Friday, 2 January 2015

Sciency magic, or magicky science.

In the Singer household, we have now finished reading C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (published 1950), and now we're on to the prequel: The Magician's Nephew (published 1955). I have read some of the chapters aloud to my son, and my son has read some other chapters to himself in his head. It's always nice to come back to a book one loved as a child, and see it again through grown-up eyes. Caution: there be spoilers within.

Most published editions of the Narnia books, amazingly, still have the original Pauline Baynes illustrations. Pauline Baynes originally did some pseudo-medieval illustrations for J. R. R. Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham, a light-as-air don's frolic which is full of in-jokes and witticisms that I suspect are only fully appreciated by Oxbridge philology professors living in the mid-twentieth century). The illustrations are, I think, the best bit of the whole thing. Just look at the way the birds and animals dance through the design of this first-edition cover. Brilliant.

Lewis, who was great friends with Tolkien, was so impressed by the young Baynes' illustrations that he then asked for her to illustrate the Narnia books as well. The Magician's Nephew was in fact the sixth book in the series to be published, even though it is often labelled as the first in the publisher's "reading order". So Baynes was well into her stride by this point.

I gather that, in his writing of The Magician's Nephew, Lewis was also inspired by E Nesbit's The Amulet (another of my favourite illustrated children's books!) in which a queen of Babylon is dragged forward into Edwardian London and goes on the rampage around middle-class institutions, such as the British Museum. (A place well worth a visit, by the way, if you happen to be passing). While Nesbit's portrayal of Edwardian London is contemporary, Lewis' portrayal of the period is drenched in nostalgia ("meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won't tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain").

The Queen of Babylon causing chaos at the British Museum. From The Amulet by E. Nesbit, illustr. H. R Millar.

In The Magician's Nephew, the character Jadis, who calls herself the Queen of Charn (she basically got this title by annihilating literally everyone else - explained further below), also gets pulled through to our world and goes on a rampage-through-London of her own, hijacking a hansom-cab in the process. The human characters are in proper Edwardian garb throughout, and I think the illustrations have a nice period flavour to them - for example, in the bird that Diggory finds randomly "roosting" in the Tree of Life.  Although "roosting" makes me think of chickens, Baynes depicts the bird rather like a peacock; and peacocks are a major Art Nouveau motif.

C S Lewis also wrote "sci fi" novels - Out of the Silent Planet, for example, although that was not a children's book and I don't think Lewis was much interested in the science itself. There is definitely a sci-fi-ish feel about The Magician's Nephew, with its many interconnecting worlds: including, but not limited to, our world, the world of Narnia and the world of Charn. The Edwardian children Polly and Diggory are able to cross between worlds by means of colour-coded magic rings - a technology invented by Diggory's Mad Uncle Andrew (except it does not always work quite as Mad Uncle Andrew expected it to). Travel is via an "in-between place", the Wood between the Worlds: a weird type of place that seems to be outside time - some magics work, others don't.

By the way, the reason I don't think Lewis had much time for scientists is that Mad Uncle Andrew is written as a proper baddie: a stereotypical Mad Scientist, complete with wild, white hair and overly thin body habitus, who works alone in a locked attic from which screams can occasionally be heard. He carries out "experiments" on guinea-pigs (early prototypes of the technology did not work out very well from the guinea-pigs' perspective). Mad Uncle Andrew is also a manipulative psychopath to boot - he cares nothing about other people, even his own dying sister, and is perfectly willing to use the children to test his new and highly dangerous inventions. I would be offended by this portrayal of scientists, except that unfortunately my offence at this has to get into the queue behind my offence at the way he portrays women, vegetarians, pacifists, teetotallers and people who think it is fine for boys and girls to attend the same schools. (Yes, really.) But my point here is that although he's called a "magician", he's written as a mad scientist.

So anyway. The city Charn is the capital of a planet of the same name, which is lit by a very large, red but cold sun - clearly a Red Giant. It is a planet for which time itself has run out, a post-apocalyptic landscape - a huge city, deserted and crumbling with no living beings at all - even plants or animals. Except for Queen Jadis. Jadis, in an evil-career-woman kinda way, had decided to undertake an arduous Quest to discover The Deplorable Word. This technology can kill every living thing in the world, except (conveniently) for the speaker - but after she had spoken the Deplorable Word, even she had to effectively put herself into suspended animation, only to be reawakened a thousand years later by the ringing of a bell. She reasons that the bell must have been rung by a living thing; she had already killed all other living things in that world; ergo, the bell-ringer must be an intelligent being who has travelled from another world. Sound reasoning so far: if you can wait a thousand years, even the highly improbable might become fairly likely. She also assumes, however, that the new arrival must have come to seek her out on purpose, having magically learnt of her stunning beauty; this of course could not be further from the truth, since the children arrived there pretty much by accident. Anyway, Jadis manages to impress the children by means of boasting a lot and then apparently opening a locked door by magic. The door appears to be made either of wood (ebony), or of some sort of dark metal unknown to the children.

Hearing about our own "young" warm, yellow Sun, Jadis is greedy to discover another world full of people to reign over, because it is not much fun having all the power if you don't have anyone to have power over. So she grabs onto the children and hitches a ride to London. Later, she also chooses to eat an apple from the Tree of Life, and in so doing gains her "heart's desire": power. A lot of it. Oh, and eternal life.

The multiverse of The Magician's Nephew reminds me of the way in which space-operas are often set up, with plots often hinging on technologies like space-ships and jump-gates that link planets or areas of space, but need a certain sort of tech to be able to use them (which of course often fails at crucial moments in the story, or at least does not always work as fully expected). Also, just as The Magician's Nephew has the Wood between the Worlds, SF has jump-space, which functions a bit like being outside time. In contrast to "hard" SF, in which getting the science right is Very Important, space-opera often treats science as a sort of magic: as a black-box technology which needn't correspond to the science of our world (not just physics, but also biology and particularly genetics; there is often a lot of playing around with ideas about lifespan, rejuvenation, inheritance and so forth). Space-opera writers aren't necessarily interested in the science itself, but in the social consequences of novel technologies. So if space-opera science often has a feel of magicky science,  the magic in The Magician's Nephew feels to me like sciencey magic.

So: Edwardian nostalgia, plus magicky science (or sciency magic). The result could be viewed as a type of Steampunk, although I don't think this was officially a thing in 1955. And this take on Steampunk will be my starting-point for my next blog post.

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