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.
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.
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.
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).