How to Make or Kill Monsters


Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.


C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew tells, in part, the story of Jadis, the last queen of the world of Charn, who rebelled against her sister and, facing defeat, uttered the Deplorable Word, a spell which killed every living thing in Charn except the person who spoke it. Jadis then cast a spell on herself to put her body in a sort of suspended animation, so she could wait in the hall of her ancestors until someone, perhaps a wizard from some other world, came into Charn, found the hall, and struck the bell bearing the above inscription. This all (apart from the wizard thing) ends up happening when, more or less by accident, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer make their way from our world to Jadis’ great hall, and Digory is overcome with curiosity. The striking of the bell, as you may have guessed, wakes Jadis, who then then follows Digory and Polly first into our world and then ultimately into Narnia, where she becomes the White Witch.

Those who know this story or any of the many kid-focussed stories like it can see, without even knowing the history of the bell inscription, that striking the bell is exactly what the two children shouldn’t do, especially without adult supervision. Knowing the bell’s history and/or the stories in the books that follow The Magician’s Nephew1 makes it even worse: this is an inscription made by a character who for all her life (and afterlife) has basically zilch in terms of redeeming qualities, a villain who stands mostly as a symbol of complete and utter, though tempting, evil—evil which, though the characters often miss, we can see clearly. This is, we must not forget, a story written for children, and although they are often more intelligent than we give them credit for, moral ambiguity and veiled intent isn’t often high on a six-year-old’s list of priorities. Accordingly, we have a villain who is scary when we meet her, who confirms her villainy after approx. ten minutes of casual conversation which is mostly recollection of genocide, who responds to an obviously benevolent God-lion by bashing it over the head, and who flatly ignores another inscription similar to the one above in favour of stealing a magical apple.2 And we have Digory and Polly as pretty much explicit Adam and Eve stand-ins (that is, humanity stand-ins), with a moral dilemma involving fruit and gardens that’s one step shy of a great neon sign saying, in Impact typeface, this is the right thing to do, not that. To call the novel’s general allegory overwhelming and the mechanics of its drama rather conspicuous is probably fair, but to just label it simplistic and move on is really to be so ourselves by ignoring its considerable nuance.
Continue reading

  1. Or, for some, the stories that precede TMN. Far be it from me to dictate Narnian canon (even though the obvious answer is TLtWatW, THaHB, PC, TVotDT, TSC, TMN, and then TLB—or at the very least make sure to read TMN after TLtWatW).

  2. Lewis had some sort of thing for inscriptions, it would seem.

The Limits of Control

Southpaw Still

They call this dancing, what you’re doing, but they’re only partly right. He moves left, you move right—no, left—no, it was right.  Most of the time your two bodies are in a sort of harmony, until a gloved hand makes hooked contact with your lower jaw. You bet that’ll look impressive in slow motion: lower jaw starting to move before the rest of the skull, which itself can be seen moving just slightly before the skin attached to it, letting people see its real shape for once; then the expanding ripple across your face (you really are seventy percent water, aren’t you?) sending your lower lip careening around in the same arc your teeth now trace, but at a bit wider radius. This is not the time to be thinking about this, though, right as he’s about to—yes, exactly, footwork footwork footwork.

You’re on the brink, aren’t you? This is what you’ve agreed to do, though. You’ve agreed to throw the fight. Typical. Why did you—oof, you may want to get a quick PET scan on your liver when this is all said and done. Get him with a few quick jabs. May as well make it look realistic, and besides this guy seems like a bit of a dick anyway. Why they had to pick a guy you could walk over any other day… As if it’s not bad enough that there’s more for you in losing than winning. This is you at your most useful: an assistant, a footstool for someone’s success. And you know it, and he knows it, and so do they.

God that’s loud. You now have one minute, before another three. Enswell on the cheekbone, cold wet towel around the eye, swab of adrenaline, you watch your cornerman make exaggerated gestures as if he’s encouraging you, while in a low, steady, unfeeling voice you hear “remember what you’re doing, and why. Focus on the long game. This is better for you in the long run.” You try to remember. There was some sort of moral imperative that made this the right thing to do. Someone somewhere is probably counting on you. Or is it better to focus here and now? Somebody somewhere would probably be disappointed in you. Don’t worry. This is probably just a metaphor anyway.

You’re back up, you realize a second after his first punch. This is the round. A whole lot of people get rich if you go down now, and you’ll make rent. You keep thinking about other things (like this). It’s coming faster than you thought, the brink. You know you could beat him, and so does everyone that matters. It’s not that sort of pride that makes this scary. Bob and weave, yells an ignorant spectator. It’s that for this to happen you have to let yourself get to a point where you couldn’t win. You will be in control until that point—you’re the one choosing to go there—but beyond that you’re staring down the barrel of whatever this guy decides to throw at you, and as you’ve already decided, he’s a bit of a dick. You let an uppercut through. It has no nerve endings, but your brain probably pressed into the sharp part of the skull behind the eyes. He feels more than an arm’s length away. He’s not.

Again you realize, this is it. You get to find out if you can let this happen to you: if you can let yourself not be the one letting anything. If you can watch this straight right come in at eye level and do nothing. If you can watch the canvas race toward you, and convince yourself: it will catch you; it will all go quiet, and there’s no more pain, no fear.