" so it feels a little cheap for Lewis to suddenly castigate Andrew for thinking love-at-first-sight fairy-tale romances exist. It feels more like we're supposed to think Uncle Andrew is silly for thinking a woman would fall for *Uncle Andrew* because he's old and weak and (relatively) poor and overall just sort of rubbish, rather than being young and strong and rich and royal like Caspian. And if that's the case, then this is less a criticism of entitled white cis man thinking and more an upholding of the same: Andrew is bad because he doesn't realize he's not the right kind of white cis man who is entitled to pretty women.

Andrew goes downstairs and sends for a hansom before asking his sister, Aunt Letty, to lend him five pounds. She refuses with quiet dignity and tells him he ought to be ashamed to ask her for money and we get a quick little backstory dump:

   There was a long, dull story of a grown-up kind behind these words. All you need to know about it is that Uncle Andrew, what with “managing dear Letty’s business matters for her,” and never doing any work, and running up large bills for brandy and cigars (which Aunt Letty had paid again and again) had made her a good deal poorer than she had been thirty years ago.

I'm sorry that we don't get more of this. I understand why we don't--Lewis has no real interest in boring things like adult finances, hell, he even calls it a "dull story"--but it actually would go a long way towards characterizing Andrew and Jadis as villains for reasons other than their abuse of the children and Lewis' general sneers at the sort of people they are. Here is something much more damning than being "silly" and thinking Jadis will love him: Andrew mooches off his own sister and has done so to the point of impoverishing her! He takes and takes and never feels any shame or sense that he should give back or contribute. Why, gosh, who else does that remind you of? If you said "Jadis" and/or are dusting off the anti-monarchical guillotines, you get ten points!

Like Andrew asking for money from Letty, Jadis began demanding money from him as soon as she showed up, expecting him to finance her magic carpets and clothes and jewels--just as Andrew ran up "large bills for brandy and cigars". There's a parallel here of people who demand the world from others and expect to give nothing back because they believe they're entitled to other people's labor, and it would've been a good parallel to explore further.

   “My dear gel,” said Uncle Andrew, “you don’t understand. I shall have some quite unexpected expenses today. I have to do a little entertaining. Come now, don’t be tiresome.”
   “And who, pray, are you going to entertain, Andrew?” asked Aunt Letty.
   “A—a most distinguished visitor has just arrived.”
   “Distinguished fiddlestick!” said Aunt Letty. “There hasn’t been a ring at the bell for the last hour.”
   At that moment the door was suddenly flung open. Aunt Letty looked round and saw with amazement that an enormous woman, splendidly dressed, with bare arms and flashing eyes, stood in the doorway. It was the Witch.

The chapter ends there and we have to wait until next time to see Letty's reaction to Jadis.


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