Making Charn Great Again

Pauline Baynes, The Magician’s Nephew

Monday

Some days it seems impossible to fully capture the disastrous Trump presidency. His efforts to “Make America Great Again” by dismantling all that has made us great is a slow-moving but inexorable nightmare. Regarding the pandemic, his assaults on science and the Center for Disease Control, along with his willingness to tolerate hundreds of thousands of deaths, are beyond believing.

It’s one reason I turn to literary comparisons, which can dramatize what we are experiencing through compelling images and narratives. Today I invoke a scene from C.S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew, although I do so with a caveat. In comparing Trump to Queen Jadis, I risk downplaying Trump’s actual cowardice when faced with challenges. Literary allusions are illuminating for the contrasts as well as the comparisons, however, and I will be looking at both.

Through the use of magic transport rings, Digory and Polly have found themselves in an ancient city devoid of human life. Through striking a bell, Digory awakens the last ruler of the city, and from her we learn what has happened. Think of her as Donald Trump, prepared to use any means necessary, including sacrificing countless American lives, to defeat the Democrats:

“It is silent now. But I have stood here when the whole air was full of the noises of Charn; the trampling of feet, the creaking of wheels, the cracking of the whips and the groaning of slaves, the thunder of chariots, and the sacrificial drums beating in the temples. I have stood here (but that was near the end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red.” She paused and added, “All in one moment one woman blotted it out forever.”

“Who?” said Digory in a faint voice; but he had already guessed the answer.

“I,” said the Queen. “I, Jadis, the last Queen, but the Queen of the World.”

The two children stood silent, shivering in the cold wind.

“It was my sister’s fault,” said the Queen. “She drove me to it. May the curse of all the Powers rest upon her forever! At any moment I was ready to make peace—yes, and to spare her life too, if only she would yield me the throne. But she would not. Her pride has destroyed the whole world. Even after the war had begun, there was a solemn promise that neither side would use Magic. But when she broke her promise, what could I do? Fool! As if she did not know that I had more Magic than she. She even knew that I had the secret of the Deplorable Word. Did she think—she was always weakling—that I would not use it?”

“What was it?” said Digory.

“That was the secret of secrets,” said Queen Jadis. “It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought and fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water——”

“Beast!” muttered Polly.

“The last great battle,” said the Queen, “raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was half way up those great stairs that lead up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, ‘Victory.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘Victory, but not yours.’ Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.”

“But the people?” gasped Digory.

“What people, boy?” asked the Queen.

“All the ordinary people,” said Polly, “who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and the animals.”

“Don’t you understand?” said the Queen (still speaking to Digory). “I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will.”

“It was rather hard luck on them, all the same,” said he.

Given Trump’s own fear of accountability, I’m struck by how Jadis blames others for the devastation. For their part, Digory and Polly sound like impotent citizens, invoking constitutional principles, democratic norms, and basic humanity as those in charge destroy all around them. Jadis puts them in their place:

I had forgotten that you are only a common boy. How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny.

In the prior administration or under Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, America would have been leading the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, with the Center for Disease Control carrying the flag. As we move rapidly towards 100,000 deaths, the world is alternatively laughing at us and pitying us. I don’t know if we could have limited our deaths to 232 (Norway) or 262 (South Korea), but the fact that we are soaring far beyond Spain (27,563) or Italy (31,763) should shake us to the core. Trump is making America as small as he is, and he has gotten the Republican Party to go along with him.

I promised a contrast and here it is. Jadis, despite being a tyrant, is a courageous tyrant (although it’s easier to be so if you have access to the Deplorable Word). Trump, a wannabe tyrant, panicked when Covid hit, thinking he could retreat into magical thinking. Now, although he’s willing to pour out American blood like water, the enemy is at his gates.

In the latest development, he’s hoping that “Obamagate,” backed up by his Justice Department, will prove to be his Deplorable Word. If that doesn’t work, he’s sure to come up with many more before election day.

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