The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

We Should Probably Talk About That Time Susan and Lucy Attended a Bacchanal in Narnia

When the Pevensie children return to Narnia, their castle is in ruins, and the Golden Age of Narnia is all but forgotten. Talking animals and trees, dwarves and giants and satyrs are all considered to be myths or old wives’ tale. The death and resurrection of Aslan is scarcely remembered at all, and at one point Caspian’s Uncle Miraz not only denies Aslan, he says there’s no such thing as lions. Every true thing we readers know from the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been forgotten or corrupted. This sets the stage for Prince Caspian, a novel about—as Lewis once wrote in a letter—the “restoration of the true religion after corruption.”

There are strange, dueling narratives unfolding throughout the book. The Pevensies appear for three chapters, followed by four chapters of flashbacks about Caspian. Then four more with the Pevensies, and then another split, as the male characters dive into preparations for war and Susan and Lucy head off to attend a cultic Mystery feast.

In the last article, we talked briefly about Dr. Michael Ward’s convincing argument that Prince Caspian is also about Mars, so we see both sides of Mars represented as well: god of war, but also the guardian of agriculture and god of spring and virility and so on. When the Pevensies split up (something they resisted for most of the novel), we see the narrative split into a sylvan and a martial one.

Today we’re going to look at the strange journey taken by Susan and Lucy, as these young children embark on a journey with Aslan that takes them to a Bacchanal and eventually on a journey of justice among the commoners of Narnia. To understand what’s going on in these scenes, we need to consider a short scene from Caspian’s story, where he and his tutor, Doctor Cornelius, sneak onto a tower to watch a planetary conjunction.

Caspian’s Nurse had been filling his mind with tales of Old Narnia (true tales about Aslan and the Pevensies, among others), and Caspian’s uncle, the usurper Miraz, has sent her away. Little does Miraz know, but his replacement tutor, Doctor Cornelius, also believes the stories of Old Narnia—in fact, he’s a half-dwarf himself. To Caspian’s delight, Cornelius tells him that the old tales are true, and teaches Caspian the political history of Narnia as well. The line of Caspian is from Telmar, not Narnia, and though Caspian is the rightful king despite his ancestor’s violent takeover of Narnia, his uncle Miraz has plans to steal the throne from Caspian.

As they stand on the tower there is an astronomical occurrence which is key to understanding the dueling narratives of Prince Caspian. Two “noble planets” named Tarva and Alambil are due to have a rare conjunction, one that hasn’t happened in centuries. The planets, we are told, are called Tarva, The Lord of Victory, and Alambil, the Lady of Peace. When these two planets come together it can only mean “some great good for the sad realm of Narnia.”

In the same way, the Kings and Queens of the Golden Age and Prince Caspian are due to come together in this book. The path of Victory (the restoration of the true political line through battle) and the path of Peace (the restoration of true religion and removal of all damage done by its absence) are due for a conjunction of their own. Twin narratives come together to form this climactic conjunction of the novel, and the ultimate victory of Aslan and his allies. In this article we’ll follow Susan and Lucy as they walk the path of Alambil, Lady of Peace.

It begins when Aslan is reunited, at last, with the children. The moon is setting and dawn is on the way. Aslan says there is “no time to lose” and sends the boys into the mound where the Stone Table used to be and tells them, “deal with what you find there.” Then Aslan roars. The boys, we learn later, are entering into several chapters filled with fighting and duels and swords. But the girls are entering into a great dance, a party, or, as someone will call it shortly, “A Romp.”

Aslan’s roar wakes all the sleeping magical beings of Narnia. Nymphs and river gods and sylphs all either reveal themselves or come to life. Dryads and trees begin to crowd around Aslan, and then to dance. Later we’re told that Aslan was leading the dance himself. Soon a great party begins, and a strange, wild youth comes to lead the festivities—the girls hear him called Bromios and Bassareaus and the Ram, though we might know him better by his name Dionysius or, as Susan realizes later (and Aslan confirms), this is Bacchus, god of agriculture and wine.

Susan and Lucy are at a Bacchanal.

Bacchanalia are not a place for children. Although originally only women attended them, these feasts were a key celebration for the followers of Bacchus in ancient Rome, and the word “orgy” originally was used in reference to these sorts of secret rites. Over time both men and women were included in the Bacchanalia, and though we have no direct records of what went on at these gatherings (they are, after all, celebrations as part of a mystery cult), we are told that they were wild parties full of food, much wine and unfettered sexual expression. At one point the Roman government became concerned enough with their popularity and possible political ramifications that they legislated an end to them. It’s true that Bacchus was associated with liberation as well as libation. Wine loosens tongues, lowers inhibitions, and Bacchus also brings, in some contexts, freedom for those enslaved. In fact, Aslan orders Bacchus to free the river god later in the novel (one in a series of new freedoms being brought to the Narnians) and Bacchus is the one to destroy the bridge which crosses the river Beruna. Interesting side note: This chapter is called “The Lion Roars” but we also overhear one of Bacchus’s other names, Bromios, which can mean “noisy” or even “roaring.”

While the women are at this wild party, the men are making plans for war. We’ll explore this further in two weeks, but the men are preparing to return Narnia’s political powers to Caspian, their rightful owner. The women, meanwhile, are participating in the restoration of the true religion of Aslan, where there are Talking Beasts, living plants, and subservient “pagan” gods.

The Bacchanal eventually takes on an almost hallucinogenic quality. At one point Lucy pushes back her hair to discover it is all vine branches. Ivy grows everywhere. The wild youth Bacchus and his Maenads are the sort of people who might “do anything—absolutely anything.” And while—unlike in a true Bacchanal—there is no sex (Thank you, God, as we don’t need any more literature with underage sex scenes…and Lucy and Susan are still children.) there is certainly sensual language as the partygoers find themselves entangled with vines, “sticky and stained” and they all “flop down breathless” beside Aslan before taking a short nap together.

There is an awareness that this party has been kept under control because Aslan has restrained it. Even the almost-too-grown-up-for-Narnia Susan says, “I wouldn’t have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

“I should think not,” Lucy replies.

Bacchus is subservient to Aslan, and the Great Lion has tamed him. Lewis believed that in the best myths there were echoes or presages of the True Myth about Jesus. As we well know by now, Aslan is not a metaphor for Jesus, he is Jesus himself. Bacchus enters the story as Aslan’s servant. This narrative branch is about the arrival of the planet Alambil, Lady of Peace. Where there was a lack of food before, there is abundance. Where creatures were in hiding or asleep, now they are awake, dancing, and plentiful. Where there was fear, now there is rejoicing. Bacchus is not Jesus in the way Aslan is…but his story and being are myths that point toward his greater truth.

As the “true religion” of Aslan begins to take hold, Narnia is transformed. It starts with the river god being loosed from his chains, and the Fords of Beruna take on their old shape…the way that Lucy and Susan remember them being over a thousand years before. They move on to find a group of school girls who are being taught dull lies about the history of Narnia and the nature of the world. (Lewis is often critical of education and schools…something that no doubt comes at least partly from his own terrible childhood experience of boarding schools.) The Lion roars, the ivy curls into the classroom, and the great moveable feast arrives. The teacher and most of the girls (I am sad to say that Lewis describes them as “dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs”) run away, except for one young woman named Gwendolyn who gladly joins them and gets help taking off “some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes she was wearing.”

Everywhere they go it is the same. As the true religion of Narnia is reestablished, many run, but a few join Aslan’s parade. Animals break their chains and kick their carts to bits and join the party. A man who is beating a child is turned into a flowering tree, and the boy laughs and joins Aslan. A schoolmistress abandons her “pig-like” boys and joins them. Lewis suggests it’s possible the boys are turned into pigs afterwards. (Perhaps Lewis’s insistence of describing the children in these ways is somehow a commentary to suggest that Aslan’s party is not about gluttony? I don’t know. Silenus is clearly drunk, so it’s a weak suggestion if so.)

The final miracle to come from Bacchus happens as Aslan leads them to the house of an old woman who is sick and about to die. Aslan breaks the house to bits and heals the old woman…a woman who has never stopped believing in him: “I knew it was true,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” Aslan heals her, and Bacchus brings her a pitcher that has been dipped in the house’s well. But the water is wine now, and not just any wine, but rich, red wine that is “smooth as oil, strong as beef, warming as tea, cool as dew.” The old woman is, we learn, Caspian’s own Nurse, who first taught him about Old Narnia and true religion.

Certainly Lewis means to remind us of two stories about Jesus here: One, when Jesus healed his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law, and two, the first of his miracles, when he turned water into wine at a wedding party.

Given the choice between battles and parties, Aslan chooses the branch of the story that takes him through celebration and eventually the justice that leads to Peace. He sends the Kings and the Prince to fight and make war and meets them just as their victory comes to fruition. This is part of Lewis’s commentary on who the person of Jesus is, according to Prince Caspian.

Aslan does not need to go to war to come to victory. He prioritizes the restoration of truth and belief over that of political power. He is the Prince of Peace. Parties and celebrations, wine and sensual expression and even other gods are not evil things, not when they are under his command. When Jesus was at a party and they ran out of wine, he made more. Not just good wine, but the best wine of the evening. He was accused of being both a glutton and a drunkard by his critics. Aslan is in opposition to the Telmarines, who have saddled Narnia with needless moral restrictions and propaganda instead of truth.

Note that Aslan doesn’t expect anyone to be argued into believing in him (Well… mostly. We should probably explore the invisible Aslan of earlier in the novel at some point), but rather he wants them all to experience him directly. Some run, and that’s to be expected. The rest are welcomed joyfully into his community…including the supposed enemies, the Telmarines who both are and are not Narnians.

Eventually this whole Bacchanal procession comes together—a conjunction—with the other branch of the story. The boys have been experiencing the glory of battle while Aslan partied with his friends. In the presence of Aslan there is joy, there is truth, there is healing. The restoration of the True Religion of Narnia has to do with being liberated from lies, embracing joy, and entering the celebration of Aslan’s community. War may be fine and necessary for the restoration of political power, but in Prince Caspian, war has little to do with being connected to God. As we’ll see in two weeks, the boys likely would not have been successful if Aslan had not awoken the magical beings of Narnia for the Bacchanal: Aslan’s party is necessary for Caspian’s battle to be won.

And then, in the final bit of the penultimate chapter, the Nurse (older, female, and full of religious power) slips from Aslan’s back and embraces Caspian (young, male, politically powerful)…and the conjunction of Tarva and Alambil is complete!

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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