Last night on the train home I read The Magican’s Nephew. Chronologically, it is the first of the seven Narnia books, and in C.S. Lewis’s Christian model it seeks to serve as Genesis, giving us the birth of Narnia in seven hours and a tree of knowledge’s apples and animals walking in pairs to be named by man. It also gives us a badger who tries to plant a man upside-down and toffee-trees, but that doesn’t come into anything as much.

Now, I am no expert on Lewis or Narnia or even Christianity, each in their own volume and depth; but I find it fascinating how a book so clearly bent on setting up an all-good Christ-like figure against a demonic evil seems to perpetually and accidentally subvert that dichotomy. Lewis clearly wants Aslan to be Lord, and Jadis to be Witch; he continually brings up the feelings of trust the children and the animals have in the lion, while sketching in Jadis’s wickedness with robberies and cunning and frightful, salt-white skin. Aslan sings Narnia into being; Jadis destroys her homeland, and almost wrecks London too (though she is only truly successful at battering up a hansom cab). If you take Lewis on his word, Aslan is an all good creator and Jadis is an all evil destroyer, and the story is nothing but a simple reconstruction of a biblical story.

But looking deeper at “The Magician’s Nephew” shows darker hues, and pokes a story of good-and-evil into tatters. Like I said, I cannot speak for Lewis, nor his faith; this post is not a critical essay, but my consideration of a complicated tale. It seems to me, though, that Lewis constructs a story far more double-sided than the Genesis he draws on.

In Narnia’s creation myth, men and demons exist before God: it is the common London cabby who starts the hymn of Narnia, long before Aslan’s voice joins in. Jadis even states before the hymn that they are in an empty world; there is no indication that the Cabby hasn’t made Aslan himself with his song, though for the Cabby this creation was just a way to “pass the time.” In Narnia’s first hours, it is the evil Jadis who makes the lamppost, the narrative’s most enduring icon of hope and home and magic; it is Aslan who renders some animals able to speak, while he leaves most mute and without agency. The characters moralize on the dangers of pursuing curiosity and knowledge—if the child hadn’t rung the bell, we wouldn’t have awakened the evil; if the child had eaten the apple, his mother would have lived in misery—but if our magician hadn’t been cruel and curious, the children would never have encountered Aslan or magic at all. Right and wrong are subverted constantly in this story, even as the characters attribute eternal goodness to the lion who won’t reassure a grieving boy, and endless evil to a lone queen whom no one attempts to reconcile with.

I do not doubt that Lewis meant to convey a strong Christian faith. But the byproducts of his allegories undermine the strength of his moral: even as Narnia has beautiful forests and fields, the land Aslan built is riddled through with frightening mountains and a complex morality. The Narnia Lewis makes on purpose is good and beautiful and endowed with religion; but I prefer the one he slips in around the edges, where both law and chaos work frightening enchantments on our children, and a confused old drunkard who cannot hear Aslan’s call plants the crowns of the lion’s chosen rulers. That is a land that could live forever— a mythology as complex and rich as any one devised by man as a way to pass the time.

Have you thoughts about Narnia’s complex mythology? Talk about them in the comments!