Narnia: Screaming at Scum

[Narnia Content Note: Ableist Language, Animal Cruelty]

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 8: The Fight At The Lamp-Post

When we last left Narnia, the Empress Jadis was taxi-surfing through the streets of London after apparently having burgled a jewelry store. She has returned to Digory's house not because it is considered a safe haven to Andrew or a source of escape to Jadis but merely through narrative chance. Digory has been considering whether he should do something protagonisty, while Jadis has introduced herself to the crowd. Lewis wants to take Jadis down a peg or three, so the crowd is about to react unkindly.

   “HO! HEMPRESS, ARE YOU? WE’LL SEE about that,” said a voice. Then another voice said, “Three cheers for the Hempress of Colney ’Atch” and quite a number joined in. A flush of color came into the Witch’s face and she bowed ever so slightly. But the cheers died away into roars of laughter and she saw that they had only been making fun of her. A change came over her expression and she changed the knife to her left hand. Then, without warning, she did a thing that was dreadful to see. Lightly, easily, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, she stretched up her right arm and wrenched off one of the cross-bars of the lamp-post. If she had lost some magical powers in our world, she had not lost her strength; she could break an iron bar as if it were a stick of barley-sugar. She tossed her new weapon up in the air, caught it again, brandished it, and urged the horse forward.

I feel like this read of TMN has been disappointing to me, and here's a good example of why. This is supposed to be the origin story for Lewis' Satan. Jadis should be terrifying, but she's just... not. Digory and Polly have a vague fear of her because she's an adult and she's physically strong, and that seems to be all Lewis can think of for her to have. We've noted before that he has a philosophy of "might makes right (and Right make Mighty)" but rarely has it felt so blatant as this? A crowd of peasants is laughing at Empress Jadis and her response is to... reach out and bend an iron bar to show off? This isn't anywhere near the league of villains like Ursula or Maleficent; it's barely even worthy of Gaston.

So much of this scene feels stilted and childish. We were sold a Jadis who wanted to conquer the world and might at any moment reduce Buckingham Palace to a little pile of dust. Instead she rode to a jewelry shop, robbed the store like a common brigand, rode away in a panic rather than defend her rights there and then at the scene (an utterly out-of-character choice that seems to exist only to bring her back into proximity to Digory), and now she's riding bareback on an exhausted horse and waving a knife and a steel bar at a crowd. This isn't the Jadis we were given in Charn, the one who waited patiently for her sister to approach with her armies before saying the deplorable word that would ruin the planet. This is someone getting into an undignified brawl with a mob which she's almost certain to lose because even the strongest person can be zerg-rushed.

Satan is interesting as a character because he's subtle. He takes his time, lays his snares, and executes clever plans to catch the unwary. Jadis is about as subtle as a lamppost to the face. And it's honestly hard to tell if Lewis knows how silly she looks here? On the one hand, I can well believe he would intentionally defang his own Satan by writing her as a silly, vain, image-obsessed woman who is too foolish to realize that defending her title via street-brawling is itself a betrayal of her supposed nobility and more inherently lower-class than the lowest born peasant here. On the other hand, Jadis wading into the crowd of bullies to defend herself via physical combat reminds me strangely of the ending of The Silver Chair when Jill and Eustace go after the other students with sword and whip. Again we come back to the problem that Lewis' villains rule by might and bullying, and his heroes differentiate themselves by having more and better bullying.

Anyway before I disappear down that rabbit hole, Digory decides to act:

   “Now’s my chance,” thought Digory. He darted between the horse and the railings and began going forward. If only the brute would stay still for a moment he might catch the Witch’s heel. As he rushed, he heard a sickening crash and a thud. The Witch had brought the bar down on the chief policeman’s helmet: the man fell like a nine-pin.
   “Quick, Digory. This must be stopped,” said a voice beside him. It was Polly, who had rushed down the moment she was allowed out of bed.
   “You are a brick,” said Digory. “Hold on to me tight. You’ll have to manage the ring. Yellow, remember. And don’t put it on till I shout.”

I have so many questions about all of this--why Polly's parents let her run outside into what appears to be a violent mob, why Polly is suddenly talking and acting out of character for the frightened little girl who understandably didn't feel like this whole Jadis stuff was *her* problem, why Lewis didn't write this conversation as happening *before* Digory "darted" forward rather than somehow these two having a conversation whilst darting alongside each other--but Polly is here now and that's all that matters I suppose.

   There was a second crash and another policeman crumpled up. There came an angry roar from the crowd: “Pull her down. Get a few paving-stones. Call out the Military.” But most of them were getting as far away as they could. The Cabby, however, obviously the bravest as well as the kindest person present, was keeping close to the horse, dodging this way and that to avoid the bar, but still trying to catch Strawberry’s head.

I have a lot of questions, too, about what this Cabby thinks he's doing; he previously said he's trying to get to Strawberry to calm him so the horse doesn't lash out and kill someone, which: fair enough. However, surely the highest priority here is to get the woman who is goading him into a frenzy off of him? Because as long as she's on him, she can (a) strike the Cabby with the iron post, (b) strike Strawberry with the iron post, and/or (c) keep goading Strawberry on indefinitely. I don't think, in a contest of wills between Horse-Whispering and Horse-Whipping, that the whisperer has the advantage over the situation.

   The crowd booed and bellowed again. A stone whistled over Digory’s head. Then came the voice of the Witch, clear like a great bell, and sounding as if, for once, she were almost happy.
   “Scum! You shall pay dearly for this when I have conquered your world. Not one stone of your city will be left. I will make it as Charn, as Felinda, as Sorlois, as Bramandin.”

*sigh* I feel like I've been putting this chapter off for too long, and even now while I'm writing it I keep getting up to do housework, because how many more times can I say the same thing? THIS DOESN'T FEEL LIKE JADIS. Not the outrage; the outrage is fine. But the yelling just feels so impotent and beneath her? Great queens do not shout insults in the street like Dickensian fishwives. This mob (which is apparently attempting to stone her?!) is treating her like a stereotypical madwoman because she's acting like one. And Jadis must surely be aware of that! None of this comports with her behavior as we have previously known it.

To be clear: it is inarguable to me that this situation would leave Jadis shaken. She has left a world where she was born into power, and come to a place where no one recognizes her right to rule. Moreover, her own powers aren't working. That would be extremely alarming to anyone and I'm not saying she should handle it with grace and aplomb. But this isn't Iago experiencing a momentary major setback; this is King Lear screaming at the sky. Jadis should have the intellect and iron self-control necessary to collect herself, realize that Charn wasn't built in a day, and start worming her way into the fabric of this new world. Learning its secrets and uncovering its magics. We know she can do that because that's precisely how she's going to interact with Narnia when they take her there. Why not here?

The easy answer, of course, is that Lewis just wanted a comedic scene in which a lot of folks are pulled into Narnia in the style of the Golden Goose story where everyone who touches the end of the conga line is "stuck" and brought along for the ride. There's probably a more complicated theology under all that--perhaps Jadis can't be Satan in a world where a Satan already exists? perhaps she's only able to learn the Narnian magics because she was there at its creation?--but if there is, I can't say what it would be.

   Digory at last caught her ankle. She kicked back with her heel and hit him in the mouth. In his pain he lost hold. His lip was cut and his mouth full of blood. From somewhere very close by came the voice of Uncle Andrew in a sort of trembling scream. “Madam—my dear young lady—for heaven’s sake—compose yourself.” Digory made a second grab at her heel, and was again shaken off. More men were knocked down by the iron bar. He made a third grab: caught the heel: held on like grim death, shouting to Polly “Go!” then—Oh, thank goodness. The angry, frightened faces had vanished. The angry, frightened voices were silenced. All except Uncle Andrew’s. Close beside Digory in the darkness, it was wailing on “Oh, oh, is this delirium? Is it the end? I can’t bear it. It’s not fair. I never meant to be a Magician. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s all my godmother’s fault; I must protest against this. In my state of health too. A very old Dorsetshire family.”
   “Bother!” thought Digory. “We didn’t want to bring him along. My hat, what a picnic. Are you there, Polly?”
   “Yes, I’m here. Don’t keep on shoving.”
   “I’m not,” began Digory, but before he could say anything more, their heads came out into the warm, green sunshine of the wood. And as they stepped out of the pool Polly cried out:
   “Oh look! We’ve brought the old horse with us too. And Mr. Ketterley. And the Cabby. This is a pretty kettle of fish!”

Honestly, I'm surprised they only brought the horse, the Cabby, and Andrew. It sounded like the mob was physically closing in on Jadis and trying to pull her down from the horse; they're lucky they didn't bring the entire street scene with them.

   As soon as the Witch saw that she was once more in the wood she turned pale and bent down till her face touched the mane of the horse. You could see she felt deadly sick. Uncle Andrew was shivering. But Strawberry, the horse, shook his head, gave a cheerful whinny, and seemed to feel better. He became quiet for the first time since Digory had seen him. His ears, which had been laid flat back on his skull, came into their proper position, and the fire went out of his eyes.
   “That’s right, old boy,” said the Cabby, slapping Strawberry’s neck. “That’s better. Take it easy.”
   Strawberry did the most natural thing in the world. Being very thirsty (and no wonder) he walked slowly across to the nearest pool and stepped into it to have a drink. Digory was still holding the Witch’s heel and Polly was holding Digory’s hand. One of the Cabby’s hands was on Strawberry; and Uncle Andrew, still very shaky, had just grabbed on the Cabby’s other hand.
   “Quick,” said Polly, with a look at Digory. “Greens!”
   So the horse never got his drink. Instead, the whole party found themselves sinking into darkness.

Hi, here's a question: Why???

I know why Lewis wants Polly and Digory to switch rings, because it's the only way to get everyone into Narnia. But why does Polly and Digory want this? They know that Jadis is weak in the woods and that she is NOT weak in the worlds inside the pools: she was fine in Charn and she was fine on earth. If the concern is to keep her weak and ineffectual so that she can't hurt anyone, then keeping her in the woods would seem to be of paramount importance.

It's possible that Polly and Digory are afraid of falling asleep here, as Polly nearly did once, but that no longer seems to be a concern. That didn't happen before when they were here with Jadis, and it doesn't seem to be happening now; the Cabby is bright and talkative, and Strawberry is shaking himself down and whinnying cheerfully and otherwise going about his day like a normal happy horse. Whatever effect of the woods caused Polly to feel sleepy when she was here on her own doesn't seem to be in effect when there are other people around.

Heck, while I'm here questioning Polly and Digory's choices, what is going on with this horse? He's calmed down and cheery and decided he wants a drink, but he doesn't shake off the rider on his back? You'd be forgiven for assuming that Jadis crumpled to the ground but no: "she turned pale and bent down till her face touched the mane of the horse." And then when the horse bends to drink, "Digory was still holding the Witch’s heel". I have ridden a lot of horses in my day and they are ornery creatures that will throw you off just for sneezing, let alone for having whipped them into a frenzy five minutes before. I find it incomprehensible that Strawberry wouldn't dump his "deadly sick" rider off onto the ground and step over her without a second thought.

We'll pause here and come back to the creation of the world.


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