One of the nicest gifts I received for Christmas this last year was the "omnibus" collection of the Narnia books in one volume. This gave me a nice excuse to revisit the books I had not read since I was 12-13 years old, over two decades ago. I was a large fan of Narnia at the time. Would it hold up to a re-reading? Complicating matters was that this volume is arranged in Lewis' preferred order of reading, with The Magician's Nephew first. I did not remember much from The Magician's Nephew, but I did recall feeling the Narnia books peeked with Voyage of the Dawn Treader and that Nephew was a lesser work.
This re-reading did not change my estimation of The Magician's Nephew as a second-tier entry in the Narnia series, but it was still enjoyable to re-read from an adult perspective.
And how "adult" the book at first seems! Before Uncle Andrew's sinister mutterings turn out to be the sinister mutterings of an evil wizard, it sounds like the children Digory and Polly are trapped in an attic with a would-be child molester!
"I am delighted to see you," he said. "Two children are just what I wanted."
Thank goodness it's just a magical experiment for which he wants them. It is too easy to view the past as a "simpler" time and think that no one worried about child molestation back in the '50s. It is certainly possible, though, to see Digory and Polly's plight at his uncle's hands allegorically, with two children suffering a fate worse than death, seeing the world differently afterward, and only regaining their feeling of innocence after they find God (or Aslan).
More than any other Narnia book, The Magician's Nephew shares the most information about the "real" world that the children come from before reaching Narnia. This is the only book in the series that takes place in the past, at least 40 years before the "present" of its 1955 publication date. Without giving a specific year, the time period is described as the days of Sherlock Holmes and the Bastables. The cases of Sherlock Holmes range over quite a few years themselves, so it is still impossible to pin down a specific year. It is difficult to discern the purpose of using literary characters to establish the sense of time, especially since Holmes and the Bastables are described, albeit briefly, as if living characters while Treasure Island, in comparison, is specifically referred to as a fictional book. Interpreted literally, it can be inferred that Holmes actually lived in the "real" world of the Narnia books. It is an odd choice, since Holmes is a particularly unsuited fit for the magical milieu of Narnia. An encounter between Holmes and Aslan would certainly be a memorable one!
And yet, perhaps Conan Doyle is a good fit, at least for his more fanciful stories than for his Holmes canon. When magic is revealed to exist in the "real" world by Uncle Andrew, we also learn about his fairy godmother, said to be one of the last three mortals in the world with fairy blood. Magic is clearly waning in the pre-Industrial 19th century, a theme repeated in other works such as Tolkein's Return of the King that deals with an age ending and an industrial future to be avoided. Unlike Tolkein's dark future, Lewis' modern age is presented as the natural way. Digory Kirke, our young hero, represents this new age. Though he yearns for country life, it is only because he knows the rural and industrial worlds can peaceably co-exist that he can go back to the country life (as is his reward by book's end). The old ways are represented by evil Uncle Andrew, who’s magic and fairy heritage are aberrations.
Another curiosity is Uncle Andrew's Atlantean box, the source of his magical powers. Andrew is convinced that it is from Atlantis and talks a bit about Atlantis' history. Andrew’s theory about how the magic rings work is completely debunked through the course of the story, but the part about Atlantis is never corrected (and this is an omniscient narrator who frequently adds more information). It's really a throw-away reference that has nothing directly to do with the story, but seems to exist to ground Narnia's magic in "real" world mysticism. It is no secret that the Narnia books are rife with Christian allegory, but here Lewis seems to be spreading a broader net and trying to tie more magical traditions or theories into his alternate Christian mysticism -- a sort of grand unifying theory of magic.
No sooner have we got to know this version of the "real" world than we are hurled into another. The Wood Between the Worlds is a fascinating place, particularly since its symbolism is not as obvious. The symbolic tie to the first chapter is clear enough, with the Wood being like a crawlspace one can travel through to reach other worlds instead of other houses. The idea of portals to other worlds is certainly nothing new, but what makes the Wood unique -- and allegorical -- is its effect on visitors. Digory and Polly feel like they belong in the Wood, or have always belonged there, while Uncle Andrew and (later) the Witch Janis feel terrible or weak there. It is judgmental, but also a temporary destination, resembling Heaven in the first respect, but Purgatory in the second. If these resemblances are intentional, then the second visited world, Charn, is an even more obvious allegory. And yet, near the end, Aslan describes Charn as what could happen to Earth, making subtle references to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Telling criticism indeed. Yet, despite being a more obvious allegory than the Wood Between the Worlds, Charn is the world that receives the most interesting world-building. The dying world, the city-sized castle, the hall of statues, and the sleeping queen are all fascinating and, as Digory and Polly explore it all, genuinely suspenseful. There is a more real and sustained sense of danger here than any other time in the book.
It is, perhaps, ironic that the best world-building in the book take place before we actually witness a world being literally built. In an unintentionally convincing argument against creationism, Aslan's creation of Narnia is just boring. And things do not get much better from there. The story simplifies dramatically from world exploration to a rather mundane quest (and a painfully obvious allegory) to fetch an apple from an Eden-like garden. By the time Janis moves from Charn to Narnia, she devolves from a mysterious, extremely deadly (the Deplorable Word is akin to the Atom Bomb) character of uncertain motives (which made her more frightening initially) to a comically ineffective stand-in for the Devil.
My biggest problem with the Narnia books (as well as why I'm not a more devout deist) is that Aslan is incredibly annoying. Mr. Knows-Everything-Does-Everything walks into a scene and everyone fawns all over him and even the narrator gets all "gosh he's awesome" gushing. Any chapter that has Aslan in it is completely devoid of action, danger, or suspense.
The best part of the second half of the book is the character of Nellie the Cabby, who becomes King Frank of Narnia. The Cabby is an interesting character who, despite being peripheral to the story, continues to engage more than the characters around him. Aslan is perfect, and Polly is practically perfect, so both learn nothing. Andrew and Jadis learn nothing and retain all their flaws by story's end (this is part of what reduces Jadis to as comic a character as Andrew). Digory is conflicted and has touch choices to make, but is still practically perfect and makes the right decisions with little suspense. Only in Nellie do we, indirectly, see great things -- his courage in standing up to Jadis (though, granted, he doesn't yet know she's a witch), his compassion in convincing his now-talking horse that he always took the best care he could of the animal, his growing wisdom as he accepts Aslan's description of a good leader matches himself (and this description is surely telling of how humble Lewis feels leaders should be). Seeing greatness in a humble cabby is much more rewarding than seeing it in a divine lion, and that Lewis never sees this is The Magician's Nephew’s greatest flaw.