This is a talk I gave recently to my book group about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
I came to the CS Lewis children’s books only after I’d grown up and long after I’d read his adult books. I’d devoured Tolkien, but for some reason it had never occurred to me to place The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe into the same category as The Hobbit. (To tell the truth, I still think that Tolkien writes better prose)
Ten years ago I was asked to give a couple of lectures on Lewis’ children’s books, and the other day I pulled out my notes and looked them over…but you’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to use what I wrote then…which was largely on the lines of … how could a middle-aged bachelor professor write good books for children (later of course he married an American divorcee who brought her two boys into his family)…what were his influences…and why do children still like them?
I saw the film this last weekend. I saw the trailer earlier and was put off because it seemed to major in battle scenes and they turn me right off! But I did finally get there. I thought the scenery and action sequences stunning – even the battle ones. The special effects were marvellous, and so was Lucy, the youngest of the children. The animals and voices were wonderful. But, the casting let the whole thing down, which is a major tragedy, considering how much better it could have been. The three older children looked good but were poor actors, and Tilda Swanton as the White Witch wasn’t much better. Oh, and the extra bits of dialogue were nothing outstanding.
I understand that in the United States and in Britain, The Lion, The Witch has already taken more money at the box office than King Kong! Well, that’s good, isn’t it!
Did you know that there is a CSLewis tour that you can take in Oxford, going round the places he lived and taught at, and of course the pub where he first read The Lion, The Witch to the Inklings?
I re-read the book a month ago, and found that distance had leant enchantment in some ways, though in others I found the invention fresh and charming, though the language was a little dated, even condescending in some parts. The characterisation of the children is not as good as anything written by E Nesbitt, and the language got a bit too high-flown for me when the four became kings and queens in Narnia. Also the construction was a tad awkward.
But the imagery was brilliant and of course the books embody some great Christian teaching…although you will be surprised to hear that a great many people have read them – particularly The Lion, The Witch, – and had never realised that there was any Christian teaching there at all! Oh yes, and some pundits have pointed out that going through a barrier of fur coats into Narnia was the sexual equivalent of Lewis Carroll’s going down a rabbit hole into Wonderland…!
There were six children’s books about Narnia. Not all of them featured Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, who are the children in The Lion, The Witch…though all of them had similar characters. In particular, the flawed boy character Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, reappears later with a different name, also giving in to temptation.
The Lion, the Witch was the first to be written. Lewis was established as a great Christian writer for adults at the time. It is said that he was the most widely read man of his generation. He read everything; Greek and Roman literature, the Norse sagas, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s fables…all provided characters or precursors for Narnia…think of the centaurs, the quests, the talking animals, the ship’s odyssey.
Lewis was also influenced by previous generations of Christian story-tellers such as William Morris, while George MacDonald – who wrote The Princess & Curdie, etc – and Quiz – who wrote Giantland – would have been his childhood reading. These were great Christian writers who appealed to children although they didn’t always write directly for them. Lewis admired E Nesbitt enormously and learned something from her – though not perhaps quite enough to please me in some ways – and he also knew and valued the work of Andrew Lang who collected fairy stories and folk tales from around the world, and who wrote in beautifully simple prose.
For encouragement to write, Lewis was in a circle of erudite professors at Oxford who called themselves the Inklings, which included Tolkien among others. The Inklings used to meet and read out their work to one another and it was in fact another one of these – Charles Williams – who first wrote a story about a wonderful lion. Aslan, by the way, is Turkish for lion.
The Bible was Lewis’ greatest inspiration, and the mainspring of all his writings. I wasn’t surprised to find that he was one of the select band who helped to translate the psalms into modern English. His Christianity provides the themes, though not the plots for each of his books.
Tolkien and Lewis have both been charged with writing allegory and both denied it. But if you look at the timing, The Lion,The Witch was started early in the war, and abandoned for ten years as was the Lord of the Rings. The Lion, The Witch was first published first in l950, though Tolkien’s books came out a little earlier. You’ll see that though they may not consciously have sent out to write allegories, they were undoubtedly influenced by the war, in that they both produced classics showing good and evil fighting in a land where magic or miracles interfere with the natural order.
To take an even closer parallel, they both wrote about disadvantaged small people (hobbits or children) overcoming a vast evil. This is the number one successful plot for writers, though there are others, such as rags to riches, quest, achievement, moral choices. It is said that of the seven or eight basic plots, Tolkien included six or seven in Lord of the Rings, which is allegedly one reason why it is eternally popular.
Both Tolkien and Lewis achieve their ends by concentrating on quests, though they include other themes along the way. By the way, by the time these two became published children’s writers, their long friendship was under severe stress for reasons partly to do with university politics, partly because Tolkien objected to the scrappily put together plot of The Lion, the Witch, and partly because they didn’t follow precisely the same path in their private religious lives. By l949 and before The Lion, The Witch was published, the Inklings were pretty well defunct.
There were two other links between them. The first was the artist Pauline Baynes who did some good work for Tolkien on an early book of his – Farmer Giles of Ham – although of course he went on to illustrate all his own books. Pauline Baynes illustrated all Lewis’ books. In fact a recent edition I’ve seen is still using her work.
The other link – in a way – is that both delivered the Andrew Lang Lecture, speaking on fairy stories, fantasy etc. Tolkien’s version was printed in Tree and Leaf, which is partly his lecture and partly an apologia for artists whose work disappears in time. Lewis’ lecture on fairy stories we’ll deal with later.
The immediate trigger for Lewis in writing this book was supposed to be the invasion of his quiet life by evacuees from London but he later wrote a rationale of how he came to write The Lion, The Witch in l966, in ‘Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories’.
‘In the author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. You then have to marry this with a suitable ‘form’, verse or prose, short story, novel, play or whatever. When these two things click you have the author’s impulse complete. Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.
‘Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord…
‘After the pictures, came the Form. As these images sorted themselves into events (ie., became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the fairy tale. And the moment I thought of that, I fell in love with the Form itself; its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.
‘I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.’
Again, in a lecture On Three Ways of Writing for Children in l952, he said, ‘I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. Also, where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story, or re-read it, at any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think that I have enjoyed them any the less on that account.’
Well, actually, I do think that he talked down to the reader a bit in The Lion, The Witch, particularly with regard to the admonition to children not to shut yourself into a cupboard, but at the time I imagine it was thought correct.
I’ll deal with the strengths and weaknesses of this particular story in a minute, but first I want to give a look at the other books in the series, because they form a coherent whole. They were published one a year from l950 – 56, but they were not necessarily written in that order. In fact, most people hear about The Lion, The Witch and read it first, and go on to the others later. Dealing with them in chronological order, Lewis later prescribed them to be read as follows:
THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW
THE LION, THE WITCH
THE HORSE AND HIS BOY
THE SILVER CHAIR
THE LAST BATTLE
The stories have many features in common – such as battles, fights between good and evil, quests. Queen Jadis in earlier stories transforms into a magical serpent figure later on. The enemy in the later books is not one person, but a ‘foreign’ people, the Calormenes. Only in The Last Battle, do we meet a Satan figure.
Very quickly, I’ll summarise the plots: The first one, The Magician’s Nephew, was actually written last – a prequel – if you like. The two children, Polly and Digory, are tricked by his uncle into putting on magic rings which take them to a dreadful, dying world called Charn. By mistake they revive Jadis, the last Queen of Charn, who goes with them to a new world being sung into life by a great lion. (So this is about Creation). The children are sent to fetch an apple from a tree in a garden. Jadis tempts Digory to eat the apple, but he resists. (The Garden of Eden, the Temptation). Aslan gives him an apple, which cures Digory’s sick mother when he gets back home and from that apple seed grows a tree which is used eventually to make the wardrobe the children go through in The Lion, The Witch. And the boy Digory becomes the Professor in The Lion, The Witch.
There are certain characters in this book which are inspired by E Nesbitt’s The Phoenix and the Carpet; in particular, the cabbie and his wife who become king and queen of a desert island. It has some lovely writing in it, particularly as Aslan sings the new world into existence, but although the plotting is better than the Lion, The Witch, the book has never created such a devoted following. The reason: in my opinion, we can identify better with a flawed hero or heroine rather than those who simply overcome obstacles.
Then comes The Lion, the Witch – which I’m sure you all know well. Lewis says that he’d had the pictures of the faun, the queen on a sledge and a magnificent lion in his head since he was sixteen.
The four children are staying with an old professor in the country. Lucy, the youngest, discovers she can get through the back of a large wardrobe into a strange land called Narnia where it is always winter, but never Christmas. She meets Mr Tumnus, the faun, who tells her the land is in thrall to the wicked White Witch, but that a legend says one day her power will be broken when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four vacant thrones of Cair Paravel.
The faun is the first mental picture that Lewis had, and he describes it like this: ‘As Lucy stood looking at the lamp-post, wondering why it was there in the middle of a wood, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post.
‘He was only a little taller than Lucy herself and he carried over his head an umbrella, white with snow. From the waist upwards he was like a man, but his legs were shaped like a goat’s (the hair on them was glossy black) and instead of feet he had goat’s hoofs…He had a strange, but pleasant little face, with a short pointed beard and curly hair, and out of the hair there stuck two horns, one on each side of his forehead. One of his hands held the umbrella; in the other arm he carried several brown-paper parcels. He was a faun. And when he saw Lucy he gave such a start of surprise that he dropped all his parcels. ‘Goodness gracious me!’ exclaimed the faun.’
No one at home believes that Lucy has been to Narnia, until Edmund – who is a toad of the first water – follows Lucy through the wardrobe and becomes enslaved by the White Queen due to eating magic Turkish Delight – which, like a drug, enslaves him but never satisfies.
She is described as follows: ‘In the middle of the sledge sat a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white – not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.’
Due to his greed and envy, Edmund betrays his siblings to her, but in the end all except Edmund escape with the help of a friendly Beaver family and meet…Father Christmas!
I don’t know what you feel about this, but I’m inclined to think that Tolkien was right in objecting to the intrusion of Father Christmas into this story, even when you consider his origins as Bishop Nicholas and Good King Wenceslaus rolled into one.
Others of the Inklings also urged Lewis to omit the incident, but most of them – except for Tolkien – later went on record to say that ‘the rightness of introducing him seems more certain on each re-reading.’
The argument for his inclusion goes like this: Christmas time marks the sign of the winter solstice, the cracking of the hard shell of winter. For another, Father Christmas is the means of presenting the children with valuable gifts – which the children need to defeat the witch, and which are used several times in later books as well. (And how else could they have received these gifts? His fans ask. Well, it wouldn’t be beyond the writer’s powers of invention to find another way)
To me, the plotting seems….insecure. Surely it should be left to the appearance of Aslan to have the thaw begin? Or is Father Christmas meant to be a harbinger of Christ, a sort of John the Baptist figure? I can’t work it out.
It seems to me as if Lewis started well, using his mental pictures of the faun and the Queen on her sledge, and then wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen next,.and at this point relied on ‘well, let’s see what the subconscious turns up’, rather than on careful plotting.
To a certain extent he’s admitted this himself, saying that when Aslan came in, ‘the whole direction of the book changed…and in bringing in this Christ-like figure, he brought about the whole series, and not just the one book he’d thought of at first.’
The next bit also seems a bit odd; Aslan shows Peter the castle of Cair Paravel and tells him ‘you are the first-born and you will be High King over the rest.’ (Is this meant to shadow Simon Peter’s appointment as head of the Church? Is that why Lewis called the elder boy ‘Peter’?) I worry a little that this introduction of the castle doesn’t actually advance the story, in fact it holds it up. On the other hand, it does foretell what will happen later.
There is a confrontation between Aslan and the Queen, Edmund is rescued and forgiven by Aslan, who suffers torture and death in his place. This heart-rending scene takes place on the Stone Table (which Lewis confirmed was a reference to Moses’ Stone Tablets). Here is the parallel to the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The two girls watch and weep (shades of the Garden of Gethsemane and the waiting at the foot of the cross).
In the morning Aslan rises from death, and takes the girls on a wild gallop through Narnia, when Spring turns to high summer. Aslan restores the witch’s prisoners to life, and in the ensuing battle the Queen and her followers are defeated. The four children take their places on the thrones of Cair Paravel…only, years later, to return through the wardrobe to their previous existence, as if no time at all had passed.
In my humble opinion, the storyteller in Lewis did make a mistake with the introduction of Father Christmas (although every now and then I think it’s OK), but from the moment that Aslan enters, there is no drawing breath…the action comes at you pell-mell, right to the end. It doesn’t have the terrible inevitability of the long trek we meet in the Lord of the Rings, but it was never conceived on such a grand scale, and apart from Edmund and plucky little Lucy, we don’t really identify with the characters.
But the mental pictures that we’re left with, the layers of meaning, the sheer fantastical adventure, make it a classic.
Chronologically next comes The Horse and His Boy – not the Boy and his Horse, you notice. This should be read next because the events of this story occur while the four children are occupying the thrones at Cair Paravel. Here you have a boy and a girl (who are not any of the four children we’ve met so far – and please note that Lewis hedges his bets by having a boy and a girl in each of this books; boys will only read about boys though girls will read about girls and boys)
In this book the hero and heroine set out to foil a plot by the dastardly Calormenes (the new baddies). It shows the two children – and the proud horse – being readied for the future through trial and tribulation. Aslan here appears in many disguises – sometimes seeming to be friendly and at other times terrifying – steering the children through the desert, the fatigue, the fear, to save Narnia from being over-run by evil men.
Now in this book there’s a plot point which you may think over-fantastical – that of heirs to great fortune or a kingdom being exchanged or lost as babies. Surely that’s ridiculous? Well…no, actually there are records in Victorian times of lawsuits when babies were switched, kidnapped and never returned, twins were separated, etc. Really and truly, I’m not joking!
The next story is Prince Caspian, which draws the children into a picture of a ship on a wall – rather a good idea, I thought. This concerned a prophet or seer – the fact that this prophet or seer is a young girl makes no difference. In actual fact, it is Lucy, the youngest of the four from The Lion, The Witch, who has the vision, and the others who do or do not follow it. Again, I found the construction a tad awkward; Lewis switched the action from the children to Prince Caspian and back again, and back again to the children…Eeek! , but there are parts that I found enchanting. Only, here we can see Tolkien’s eyebrows rising again, Lewis introduces Bacchus, Silenus, river-gods and the spirits of the trees – shades of the Ents.
I’ve been pondering about this point; JK Rowling and Tolkien himself also introduce un-human species into their plots, so why object to it in Lewis? The conclusion that I came to was that Bacchus was a god according to the ancient stories. (And Silenus? Wasn’t he a drunken god? I’m not sure exactly who he was.) Is it perhaps a question of scale? A centaur or a unicorn is acceptable but a pagan god is not?
One of the plus factors in Prince Caspian is a talking mouse, Reepicheep, who reappears in another book.
Then you’ve got the Voyage of the Dawn Treader – which is many people’s favourite story because Lewis resurrects the faulty character of Edmund from the first books, and turns him into Eustace, who is just as horrid a small boy if not more so, but does get a lovely come-uppance when he’s turned into a dragon. Eventually rescued by Aslan, who asks him to take off his skin…and it does hurt! Good. So this is about redemption. Oh, and more temptations. Lucy is by now turning into the star of the series.
My favourite is The Silver Chair. This is a variant on two well-known folk tales; the Greek myth in which Psyche’s lover is only human at night, and the enchantment laid upon a man by a beautiful witch, who can make you believe there is no God, no sunlight, no hope.
We have a new heroine; Jill, who is at an advanced and unpleasant school with Eustace (from the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, turned into a dragon, right?) They get whipped off to Narnia to fulfil a task and Jill is given three signs by Aslan, which she messes up. You see now why Jill has been substituted for Lucy: Lucy wouldn’t have messed up, and therefore we’d probably fail to identify with the heroine. We have another new character here, who really works, perhaps because he was based on Lewis’ own garden, Paxford. He’s called Puddleglum and he’s great. Mournful, always looking on the black side of things yet holding fast to what he believes.
The children go underground – cue the mines in George Macdonald’s Princess & Curdie, and the Underground City in Giantland where the hero Tim Pippin takes his unicorn. The two children and Puddleglum eventually free the captive prince, but nearly lose all to the enchantments of the terrible witch-lady.
The Last Battle; the title says it all, really. It’s Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth all rolled into one gloomy picture. It’s a complicated plot about a false God, and a Satanic figure who takes over, about terrible betrayals and battles. It brings back most of the previous heroes and heroines, though not all. Also twelve captive dwarves – though only one can see the truth. (ref. The healing of the lepers, only one of whom turns back to thank Jesus for healing him) Then there’s those who can only see a stable, and others see a brave new world. Some believe and some don’t. Some are saved to enter the new Narnia, and some aren’t. It is The Last Judgment, in Christian terms.
Lewis sums up like this: ‘And now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever.’
In the end I have to ask myself some questions about The Lion, The Witch. There are faults in this book, but do they outweigh the good points? Am I nitpicking when I worry about this and that? Isn’t the sheer inventiveness of the story a delight – just as the wordiness of the later Harry Potters worries me, while the invention continues to enchant?
Well, I still think the construction of The Lion, the Witch is not without its problems. I don’t think much of his characterisation, and some of the high-flown language we get when the children are sitting on the thrones of Cair Paravel, makes me shudder. That said, comparisons are odious. I don’t prefer The Lion, the Witch to The Hobbit, for instance, because you can’t compare the intentions of the two writers. Tolkien’s plot is better, his characterisation and dialogue are better, but he lacks those sky-rocket, Catherine-wheel, magical-in-the-right-sense surprise packages that come up in Lewis. And that’s not even taking the Christian angle into account.
I am told that after the success, money-wise, of The Lion, The Witch, another of the series is now being filmed…and maybe we could take bets on how many will be managed before the producers think of something else to do with their money. I thought they’d continue using the girl who plays Lucy, and in fact they’ve decided to do Prince Caspian, because they say it is the sequel to The Lion, The Witch, although really A Horse and his Boy is chronologically next. Of course, Prince Caspian does have the same four children in it. I look forward to that with interest.
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