The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Messy, Beautiful Worldbuilding of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

It all started, we’re told, with a picture of a faun, walking through a snowy wood and carrying some parcels and an umbrella. The image had come to C.S. Lewis when he was 16 years old, and many years later it became the seed of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—which, incidentally, celebrates its anniversary today, having been published on October 16, 1950.

It’s a strange scene, symbolic of the wonderful mythological hodgepodge that passes for Narnia’s worldbuilding. In most myths up until that point, fauns weren’t particularly child-friendly, known mostly as symbols of fertility or followers of the wise drunkard Silenus. We definitely wouldn’t expect them to be trotting along with an umbrella and parcels (we’re never told what’s in those parcels or where they came from). Mr. Tumnus (that’s the polite little faun’s name) also has a long tail which he drapes over his arm…an odd detail for someone who is half goat.

Lewis’s disregard for cohesive worldbuilding was cause for critique among a number of his friends. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t appreciate the mythological jumble. Poet Ruth Pitter complained that if it’s always winter in Narnia, the Beaver family shouldn’t be able to grow potatoes or serve fresh marmalade rolls. In fact, Lewis burned an earlier draft of something similar to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because, “It was, by the unanimous verdict of my friends, so bad that I destroyed it.”

But he kept coming back to that civilized little faun. After the critical savaging of the original draft, Lewis didn’t show The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to many people, and he didn’t read it to his band of literary friends, the Inklings. He read it to Tolkien, who categorically disliked it specifically (again) because of the jumble. Lewis objected that all these characters interacted perfectly well in our minds, and Tolkien said, “Not in mine, or at least not at the same time.” If he hadn’t received some encouragement from an old pupil he trusted, Roger Green, Lewis said he might not have finished the book at all.

It’s not at all astonishing that people might object to Lewis’s crazy mix of mythological traditions. There are Greek and Roman gods (in a later book the Pevensie children even attend a Bacchanalia, which seems, well, ill-advised in a children’s book), Norse giants and dwarves, a lion named Aslan who suggests he just might be Jesus Christ, and of course our good friend Father Christmas. When we start pushing out beyond the mythological we pull in other influences, as well: Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which Lewis heard bits of long before anyone else, certainly flavors things here and there. Charles Williams’s neo-Platonic 1931 fantasy novel In the Place of the Lion almost certainly influenced the arrival of Aslan. And of course E. Nesbit—whose fantastic children’s stories Lewis enjoyed—wrote a short story called “The Aunt and Amabel” in which Amabel discovers a magical wardrobe that transports people to another world (and this wardrobe is, like Lewis’s, situated in the spare room).

Further details are taken straight from his life, of course, whether it’s the children being sent to stay with the old professor during the war (Lewis hosted several at that time), or even everyone’s favorite Pevensie child being named Lucy (after his godchild Lucy Barfield, daughter of poet and Inkling Owen Barfield).

I didn’t notice any of this as a kid. It didn’t bother me that everyone keeps calling the humans “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” or that most of the animals could talk, or that Santa showed up in the same story as a white stag who can grant wishes and an ice queen and a dwarf who seem straight out of some sort of Norse mythology. And why would I? I was a kid. Which is to say that the mixed up worldbuilding of Lewis, which is seen as a great failure by some adults, is largely invisible to many children.

As a kid I’d mix my Star Wars and G.I. Joe and Transformer action figures into grand, sweeping adventures (and one Tron action figure, plus a knock-off Planet of the Apes ape astronaut). Depending on which friends were around, we might throw in some He-Man or little green plastic army guys, or Barbie dolls (at my godsister’s house, Barbie had been dating Spider-Man for quite a while). I wasn’t worried about their IP getting mixed up or whether Cobra Commander and Darth Vader could really get along long enough to plan something truly evil. I just wanted the story to be fun.

It seems to me that the confused mythology of Narnia is a feature, not a bug. Lewis is pulling in anything and everything that has meaning to him and patching it all together into some new myth. He and Tolkien were both interested in creating a new mythic story—it’s just that Tolkien was weaving his mythology from whole cloth, and Lewis was putting together a quilt, taking snatches of this or that mythology to make something that resonated with him as both new and true.

So, yes, he cuts out the sex from the fauns and the Bacchanalia, because that’s not the element of their mythology that he finds of interest. He tweaks Father Christmas so that he becomes a figure on par with the minor gods of Narnia. He ignores inconvenient plot points like the fact that food might be pretty hard to get in a country where it has been winter for years and years. He’s doing all this to move us toward the parts of the story that he finds most compelling: there is a broken world full of winter and traitors and evil creatures, but spring is coming…and we can be part of that heroic progression.

The underlying cohesion of Lewis’s world-building isn’t, like many of us might prefer, a watertight world with a central logic to it. That kind of world is for adults. Lewis’s world is a child’s world, where myths mix and overlap, where what is true and what is magical might be the same thing, where there is uncertainty when your sister says, “I found a fantasy world hidden in the furniture.”

In his essay “Myth Made Fact” Lewis explains the underlying rationale for why he would mash together any myth or symbol that rang true to him. He wrote, “… myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.” Myth transcends thought, and Lewis believed that what resonated in, as he would say, “Pagan myth” was reality itself. Truth could be found in it, but to read a myth searching for truth would cause you to miss the point because you would lean into abstractions. One must experience the myth as story to have a concrete experience of the reality it represents.

Lewis’s criteria of mythical inclusion boiled down to whether this or that myth gave him an insight, an experience of the deep truths which are the foundation of the world. He expected that if a myth was true, one would expect to see echoes and parallels of it in other myths as well. In fact, he was skeptical of theological constructs which didn’t have mythical parallels.

I love the strange world of Narnia, with its mishmash of gods and myths. I loved the moment of walking into the wardrobe to discover another world, the friendly faun, the snow queen and her dwarf servant, and yes, the talking animals like the Beaver family. But then, I first read it as a child, without much thought and certainly not with a critical eye. I was enveloped in the story, not looking for underlying meaning. And I think that’s the way Lewis wanted us to read it: as story first. It’s a specific kind of reading that must come when one is young, or when one has been able to move past the need for critical engagement with the text. As Lewis says in the dedication to Lucy Barfield, “One day you would be old enough to start reading fairytales again.”

In our next installment we’ll take a look at the great lion Aslan (who, by the way, isn’t even mentioned in this novel until a full third of the way through), who the author assures us is Definitely Not an Allegory. Until then keep an eye out because, as the Beaver family tells us, Aslan is on the move!

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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