Three Generations of Magic Between E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, and Lev Grossman

As I read E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, a tale of children’s magical adventures, a feeling of familiarity came over me. This 1906 book seemed to anticipate C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, published almost exactly half a century later (1955) but, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, set back in the era when Nesbit herself was writing. It’s well known that Nesbit influenced Lewis’s Narnia series – he acknowledged it himself. His template – a group of sibling children having magical adventures – was inspired by Nesbit’s books, and scholars have identified various specific instances in the Narnia books that Lewis adapted from different Nesbit stories.

The echoes of The Story of the Amulet in The Magician’s Nephew, however, are much more systematic. A key parallel is what is called in both books the children’s “heart’s desire” – the recovery of an ill mother and the return of an absent father from work in Asia. In both books, the children visit other places and times through ancient enchanted objects. These adventures involve a man living upstairs in their London house where he seeks arcane knowledge in a study full of artefacts and books. The children visit a magnificent but decadent ancient city and encounter an imperious queen, whom they unintentionally bring to contemporary London. There, the queen travels about in a horse-drawn cab and wreaks comical havoc. Afterwards, both sets of children visit an utopia, and at the conclusion of each book, the children get their “heart’s desire”—the sick mother is cured and the father returns to England.

E. Nesbit
E. Nesbit

It seems as though, when it came to writing the origin story for his series, Lewis decided to deliberately write a kind of alternative Nesbit story. It is set in her time and parallels one of her books, but uses these parallels to highlight his own, quite different sensibility, infused with Christianity rather than Nesbit’s socialism. For example, in Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, the children visit a future utopian London inspired by the ideas of H.G. Wells and meet a boy named for him. It’s an urban utopia, created for humans, by humans, through political struggle. Nesbit was a founder of the socialist Fabian society and moved in the same circles as Wells. In The Magician’s Nephew, by contrast, the children witness the foundation of Narnia by Aslan, a perfect rural land created by a God, whose inhabitants are sentient animals and mythological creatures. Humans arrive from the outside, and have no part in Narnia’s creation. Their main contribution is to inadvertently introduce evil in the form of the Witch-Queen, and to subsequently compensate for this original sin according to Aslan’s bidding.

In a similar vein, all of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences. The children are left to figure things out as they go along, and learn more from their mistakes than from their betters. In Lewis, by contrast, only the children experience conflicting morals and desires, while the other characters are representatives of pure good or evil. The result is like a medieval morality play, where an everyman character has to navigate a path between authority figures representing virtues and vices. When the children are led astray, their mistakes have dire consequences, but they save themselves by following the directions given by the figure representing virtue.

This divergent treatment of similar ideas brings Lewis’s emphasis on humans needing direction, instruction and intervention from a higher power into focus. His child protagonist Digory cures his mother only thanks to a grace granted by Aslan, whereas Nesbit’s sick mother recovers in the end without even the use of magic. In a way, Lewis seems to be reversing a trend in children’s literature to which Nesbit had contributed. Like Lewis Carroll before her and her contemporary Kenneth Grahame, she had moved away from the moralizing and emphasis on obeying authority that had once been common in stories written for children in English. In another of her books, The House of Arden, her narrator at one point asks “But why be wearisome and instructive?” Lewis signals the ambitions of his own project by taking the skeleton of one of Nesbit’s plots and re-introducing the authority and morality of her predecessors, highlighting the underlying Christian message that animates the entire Narnia series.

Recently, Lev Grossman has riffed on the Narnia series as deliberately as Lewis did with The Story of the Amulet. His The Magicians trilogy, published another half-century later (2009-2014), revolves around an imagined series of five books describing the adventures of five English children in a magical land called Fillory. It’s notable that this Fillory series is set in the years between the Edwardian era of The Magician’s Nephew and the World War II era when the rest of the Narnia series begins. On top of that, key events that parallel those of the Narnia series provide the backbone of the present-day adventures of newly-graduated adult American magicians in and around Fillory. As Lewis did with Nesbit, Grossman uses parallels with the earlier author to highlight his own distinctive vision of how magical adventures might play out after childhood ends.

By the time we get to The Magicians there is not much left of the original Nesbit story, except perhaps the image of a tall, thin man at the top of a townhouse exploring arcane knowledge. But in some ways, the story has come full circle, back to a world where authority figures are fallible and humans have to muddle through the possibilities and consequences of magic largely on their own. Like Lewis, Grossman has written a tale that is at once an homage to and a subversion of a beloved earlier work, one that celebrates its predecessor’s inspiration while at the same time using it to express a very different understanding of the world.