What We Believe is What We Become, from The Magician’s Nephew

As far as I understand it, The Magician’s Nephew was the Narnia Chronicle C.S. Lewis struggled most to write. He began it after The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe became popular in 1949, but he didn’t finish it until 1954. It is an essential book: a Narnian creation myth on the one hand and a story about loss and imagination on the other. When we come on the scene, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer, two children from London, have found their way into the dark, unmade world of Narnia and brought with them a motley crew of a great Witch, a purely accidental magician, a late 19th century Cabby, and an old work horse named Strawberry.

As they sit in the pre-dawn of this world, a song begins to build around them. I will leave to the reader the chance to read the full creation story–it is one of Lewis’ finest chapters in all his fiction, I believe–but Narnia is created through the song of the great lion, Aslan. An orchestra of stars appear, then the first dawn breaks. As the song builds and the light floods over the new and not yet, the flora and fauna of Lewis’ imaginative world grow out of the blank canvas of the extra-dimensional planet. It is a stunning passage.

As Aslan crosses the world, singing being itself, the animals come out to great him. Of the flocks and herds and parliaments of newly made creatures approach, he selects some of each species to be sentient–to be Hnau, non-humanoid sapient species–by the lion’s soft kitten kiss on their noses. Then Aslan moves on to another part of Narnia.

As the lion walks away, Digory is afraid he may have missed his chance. He greatly desires to ask Aslan something–for something, something he desperately needs–he follows after him and their party splits up. The great witch has long fled into the forests, but Digory’s Uncle Andrew–the pathetic and unethical narcissist who has made himself into a spineless wizard–is hiding from the scene. What was beautiful and alluring to the children and the Cabby, and what was like a homecoming for Strawberry, and what was a great threat to the Witch, was all terrifying to Uncle Andrew. To his great horror, the Narnian Hnau with untested brains are curious about poor Andrew, and their curiosity leads us to find out why he was so terrified.

At that moment a large Bulldog, who had been sniffing and staring very hard, said:
“Look. Isn’t there another of these queer creatures over there, beside the river, under the trees?”
Then all the animals looked and saw Uncle Andrew, standing very still among the rhododendrons and hoping he wouldn’t be noticed.
“Come on!” said several voices. “Let’s go and find out.” So, while Strawberry was briskly trotting away with Digory in one direction (and Polly and the Cabby were following on foot) most of the creatures rushed towards Uncle Andrew with roars, barks, grunts, and various noises of cheerful interest.
We must now go back a bit and explain what the whole scene had looked like from Uncle Andrew’s point of view. It had not made at’ all the same impression on him as on the Cabby and the children. For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.
Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn’t really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn’t notice that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn’t run away from the big Lion.
When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (”only a lion,” as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing – only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. “Of course it can’t really have been singing,” he thought, “I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?” And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring.
Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings. And when they laughed – well, you can imagine. That was worse for Uncle Andrew than anything that had happened yet. Such a horrid, bloodthirsty din of hungry and angry brutes he had never heard in his life. Then, to his utter rage and horror, he saw the other three humans actually walking out into the open to meet the animals….
Finally, when a whole crowd of animals came rushing towards him, he turned and ran for his life…. But of course it was no use. Many of the animals behind him were swift ones; it was the first run they had ever taken in their lives and they were all longing to use their new muscles. “After him! After him!” they shouted. “…Tally-ho! Tantivy! Cut him off! Round him up! Keep it up! Hurrah!”
In a very few minutes some of them got ahead of him. They lined up in a row and barred his way. Others hemmed him in from behind. Wherever he looked he saw terrors. Antlers of great elks and the huge face of an elephant towered over him. Heavy, serious-minded bears and boars grunted behind him. Cool-looking leopards and panthers with sarcastic faces (as he thought) stared at him and waved their tails. What struck him most of all was the number of open mouths. The animals had really opened their mouths to pant; he thought they had opened their mouths to eat him.
Uncle Andrew stood trembling and swaying this way and that. He had never liked animals at the best of times, being usually rather afraid of them; and of course years of doing cruel experiments on animals had made him hate and fear them far more.
“Now, sir,” said the Bulldog in his business-like way, “are you animal, vegetable, or mineral?” That was what it really said; but all Uncle Andrew heard was “Gr-r-rarrh-ow!” (135-139; emphases mine)

Uncle Andrew is simply not able to believe what is happening before his eyes because he has spent his entire life protecting himself from a world like Narnia. He, who had even invented their passage into Narnia, was not able to accept the wonderful things before him. It is an illustration of the principle that what we believe is what we become, that who we are is built into us slowly over years of small, often careless choices. We see the principle most easily in addiction, perhaps, where the thing we do dominates who we are. But we also see it among saints, among those unsuspecting pilgrims among us who are slowly made into to the people they imagine themselves to be. They do it by the shaping of those daily careless decisions into carefully will-driven moments of divine grace.

Lewis here follows the logic of his 1940 chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain, which is then worked out in his 1944-45 fiction, The Great Divorce. Yet the simplicity of this story, the sublime nature of the scene, allows the truth to ring through much more clearly for me. Another truth, one Lewis applied by instinct and practice here, is that these children’s stories often tell us the greatest truths. And out of the hard labour that was fought for The Magician’s Nephew to become a book, we share the benefit of the great story and poignant truth.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to What We Believe is What We Become, from The Magician’s Nephew

  1. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. They were so imaginative.

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  2. I read them for years to my kids, and then when they got older, they read them back to me. Excellent essay.

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  9. Rosemontower says:

    “They do it by the shaping of those daily careless decisions into carefully will-driven moments of divine grace.” beautifully said. 🙂

    Like

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