I have been meaning for ages to reread C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series…in part because Jessica keeps reviewing them! I have such a stack of other books, though, that I kept not getting to them, until I finally hit on the idea of audiobooks–which should have been obvious to me, considering my first Narnia experience was when my dad read them to me as a kid. So I just listened to The Magician’s Nephew, read by Kenneth Branagh, and am very happy to say that the story was even more delightful than I remembered.
Set chronologically before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this installment gives the origin story for certain elements of the later novels, and provides a Narnia creation story. That said, it’s largely stand-alone, apart from a few references at the end along the lines of “and so this led to that and much resulted, but that’s quite another story…” This story is about Digory, his friend Polly, and his Uncle Andrew, a rather nasty man who has been dabbling in magic. Uncle Andrew has devised magic rings which he believes will send people to another world, and tricks Polly and Digory into taking the trip. They reach the magical Wood Between the Worlds, and venture first into dying Charn, where they meet the evil Empress Jadis, and then into Narnia, on the day of creation.
Digory and Polly fit in amongst Lewis’ collection of child heroes, imperfect but basically good, generally courageous and honorable though apt to falter at times in a very human and believable way. They provide a solid center to the story, while the surrounding characters are in some ways more complex.
Uncle Andrew is wonderfully painted in his egotism and cowardice, so sure of his own inherent greatness but so obviously a petty, narcissistic man. Jadis shares some of Uncle Andrew’s narcissistic tendencies, but is clearly in a class all her own for sheer cruelty and coldness. Once Jadis arrives on the scene, Uncle Andrew shrinks dramatically as a villain, so obviously upstaged by the real villain. Lewis does something rather brilliant in that, as soon as Uncle Andrew loses power as a villain, he’s turned into a comedic figure instead, equally effective in that role.
I madly loved the setting of this book–all the settings, actually. I don’t know how Lewis resisted doing an entire extended series just centered around the Wood Between the Worlds. I mean, it’s an endless forest full of pools of water, and each pool goes to another world. And we only went through three pools, counting the one to our world. The untapped possibilities!
And then Charn was just fascinating. Lewis has never before reminded me of Tolkien (though I hadn’t read Tolkien before either…) but Charn with its enormous marble edifices, apparently ancient history, and epic battles, reminded me of Middle Earth (less trees, though). It had a similar quality of existing on an unimaginably epic scale.
I loved the creation of Narnia too. How lovely to have a world spring into being through a song!
Just when everything was getting very solemn and epic and sweeping, when it might have become a little too much–it didn’t, because there’s a wonderfully funny episode of Narnia’s newly-created animals trying to decide what ought to be done with the raving Uncle Andrew. They aren’t quite sure if he’s an animal or a tree…
If you’re thinking about starting Narnia, you could begin here (and if you’re thinking about the audio, Branagh was excellent). It’s listed as #1 in a lot of editions, since it is first chronologically. However, I think you’d be better off starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for the sake of all those “and then it led to other adventures” references. But once you’ve read Lion, I don’t see any need to go through the next several books, in their original publishing order, before reading the very delightful Magician’s Nephew.
Buy it here: The Magician’s Nephew