Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Magician's Nephew: Chapters 1-2

Summer Challenge '13: Questions

One of the most intriguing and endearing things about Lewis’ writing is that he so often throws out random references to things he never elaborates on. Passing references that have little to do with the story, but when you stop to think about them, they point to countless other untold stories or adventures. Stories we catch only that brief passing glimpse of and are given nothing further; tantalising glimpses (in the literal meaning of the word). It is these that can often lead to fan fiction or other types of musings as people try to imagine what story might underlie that briefest glimpse.

There are a number of these in the first couple chapters of The Magicians Nephew. The first is Digory’s past. We learn that before coming to London, Digory lived in the country, in a house with an apparently large property with a river at the bottom of the garden and room for a pony whom he loved. This is all we get of his childhood before moving to London and yet it makes me wonder what amazing stories and adventures the young Digory must have had before his real adventures even began.

And then there’s Polly. Her life is fascinating and yet we get to learn so little about her family and background. It is only in these initial chapters that we get told a tiny bit; especially, the fact that she was a child with a vivid imagination and able to occupy herself during her recreational time most pleasantly. She had built for herself a secret “smugglers cave”; a place of retreat where she kept her treasures, and would retire to to enjoy a quiet bottle of ginger beer and to work on her story. Her story? Now how is that for tantalizing? Wouldn’t you, like Digory, just love to know what it was that she was writing? I wonder if she ever became a more accomplished writer; if in later life, she ever published anything? After her adventures in The Wood between the Worlds, Charn and Narnia itself, can you imagine the creative stories she might have written? I can just see her writing out an imaginary history of Charn.

Another question is about Digory’s dad. We know much about his mother, but very little about his father except that he was called away to India. My first guess is that he was a soldier called to serve in India which was still a British colony in those days. I suppose he also might have been some kind of government official or representative. Wouldn’t you just love to know what adventures he got up to in India? And what stories he must have had to tell his son coming back? I wonder if Digory was ever brave enough to tell his father that he’d been to places even further away than India?

Another mystery I don’t believe is ever solved (unless it is later in the book and I have simply forgotten) is what really lies in the empty house one over from Digorys. After all the build-up in the first chapter, it is a little bit disappointing that we never find out whether the house was haunted, secretly inhabited by someone who only came out at night with a dark lamp, if it was the den of a gang of criminals or if it really just had bad drainage. On the other hand it’s almost like Lewis does this on purpose. By keeping the empty house a mystery it remains appealing. If we knew the truth, it might turn out to be one of the uninteresting explanations grown-ups had and the story would lose some of its charm.

Another mystery is Uncle Andrew and his study. Although we know much about Uncle Andrew’s awful character and motivations, I’m really curious to know how he occupied his days before Digory and Polly stumbled upon his office. What was in all those books? He had a lot of them. We know a little, that he spent a lot of time and effort discovering what was in the box from Atlantis and how to make the rings, but what other tricks and experiments was he up to?

And probably the greatest and most tantalising question of all is who was Mrs Lefay and what in the worlds did Atlantis have to do with it all? I’ve loved the story of Atlantis for a long time, and especially since doing a module on it in one of my university classics courses. But Lewis tells us so very little. How did Atlanteans get dust from the Wood between the Worlds? What did they do with it (they hadn’t made it into rings)? How did it survive the downfall of Atlantis? How did Mrs Lefay get hold of it? How did Uncle Andrew figure out that rings were the way to make the dust work? How did he make the rings? So many questions never answered and left up to our imagination. Oh Lewis!

Mrs Lefay is especially interesting in light of the fact that (as someone years ago on TLC pointed out in a discussion thread) she shares her surname with an enchantress of Arthurian legend, Morgan LeFay. Did Lewis intend a direct connexion? We are told that she had fairy blood in her, and in old British legends the women like Morgan Lefay were associated with the faerie or fair folk (the “fay” part meaning something like “fairy”). Interestingly, in Stephen Lawhead’s Arthurian Pendragon Cycle, he equates refugees who escaped the downfall of Atlantis to Britain with the fair folk of such legends and people such as the Lady of the Lake, Merlin and a character that bears some resemblance to Morgan LeFay are Atlanteans and therefore faerie in his stories. I’m fascinated to know whether this is purely coincidence or whether Lawhead was drawing on a mythology that equated the faerie with Atlantis; a tradition Lewis himself was a acquainted with. I’d like to do some more research into this at some point, to see if there is anything to it. A last question regarding Mrs Lefay. Wouldn’t you love to know what she was imprisoned for?

So there we have it. The story has barely started and already Lewis has posed so many questions by hinting at elements of the story we never get to learn more about. But as I’ve suggested above, this is very much what makes Lewis such a good writer and this such a good book. It is full of mystery and much of the mystery must remain thus to add to the quality of the story. It is up to our imaginations and our unfortunately poorer skill (on my part anyway) to come up with our own answers to these questions and to explore these untold stories in more detail.

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