A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

Now, divesting myself of the vorpal sword of prejudice and laying my rusty armour aside, I find myself more inclined to glimpse the magic that legions of admiring fans have rejoiced in. Whether it’s children passing through the wardrobe door into a land where it’s always winter but never Christmas, or four adult siblings literally seeing the light in a wood near Cair Paravel, I’m unaccountably less uncomfortable with talking animals, hybrid creatures from myth, Father Christmas and a wicked witch all inhabiting the same space as four young evacuees. I’m also more attuned to the influences and ideas Lewis was trying to get across even if I don’t always agree with the premise he’s starting from.

Do I need to repeat the basic plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Surely everyone knows how Lucy isn’t at first believed when she describes getting to Narnia, how her sneering brother Edmund meets the witch Jadis and gets suborned by greed for Turkish Delight, how the lion Aslan voluntarily submits to being sacrificed and how, at the end, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are crowned monarchs before tumbling back into their own world and their own present, to be counselled by the wise professor whose house they are staying in?

My third read has allowed me to appreciate the skill Lewis brings to the narrative, alternating peril and respite, orchestrating the appearance of individuals who may be friends or enemies, pacing when hopes are to be dashed and then fears dispelled. And that patronising tone I once detected seems all the more muted than I remembered, and the once obvious Christian message of sacrifice and redemption now feels shared with many traditions and cultures, religions and philosophies.

I’m also more aware of Lewis borrowing and reshaping motifs from literature and traditional narrative. For example I detect debts to Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with its Wicked Witch, its Lion (who here is not cowardly, but bravely goes to his death), its own unusual portal to a fantasy land and with Dorothy as the equivalent of the innocent Lucy. Of course Lewis, an academic who specialised in literature, borrowed extensively from earlier texts, among which I fancy I see Milton’s masque Comus, a play I’ve not noted being referenced in discussion before.

I find many of the masque’s parallels striking when considering The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Two brothers and a sister (known simply as ‘the Lady’) get separated in an enchanted wood. The Lady is entranced by a wicked magician called Comus, the son of Circe and Bacchus; she is rendered immobile by his wand and tempted with a magic draught which would turn her into a beast. To defeat Comus forever the brothers are enjoined by a guardian spirit to break the wand, and though they don’t manage that task the spirit nevertheless chases away Comus and his menagerie of transformed beasts, and all ends happily. In Lewis’s novel the Comus role is played by the Circe-like Jadis with her entourage of ogres, wolves and hybrid beasts, her wand turns creatures into immobile statues, Aslan appears as a kind of guardian spirit, Edmund is the one who is tempted by enchanted food, and Jadis does have her wand broken before being defeated forever.

The name Comus means revelry or jollity and forms the root of the word ‘comedy’, a genre distinguished by the happy ending. Lewis knew this, of course, just as he knew that Jupiter or Jove was the Bringer of Jollity (as Holst’s 1918 composition The Planets characterised him). In fact, Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia theorised that Lewis intended each of the Narnia books to represent one of the ‘planets’ envisioned in medieval cosmology, and that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was symbolised by Jupiter. Comedy, revelry, the king of the gods — it all seems to add together.

Vertumnus, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1591)

So much in this novel expresses that comic joviality and indicates how much fun Lewis was having with stories and characters and words. Just to give one example in a tale about winter giving way to spring and summer: Mr Tumnus is the first person Lucy meets on entering Narnia and is often cited as the germ that gave rise to the novel. The faun’s curious name is no accident, for Lewis may have been remembering two mythic figures. The most obvious is the Roman god of summer, Vertumnus, whose association with fruitfulness and plenty is illustrated in a 16th-century painting by Arcimboldo. Secondly, the form Tumnus may owe something to the Mesopotamian god Tammuz, whose death and descent to the underworld occasioned mourning. Tammuz is also the name given to Middle Eastern equivalents of the summer months of June and July; so when Aslan breathes on Tumnus and other creatures turned to statues by Jadis, thus breaking her wintry spell on Narnia, that act is one of the signals that winter is over.

Of course, not all readers are expected to know all these mythic, cosmological or literary references, but I believe the references are evidence that Lewis knew of the magic enshrined in ancient beliefs and stories and so deliberately encoded them with his narrative. Childlike, we may recognise the magic without necessarily knowing their origin, and that may help to explain why the Narniad still holds its spell for readers. I am pleasantly surprised to find I’ve fallen, rather more than I expected, under the spell.


#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

Have you written further thoughts on or reviews of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe online? If so, feel free to add links to your musings in the comments below — and don’t forget to include the tag #Narniathon21 (with or without the hash sign).

32 thoughts on “A jovial comedy

  1. A happy new year to you!
    I liked the film, which I watched with my children.
    And I‘ve read it before, but could never come over the patronizing narrative voice and all those far too obvious borrowings from the classics.
    Yes, Tolkien has them also (eg the Finnish Kalevala), but I like them concealed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Andreas, and to you! Yes, early twentieth-century classics like LWW too often were patronising, a reflection of an attitude that was soon shattered by a postwar generation of writers for children, at least where British fantasy was concerned. But I’m pleased to find myself more charitable towards Lewis this time, though I can’t forgive him without some reservations!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Hah! Well, I’m halfway through my sixth or seventh read of The Lord of the Rings so can easily appreciate the contrast in the two authors’ approaches! Like you, I know which one I prefer, for the reason you give. 🙂

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  2. I do get your initial annoyance with Father Christmas’ presence since he does feel like he doesn’t ‘belong’ in this world populated by other creatures of myth–more a myth of the human world if that makes sense.

    Now that you bring it up again, I can see the elements of mobility stand out; in the return of spring of course but even in the little moments like the Christmas feast Jadis puts a stop to or even the Beavers’ dinner, and the triumph over evil at the end of our story

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    1. The nature writing and the importance accorded to food certainly stood out for me this time, Mallika, and I find the figure of Father Christmas more acceptable if I think of him as the Spirit of Yuletide than if I focus on how incomprehensible a christianised personification of winter is to appear in a secondary world with non-Christian beings like centaurs and fauns!

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  3. JJ Lothin

    I’m afraid I didn’t get round to re-reading for the Narniathon and perhaps now, having read this, I don’t really need to! I am tempted, though, all the same …

    And many thanks, Chris, both for reminding me of the fabulous Arcimboldo painting, and for introducing me to the wonderful word ‘vorpal’. I will now make a point of using it myself at every opportunity!

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    1. I’m chuffed you enjoyed my Lewis Carroll allusion, JJ, because he was a writer who, despite his clerical status, knew how to keep church and freewheeling fantasy separate. 🙂 Frabjous day, calloo callay!

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  4. Such an interesting post. Chris! Having read this first as a child I simply responded to the magic of the storytelling, and I was pleased that that was what called to me so strongly on a re-read. All of the background you reveal is unknown to me (my knowledge of mythology is slim) but I find it pleasing that Lewis drew on so much and built it into his tale. Yes, this is less epic than Tolkien and aimed at a younger audience, but he does create a wonderful world of his own into which I once would have loved to step.

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    1. I suppose could have written quite a long essay instead of a review, Karen, but thought it best if I acknowledged the magic that you still discern from your adult read as well as waffling on about the ideas Lewis incorporated but which seem to be largely omitted in commentaries. That the ideas are largely to do with myth I think is apt, given that Narnia seems to be Lewis having a stab at inventing a mythology for children. However, given the nasty and often unexpected characters who seem intent on messing up this world in later later instalments I’m not too keen on stepping into it myself!

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    1. Thanks, Liz! I talked less about an emotional response as I still feel conflicted over what Lewis was aiming at, and stuck to literary delving as a safe fall-back!

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  5. I reread the Narnia books with my children and loved them, and then we loved them again when we read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, in which a Narnia-like land is called Fillory and the magicians are surprised to find it’s real.
    Love the portrait of Vertumnus.

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    1. I rather enjoyed the Grossman trilogy, but must reread the final title as I never got round to a review. The Vertumnus portrait is certainly fun—but not very faun-like, I’m afraid!

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  6. This is so interesting. I’d never thought about the links to the name of Tumnus before. Your comment about the pacing of the story resonated with me as that was what I really noticed reading the book as an adult. It’s perfectly pitched for children and as a child I never did find the tone patronising either rather more convivial and appreciative of his audience and their needs. Written in a different time of course, today’s children may have a different view. I’m learning so much from following all the discussion, thank you,

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    1. The Chronicles, appearing as they did in a six-year sequence mid-century seem to me like a final gasp of a certain type of children’s fantasy writing, followed by a change of tone with writers like Garner, Cooper et al, even Aiken, all of whom seem to rewrite the rules regarding relations between children and adults in their fiction. But, yes, Lewis struck the right tempo and tone in this title, we all seem to agree! Pleased you’re enjoying this discussion, Anne, some really insightful comments coming out, I think.

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  7. You’re spurring me to a bit of Lewisian binging. I reread Surprised by Joy, curious to be reminded what the author said about his own childhood. I went from there to reread Phantastes, referenced in SBJ as having a powerful effect on Lewis’s imagination — and found there another possible source of the “wardrobe” image in a sort of magic cupboard. If you’ve not read these I highly recommend them!

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    1. Phantastes is on my wishlist, Lory, so I may yet get round to that magic cupboard! Actually I’m intending to reread That Hideous Strength soon, after a gap of nearly fifty years — astoundingly I still have my original copy from around then!

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  8. I’ll start working on my post next week, Chris, I promise! 😀

    I guess my journey through Narnia was a bit similar to yours, although started on a more positive note, because as a kid I was able to simply appreciate the fantastic portal world so skilfully brought to life by Lewis. It wasn’t Tolkien or Le Guin, but on the other hand, what is? 😉 And then I read Lewis’s The Discarded Image and started appreciating him much more. While I’m not fond of Father Christmas here, I am still quite impressed by Jadis who is a uniquely powerful female character created in the same time as timid Arwen and distant Galadriel 😉

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    1. I’ve not come across a copy of The Discarded Image to have an opinion on it but it now intrigues! Having just started on a reread of That Hideous Strength (almost exactly half a century after my first read if it) I think it may take me a while to assimilate what CSL was saying in that.

      Jadis is for me far and away the most fascinating character in LWW, a cross between Anderson’s Snow Queen and Circe in the Odyssey, but I suspect Lewis borrowed aspects of sinister females from The Fairie Queen (which he will have known inside out). Pullman is another author familiar with both Spenser’s and Lewis’s work, and however much he despised the Narniad I sense a bit of Jadis in Mrs Coulter, although she’s more subtly drawn than the White Witch. Note that both Jadis and Marissa Coulter try to win a child to their cause, respectively Edmund and Lyra, though both ultimately fail to turn them.

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      1. I can recommend it to you, then, Chris, it’s certainly worth a read.
        Jadis is by far the best female character in Narnia books, and one I love to hate. One of the main strengths of The Magician’s Nephew is her origin story. As for Pullman, I suspect he tries to distance himself from Lewis exactly because he uses many of the same themes and tropes and hates the fact that wasn’t the first to do it 😉

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        1. HDM was, I believe, meant to be Pullman’s conscious riposte to the Narniad and its unsubtle Christian analogies, so no surprises there! I’ll certainly look out for your recommendation. 🙂

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  9. Yes, I was surprised on my last re-read too to find that it isn’t quite as simply “Christian” as it sometimes has a reputation for – rather an Irish stew of mythologies in fact! Which made it far more palatable to my adult, more critical self than a straight allegory would have been, I think. And I do like the idea of bewitching people via sweet things – I’ve always lusted after sugar more than gold… 😉

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    1. “An Irish stew of mythologies” — hah! Doubtless a closet (pun intended) reference to Lewis’s Celtic roots in both Ulster and Wales… 😁 But thou speakst truth, methinks. I’m currently reading That Hideous Strength (1945) for Vintage SciFi Month and am interested to see some clear signs of Lewis’s apparent key-to-all-mythologies approach predating LWW. For example there’s a discussion of Jupiter and joviality thrown in apropos of nothing obvious which may’ve been a germ of his idea for LWW to represent Jovian jollity. But more on this later! 🙂

      Sugar, hmm. While I too have a bit of a sweet tooth I find that more than just a taste of something sweet these days makes me feel rotten. Age, I guess. And as for gold, I think that there are far too many people who hear about Croesus and go, Yeah, I’d like to be like him… without thinking about the consequences.

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  10. I think a lot of people have a problem with the book’s religious dimension. And a lot of people love it for precisely the same reason. But I wonder if the real issue is reader expectations? I’m thinking in terms of genre (and have said as much elsewhere) but imagine something akin to the Nancy Drew books, only this series is about a girl who keeps trying to solve mysteries and failing dismally. And in every book, her parents turn up at the last minute, identify and catch the bad guys, then get Nancy out of whatever scrape she’s in. Let’s also imagine – for the sake of argument – that these stories are all very well written, with a host of likeable and engaging characters and interesting locales. Wouldn’t they still be sort of unsatisfying?

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    1. I think I see what you’re getting at (but I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) — that were LWW and successive novels not well written their premise of an ‘adult’ coming in at the end to make things better for the child protagonist(s) fallen into a pickle would be as much a waste of one’s emotional or intellectual investment as a Nancy Drew mystery or an Enid Blyton adventure. The ride may be fun but the resolution is disappointing as the ‘cheat’ offered by a deus ex machina at the end of a Greek play.

      Though I think Lewis is more subtle than that — the children are usually shown to grow in some virtue or other — the outcome may be much the same in terms of some readers’ sense of betrayal.

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  11. Yeah, exactly! A child is supposed to overcome the challenges in a children’s book. In a fantasy, that means a chance to be a hero/heroine. But Aslan is the hero of LWW. The child who has the most influence on the story’s outcome is Edmund, and through an act of treachery rather than a feat of heroism. I actually like Lewis’s world-building – ie, how he appropriates a lot of different mythologies and somehow makes them all work together – but I also reckon we’re so beguiled by this as children we don’t realise the story’s shortcomings until much later (that LWW is basically the antithesis of what children’s fiction is meant to be about).

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