Confession: The Magician’s Nephew freaked me out the first time I read it.
I was eight, in the back of my family’s van, road tripping across the southeast, and my parents popped in the audiobook in an attempt to keep their three boys occupied. It was my first foray into Narnia, and it left an impression. Uncle Andrew is a manipulative and abusive presence in the life of young Digory, and he terrified me. The forest between worlds was too eerie for my eight-year old mind. And let’s not forget about Queen Jadis – a nightmarish character that I wanted out of my life as soon as she entered it.
To an avid Narnian fan, it’s obvious where my parents transgressed – never start The Chronicles of Narnia with The Magician’s Nephew! No matter what inane order the publishers have arranged the series in the boxset, start with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Publication order is the correct order. A theory I wholeheartedly ascribe to.
So then, what is the real merit of The Magician’s Nephew? Is it that Lewis was exploring a multiverse decades before Rick and Morty made it cool? To most, Lewis’ Genesis-fable contains nothing more than a few amusing easter eggs for the other books in the series. This was my opinion too, until this past year. I sat down to read through the series for the first time after a 15-year break from Narnia, and I stumbled upon a moment so inspired that it made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about The Magician’s Nephew.
Chapter eight, Digory, Polly and the whole gang are finally in Narnia. Everything is dark and empty when a melodious voice cuts through their petty squabbling and stuns them all to silence. Then, in an instantaneous flash, the dark sky blazes to life with stars, constellations, galaxies. The stars themselves join in the song of the first voice, who sang the stars into existence, and together they sing.
Lewis gives Frank, the hapless cabby who just happened to be drawn into Narnia because he was in the area, this reaction:
“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”
Tears in my eyes. And I suddenly understood the genius of The Magician’s Nephew.
I’m certainly not the first person to be enamored by this passage. Aslan singing Narnia into existence is one of the defining moments of the series, and one that has stuck with many readers. However, I’m proposing that it’s the cabby’s reaction that is the key to the whole sequence, and indeed the whole book. For beauty contains transformative power. The awe the cabby experiences as he stands in rapture convicts him. He speaks words of praise to the voice, and then he repents. How can this be?
Philosopher and aesthetician Elaine Scarry steps in to explain, “At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. … It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.” Upon hearing the voice and seeing the stars, the cabby underwent a radical decentering. He suddenly understood that he was not the center of his own world, that he never had been. His immediate conclusion was that his quotidian modus operandi, the casual self-centeredness that is humanity’s default setting, was deeply wrong. The beauty of Aslan’s song brushed his pride, his very self, aside and replaced it with a longing to be better, to be a man transformed.
Just as telling is the reaction of Lewis’ two villains. When confronted with such piercing beauty, Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew, having devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of self-glorification, immediately express their desire to be gone from Narnia. “Completely uncivilized” is Uncle Andrew’s remark, betraying his blindness. For Beauty is unable to be properly seen by those who have made an idol of themselves. More pointedly, the beauty of Christ is unbearable to those who refuse to budge from the center of their own world.
The events in chapter eight are the interpretive key of The Magician’s Nephew. After chapter eight we can see that even though it is easy to become sidetracked by misanthropic relatives, like Uncle Andrew. To live in fear of evil rulers who wield real power, like Queen Jadis. Or even to be consumed with fear for our dying mother, like little Digory. No matter the circumstance, we are in need of a radical decentering, a moment of beauty so pure and bright that we are brushed aside. We are in need of Aslan’s song. And that is why I defend The Magician’s Nephew as the best, if not as the first.
But perhaps you prefer Puddleglum’s moment of bravery, or Eustace’s dragon tears, or dear old Mr. Tumnus and his parcels. Those are fine choices. I would still rather have Frank the cabby and his cockney affectation. Frank is Mary, surrounded by Marthas, and his message is for us today. Clyde S. Kilby criticizes evangelicals for their aesthetic neglect, “Our excuse for [a]esthetic failure has often been that we must be about the Lord’s business, the assumption being that the Lord’s business is never [a]esthetic.” Frank reminds us that the Lord’s first order of business was beauty.
By the end of chapter eight, the group has fallen into bickering again despite the wonder still going on around them. Frank speaks up again.
“’Old your noise everyone,” said the cabby. “I want to listen to the moosic.”
Frank wants to sit Mary-like at the feet of the creator and be transformed by the beauty of the creator’s voice. And he is, for Aslan crowns Frank the first king of Narnia. He becomes the better man he wished to be.
Lewis is telling us as well: Hush, listen to the music.