In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
If you have read The Magician’s Nephew, you will know about the Deplorable Word. It is the opposite of the Word that was at the beginning, for it is the Word that brought it all to an end.
The Deplorable Word takes the idea of magic words to the very extreme. As Queen Jadis explains, “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.”
In my single volume bound edition of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew comes first, but it is not the first one that Lewis wrote. That, of course, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a tale that raised as many questions as it answered. Who, for example, was the White Witch? Where did she come from? And who was this enigmatic professor with whom the Pevensie children stayed, a man who, at the height of the rational, technological age, could hint that Lucy might not be lying about strange lands beyond the wardrobe, who could shake his head and say, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”
The Magician’s Nephew was written right before The Last Battle. It is a story of beginnings – Narnia is created within its pages – while The Last Battle is a story of endings – Narnia comes to an end – but in the way of the sacred imagination, beginnings and endings get all mixed up, so that The Magician’s Nephew deals with ends, while The Last Battle ends with a beginning.
As they explore the various parallel universes which will eventually gel into Narnia, Digory Kirke who will ripen into the Professor, and his friend Polly Plummer arrive at the exhausted world of Charn, glowing lifelessly in the rays of a red sun. In its ruined palace, they pass through a set of golden doors into a hall of kings and queens, beautifully dressed, all seated upon their thrones, suspended, unmoving, a place full of beings who had once been alive. “Why haven’t these clothes rotted away long ago?” asked Polly. “Magic,” whispered Digory. “Can’t you feel it? I bet this whole room is just stiff with enchantments. I could feel it the moment we came in.”
They pass down the rows. The faces go from beautiful to cruel to anguished and dispairing, people who “had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.” Finally, they came upon a woman “with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away.” And they also came upon a temptation, a pillar, an arch, a golden bell, a golden mallet with which to strike it, and the following bit of verse.
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.
When I used to read this book to the third grade at St. Paul’s School, I would always stop here, take a significant pause, look over my assembled charges and say, “OK. Here's the moment of decision. Shall we ring?”
The answers were always divided. Some would say “No!” Others would say, “Yes, you have to!” It often, but not always, split between the girls and the boys, the girls counseling prudence, the boys shouting push ahead. Which is, of course, exactly what happened in the book. Digory disabled Polly with one hand, struck the bell with the other and awoke the evil queen.
This is by way of saying that all those self righteous men who blame Eve for the mess we’re in, just might have gotten it a little wrong. In The Magician's Nephew it is Digory who brings original sin into the newborn world by awakening the one who would one day be the White Witch.
Her great sin, of course, was the Deplorable Word. Fitting for a story, I should say, a magic word that at the end of things became Death, the Deplorable Word, shatterer of the world of Charn.
What could such a word possibly be? I suppose that I should not be curious, but I am. What word could be so destructive as to destroy every living being save the one who uttered it? It does me no harm to speculate, for even if, by chance, I should come upon the word, I have no idea of its “proper ceremonies,” and so my utterance of it would be quite harmless. Indeed, it might be helpful for me who, as a creature caught in the snares and delusions of this world, needs all the help she can get to figure out what to avoid.
Deplorable Words actually hover at the edges of Scripture. Consider this most enigmatic of Jesus’ teachings. It appears with slight variation in Matthew, Mark and Luke. I give you Mark’s, as both the earliest and the most vehement: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29) (See also Matt 12:32 and Luke 12:10)
To commit blasphemy is not necessarily to speak a word; it can be a deed or even a “proper ceremony,” but I have always felt that something terrible and irrevocable hovers somewhere in Jesus' warning; indeed, there was a time when a group of us pondered it deeply, usually in connection with something terrible that someone did against us. “Is that person really consigned to outer darkness now? Has he committed the Unforgivable Sin?” It was applied to husbands who slept with other women, to rivals who thwarted my path, business associates who abused their staff, to women who chose abortions. “Has she committed the Unforgivable Sin?” Sermons were preached about the sin so terrible that it damaged relationships forever. Even my dear auntie got into the fray. Heads were scratched. Chins rubbed. A man who confessed to hitting his wife was banished from the men’s fellowship. Eventually, I stopped having enough money to hang out with the members of this church and went elsewhere and forgot all about the Unforgivable Sin. Until I encountered the Deplorable Word.
It came up again about a decade later, during those terrible years in the 'nineties when a Carmelite Convent on the former site of Auschwitz was ordered closed because it defamed the memories of those who died there. There should be no prayer at the place of Unforgivable Sin. So much horrid and painful political business came up in the course of the closure that I froze up inside. I knew I could never understand the mysteries of radical evil and prayed that God would keep me safe from the horrors of my fellow man.
I did not think about it again until quite recently. I was sitting in traffic on an ordinary afternoon when the Deplorable Word at last revealed itself to me. I’m not sure if this was the same word that Jadis used, but given what I know of Jadis, it might have been. I will offer it you without any ceremony whatsoever. I will offer it you rather as it came to me. “What word,” I wondered, “could kill everything but the speaker?” It was a natural kind of question to ask while killing time in traffic. Killing time is itself a kind of blasphemy. I had just come from a conversation about Jadis with my friend Nola and both were very much on my mind.
I don’t like to drive. It feels not like a technological innovation but an evolutionary regression, shedding my human flesh and putting on a metal exoskeleton. The dense and snarling lanes of traffic feel like ants streaming toward the hive, the other people around me shielded from view by tinted glass, their voices overwhelmed by subwoofers and angry idling engines, the soft earth underfoot hardened with concrete and glistening with toxic patches of oil, status and position loudly proclaimed by gas guzzling SUVs and cheap bumper stickers in place of the far more difficult and beautiful task of finding common speech. I don’t like to drive. I don’t like living in a world where my worth is measured by how much I waste. I don’t like living in a world that burns so much up. I don’t like living in a world where children are taught that other children are rivals for the glittering prize, or worse, resources to be used in the promotion of my success.
So I am sitting in traffic and thinking of Jadis. And I wonder what word could be so barbed and so potent as to put an end to all this, leaving only the speaker. And then the word came. It was not at all like the Word in John's Gospel. It was not with God, nor was it God. It was very far from God. It was “I.” And "I" was all there was.