Lion of Sorrows
This chronicle is the Genesis of the Narniad, while The Last Battle is its eschaton. Whereas Tolkien fleshed out the culture, language, and history of his myth, Lewis was happy for his world building to be a bit more slapdash. But The Magician’s Nephew enriches the history of the world of Narnia.
We learn how the Lion created the world by singing it into being. The White Witch’s origins are explained. We’re given the reason why a son of Adam & daughter of Eve are the royal line. And Lucy’s pertinent question about why there’s a lamppost in the middle of a wood is finally answered.
Summary of the Plot
But first, a recap. These events took place when Professor Kirk (of LWW) is a boy. His mother is dying, his father is off in India, he lives with his crazy Uncle Andrew & Aunt Letty. He meets the neighbor girl, Polly, and they accidentally discover Uncle Andrew’s lab. He tricks Polly into using a magic ring that sends her out of our world, and then blackmails Digory into going to fetch her. This brings the two kids to the “Wood Between the Worlds”, and they, being good kids, decide the right thing to do is explore a bit.
This is how they come to the dead world of Charn. Through Digory’s foolishness, they awaken the wicked Queen Jadis from her enchanted sleep. The children accidentally bring her back into our world. She begins to wreak havoc, while Uncle Andrew simps for her. The two children use their rings to take Jadis back. But they accidentally bring Uncle Andrew, a Cabby driver and his horse along too. They end up in an “empty world”. To the children, Cabby, and horse’s delight, a low song begins, and suddenly the world begins to be made. Jadis and Uncle Andrew miserably bicker about trying to get out of this world. Soon, the Lion appears. Clearly he’s the one singing everything into being.
Jadis runs off after failing to kill Aslan. Digory plucks up the courage to ask the Lion if there’s any fruit in this young world which might heal his mother. Instead, Aslan rebukes him for his folly in awakening Jadis and bringing this evil into the world. Aslan sends the boy to pluck an apple from a sacred garden, then return to plant it in Narnia, protecting them from Jadis’ evil for many long years. Digory & Polly (and Fledge, the Cabby’s horse…now a Pegasus) go on their mission. They find with horror that Jadis has eaten from the forbidden tree, and Digory barely escapes the temptation to join her.
Upon their return to Aslan, Aslan gifts Digory an apple from the freshly planted Tree of Protection. Upon returning to England, Digory gives his mother the gifted apple, and she is healed. Those apple seeds are planted, and many years later Digory used that tree to make a wardrobe.
The Narnia stories nicely map onto the seven heavens of ancient cosmology. Even if it wasn’t as deliberate as some assert (like Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia), Lewis clearly employed the imagery of that cosmology. That being the case, the Inklings, as Lewis’ group of friends called themselves, must have asked at some point, “So, Jack, how’re you going to employ the imagery associated with Venus in a children’s novel?” A fair question.
Lewis pulls this off in a few ways. The “Wood-between-the-Worlds”, with the verticality of trees and the circularity of the pools gives tasteful Venusian imagery. But we also have a series of “couples”: Digory & Polly, George the Cabby & his wife Helen, Uncle Andrew (with his deformed erotic desire) & Jadis, Digory’s mother & father (reunited at the end of the story), and all the animal pairs. The Edenic sort of imagery is abundant, tasteful, and poignant. In other words, it is Venus veiled.
The Deplorable Word & the First Joke
Lewis teaches a lesson in the power of words in two episodes. We learn that Jadis sought out a sort of “gnostic” hidden knowledge, and thus discovered and used The Deplorable Word to destroy all of Charn. Meanwhile, the Jackdaw made (or rather became the first joke) through his poor linguistic timing. Aslan exhorts the talking beasts to give way to the laughter, saying: “Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”
Words can destroy or words can build up. The Word made the world. The Word got the last laugh. Biblical justice is not humorless justice. Our salvation, in one sense, is a joke: “Satan thought he killed God.” Insert belly laugh here.
Uncle Andrew serves as a warning to us of the miserable condition that can result from disordered desires. He initially desires power (magic used to force others to do your will). When Jadis comes along, his lusts come to the forefront. As he sees the fertility of young Narnia, his greed & avarice bubble to the surface. He is a truly carnal man.
The arc of this character eventually shows that because his desires are entirely misdirected he ends up disheveled. He becomes more beastly than the talking beasts. They understand him, but he’s refused to hear them. He’s an utterly broken man. His desires were not the problem, but the direction of them were. He could have been a fatherly figure for Digory, and a true brother for his sisters. He could have been adventurous and taken the risk himself, instead of sending a little girl to do his dirty work (as Digory scolds him for doing). He could have been humble and learned from the Lion, and thus brought blessing back to Narnia, instead, the rest of his life he was a burden on the charity of his family.
This is a great picture of how the fall has wrecked mankind. We desired to be as God, and instead became like beasts.
Lying to Ourselves
Digory receives chastisement for his folly in the enchanted hall of Charn. He pretended to be far more under the spell than he really was. His curiosity got the best of him, and instead of repenting, he tried to pass it off on some vague magic.
The lesson he learned was to take responsibility. This was the lesson of Adam in Eden. He blamed his wife instead of taking responsibility. He put someone else’s neck in the noose, instead of laying his own life down.
He Hath Borne Our Sorrows
This tale gives us a peek into the sorrow which Lewis carried throughout his life, due to his mother’s early death. Digory is as close as we get to Lewis putting himself into the story.
In perhaps the most touching scene, I think, in all Narnia, we find that the Lion is true compassion. To put it in Biblical terms: He is a Lion of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
DIGORY kept his mouth very tight shut. He had been growing more and more uncomfortable. He hoped that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t blub or do anything ridiculous.
“Son of Adam,” said Aslan. “Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?”
“Well, I don’t see what I can do,” said Digory. “You see, the Queen ran away and —”
“I asked, are you ready?” said the Lion.
“Yes,” said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help my Mother,” but he realised in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
“But please, please — won’t you — can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another. But I have to think of hundreds of years in the life of Narnia. The Witch whom you have brought into this world will come back to Narnia again. But it need not be yet. It is my wish to plant in Narnia a tree that she will not dare to approach, and that tree will protect Narnia from her for many years. So this land shall have a long, bright morning before any clouds come over the sun. You must get me the seed from which that tree is to grow.”
“Yes, sir,” said Digory. He didn’t know how it was to be done but he felt quite sure now that he would be able to do it. The Lion drew a deep breath, stooped its head even lower and gave him a Lion’s kiss. And at once Digory felt that new strength and courage had gone into him.
There are deep layers of deep theology here. The problem of evil is raised. Then answered by the Pauline refutation of that objection: “He made Him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be the righteousness of God in Him.” “Where does suffering come from?” is to ask the wrong question. “Why does God allow suffering?” is also to start at the wrong end.
The lesson here is that God ordained our suffering, and then Himself bore it all, took the worst of it, swallowed the poisoned cup that was ours to drink. And then, He holds out to us the promise of new life. The dark chapters are not only penned by His sovereign hand. He wrote Himself into the darkest and worst part of the story. Christ suffered in our stead. This is the answer to silence & satisfy all our questions.
This story slays a wicked giant. Darwinism’s view of the world is utterly charmless. It leaves us fruitless. It leaves us miserable in our disordered desires. Jack slays this giant by revealing that in looking back at the creation of the world, we can look forward to the resurrection of this world. Our tears will be wiped away, our suffering will give way to sweet fellowship. The world wasn’t made via mechanistic forces, but by music.
The intimacy of Venus is a pale shadow of the bright glory which we shall enjoy in the warm presence of God our Father has begotten us, Mother Kirk has given birth to us. Christ is the head of the church, we are His body. As Lewis makes plain in his book Four Loves, all earthly loves point us to God’s love. His love is fruitful & life-giving: “In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.”