«Questions about Structure: Setting (1.a) Where does the story happen (country or region)? This story begins in London, England. It is set in the age ...»
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
Note about this lesson: Reference numbers in parentheses refer to the complete Socratic List, which is
included in the course syllabus of the Center for Literary Education’s flagship seminar, Teaching the
Classics: A Socratic Method for Literary Education.
The Socratic List may aid you for this study. If you are not familiar with it, you can simply disregard the
numbers and use the study at the pace that fits your family or student(s). (More can be learned at http://www.centerforlit.com/.) Questions about Structure: Setting (1.a) Where does the story happen (country or region)?
This story begins in London, England. It is set in the age of hackney cabs and boarding schools in Victorian England…a decidedly dingy and dark atmosphere for children who are cooped up indoors and left to devise their own amusements. There are only foggy cobblestone streets lined with crooked old houses. Our characters dream wistfully of clean, country spaces in which to play.
(1.c) Does the story happen in one place or does the action unfold across a wide area? What is the atmosphere of this place(s)?
The story plays out between London, England, and the magical lands of Narnia, Charn, and the Wood between the Worlds. While the atmosphere of England is rainy, dark, and stifling, it is warm and sleepy in the Wood between the Worlds. The dying world of Charn is cold, dead, and uninviting in the extreme.
(1.g) Is it set in a real or an imaginary place? If it is imaginary, is it subject to the same physical laws as our world?
There are elements of both the real and the imaginary in the tale, which change with the setting. The imaginary world is only subject to some of our physical laws. Though men don’t fly, horses can! Animals talk, fruit heals, and witches are charged with magic!
(2.b) When does the story happen? How long a period of time does the story cover? A few minutes?
A single day? A whole lifetime?
This story takes place within a single day in London. However, In Narnia, the time frame is much different; many Narnian days go by in the span of one London day.
(2.e) In what time of life for the main characters do the events occur? Are they children? Are they just passing into adulthood? Are they already grown-ups? Does setting the story in this particular time in the lives of the characters make the story better?
Digory and Polly are children. They are immature and self-centered at times; these flaws are essential to the development of the conflict. For example, Digory’s selfishness awakens the evil witch of Charn;
from that sin spring troubles which advance the plot. However, the children have their strengths also. They are trusting and far more accepting of new worlds than any grown-up.
(3.a-i) Who is the story about?
©The Center for Literary Education Digory Kirke is a country boy who has been moved to the city for the sake of his ailing mother. He is very worried for his mother, whom he loves with all his heart. When we first meet our young hero, he is discouraged, defeated, and “blubbing.” As the story progresses, however, Digory shows himself a sensible, rational, steadfast, faithful, loving boy with whom all the characters are proud to be associated.
Polly Plummer, Digory’s friend and companion, is a city girl through and through. Though polite and spunky, Polly is very lonely. When she meets Digory, adventures at last seem possible. As the adventures come far sooner than expected, Polly proves herself to be a sensitive, compassionate, and kind heroine (if sometimes a bit emotional). Together the characters encounter obstacles which grow them up into young adults.
(3.m) What does the character think is the most important thing in life?
Digory Kirke treasures his mother above all else. He will sacrifice anything to save her but worries that nothing he can do will keep her alive.
(3.n) Do the characters’ priorities change over the course of the story? In what way? What causes this change? Is it a change for the better, or for the worse?
Digory’s priorities never change. His mother’s health remains the thing for which he strives with all of his might. He learns throughout the course of the story, however, that the path to her well-being is not one he can travel without divine assistance. When he attempts to “take matters into his own hands,” Digory only brings destruction and chaos to the people that he loves. He learns that he must trust Aslan in Narnia.
As he struggles to have faith in the king, he discovers the importance of friendship and realizes his own creaturehood. This change of heart is a change for the better.
(3.p) Is the character an archetype? Is he an “Everyman” with whom the reader is meant to identify?
Are his struggles symbolic of human life generally in some way?
Digory is both a type and an everyman. His struggles mirror those of mankind. Faithless and worried, he tries to fix everything—to do the work of God. He brings sin into a sinless world in the form of Jadis. A type of Adam in the story, Digory is tempted by forbidden fruit in a special garden just like his first parents.
Digory faces a choice between trusting Aslan and taking matters into his own hands, providing for himself as Jadis encourages him to do. His struggles are entirely sympathetic, and readers identify strongly with his strengths and weaknesses.
(4.a-c) Who else is the story about? Is there anyone who opposes the protagonist in the story? In other words, is there an antagonist?
Jadis, Queen of Charn, is the main antagonist in the story. Seven feet of pure muscular beauty, she is all cruelty and cunning. Her object is world domination, and when she follows the children through the Wood between the Worlds and into England, she threatens the safety of England. As Queen, she sees the world as a kingdom to be conquered and its inhabitants as slaves to her obey whims. She is pure evil in a lovely disguise.
Digory’s Uncle Andrew is a minor antagonist. A weak, cowardly, sniveling excuse for a man, Uncle Andrew dabbles in magic in an attempt to prove his greatness to himself and the world. He sees himself as a “Great Magician,” though he fears to take even the slightest risk himself, instead using his nephew Digory and the neighbor girl Polly as guinea pigs in his cowardly experiments.
(3.d) Is the antagonist out to do physical harm to the protagonist, violence to his reputation, his memory, his work, or his family? How do you know?
Jadis threatens everything in Digory’s life. From the moment she sees him, she begins to control him by force. Whether through her mesmerizing beauty, fierce strength, or piercing logic, she manages to grasp at all things he holds dear. In Digory’s London home, she throws his Aunt Letty physically across the ©The Center for Literary Education room, threatens to frighten Digory’s mother (which could be fatal in her weakened state), and even plans to take over London!
Uncle Andrew is a less serious threat to Digory, but he poses a threat all the same. In his inebriated state, he is a frightening force in an invalid’s home. In addition, he threatens Digory and Polly’s lives by using them as test cases for extremely dangerous forms of magic.
(3.g-n) Is the antagonist reprehensible? Are her qualities connected to her surroundings? Did the author put her there on purpose?
Jadis is reprehensible. Though men have trouble discerning her malevolence at first (as a result of her enticing beauty), they soon realize her malicious intent. Jadis’s initial surroundings tell readers volumes about her character. In a silent, gray world beneath a dying sun, she sits at the end of a long line of Kings and Queens. While the faces of the Kings and Queens are kind and regal at first, they grow steadily nastier as the children view their descendants. Jadis sits at the furthest end, cruelest of them all.
Reprehensible is, perhaps, too strong a word to describe Uncle Andrew. While he certainly lacks the moral backbone which most respectable citizens possess, he is motivated more by petty greed, ambition, and curiosity than a lust for world domination and the suffering of all mankind. He is crooked, and selfish, and heartless, but not reprehensible.
(4) Who else is the story about?
Here are some details about the major characters in this story:
Digory Kirke Digory Kirke is the only son of an English soldier who is currently serving in India. In her husband’s absence, Digory’s mother has taken ill, and she and Digory have had to move from their home in the country to live with Digory’s Aunt Letty and crazy Uncle Andrew. Miserable in the city and worried sick about his mother’s health, Digory suffers intensely. When he strikes up a friendship with Polly, however, his spirits lift at the prospect of their adventures together. In the course of his adventures in each of three worlds, Digory proves himself a brave, steadfast, loyal, faithful, loving young man. He learns humility in his encounters with Aslan.
Polly Plummer Polly Plummer is a spunky city girl who longs for adventure and friendship. When she meets young Digory Kirke, she can hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of companionship. In their ensuing adventures in Charn, the Wood between the Worlds, and Narnia, Polly repeatedly proves her common sense, frankness, bravery, loyalty, and warm-heartedness. She is a charming, trustworthy companion and a real comfort to Digory when he’s worried about his mother.
Jadis Jadis is the queen of Charn. Tall, cruel, and mesmerizingly beautiful, she hypnotizes all men into obeying her. She proves her malice, ambition, and terrifying strength time and again throughout the story.
Even when her magical skills have faded in England, her physical fighting prowess makes her a fearful force.
Uncle Andrew Uncle Andrew is a spineless, greedy, shallow, crooked old man who dabbles in magic out of morbid curiosity. He is an obsequious coward as seen in his behavior towards Jadis when she appears in his study.
He thinks only of material gain, disregarding the consequences which his actions may have in the lives of the others around him.
Aslan ©The Center for Literary Education As in all of the other chronicles, Aslan is the Christ figure of the story. In this particular installment, Lewis highlights Aslan’s role as the creator and father of Narnia. While the biblical God spoke the world into being, Aslan sings forth creation. While God made man from the earth and set him to take dominion over the animals and trees and waters, Aslan brings man from England to live in Narnia and watch over the new born creatures. These correlations are unmistakable. Through the events of the story, Aslan demonstrates other Christ-like qualities such as forgiveness, mercy, patience, justice, and compassion.
Aunt Letty Aunt Letty is Digory’s aunt on his father’s side. She is a very capable, no-nonsense, English spinster who not only supports her good-for-nothing brother, Andrew, but now looks after Digory and his sick mother as well. She never complains, but she clearly resents her lunatic of a sibling, and she badly needs a rest from the stresses of the workplace.
Cabby and Nellie These two warm-hearted country folks are the future king and queen of Narnia. Sucked into Narnia quite by accident it seems, the London cabby is enamored with the glorious excitement of the new born world. He has been brought up on a farm, and as a result, he has a deep love for living things. When Aslan asks him if he’d like to live in Narnia forever, his only qualm is leaving his beloved wife, Nellie back in England. Aslan soon solves that quandary though. In the blink of an eye, Nellie appears, fresh from her soapy dishes, and the two agree to take on the dominion of Narnia. They are sweet, good, open, loyal, trusting people. They are the perfect two to start the human line in Narnia.
Mother Digory’s mother plays an interesting part in this story. She is not a character in the story herself, but she is an integral part of Digory. His love for her and his concern for her welfare is what drives the story along in large part. As a result, she is a crucial figure in the story despite the fact that she doesn’t play an active role in the plot. From Digory’s whole-hearted adoration and concern, we can deduce that Mrs. Kirke is a lovely, spirited woman and a dear, fond mother.
Strawberry the Horse Strawberry plays a very small, but very important role in the story as well. The cabby’s trusted steed in the dark streets of London, Strawberry is faithful, stalwart, and strong. He is selected by Aslan as one of the Talking Animals of Narnia. Soon after his transformation from dumb beast to intelligent animal, Strawberry is honored by yet another promotion. Aslan turns him into a Pegasus, or a flying horse. Aslan charges Strawberry (or Fledge, as he is now called) to carry Digory and Polly safely on their way to the mountaintop garden and home again with the precious fruit which will save Narnia.
Questions about Structure: Conflict
(5.a-c) What does the protagonist want?
This story is about Digory trying to save his mother, rid the world of Jadis, and get back to his peaceful country life. In order to accomplish these goals, Digory must make amends for waking Jadis. The only way to accomplish this is to travel across Narnia to search for the fruit which will set a protective boundary around Narnia. He can only hope desperately that after he has fulfilled his promise to the great Lion, Aslan, he can solicit Aslan’s help for his mother.
(6.a-l) Why can’t he have it?
Almost everything stands in Digory’s way. Physical elements provide obstacles in the form of the magical barriers between worlds and the vast distances he must travel to get the fruit. (Man vs. Nature) He ©The Center for Literary Education must battle a woman much stronger than he: Jadis. (Man vs. Man) Lastly, he struggles against himself. He longs to steal the healing fruit for his mother. He longs to take his hopes and fears into his own hands and throw Aslan and his promises to the wind. (Man vs. Self, Man vs. God)
Questions about Structure: Plot
(8) What happens in the story?