I was eight when my grandparents bought me a box-set edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. Like a three-year-old, excited more by the wrapping paper than the present, I took inordinate pleasure in the fact that the seven books fit precisely into their cardboard-box container. I loved that each book could be removed, read – and importantly – neatly replaced. It was a symbol of the internally consistent world that C.S. Lewis had created: the books could be appreciated in their own right, but each one also connected to a wider mythology. Children are obsessed with systems – perhaps because for children the world seems packed with nonsensical rules and big, incomprehensible structures. No wonder, then, that the intricacy of The Chronicles of Narnia has given so many children such joy.
We all know The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If you haven’t read the book, you know the gist: children, wardrobe, forest, lamppost, winter, witch, lion, battle. The images have entered our collective consciousness. Whereas, if there’s a Narnia book you haven’t read, or haven’t heard of, it’s probably The Magician’s Nephew. Though it was the penultimate book Lewis published, it serves as a prequel to the Narnia saga. Set forty years before Lucy enters the wardrobe, it aims to explain how Narnia came into being, ‘how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began’, and how it came to be ruled by the White Witch. If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is bizarrely familiar, The Magician’s Nephew remains a strange little book, full of surprises, and an underappreciated classic of children’s literature.
It begins with children Digory and Polly being magically transported from their London terrace-house to a mysterious ‘wood between the worlds’ – an in-between place, or cosmic intersection, allowing them to world-hop from one fantastic land to another. Eventually, they arrive in a world containing Nothing, a place on the brink of its own genesis, just in time to see Aslan bring Narnia into existence. Yet an insidious creature has snuck in with the children – Queen Jadis, who, fleeing the ravaged and dying kingdom of Charn, seeks a Edenic new world to conquer and corrupt.
The joy of The Magician’s Nephew comes from seeing all the puzzle pieces fit delightfully together. If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the question, The Magician’s Nephew is the answer. This is why the book is so satisfying. In fact, its role as the Rosetta Stone of the Narnian universe has led to some book-world controversy. In the early 90s, the publishing house Harper Collins decided to change the order of the books to reflect Narnia’s internal chronology, rather than the original order of publication. This means that in my box-set, The Magician’s Nephew is placed in first position. Many think it is deeply counter to the author’s magical vision to begin the series with an explanation of its mysterious wonders. You know in advance why Narnia is so cold, you know who the Witch is and where she came from, and you know why the lamppost stands the middle of a snowy forest. Yet, despite the unpopularity of the decision, the books are ordered as such to this day. If you plan to present a child with The Chronicles of Narnia, I advise you to do as my mother did: tell the child to ignore the numbers on the book spines and save The Magician’s Nephew for last. Some mysteries should be allowed to endure.
Still, whether you read the book first, last or in isolation, The Magician’s Nephew is a thrilling story. True, many people find The Chronicles sentimental. Yes, the books are guilty of the sexism and sanctimoniousness which characterise most mid-century children’s stories. But when it comes to high fantasy there is little better. Far from being stern or grandiose, The Magician’s Nephew is silly and succinct. It is the only book of the series that allows the magical chaos to spill out onto the streets of London. Who knew, for example, that the Witch had careered through the city on a horse-drawn carriage ripping lampposts from the ground and knocking baffled police constables on the heads?
Much like Tolkien’s, admittedly vaster, legendarium, Lewis’s world is exquisitely conceived. The Chronicles inspired generation after generation of high fantasy novelists, from Diana Wynne Jones to Philip Pullman. If you know of any young person who hasn’t yet come into direct contact with the series, I recommend you remedy the situation.