The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

“Would You Like Wings?”: An Invitation to Transformation in The Magician’s Nephew

It was the horse who chose Narnia, that much is clear.

His name was Strawberry, and he had been in the middle of a long and troubling day. First he had been out doing his daily work with his cabby on the streets of London when an otherworldly half-giantess had taken control of him and made him her “royal charger” and then it was all galloping and crowds and shouting.

Then a moment of rushing speed, and Strawberry and a number of human companions (and the otherworlder) found themselves in the wood between worlds. And it was there that Strawberry “shook his head, gave a cheerful whinny, and seemed to feel better.”

It was then that “Strawberry did the most natural thing in the world.” He stepped into one of the pools. Not because he knew each pool was a world, or had any idea about worlds, or woods between worlds, or anything else, but only because he was thirsty. He stepped in to have a drink (though he never got one) and found himself in the proto-darkness of the nothingness before a world begins.

Then there was The Voice. Singing a song that some of the humans seemed to like and, well,  Strawberry seemed to like it too: “[H]e gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.” Something about that music brought the horse strength. Vitality.

And then, as the World came into being and plants began to fill what had been nothing, and as the Great Lion walked to and fro and sang his creation song, Strawberry happily returned to doing what a happy horse does: he began to eat “delicious mouthfuls of new grass.”

Strawberry the horse is no major character in the story of The Magician’s Nephew, but we see some fascinating bits of the story’s theme—the creation—playing out in his story. It’s all the more interesting because Strawberry—unlike the other animals of Narnia—is not created in this story. He’s from our world. And while Aslan doesn’t choose every animal in Narnia to be a talking animal (he chooses two at a time), he does choose Strawberry. As a matter of fact, he’s the first animal to speak outside of their initial chorus (“Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.”). Strawberry follows up immediately with, “But, please, we don’t know very much yet.”

What’s fascinating to me about good old Strawberry is that he seems to go through the entire process of evolutionary spiritual growth that Lewis lays out in various places. He starts as a beast, a sort of pre-conscious animal that isn’t completely aware of either himself or the world in the same way he soon will be. Aslan refers to the previous state of the animals as “dumb and witless” (dumb in this context meaning without speech). Strawberry himself says that he scarcely remembers these days once he’s awake: “But I’ve a sort of idea I’ve seen a thing like this before. I’ve a feeling I lived somewhere else—or was something else—before Aslan woke us all up a few minutes ago. It’s all very muddled. Like a dream.” He has vague memories of humans, of the sting of the whip, of the glories of sugar, and when they talk about it, it comes back to him in bits and pieces. But he has become something—or rather someone—else.

Aslan makes it quite clear that in this time, Strawberry wasn’t some free animal. He was a slave. In fact, Lewis as narrator says the exact same thing. As the clean air of creation begins to work on Strawberry—before he’s even given the gift of speech—Lewis says, “He no longer looked like the poor, old slave he had been in London; he was picking up his feet and holding his head erect.”

So Strawberry, in this first stage, goes from beast to person. From a dream to wakefulness. From slavery to freedom. From silence to speech, from witless to intelligent. All of this because one, he was thirsty. And two, because Aslan chose him. No doubt Lewis chose all these things with clear intent. Even the thirst of the horse is likely another reference to the “living water” that Jesus talks about in scripture (Lewis loves this metaphor and you may recall it from The Silver Chair, when Jill is thirsty and discovers the only way to access the water is by going quite close to Aslan.). In fact, it’s not an uncommon metaphor in scripture, see Isaiah 55:1-5, or the words of Jesus in John 7:37-39 (note that here Jesus equates the water of life with the Spirit—in Greek the same word means breath, wind, or spirit—and the first thing that happens in the darkness of the pre-creation after the Voice begins its song is, “A light wind, very fresh, began to stir.”), or, again in the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22… note especially verse 17.

But there is still another transformation in store for Strawberry. Aslan turns to Digory and tells him that it’s time to “undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth.” There is a quest that must be undertaken, a journey to retrieve a magical apple. When Digory says that he might need help for such a task, Aslan turns to Strawberry and asks, “My dear, would you like to be a winged horse?”

Which Strawberry desperately wants, but he only humbly says, “If you wish, Aslan—if you really mean—I don’t know why it should be me—I’m not a very clever horse.” Aslan does wish, and he roars, “Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses,” and Strawberry rears up like he would have done “in the bad old day” and wings burst from his shoulders just like the animals of Narnia burst from the ground. And Aslan asks him if it is good and Strawberry—or the creature who used to be strawberry—replies, “It is very good, Aslan.”

Note that these words— “very good” in reference to the creation—are used in scripture, as well. Each day, as God creates the world, there is a moment of reflection on all that has been made and then God says, “It is good.” This goes on until the final day of creation, when God looks at creation in general—and humanity specifically, the culmination of God’s creative power—and says it is “very good.” Surely, Lewis is echoing that here.

But this winged horse is not Strawberry any longer, because Aslan gives him a new name: Fledge. Fledge, of course, being a word that means “to acquire feathers.” Getting a new name when following God or accepting a new mission in God’s service is common in scripture: Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, and Strawberry becomes Fledge. He’s given a new name, a new quest, and becomes a new person. In Christian scripture we’re told that every follower of Jesus will one day get a new name, a sort of pet name between God and his beloved, that is known only to God and the one who receives it. And naming is part of the creation. Frank is told that part of his job as king will be to name the animals. Adam named the animals in Eden. There is power in names, and part of that power is recognizing what a thing is, who a person is at their heart.

So Strawberry goes from beast to person to something more. Someone indelibly touched by the magic of Aslan, so that it’s clear to all who see him that he is not just a horse, not even just a talking horse, but a person who has been in the presence of Aslan, who has received a name from him, who has been bestowed with the transformative power of certain gifts so he can perform the tasks and quests set out for him.

Interesting side note: Aslan says that Fledge will be the “father of all flying horses” and yet we don’t see another one in the Chronicles of Narnia. There isn’t a “mother” of all flying horses, and while we do see Fledge again in the final book of the series, there’s not even a moment in the rest of the Chronicles where we see a flock of winged horses soaring overhead. The only other moment that a winged horse is mentioned is in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when it’s mentioned that there is a winged horse turned to stone in the white witch’s castle. But even there, it’s only one winged horse and we’re told nothing about it: gender, color, name. It could well be Fledge himself…

This is the sort of question when studying Lewis that’s worth pushing into. Sometimes it might just be a moment of sloppiness (like the varying height of Reepicheep), and sometimes it’s something done with quiet purpose (see the book Planet Narnia!). I have no idea why this is…the only thing I can think of today is that Pegasus is also a sort of singular flying horse, and I do note with some interest that Hesiod says that the name Pegasus comes from the word πηγή, meaning “spring” or well, and in some myths where Pegasus stepped, springs of water came up, and it was while drinking from a spring that Pegasus is caught by the hero Bellerophon. In any case, I’m not sure what’s going on here, but if someone would like to use the question to write their doctoral thesis, I bet there are clues out there for those who take the time.

After this transformation for Fledge, there are those who struggle to call him by his new name. Even the narrator calls him Strawberry and then says “or Fledge as we must now call him.” Frank calls him Strawberry and immediately corrects himself to Fledge, and that’s the end of that. Strawberry never appears again in the book; it’s only Fledge now.

Fledge goes on his adventure with the children, and he serves as transportation, shelter (the children sleep nestled beneath his wings), and encouragement. When they return home, Fledge is astonished to see that his “old master” Frank has been transformed as well. He was never a beast, but he has gone from person to King (or, as Fledge says, a “real Master”…Aslan makes it clear that a Master or King in this sense is not one who owns others or treats them as slaves, but one who provides for and protects those in his care). Here we get another clue of the transformation from person to something more, for as Fledge looks at Frank he sees that “[a]ll the sharpness and cunning and quarrelsomeness which he had picked up as a London cabby seemed to have been washed away, and the courage and kindness which he had always had were easier to see. Perhaps it was the air of the young world that had done it, or talking with Aslan, or both.”

So Frank, who had been at least kind-hearted already, has his kindness brought into more obvious action in his life. His courage is increased. And what has gone away? Sharpness, cunning, quarrelsomeness. All the sorts of things that we see in Uncle Andrew, that we notice in Jadis.

I’ve been working hard not to jump ahead into other books, but there is one more Fledge moment in the Chronicles, and it’s so sweet and lovely I don’t want to miss it when we talk about The Last Battle. For in The Magician’s Nephew we learn about what Narnia was, how it came to be. The creation, the coming of evil, the first king and queen, the talking beasts and the wakened trees, and, yes, the horse Strawberry who was once a lowly slave, and then a True Horse and then Someone Better: Fledge, father of all winged horses.

In The Last Battle there is a moment…just a sentence, really…where the children Digory and Polly have grown (Digory Kirke became Professor Kirke in time, and then Lord Digory; Polly Plummer became Aunt Polly and then Lady Polly) and in that world to come we see—not just a simple winged horse. Why, that was just the beginning of Fledge’s life. For “out of the gateway there came a horse so mighty and noble that even a Unicorn might feel shy in its presence: a great winged horse. It looked a moment at the Lord Digory and the Lady Polly and neighed out ‘What, cousins!’ and they both shouted ‘Fledge! Good old Fledge!’ and rushed to kiss it.”

It may be our thirst that brings us to Narnia, but it’s Aslan who chooses us. Lewis believed strongly that the moment of creation is a blessing that provides us with choices. That when we are given the gift of consciousness, of speech, of life, of freedom, that we have then the ability to let ourselves become something less than we were created to be: to allow ourselves to “pick up” the qualities of quarrelsomeness or sharpness or cunningness. Or else to continue to grow, to change, to cultivate kindness and courage. The moment of creation is not the peak of what we could be…we are invited to become something—someone—much more than what we are, much more than who we were to begin.

In this book, Lewis assures us that there is a moment—we can expect it, we can rely on it—when the Creator will turn to us and say, “Beloved…would you like wings?”

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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