The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Matrons, Monsters, Children: Femininity in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

We might as well get this out of the way: C.S. Lewis would hate this article. No doubt he would have many entertaining quips and responses that would have the crowd roaring in approval at my folly. He’d ask us to focus on the story and not get sidelined by critical analysis (thereby missing the true meaning of the novel). But part of what I’m hoping for in this series is to dive into some of my own experience as a reader, as someone who grew up reading and loving Lewis, and who is now reading those same beloved books as an adult.

And the fact is, as an adult, I can’t help but notice that there is only one adult human woman who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Others are mentioned (Ivy, Margaret, and Betty, who are only referred to as “the servants” who “do not come into the story much” and are never mentioned again). One character who appears to be a woman is not even human (we’ll get to that). The only adult female in the entire book who has any sort of positive character is a beaver. Lewis appears not to know how to deal with adult human females. In this novel, female characters fall into one of three categories: matrons, monsters, or children.

A few notes before we begin:

  • Yes, Lewis is a product of his own culture and time, and so is this novel. However, we are reading it today, not in 1950, and it is a legitimate exercise for us to critique and explore his thoughts about femininity from our own viewpoint.
  • Like all of us, Lewis’s thoughts and opinions were not static. As we look at his novels, we’ll see a shift in the way he thinks about and treats female characters over the years.
  • Since this is a personal exploration, it’s only fair to reveal my personal point of view. I am both a devout Christian (and gladly affirm the orthodox creeds of the faith, just as Lewis did), and a staunch feminist (I’m an advocate for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men). Both of these things no doubt color my reading.

 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at these three general categories and how the female characters of Lewis’s novel fit in.

 

MATRONS

Mrs. Macready is our only “true woman” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She’s a solid, no-nonsense housekeeper who “was not fond of children” and doesn’t say much to the kids other than “keep out of the way.” The kids call her “The Macready” and do their best to hide from her…in fact, they jump into the wardrobe trying to avoid her. She’s a minor antagonist, and all we know about her is that she is married, she works for the professor, she dislikes children, and children don’t much like her, either. I’ll point out again: this is the only human woman who has a speaking role in this book.

The Pevensies’ mother is mentioned, but only in the sense that she is absent (plus occasional statements about Susan acting like her). Likewise, there are multiple mentions of mother Eve—the mother of all humanity—and we see that female children are referred to as “Daughters of Eve” while the males are “Sons of Adam.” She (and, to be fair, this applies to Adam as well) is known only as a progenitor of the human race. Both Eve and Mrs. Pevensie exist in the text as absent mother and nothing else.

Then we have dear Mrs. Beaver. We first meet her as she sits sewing in the corner of the beaver lodge. She already has food for the children cooking on the stove. She takes on all the stereotypical behavior of a generic 1950s housewife. Mr. Beaver and Peter set out to get some fish, and “[m]eanwhile the girls were helping Mrs. Beaver to fill the kettle and lay the table and cut the bread and put the plates in the oven to heat and draw a huge jug of beer for Mr. Beaver from a barrel which stood in one corner of the house and to put on the frying pan and get the dripping hot.” (What was Edmund doing this whole time? Lewis doesn’t tell us. Peter is in charge of getting fish, the girls drain the potatoes and set the table. I guess Edmund sits around and tries to remain masculine.)

Mrs. Beaver doesn’t do much of the explaining about Aslan that comes in chapter 8. She says it will be hard to save Tumnus from the White Witch, and she says that anyone who can face Aslan “without their knees knocking” is either “braver than most” or silly. She does offer an interjection about the White Witch, reinforcing that she’s “bad all through”—but overall Mr. Beaver does the talking. Oh yes, and she points out when Mr. Beaver is painting with too broad a brush when it comes to dwarves (She’s known some good ones, she says, and he agrees he has, too).

Overall, Mrs. Beaver is a solid, dependable, practical person. She points out that they need to leave the house if Edmund has gone to the Witch. She makes everyone pack up food and supplies instead of panicking, and when she asks if she can bring her sewing machine it seems to be a wistful half-joke. She already knows it’s too heavy. Overall, she’s a female who gets full approval in the narrative: kind-hearted, a hard worker who cooks and sews for her husband and their guests; a practical thinker who corrects her husband or gives him advice in a self-assured way that never belittles him, and she lets him do most of the talking when it comes to telling the kids about Aslan, Narnia, and the white witch.

When Father Christmas comes, he gives Mrs. Beaver a new sewing machine and her husband gets his dam all fixed up and a new sluice gate (because in the Narnian beaver-world, the men-folk are in charge of fishing and building things while the ladies are inside cooking and sewing… though it’s unclear what, exactly, requires so much needlework). Our final view of Mrs. Beaver specifically occurs in the last pages of the book, while she tends to the gravely wounded Edmund.

Notice that Mr. and Mrs. Beaver don’t have kits—no baby beavers running around. They aren’t taking on special roles because of the needs of their offspring, they are taking them on because of their gender. Males build and fish, females cook and sew (Mr. Beaver does all the “natural” beaver work and Mrs. Beaver performs the “human” tasks of unnecessary housework). Yes, I know this is a fantasy, but Earth beavers work together to build dams, fish, and raise their kits. Narnian beaver gender roles are a complete invention of Lewis’s, and one of the clearer examples of Lewis’s own gender role expectations.

 

MONSTERS

In Narnia, human beings are “the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve.” Proper respect should be given to the parents of humanity—Mr. Beaver bows once when mentioning Adam’s name. But Jadis, the Queen of Narnia, the White Witch, is neither a daughter of Eve nor a child of Adam. Her mother is Lilith, Adam’s first wife(!), and her father was a giant (much like Loki).

Before we dive into Jadis, let’s talk a little bit about her mom. There are a lot of different myths, commentaries, and stories about Lilith, and they vary pretty widely. It’s all guesswork as to which parts of the Lilith story Lewis found most compelling, though it’s interesting to note that one of the oldest references we have to her is from the seventh century BCE, on a tablet we found in a place with a name of particular interest for us as friends of Narnia… Arslan Tash (which translates as “Stone Lion”).

Lilith was Adam’s first wife. She was cast out of Eden for refusing to submit to Adam (more on this in a moment…the story is even worse than it sounds). Once out of the garden she became the mother of monsters and evil spirits (Jinn in Muslim and Arabic traditions, demons and unclean spirits in Judaism). She was also responsible for stillborn births, sudden deaths of infants, and men were warned not to sleep in a house alone because if you had a wet dream she would come take your sperm and use it to birth hundreds of demons. No, really.

Lilith’s origins are complicated (there are linguistic origins and Jewish midrash that eventually became conflated) and she doesn’t appear in the Bible or any text that Jewish or Christian adherents consider scripture. Here’s the short version of where she comes from: Jewish theologians were trying to explain some conflicting details in Genesis 1 and 2. The key one being that in Genesis 1:26-27 God appears to make man and woman at the same time and in the same way, and in Genesis 2:20-22 he makes the man out of clay and then later makes a woman out of Adam’s rib when “no suitable helper was found for him.” So one theory was, well, there’s a different woman in chapter 1, and Eve is Adam’s second wife.

A key telling of the Lilith story (and one I believe Lewis references in the ultimate battle between Aslan and Jadis in a very strange way) is in the Alphabet of ben Sira, a medieval collection of proverbs, fables, and legends. In one (possibly satirical) tale, Adam and Lilith get in a fight over who should be on top when they are having sex. Adam says he should, because he’s superior. Lilith says, “The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.” Then Lilith runs (well, she flies) away and never returns. So then God makes Eve and we pick up with the good wife who does what she is told and lies underneath for sex and okay maybe she has a weakness for exotic fruit but still Adam really likes the new wife best. The important point is this: Lilith, mother of monsters, liked to be on top and didn’t submit to Adam’s authority.

Which, more or less, describes the monstrous Jadis as well. She may look like a woman, but she has taken on decidedly masculine qualities in Lewis’s gender economy: she is strong, taller than a normal human, warlike, and (literally) cold. Her main servant is a male dwarf, a masculine creature with a giant beard, who is shrunken in her presence. She is inhuman.

Mr. Beaver tells us that Jadis doesn’t “have a drop of human blood in her” since she’s a child of Lilith (who ceased to be human once she disobeyed her husband and now can only give birth to evil creatures) and a giant. Mr. Beaver says that humans can go one way or another; if you meet something “that’s going to be Human and isn’t yet” or used to be human or should be human but isn’t then you should “feel for your hatchet.” She’s unredeemable. “Bad all through,” as Mrs. Beaver says.

Jadis has taken on authority that is not hers. She does not know her proper place. As Lucy says, “she calls herself the Queen of Narnia though she has no right to be called queen at all.” Jadis is literally unnatural… she has stopped the seasons to give herself greater power (and the return to the Natural Order begins to weaken her).

Now, let’s look at how the evil monster is defeated. I’m no Freudian, but the source of much of Jadis’s power is her wand. She uses it to turn her enemies into unfeeling stone. The forces of Narnia are struggling to defeat her until Edmund thinks of smashing her wand with his (I’m sure non-phallic) sword. Then Aslan arrives with reinforcements and Jadis looks up to him with “terror and amazement.” The entire fight between Aslan and the White Witch is literally this sentence: “The Lion and the Witch had rolled over together, but with the Witch underneath” (emphasis mine). Then, at the same moment, there’s a burst of allies who flood over the enemy and it’s all cheers and roars and squeals and gibbering. In the next chapter we are told that the Witch is dead.

So Lilith, the monstrous divorcée, has her daughter brought back into line. The masculine authority of Narnia is re-established, with the Emperor-Over-The-Sea and Aslan the Lion (note that he was humiliated in death by the removal of his mane, a key masculine signifier for the lion) back in charge. When Aslan puts the children in charge, it’s made very clear that the oldest male is the highest authority, as Peter ascends to High King.

 

CHILDREN

Children are, in many ways, the heroes of the Narnia books—as well they should be. Which means that things get complicated, here…

Lucy is the closest thing to a single protagonist in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and we’re definitely meant to feel strong feelings of affection for her. She appears in five of the seven Narnia books, and in the end will spend more time in Narnia than any of the others. In this book she’s meant to be eight years old.

She’s consistently disregarded and dismissed by her siblings, with Edmund saying things about how it’s “just like a girl” to get all upset with him over his legitimately terrible actions (this is meant to be read this way as near as I can tell, and is Lewis commenting on Lucy being treated unfairly). A large part of the narrative—Professor Kirk says this straight out—is that Lucy should be judged by her character and track record, not by the fact that she’s young (or, presumably, a girl).

Lucy is the most naturally insightful about what’s happening in Narnia. She’s brave, quick to forgive, and compassionate. I suspect that part of the reason Lucy is so nearly without fault is that she is based on an actual young girl who was a friend (and godchild) of Lewis’s: Owen Barfield’s daughter Lucy (the same Lucy Barfield to whom he dedicates the book). Lucy makes a mistake now and then, but the narrative is always leaning toward giving her the benefit of the doubt, and in the end she’s universally beloved by the Narnians, who call her “Queen Lucy the Valiant.”

We do of course see that Lucy is expected to help with the housework, and when Father Christmas comes he gives her a vial of healing cordial and a dagger, because she’s not to be in the battle, and should only use the dagger to defend herself “at great need.” This is not because she is not brave or because she is eight years old, but rather because “battles are ugly when women fight.” So Lucy is put into the traditional fantasy role of woman as healer, not warrior.

Then we come to Susan. I’d like to look at her in some detail, because it will save us some work in about six books when we get to the “problem of Susan” in The Last Battle. I’ll say this: it seems to me Susan is the person most well suited to Narnia, out of all of the children.

We see from the first pages that Susan is a natural in wanting to take care of her siblings. She’s working hard to keep people positive, says that she thinks Professor Kirk is an “old dear” and, in the absence of their mother, tries to keep the family on track. She tells Edmund when he should get in bed (which he doesn’t do) and tries to keep them optimistic and focused on having adventures (she tells Ed not to complain about the weather and insists that, all told, they’re “pretty well off” with plenty of books and a radio to entertain themselves). She’s quick to break up an argument between Peter and Edmund, and though she thinks Lucy is telling tales about Narnia she’s good-natured about it, and genuinely concerned for Lucy when her sister keeps insisting that it’s all true.

She’s a clever thinker (she’s the one who says they should take some coats—even though the coats aren’t theirs—with them as they enter the winter wood because “we shan’t take them even out of the wardrobe”). When they find the wreckage of Mr. Tumnus’s home, it’s Susan who says they must do something to help him.

And, perhaps most importantly, it is Susan who asks for permission to accompany Aslan on his sorrowful journey to the Stone Table. Notice also, that after they become the Kings and Queens of Narnia, and they decide in later years to go hunting the white stag, all three of her siblings want to follow the white stag, and it is Susan who holds back and counsels that they follow the white stag no further. It is Susan who realizes on some level what is happening. It is Susan—Queen Susan the Gentle—who tries to get them to stay in Narnia.

Lucy and Susan are the only ones to accompany Aslan to his death, and the only witnesses to his resurrection. They are the fortunate two who get to go with him to save all the creatures in the Witch’s castle. Aslan takes them into his confidence. He allows them to comfort him. And when he is resurrected, there is a scene where they play tag and wrestle and he shares clear, deep affection for them.

This is clearly part of the parallelism Lewis is drawing between Aslan and the Christ narrative. Women were present at Jesus’s death (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:55-56, John 19:25, and Luke 23:49). It’s important enough that all four of the gospel authors include this detail. It is women who first see the resurrected Christ (Matthew 28:8-10, Mark 16:9-11, John 20:11-18…in Luke the women see an angel and run back to tell Jesus’s followers, Luke 24:1-12). Women are the first to preach the good news of the resurrection to others.

It seems to me that this is a place where Lewis’s cultural values of gender roles for women is overturned by his understanding of the story of Christianity. Susan and Lucy are given access to Aslan in a way that their brothers are not…they are closer, they have a deeper friendship with him, they are allowed into his emotional world in a way that no one else is. It may well be that Lewis saw this as a result of their “emotional wiring” as women (Lucy and Susan can’t sleep because they’re worried about Aslan, while Peter and Edmund are presumably snoring somewhere nearby). But the fact remains that Lewis depicts them, like the earliest female followers of Jesus, not only as peers but as people given special privileges and considerations by Aslan/Jesus.

Then, at the end of the novel, we come to one of the weirder bits, where the four children grow into adults as Kings and Queens. You might be thinking, “Aha! So both Susan and Lucy are grown human women in this book.” Which is, in a way, true. It’s wonderful for our purposes, because although there’s a suspiciously “make believe” quality to their adulthood, it’s also Lewis’s picture of the idealized adult human women.

Susan and Lucy don’t marry or have consorts (Which, okay, yes, would be worse given how the story ends and I am not suggesting they should. And yes, Lewis dances around this, as other countries begin to send ambassadors seeking Susan’s hand in marriage. The point is that Lewis’s characters remain virginal in every sense of the word), and though we’re told they had adventures and made alliances and so on, the one thing we actually see them do as “adults” is play, more-or-less, hide and seek with the stag…the same game they were playing when this whole thing started.

All of which to say, it’s complicated. Susan and Lucy become Queens, not princesses, and they are peers with Edmund, though Peter is High King. Susan and Lucy aren’t setting tables in the castle, they’re hunting alongside the kings and setting up alliances and ruling and much of “their time” (not just the boys) was spent hunting down the remnants of Jadis’s army and destroying them. Of course, in addition, Susan is fending off marriage proposals and many of the princes nearby “desired (Lucy) to be their Queen.”

Lewis’s idealized women are child-like, virginal, and embrace their place under male authority with grace, happiness, and no complaints. “A woman knows her place and is happy with it” would not be a poor summary…though Lewis would no doubt add “And she should be properly cherished for it.” For a woman to walk away from these expectations is to walk away from her own humanity…like Lilith or Jadis. A woman’s only available choices are to be the matronly homemaker or housekeeper, a child (or at the very most, a child-like Queen), or a monster. Lewis doesn’t provide space for other expressions of femininity, whether from ignorance, lack of experience, or philosophical opposition, or some combination of the three. But as we will see, some of this changes in his later life….

And so we come to the end of the tale, when a happy ending requires that women be turned into girls again, and men into boys. Aslan has assured them, though, that “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

Unless, of course, you are Jadis.

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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