In The Magician's Nephew, the children who are the central characters, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer, come to a lifeless world called Charn. In an ancient, ruined building they awaken a queen called Jadis. She tells them of a worldwide civil war she fought against her sister. All of Jadis's armies were defeated, having been made to fight to the death of the last soldier, and her sister claimed victory. Then Jadis spoke the horrible curse which her sister knew she had discovered but did not think she would use. In speaking the Deplorable Word, Jadis killed every living thing in her world, except herself, to avoid losing the war to her sister.
The children are shocked by this account, but Jadis has no remorse or pity for all the ordinary people whom she killed; in her eyes, they existed only for her to use. The past rulers of her race, who evidently had not always been evil, knew of the Deplorable Word's existence but not the word itself, and had vowed that none of them, nor their descendants, would seek to discover it. Jadis said she had “learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it".
Lewis did not write what the word was, or the price paid to learn it.
The book was written in 1955 during the Cold War, ten years after the first atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and a year after the hydrogen bomb was developed. Lewis does not explicitly link the Deplorable Word to any specific weapon of mass destruction, but he alludes to the power of humanity to destroy life. Near the end of the story Lewis has the lion Aslan say to the central characters from the Victorian era:
It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations of your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.
Similar themes in other literature
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson include a similar magical feature, though of a less total destructive power. Uttering Donaldson's "Ritual of Desecration" would result in widespread destruction and devastation, and a country hit by it would take centuries to recover, but unlike the Deplorable Word it does not kill everybody.
- Lewis, Clive Staples (1970). The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 41–65. ISBN 0-02-044230-0.
- Mony, Neetha (2003). "True Independent Women: A Close Comparison Between C. S. Lewis's Jadis, the White Witc, and J. R. R. Tolkien's Galadriel, The Lady of the Golden Wood". In Diana Pavlac Glyer (ed.). Tollers and Jack: A Comparative Look at the Lives and Works of J.R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (PDF). p. 8.
By saying the Deplorable Word, a word that Lewis does not reveal.
- Ford, Paul F. (2005). Companion to Narnia, Revised Edition: A Complete Guide to the Magical World of C.S. Lewis's THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. New York: Zondervan. p. 138. ISBN 0060791276.
- Lewis, Clive Staples (1970). The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. p. 178. ISBN 0-02-044230-0.
- Walls, Kathryn (2009). "When Curiosity Gets the Better of Us: The Atomic Bomb in The Magician's Nephew". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 20 (3): 334.
In what follows, I want to suggest that The Magician’s Nephew is very much the product of Lewis’s own anxiety about nuclear weapons.
- Khoddam, Salwa (2009). "From Ruined City to Edenic Garden in C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew". In Himes, Jonathan B.; Christopher, Joe R. (eds.). Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings' Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 32. ISBN 9781443807265.