The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis opens with one of the most magical sequences in children’s literature, as a child opens a very ordinary door to find herself stumbling into magic. It is a tale of children sent away from war only to find themselves in the middle of a very real and unreal one; a tale of how trying to escape danger may put you into worse danger, human or witch; a hodgepodge of fairy tale, Roman myth, Norse tales, Christian theology, talking animals, Father Christmas and an inexplicable lamp post that has somehow been burning with no source of electricity, gas or other fuel for centuries. It absolutely should not work on any level. And yet it does.
Its author, C. S. Lewis, was an Oxford don, influential literary critic and Christian writer. His (allegedly) non traditional relationship with a Mrs. Moore while at Oxford has led to all kinds of prim yet entertaining speculation (neither participant chose to leave a written or oral record of their relationship). I mention this partly for the gossipy thrill, but mostly because the Narnia books are frequently critiqued for their interesting and sometimes contradictory gender statements. While writing the Narnia books, Lewis met the woman he would marry, quite happily: the American writer Joy Grisham, which perhaps explains some of those contradictions. (A few movies have been made about this.)
Lewis is also, of course, renowned for his long standing friendship with fellow Oxford don and writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s success with The Hobbit probably helped inspire Lewis to write the Narnia series; certainly, the two writers had challenged each other to write “time travel” and “space travel” stories, and Lewis was one of the few trusted to read and comment on The Lord of the Rings in manuscript form. The Narnia books were to damage their friendship, but traces of this relationship can still be seen in some of them, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe tells a deceptively simple tale: a young girl stumbles into a magical wood through a wardrobe, and later brings her siblings through that same doorway, where they are completely unaccountably hailed as magical saviors and after an improbable and rather ridiculous battle crowned kings and queens of Narnia, grow into wise and gracious adults, and then stumble back through the doorway, children again. As I say, deceptively simple: much more is going on here.
And I’m not just talking about the Christian overlay to the book, a concept which seems all the more strange in a book containing some very pagan elements indeed. Equally strong is the background of war, violence and despair. Unlike many children’s fantasies, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is set firmly in a very historical period: World War II. This allows Lewis to have a good reason for sending four children to a mysterious country house where these sorts of things might happen (in an intriguing aside, Lewis tells us that some of the stories associated with this house are even stranger than this one, making me wish that Lewis had taken the time to tell us those tales as well). But it also allows Lewis to draw parallels between his imaginary war and the real one; to give readers the hope that, as in Narnia, a glorious prosperous time would be coming, if not quite as quickly as many in England would have liked.
Rereading it, I noticed several things. One, Narnia, at least the country, if not the world it is set in, is small. Very small. Everyone seems to be able to walk from one end to the other in a day or so. Assuming an average walking speed of about three miles/five kilometers per hour, and making an overly generous assumption that everyone is walking for about 16 hours when not opening Christmas presents, that’s about 39 miles, or 80 kilometers. Maybe. They don’t seem to be walking that fast, unless they are riding on the back of a lion. Which makes the complete amnesia about the lamp post towards the end of the book all the more inexplicable: surely, in a country so small, they would have stumbled across the lamp post before this? Magic, I guess.
That’s not the only inconsistency in a book that suffers from the occasional signs of fast writing. If the witch on page 29 of my edition knows nothing about the wardrobe, how exactly does she know by page 35 how to get back there? If no one in Narnia has ever seen a human, who exactly are all of those kings and princes vying for Susan’s hand at the end of the book? (Lewis never did address this point, and the later books are filled with other humans.) Not to mention the decidedly odd celebration of Christmas in the same book featuring a number of merrily pagan fauns, a centaur or two, and the Crucifixion… er, that is, Aslan’s sacrifice.
But a larger problem is something that Lewis does not address here (although, to their credit, the film adaptations do). How do you handle returning to childhood after years as an adult? And what sort of an adulthood was this, one where we are told that Susan was courted, that Edmund became the Narnian equivalent of an attorney, that Peter continued to fight wars, that Lucy was, well, Lucy. The children never really forget being adults, we’re told, which brings up another issue: how do you handle being under the control and orders of adults again when you have been the one accustomed to rule?
A second problem: severe overreactions. Yes, Edmund’s spiteful behavior to his younger sister, and later deserting his siblings to go tell a witch where they can be located, is pretty bad (although I find his musings on just what sort of king he intends to be, right down to the private cinema, highly amusing). But, and this is key: for much of this, he’s under an enchantment. We can argue that he perhaps fell too easily under this enchantment, and possibly should have been more suspicious of a beautiful lady in a sleigh offering hot drinks and Turkish Delight, but the majority of the terrible things he does, including the actual treachery, in strict contrast to the actions of characters in later books, are done when he is at least partly under the control of an evil witch.
Considering that, calling him a traitor and demanding his blood, or Aslan’s, seems a bit much. This remained a problem throughout the series, where genuinely terrible (however temporary) punishments occur for seemingly minor or forgivable infractions.
This sort of thing happens in real life as well, of course, and Lewis had just lived through World War II, one of the most hideous historical examples of what can happen to people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. What Lewis offers in answer to this (a theme repeated in The Horse and His Boy) is his belief that these horrific examples of injustice somehow fit into a divine plan. Yes, Aslan’s death is, well, quite literally overkill, but without that death Narnia could not have been saved. Which means, I suppose, that all of Edmund’s greed for Turkish Delight was also part of Narnia’s salvation.
Of course, in some ways, aside from getting horrifically cold and wet and hungry, Edmund never gets really punished at all. (And we never learn if his sisters told him about what Aslan did on his behalf, although I like to think that Lucy did.) This, too, will be repeated later: punishments are both too much, and too little, for what actually happens.
On that subject, I’m going to be discussing what Neil Gaiman correctly calls “The Problem of Susan” in later posts, but for now, what strikes me as how little Susan fits in, even here. When she hears Aslan’s name, she feels that something wonderful has passed her by; that same mention fills Peter with bravery, Lucy with wonder, and Edmund with dread. She gets a blister on her heel as everyone else is enjoying the trip, and so on. And, in a perhaps presentiment moment, if she is the least enthusiastic about Narnia to begin with, she is also the only one to protest leaving it, to argue that they should not go past that lamp post.
Other quibbles. I don’t like that we don’t get to hear any of Aslan’s speech to Edmund (my guess is, Lewis tried but failed to write a convincing dialogue sequence here), particularly given that we will get his speeches to Lucy and Shasta later. And I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of hordes of animals shivering in the cold waiting hopefully for humans to come and rescue them; it seems to me that in general, humans have done the exact opposite with most animals, when not domesticating them. And Father Christmas’s little speech about how “battles are ugly when women fight” has always set my teeth on edge. Wars are ugly, regardless, and Lewis, having lived through two particularly horrific ones, knew this as well as any, and it sets up a gender distinction I’m not overly happy with. (Lucy does eventually go to war anyway in a later book, only without cool magical weapons, making this speech all the more annoying.)
The book’s dedication, to another Lucy, has also always bugged me: Lewis firmly tells her that she is now too old for fairy tales, but later she will be able to read them again. I’ll be taking that idea up again in later posts, because it’s one that Lewis both seems to agree and yet disagree with as he wrote the series.
I’ve avoided discussing too much of the Christian qualities in this book, partly because I’ll be addressing them later. For now, I’ll just note that as a child reader, I thought it was awesomely cool that Narnia just happened to have a resurrection story as well, and although I certainly recognized the similarities, this did not hamper my enjoyment of this book. And it still doesn’t, however much I am now amused at the image of devoutly pagan creatures merrily supporting a Christ-like figure. Aslan’s sacrifice puts a personal, sad touch on the resurrection tale, and if I found his death deeply unfair, I at least was happy to see him return. (Mostly because of the unfairness. As a character I must admit Aslan is a bit dull.)
For all of this, this is a highly magical, wondrous work, filled with humor, good food, and a sense of fun, with the nice conceit that time moves at different rates in magical worlds, and vibrant characters sketched with just a few quick sentences. If my adult self questions just what a sewing machine is doing in a beaver dam in a preindustrial society, I can readily understand just why Mrs. Beaver, of everyone in Narnia, would have one. (And I was delighted that she had the sense to bring along food.) Lewis is quite good at creating a sense of place, of explaining how it might actually feel to be in an imaginary country. If I now find his attempts to explain the process of imagination rather intrusive, when I first read the book, I shut my eyes, and followed his instructions, and realized I could indeed imagine what it would be like to ride on the back of an imaginary lion. It’s a fast read, quite good either for those cold winter nights when you are convinced winter will never ever go away or for those short summer nights when you are equally convinced that the heat will never ever end.
Small sidenote: After reading this book, I spent years looking for Turkish Delight. Italy had none, and the U.S. was not much better until I stumbled across it in a Florida mall years later. I couldn’t resist. But oh, it’s awful. Talk about unmagical disappointments.
This article was originally published in January 2011 to kick off a Narnia Reread.
Mari Ness previously channeled some Narnian thoughts here, in a slightly less respectful manner. She currently lives in central Florida, and although it would have been only appropriate for her to nibble on Turkish Delight while composing this post, she declined.