The old writer’s axiom of “Write what you know” seems to be difficult to follow when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, after all no one can really do or go to the places encountered in those stories. However, while the worlds may be far out there and fantastic, it doesn’t mean the characters no matter how bizarre they may be won’t be based to some degree on someone they knew. While they will not be an exact carbon copy of the person in question a real person will usually always serve as a muse of sorts to the writer. Tolkien for example based Treebeard off of CS Lewis. Lewis himself based his character of Elwin Ransom in his Space Trilogy on both JRR Tolkien and fellow inkling Charles Williams.
The same was true in the Narnia books. Caspian’s nurse in Prince Caspian was inspired by
Lewis own nurse who often told him fairy stories as a child, while Puddleglum the Marshwiggle from the Silver Chair was inspired by his gardener Fred Paxford. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis based Professor Digory Kirke on his own mentor Professor William Kirkpatrick, or “The Old Knock” as he was known to CS Lewis. Like Kirke, Kirkpatrick was a huge proponent on logic, and held a dismal view of the education system, something Lewis shared as was evident by Professor Kirke’s oft heard lament of, “Bless me, what are they teaching in these schools.”
However, Professor Kirke was also had some traits Lewis pulled from himself. As Paul F. Ford notes,
“When Lewis was writing LWW (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), he did not yet know that the unnamed professor and Digory Kirke were the same person. The Professor is modeled both on Lewis’ tutor…a rigorous logician…, and on Lewis himself: he had sympathy for children who imagine other worlds, and he opened his own home in oxford to many children feeling the London Blizt and the beginning of World War II…It is not clear form what is now known of Lewis’ life if Digory’s insatiable curiosity is something Lewis remembered of himself or if Digory is only a character through whom Lewis can reveal his beliefs about the limits of knowledge and other important themes in TMN ( The Magician’s Nephew).”
Because of this Professor Kirke differs from Kirkpatrick in his belief in the unexplainable. Kirkpatrick was an ardent atheist, who influenced much of Lewis’s views on religion at the time prior to his conversion and friendship with Tolkien. Professor Kirke, however shows no such inclination at being an atheist.
When we first meet the professor in the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he is welcoming the children to his place. He lived ten miles from the railway station and two from the nearest post office, making his home one of the safest places to be for the four Pevensie children during the war, should the railway be taken out by the German bombs. He is a bachelor and has a somewhat peculiar look to him, so much so that he initially frightens Lucy, and Edmund tries his best to hide his attempts to laugh at him by pretending to blow his nose. Even “noble Peter” seems to think the professor daft as he claims that that the professor would let them do anything they like.
For the most part the Professor seems to be off to the sidelines, as is the case for most children’s stories. However, it is not until Lucy returns from her first trip to Narnia that we begin to learn that the old professor is just as peculiar as his house. The children expect him to do something more drastic to help their sister, seeing as they fear she is lying or crazy. To their surprise he asks them one simple question: how do they know that their sister story is not true.
Very carefully he picks apart their arguments forcing them to examine the claims of both Edmund and Lucy .They know that of the two Lucy is the more honest and it is obvious by looking at her that she is not crazy. Before Susan can interrupt she catches herself, as she never imagine an adult could talk like this, or believe such an impossible story.
To which the professor replies,
“Logic!…Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
This closely parallels Lewis’ own trilema that he used in regards to the claims of Christ. As Lewis observed in Mere Christianity,
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
For the Professor, as was the case for Lewis, the evidence presented to him could only lead to one conclusion. Susan pressed the matter further, wanting to know what to do until they gained any further evidence to which the Professor bluntly told them that they might try minding their own business. This blends perfectly with Lewis’ own views on busybodies, something he detested.
As he observed in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” from God in the Dock,
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
The professor’s advice proved sound, as the narrator tells us things actually do get better for Lucy and the tenuous peace is preserved among the siblings, with Peter even stopping Edmund from jeering Lucy and the subject is nearly forgotten. The only time the professor hears of Narnia again is at the end after the children’s adventure has come to an end. The children relate their story to him and he doesn’t say a word but listens intently and offers up some advice after they are done talking. Also, on contrast to a typical adult he doesn’t accuse them of lying, making excuses for the missing coats, or being mad. Rather he believes every single word they tell him.
Through this Lewis conveys another important truth, as is noted by Nate Merchand in “The Heroes of Narnia Series” from the Examiner, “Not only are magic and logic not incompatible with each other, but that by extension faith and reason can go hand in hand.”
As Lewis observed in Mere Christianity,
“It is not reason that is taking away my faith; on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other….. Now faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”
However, Professor Kirke, unlike Lewis or even Kirpatrick had all the more reason to believe in the children’s story. As it is revealed in The Magician’s Nephew long before he was the learned professor in his big country house telling four children to use logic, he had traveled to Narnia himself when that world was just beginning. His story began on a cloudy day in London when he was sitting outside in the yard of the house of his aunt Letty and his eccentric uncle, Andrew Ketterly.
The narrator tells us that,
“In those days Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.”
This places Digory firmly in the era of Victorian England, a time period that saw many adventure stories spring up, including the Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers , Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, JM Berrie’s Peter Pan, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Victorian England also saw the rise of such classic monsters as Dracula, Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s creature. Strange and mysterious things could happen, sometimes there was a logical explanation but other times there was something else going on behind the scenes.
More over it casts a farther sense of wonder in Lewis England as much as in Narnia, as Peter J. Sheckel notes in The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide,
“This is a world in which people generally assumed to be characters in books turn out to be real, in which someone’s godmother could have “fairy blood in her,” and in which a magician can send guinea pigs and children off to an Other-world.”
If it is just as possible for Oswald Bastable to be Digory’s schoolmate, or for him to see Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson running down the street when the game is afoot in England, then it is just as likely for Lucy to meet a faun in the world of Narnia. It is Lewis’ subtle way of reminding readers that this is just a fun, imaginative adventure story, and perhaps can serve as an even further reminder to more modern religious readers not to over think the theological implications of his inclusion of mythical beasts in Narnia. In the Narnia stories, The England of the books is just as an imaginary world as Narnia itself.
Lewis doesn’t begin this story by introducing us to Digory, he starts by introducing us to Polly Plummer, a young girl who lived next door to Digory’s uncle and aunt. One day she looked over the wall into his yard one day and saw him crying and introduces herself. Upon learning his name she comments that it is a funny name which leads to a quick spat between the two of them, ending in Polly telling him that at least she washes her faces, unlike him, but cuts herself off before she says something she could regret as she learns Digory had every reason to cry.
Like the Pevensies many decades later, his life has been uprooted by turmoil. His father was away in India, and he and his mother left their big home in the country to live in London. His mother needed better medical care due to an illness, which is inferred to be cancer based on her dire condition through out the story. This was the other aspect of Digory’s life that Lewis drew from his own life. As a young boy, CS Lewis’ mother, Flora, died of cancer, when he was only nine years old. It was a moment that stayed with him his entire life and rocked his small world to its core, he would later be shipped off to a boarding school that he would call the worst years of his life. He would later say in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, in regards to his mother’s death that,
“With my mother’s death all settled happiness , all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”
Like the old myths and fairy tales, Lewis begins his story with the loss of a parent. Even in 2016, the notion of losing a parent to cancer or war is a very real possibility, one that makes the Narnia stories so resonant. The pain these children feel is one that contineus to this day.
Upon hearing what Digory has to say, Polly grows quiet, not knowing what to say to him after that. She soon changes the subject to the strange sounds she hears in the attic and a reluctant friendship is born as they speculate back and forth just what his uncle could be up to. Upon learning of a secret crawlspace between their two houses to investigate the mystery, tying back to the references to the Bestables and Mr. Holmes in the opening of The Magician’s Nephew. In all three of the stories something strange would be happening and the heroes in question would resolve to solve it.
Opening the door into the attic room in Digory’s house they find a room filled with test tubes and strange books. They soon encounter his uncle Andrew who tricks Polly into taking one of the rings he made which causes her to vanish. That is when Andrew tells his nephew everything. The older man had received from his dying grandmother a box containing Atlantean dust and despite warnings to destroy it, he decided to experiment it it.
Whole Andre Ketterly sees himself as a magician; he was more accurately a “mad scientist”. Like Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Henry Jekyll, two other 19th Century gentlemen, he manages through unholy means to tap into some sort of dark secret. For Frankenstein it was the power to bring the dead back to life. For Jekyll it was a way to separate his two natures and do “bad things” and get away with it. For Uncle Andrew it was a power to travel to other worlds. Like Professor Weston and Divine in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, it bordered on a level of conquest.
However while Frankenstein is at least willing to see his experiments to fruition and even realized the error of his ways, and Jekyll only tested it on himself, leading to him taking his own life, Andrew Ketterly was a first rate coward who was willing to send not only guinea pigs but a little girl to a strange and possible dangerous other world. In Edwardian society, it was considered improper to subject a woman to something like this, as men were the expected to be the ones to risk their lives for women, not the other way around.
When Digory called him out for this behavior, Andrew responded to his accusation by saying,
“Silence, Sir!..I will not be talked to like that by a little, dirty, schoolboy. You don’t understand. I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on. Bless my soul, you’ll be telling me next that I ought to have asked the guinea-pigs’ permission before I used them! No great wisdom can be reached without sacrifice. But the idea of my going myself is ridiculous. It’s like asking a general to fight as a common soldier. Supposing I got killed, what would become of my life’s work?”
As far as Anderew was concerned, they were all beneath him and were toys for him to play with, not people to be cared for. He even played to Digory’s own sense of honor and friendship by twisting and manipulating the boy into going to rescue his friend. Digory quickly shows he is a better man then Andrew, as he tells him,
“Oh shut up!..If you had any honour and all that, you’d be going yourself. But I know you won’t. All right. I see I’ve got to go. But you are a beast. I suppose you planned the whole thing, so that she’d go without knowing it and then I’d have to go after her… I didn’t believe in Magic till to-day. I see now it’s real. Well if it is, I suppose all the old fairy tales are more or less true. And you’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right.”
Thus it is Digory and Polly who get to be the first to travel to a new world as they and themselves in strange wood filled with trees and many pools. There is a certain sleepy quality over the place and they almost forget who they are or why they came, almost like the waters of the Leithe river in Greek mythology. Once the two regain their bearings, they decided to investigate the Wood between the World. Through trial and error they discover that it is the green rings who can take them to any of the worlds.
They discover a dying world, where a red sun hangs over head and the city is fallen long into decay. Traveling through the city, they found a palace filled with statues, and each expression on the statues gets meaner and meaner. At the very end of the hall sat a woman, tall, proud, and beautiful, and beside her is a bell warning visitors to make a choice to strike the bell and risk danger or to refuse and go mad with wonderment over what could have happened.
While Polly wished to leave the palace undisturbed, Digory had other plans, but Digory and even treated her so disdainfully that Polly felt he sounded very much like his uncle. Where he really crossed a line whoever, was when he physically assaulted her by her by the arm when she tried to leave, leaned across her, grabbed the hammer and struck the bell His actions would have dire consequences as he would awaken the White Witch Jadis who was long under an enchantment of her own.
Perhaps it was due to hearing the story from Jadis herself of what she did to her world, which was known Charn, but it did not take long for him to regret awakening the Witch. When she expressed a desire to come to Earth, the two were ready to leave her behind when she grabbed a hold of Polly’s hair and was taken out of Charn and into the Wood Between the Worlds. They couldn’t even loose her in the Wood as she would grab Digory by the ear as they plunged into the pool to Earth.
Just as Digory promised, Andrew begins to suffer for his hubris, as he was made into Jadis’s slave, despite the mad scientist’s feeble attempts to woo her. Digory apologized quickly for all he had done and begged Polly to stay with him and help him fix the problem. She figured at first that Andrew had gotten what he deserved for all the cruel things he did, but Digory had another concern, one Polly had forgotten about A s Digory told her.
“It isn’t that sort of thing…What I’m bothered about is Mother. Suppose that creature went into her room. She might frighten her to death.”
Thanks to a huge fight outside the house that was started by the Witch, the two get their chance.Quickly putting on their rings they grab onto the witch, and not only do they disappear, but so do Uncle Andrew, the witch, a cab driver and the cab driver’s horse. However, they do not travel to Charn, but to a cold, empty world. Before too long they watched that a brand new world is slowly taking form as Aslan sang the world into existence. They even see as Aslan brings forth creatures, including the cabby’s horse Strawberry, to be among those chosen to speak.
Digory even sees a lamppost grow from a bar that Jadis threw, which causes Andrew to postulate about the Narnia’s rejuvenating properties. Digory wonders if this could be the Land of Youth he heard his aunt speak of, as he overheard her wish for such a place to heal his mother. Andrew, on the other hand can think of is the money he would make buy possibly growing locomotives, battle-ships and even hosting hunting expeditions to Narnia. This disgusts Digory and he condemns his uncle, saying,
“You don’t care twopence about her…I thought you might; after all, she’s your sister as well as my Mother. Well, no matter. I’m jolly well going to ask the Lion himself if he can help me.”
Digory approached Aslan , only to have the Lion confront the boy about bringing evil into this brand new and unspoiled world. However, there is hope as Aslan gives Digory a task: to bring from a garden in the far reaches of Narnia a piece of fruit that will go into a tree that will repel the Witch for a time. that is when he asks Aslan if he will do something to help his mother. While the Lion has compassion for Digory and his mother, the fate of Narnia hangs in the balance. Accepting that it is no use bargaining with Aslan, Digory agrees to go on the quest.
Here, his role greatly mirrors that of Professor Ransom in Perelandra, the second novel in Lewis’ Space Trilogy. In the Space Trilogy it is established that the Earth has been cut off from the rest of the solar system due to the Fall of Man in the book of Genesis to prevent humanity from spreading sin and evil in the world. Ransom is recruited by Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Mars to help prevent Perelandra, or Venus form falling like Earth. However, while Weston is successful and Perelandra remains free from evil,thereby becoming the Paradise that Earth was meant to be, Digory’s efforts will only be temporary.
Much to Digory’s surprise, Polly agreed to come with him. She was with him when he woke the Witch, and she intended to help see her friend through the end of the journey despite how he treated her. As it will be a long journey, Aslan grants wings to the horse Strawberry and remains him “Fledge” and commissions him to carry the children to the tree. For the better part of their journey, things went according to plan.
However, after plucking the fruit Digory made a starting discovery. The Witch had already arrived and is eating of the fruit of the tree. Now the witch begins to tempt him, first promising him eternal life if he eats of it and joins her. He refuses, saying,
“No thanks…I don’t know that I care much about living on and on after everyone I know is dead. I’d rather live an ordinary time and die and go to Heaven.”
His statement is an inversion of that of the oft quote passage by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he declares that it is better to reign in Hell then serve in Heaven. Digory has seen the evil Jadis has done, and knows that she will betray anyone to gain more power. To live forever with her and lose all those close to him and become as cold, cruel and unfeeling as Jadis would not be a life worth living. Inf act, it would be, at least in his mind, the closest thing to Hell on Earth.
Then she tempted him to steal an apple for his mother, which only confuses the matter as she presses him, accusing him of not loving her. Digory is not sure what to do in this instance as he knew his mother would not approve of him stealing, even to help her, something the Witch informs him can be kept secret. Then finally, her third and final temptation to Digory is to “leave the girl behind”. We learn that this causes his head to clear as he quickly questions the witch, saying,
“Look here; where do you come into all this? Why are you so precious fond of my Mother all of a sudden? What’s it got to do with you? What’s your game?”
Mounting their winged stead, Digory and Polly return to Aslan. By his order Digory plants the fruit which grows into a tree. Digory is concerned that since the witch at the fruit that she won’t mind it, however, Aslan assures him just the opposite. Because she stole the fruit for herself, the fruit will giver her eternal life, buts he will never again be able to go near it again. Then to protect Narnia, even further, that land’s monarchy is established with Frank the Cabby and his wife ( whom Aslan called into the world) as the first king and Queen.
Digory, still wondering about the Witch’s temptation, learns from Aslan that had he done what the Witch asked, it would have brought his mother so much pain and suffering that they would have both preferred that she died. Digory is over come by this revelation, to the point that the narrator tells us,
“And Digory could say nothing, for tears, choked him and he gave up all hopes of saving his Mother’s life; but at the same time he knew that the Lion knew what would have happened and that there might be things more terrible than losing someone you love by death.”
Ready to accept the inevitable, Digory then received the greatest gift he could have ask for. Aslan gave him one of the apples, and that while on Earth it would not grant her immortality it would heal her of her illness. Then Aslan helped send Digory, Polly and Andrew, who had long since been put into a deep sleep, back to Earth. To Digory and Polly’s surprise when they arrived in England they found no time took at all, showing just why he believed that Lucy could in fact have traveled to another world in less than a minute.
Digory hurried to his mother and gave her the fruit and as Aslan promised, she was healed.Devin Brown notes of this moment in A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of CS Lewis,
“Lewis the middle-aged, Christian author had a very different perspective on death from young Jack, the grief-stricken nine-year-old…In the end, Lewis gives the fictional mother and son the happy ending his own childhood lacked…Through the adventure, Lewis has Digory learn several important lessons which he himself learned only as an adult after his conversion.”
We later learn from our narrator, that not long after his mother recovered his father later returend home and they returned to the country. We were also told that Digory and Polly remained good friends through out their lives, and that Andrew having learned his lesson, never dabbled in magic again. We also learn that Digory was the one who built the mysterious wardrobe, having fashioned it from wood that came from the tree that grew out of the Narnian apple core he planted. As a neat little detail in the 2005 film, the panels of the door were even inlaid with scenes depicting the events of The Magician’s Nephew.
Even to his old age, and despite his advanced learning, Professor Kirke had never forgotten about Narnia, or the lessons he learned. It was his wisdom and last bit of advice that helped at least three of the Pevensie children hold on to hope that no matter what they could always return to Narnia. After all, he didn’t have more then one trip to Narnia, but still believed in its existence. The 2005 film even went so far to actually have a midcredit scene in which he tells Lucy that he already tried. He clearly knows that no matter what Aslan will always find a way to bring them back to His Country, even if it’s some way they never expected.
As he told them at the end of the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
“No…I don’t think it will be any good trying to go back through the wardrobe door to get the coats. You won’t get into Narnia again by that route. Nor would the coats be much use by now if you did! Eh? What’s that? Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again someday. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don’t go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it. And don’t talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don’t mention it to anyone else unless you find that they’ve had adventures of the same sort themselves. What’s that? How will you know? Oh, you’ll know all right. Odd things, they say—even their looks—will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open. Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”
FILM: Adamson, Andrew (Dir.)The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, James MacAvoy, Tilda Swinton, Ray Winston, and Liam Neeson. Ann Peacock,Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2005. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
Brown, Devin A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of CS Lewis.pg. 40.
Ford, Paul F. “Digory Kirke” pg. 171. Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition: A Complete Guide to the Chronicles of Narnia
Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle. 1978. Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Pgs. 52,205-06. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew. Pgs. 1,26,27,87,132,192,195,209. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS. “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” God in the Dock pg. 499 The Timeless Writings of CS Lewis.1996. Family Christian Press
Lewis, CS. “The Shocking Alternative”pg. 56. Mere Christianity 1996. Touchstone books. A Division of Simon& Shuster. New York, NY
Lewis, CS. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life pg. 21 1955. Harvest Books.A Division of Harcourt Brace. Orlando, Fl.
Merchand, Nate “The Heroes of Narnia: Digory Kirke”Examiner.com. Last Accessed February 17, 2016
Schakel, Peter J. The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide Pg. 94.
This Blog is not authorized, endorsed, or approved by any entities involved the creation, development, distribution or ownership of the Chronicles of Narnia franchise. The views and opinions contained in this blog reflect those of the author and do not represent the views or ownership of the CS Lewis Estate, Harper Collins, Walden Media, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox and any other parties involved in the creation or ownership of the books and films.
2005 Walden Media/Walt Disney Studios.