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.
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  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.