Reading The Magician’s Nephew last in The Chronicles of Narnia (just after The Last Battle) is a little like reading the book of Genesis last in Scripture (just after Revelation). It’s the order I prefer, though; perhaps simply because this was the way my mom read the series to me when I was a girl.
My favourite part of this story is the telling of Narnia’s creation from the perspective of a handful of between-worlds travellers: the children, Polly and Digory; the sloppy and selfish magician, Uncle Andrew and Jadis, the witch-queen of the dead world, Charn; and a simple London cabby and his horse, Strawberry. They all watch and listen, with varying degrees of pleasure, as Aslan sings the world of Narnia into being, beginning with “cold, tingling, silvery” stars, and ending with mounds of earth erupting with the births of animals of all sorts. Polly “felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) ‘out of the Lion’s head.’ When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them. This was so exciting that she had no time to be afraid.”
I’ve referred to these creation chapters a couple of times in sermons about the creation of our world, but it wasn’t until my most recent read-through of The Magician’s Nephew with my middle daughter that I realized that Aslan’s song was not the first song in the new land. When the between-worlds travellers landed in pitch darkness on the barren, flat ground of the pre-world of Narnia, the Witch spoke words of doom and Uncle Andrew asked around for a drop of spirits. But now, just listen to the words of the Cabby:
“Now then, now then,” came the Cabby’s voice, a good firm, hardy voice. “Keep cool everyone, that’s what I say. No bones broken, anyone? Good. Well there’s something to be thankful for straight away, and more than anyone could expect after falling all that way. Now, if we’ve fallen down some diggings–as it might be for a new station on the Underground–someone will come and get us out presently, see! And if we’re dead–which I don’t deny it might be–well, you got to remember that worse things ‘appen at sea and a chap’s got to die sometime. And there ain’t nothing to be afraid of if a chap’s led a decent life. And if you ask me, I think the best thing we could do to pass the time would be to sing a ‘ymn.”
And he did. He struck up at once a harvest thanksgiving hymn, all about crops being “safely gathered in.” It was not very suitable to a place which felt as if nothing had ever grown there since the beginning of time, but it was the one he could remember best. He had a fine voice and the children joined in; it was very cheering. Uncle Andrew and the Witch did not join in.
When the darkness of December 8, 2000, fell on my life, it felt a little like a pre-world. “The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.” I remember two songs from that day. There was the song that was playing on the radio on my way from seminary student housing to Calvin Seminary: Don’t Worry, by Rebecca St. James (Don’t worry about your life / Cause if you hold it too close you’ll lose it). This song is my remembered sound track to the brief window of time between losing cell phone contact with my husband, Layton, at 6:55am, while he was waiting for a tow truck to pull him out of a ditch on I-96, and learning, an hour or so later, that the reason the call had dropped was because his vehicle had been hit by another.
The other song was the one I breathed quietly on to the smudged window of the state trooper’s car as she slid me along the roads between Calvin Seminary and Spectrum Hospital (the place where Layton would die a few days later… “It was so dark that … it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or opened”).
You are my hiding place.
You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance.
Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you. I will trust in you.
Let the weak say, “I am strong in the strength of the Lord.”
You are My Hiding Place, Michael James Ledner
We’re in that dark time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the mornings are so black that I finish walking my dog before the sun rises. We’re also in that time between Thanksgivings – between the Thanksgiving celebration of the country of my residence and that of the country of my citizenship.
Perhaps you are in an in-between dark time yourself – and you don’t know whether it is the darkness of death or the darkness before dawn.
It strikes me, as I read The Magician’s Nephew, that though it might have been strange to sing a song about crops in a land that had never been planted, and though it might have been odd to sing an abundant Thanksgiving hymn in the nothingness of that place, it really was most suitable for the cabby to sing the song that he best remembered– a song (in the face of possible death) about being “safely gathered in.”
Won’t you join in?
Come, you thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, does provide for our needs to be supplied;
come, with all his people come, raise the song of harvest home.
Even so, Lord, quickly come to your final harvest home;
gather all your people in, free from sorrow, free from sin
there, forever purified, in your presence to abide;
come, with all your angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
Come, You Thankful People Come, Henry Alford, 1844.