As with my review of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (LWW), I’ll be reviewing this tale with the feedback of my five year-old daughter in mind, to whom I read the story over several bedtimes during the past few weeks, as well as my own.
The first thing to mind is that there is some disagreement among readers of Lewis as to the reading order of the books. The Magician’s Nephew (TMN) was the first of the Narnia Chronicles to be published, and indeed on the edition I have (part of a seven book bound edition), it has the number 1 clearly emblazoned on the spine. To the uninitiated this obviously implies that you should read this book first, but that’s not necessarily the case, and in fact IMO it’s not actually a very good idea.
The principal reason for this is that TMN is not the most thrilling of adventures. Certainly not compared to LWW (Book 2 in the chronological order), which is destined to retain its classic status for time immemorial. Indeed, LWW makes for a much more satisfying entrance into the land of Narnia; it is a profound children’s tale offering genuine peril, sacrifice, loss (literal, in the figure of Aslan, and figurative, in the children’s loss of their innocence), with allegorical subtexts that make children really think about what is happening on the page, even without offering them the Christian background upon which the story is based.
The Christian subtexts are still here in TMN, but the focus is strongly on the early sections of Genesis, as TMN concerns the creation of Narnia by Aslan, who here is presented as a more judgmental, Old Testament type deity before assuming the Christlike role of the second book.
TMN offers a quite stilted and jerky plot, moving from late Victorian London, where we are introduced to friends Digory and Polly, to several magical worlds, including the ruined world Charn. We then return to a farcical episode in London, and then to the world of Narnia being birthed. The main problem with TMN is that it functions mostly as a large-scale piece of world-building, a 171-page info dump that provides all of the detail and background that gives the reader a deeper understanding of the mechanics of Narnia and a better idea of the scale of Lewis’s ambition. It’s arguable at best that this information is necessary for any great enjoyment of the other books, though it does lend itself to sense of completeness on the author’s part. My suspicion is that, were this tale written today, the information presented in TMN would have been drip fed through the other tales rater than presented in one hit.
Because of this the plot that holds the book together is rather flimsy, and reduces the children to bystanders to events much of the time. True, their initial curiosity in discovering the magical rings, Polly’s (innocent) courage when being presented with Aslan, and Digory’s resistance of temptation later in the novel are all key moments, but they are siloed rather than connected. There is no real sense of danger in much of the text, and the relentless exposition sucks any urgency from the text. On many occasions it can appear to be more of a fantastical history lecture, with the odd moment of slapstick or farce thrown in, rather than a fully fleshed fantasy adventure.
Where the book does come alive is any episode involving Jadis, the Witch Queen. As in LWW, she assumes the role of avatar for Satan in all his Biblical guises, from the serpent offering the temptation of infernal knowledge, to the seductive and arrogant worshipper of her own intellect, decoupled from any appreciation of the divine, and ultimately the destroyer of worlds. She bestrides the book like a Colossus, and when she appears my daughter’s face lit up with the threat of imminent danger, because she understood that a tale isn’t really a tale without some contrarian element. The Chapter describing the Deplorable Word, where Jadis describes her own fall from grace, is the highlight of the novel, a chilling and tragic tale that adds depth, tragedy and menace to Jadis’s character. She in turn spits, fights, begs, brags, tempts and threatens the various characters in the story, and has a tendency to go into full Pantomime mode at times (“Silence, Fool!” etc) but when most other characters are merely avatars for static personality traits (foppish Uncle Andrew, the stoic Cabby, the innocent children, the happy maid, and so on) her grandeur and presence is most welcome. It’s no wonder that through her charisma she demonstrates a singular hold over the adult characters, with Digory’s Uncle Andrew suffering a particular loss of faculties over this “dem fine woman”.
Whereas Lewis’s allusion to Christ in LWW worked because the child instinctively understands the concept of loss and sacrifice, here the creation allegory is rather too abstract to fully work, and I lost the attention of my daughter at several points. In fact, I believe that several entire episodes could have been expunged from the book to make it more effective.
Having said that, the very final few pages are incredibly effective, and give the reader a sense of pre-emptive wonder and joy that is almost entirely absent for the rest of the text. TMN enjoys classic status by hanging off the coat tails of its more accomplished sibling texts in the series. It’s no surprise that TMN gets overlooked for film or TV adaptations in favour of LWW or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Hence why TMN ought not to be the first book one reads in the Narnia, because if you come away thinking that every episode is like this, it surely must make for a very dry affair indeed. So, start with LWW, and perhaps then move onto some of the other Narnia books, and then visit TMN to see how the whole world came into being. It works much better as a prequel than a first part.