Narnia re-read. Finishing the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The plot and dialogue are so familiar to me that it was good to take a fresh look at it, noting little details I’d overlooked before. Sometimes, because I’d read this book so much, and also watched and listened to versions of it, I’d avoid it for a while and focus on the other books of the series. But of course this book was my original gateway into Narnia, the reason I read the other stories, the original way I fell in love with Lewis’ world. For me, it was the wardrobe.

Nostalgia rushes came thick and fast during the re-read. Certain phrases (Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen. Bear it well…not a tame lion…Spare Oom…sons of adam…turkish delight…) are firmly imprinted on my memory and it was good to see them again, this time in context. The same features of the story which I enjoyed as a child were all still evident: the wonder of discovering a new world; the excitement of the chase through the snow; the emotion of Aslan’s sacrifice; the delight at the situation the Pevensies find themselves in as rulers of a wonderful world; animals you could talk to; brave people fighting in battles which really mattered.

As an adult, I appreciated other things in addition to what I had previously enjoyed. Naturally, I am now more familiar with the symbols, references and echoes of other works than I was before, and unpicking these was fun. Lewis’ ability to draw characters which I felt I knew, through minimal description and clever dialogue, really impressed me, as did the clever use of the narrator’s voice. The sadness running through the book – the party turned to stone, the ransacking of Tumnus’ home, the mice gnawing on the ropes – struck me more clearly than before. Narnia itself, a place I’ve been imagining (longlingly) for many years, was beautifully drawn, with loving descriptions of plants and landscapes which show Lewis’ deep and lasting love of nature. I’d just taken this all for granted as a child, but now I can fully appreciate Lewis’ mastery of language and expression.

The book has its detractors, of course. People find the Christian ‘supposal’ element uncomfortable,  dislike the old-fashioned style and language, find the world-building inconsistent, take issue with Lewis’ stance on certain matters and so on. I accept their points – after all, literature is a matter of personal taste as much as anything. But for me, as an imaginative work of fiction for children, I think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is truly excellent. Lewis expected the Narniad’s popularity to fade by the end of the 20th Century, but I am sure this story will remain evergreen. It has sold tens of millions of copies around the world and still features in many ‘what to read to children’ or ‘children’s classic literature’ lists. After all, who hasn’t wished they could escape their own life, discover an exciting new world and maybe even become its monarch? Throw in sparkling prose, humour, talking animals, magic, battles, chases, feasts and of course Aslan, and the idea is irresistible. Even more so than Turkish Delight.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter seventeen. The hunting of the white stag.

Synopsis: Lucy tends to the wounded. After resting, the Narnians travel to Cair Paravel. The children are crowned. Aslan disappears. The Pevensies rule for many years. They hunt the white stag, which leads them past the lamppost and back through the wardrobe door. They tell the Professor all about their adventures.

I can’t picture Peter and Aslan shaking hands. How would that look?

I felt almost relieved that Edmund managed to redeem himself in the battle. All his future subjects had seen him do something with terrible consequences. At least they saw him try to put it right, too.

When Lucy tells Aslan to ‘wait a minute,’ it is not like the Lucy we are used to. But I think it makes her more human to have moments like this.

When Edmund’s ‘horrid school’ is mentioned, is that the same school Peter goes to?

Lucy and Susan discuss whether Edmund knows about Aslan’s sacrifice. Did he find out later? Surely the story would be told throughout Narnia. It seems he would hear it.

The children having a last day of ‘being kids’, and paddling in the sea is a lovely thought.

Here is one of my very favourite sections of the book. Someone else describing Cair Paravel would surely never have thought to write: ‘And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?’ It is so evocative, and so unexpected. I love it. Lewis manages to weave the idea, which was very important to him, of ‘sehnsucht’* through all the Chronicles, with passages like this. (I’ll be exploring this idea in depth after my re-read – it is certainly key to my relationship with Narnia, and I suspect to many people’s.) Memories, longings, wistfulness, those sights and sounds which stir something in us which we can’t describe, a sort of sad loveliness – that is what he hoped to evoke in much of his work, I’m sure. And little touches like the sound of seagulls, a sound that we know and which may well bring back memories of our own, are perfect ways to do this.

I was reminded of the merpeople singing at the coronation ceremony when I read about the same thing happening at a funeral in J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’.

Once again Mr Beaver reminds us that Aslan isn’t ‘tame’. He isn’t a pet or companion. He’s something bigger and more serious than that. Although why he didn’t just say goodbye to everyone, then leave, I’m not sure.

As a child, I was fascinated by the adult Pevensies, particularly Edmund and Lucy. I thought being Susan the gentle sounded quite boring (I imagined that hair which fell to your feet would be a real pain to look after) . But I liked the idea that what Edmund had experienced had made him wiser, better at treating others fairly and able to see the truth of situations. And of course, being a little blonde child myself, what I really hoped for was to grow up like Queen Lucy the Valiant. If I could have designed a dream life for myself when I was in primary school, that would have been it.

The old life in our world was ‘a dream’ to the Pevensies now, which I accepted at the time. Now I’m older, I tend to wonder more about whether they missed anything or anyone from our world, particularly family. It never seems so from what we hear.

The white stag has a rich history of mythological significance, as mentioned in previous chapters. There’s a really well researched, detailed post about this at https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/mythical-beasts-the-white-stag/ which I recommend. It’s very thorough. Certainly, as the messenger from a different world, or the sign of great change and new adventures, the stag fits perfectly here.

For one last time, Susan gets to be the worrier here. She fears what would happen if they passed the lamppost. As a child, I almost wanted the story to stop here, for the children to stay in Narnia forever. I also wondered, had they not passed the lamppost, would they have been drawn back to our world in some other way? How quickly? Was it inevitable?

So the story ends with the children back in our world, having reverted to their original ages. (Imagine suffering the misery of puberty only to have it rewound to be played out again!) And here, the Professor gave the young me hope – he told me if I just carried on about my everyday life, I might just stumble upon Narnia anywhere. I’m not entirely sure I’ve given up on that hope just yet.

* ‘Sehnsucht’ is a German word with no exact translation in English. It is a yearning, or wistful longing. Missing something intensely. An emotional desire for something impossible or lost. Nostalgia for a place we have never really known. Lewis felt this longing intensely throughout his life, in his case often associated with his religious beliefs. He wrote about it on a number of occasions, notably in ‘Surprised by Joy’.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter sixteen. What happened about the statues.

Synopsis: Aslan brings the statues in the Witch’s castle back to life. They all travel to battle, where Aslan kills the Witch, and her army is defeated.

Lewis uses the idea of lighting a fire in a grate to explain something here – some children today may well never have seen this, having electric or gas fires in their homes. The Narnia books seemed to be from a world which was very familiar to me as a child. Now they seem to be noticeably more old-fashioned. But I’m quite old fashioned too, so that’s fine for me.

Once again Susan is worrying, this time about the giant.

I love the little detail that Lewis gives us about the rarity of giants in England nowadays. When I was young I so wanted things like this to be true, I loved it when a book seemed to confirm that there was magic somewhere, just out of sight. I loved Alan Garner’s ‘The Wierdstone of Brisingamen’ for similar reasons. This is also part of Harry Potter’s appeal. Everyday things are given magical properties. (For example, items called portkeys are used to magically move wizards from place to place. They are disguised as items like old boots and litter. So the young reader, next time they see a rusty old can, can think to themselves, ‘Maybe it’s a portkey!’ Seeing magic in the world around us is very appealing, like we’re in on a secret ‘ordinary’ People don’t know.

A kangaroo statue? I’d never imagined kangaroos living in Narnia, but apparently I was wrong! I can only imagine what Tolkien would have made of it.

Seeing Lucy and Tumnus reunited is such a happy moment.

In the Spring, when I open up the windows of my house after a cold winter, I always think of the line, ‘the light and the sweet spring air flooding into all the dark and evil places which needed them so badly’. (In my case, less actual evil and more just dusty.)

Just like Mr Beaver’s pride in his dam, the other lion’s delight at Aslan’s comment of ‘us lions’ is really endearing. Lewis is very effective when drawing characters or behaviours in just one or two lines.

It doesn’t mention explicitly that the Witch is killed in this chapter, but we assume it from what we are told. We don’t hear exactly how she dies.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter fifteen. Deeper magic from before the dawn of time.

Synopsis:  Susan and Lucy mourn Aslan. Mice gnaw away the cords binding him. The Stone Table cracks in two. Aslan is alive, and explains why. The girls ride on Aslan’s back to the Witch’s house.

The description of the ‘blackness of vultures and giant bats’ overhead, combined with the Pauline Baynes illustration of the Witch’s followers always make me think of Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’. They have a very similar feel.

The moon is referred to as ‘her’ not ‘it’, which corresponds with mentions elsewhere in the Chronicles that stars and planets are also sentient beings, with the moon being feminine and the sun masculine.

Lewis says, ‘I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.’ I didn’t really know what this meant when reading the book as a child. As an adult who has experienced the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, it makes perfect sense to me. It describes the initial shock of grief as well as anything I’ve read elsewhere.

The little mice trying to help by gnawing at the cords tied around Aslan were really moving.

The large star on the eastern horizon isn’t named. Perhaps it is an echo of the Biblical ‘star in the east’, or Jesus’ name of ‘the bright morning star’ in the Bible.

The Stone Table (which Lewis said was inspired by Moses’ stone tablets) cracks at the moment of sunrise. This echoes the tearing of the curtain of the temple in the Bible. It shows us that something momentous has happened. Would this have happened if someone other than Aslan had willingly sacrificed themselves? Would that person have been resurrected or did that only happen because of who it was who had given themselves?

Readers of Harry Potter will probably be reminded here of the powerful magic of self-sacrifice for love, which is key to those stories.

Aslan’s playful side is shown here more than anywhere else in the Chronicles. If I’d wished earlier that I could walk with him to the Stone Table, I now found I really  wished that I could have chased him and laughed with him here. (Laura Miller’s ‘The Magician’s Book’ evaluates this scene in a thoughtful, interesting way.) In the 1979 animated film of the book, wherever Aslan steps, flowers burst from the ground, an image which I felt really suited the feel of the scene.

A character who is thought to be dead turning up alive is a common  occurrence in stories. Actually coming back to life is less so. (Here I am referring to modern stories, as myths share this theme more often.) I never questioned it as a child, as it was ‘magic’. Aslan did lots of magic things. This was just one of them. But now I see it as more unusual.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter fourteen. The triumph of the Witch.

Synopsis:  The Narnians move their camp to the Fords of Beruna. Aslan advises Peter on battle strategy. Lucy and Susan can’t sleep. They see Aslan leaving and follow him. They hide, and watch him meet the Witch and her followers at the Stone Table. Here, Aslan surrenders himself in place of Edmund and the Witch kills him.

Parts of Aslan’s speech don’t seem to me to be in his ‘voice’ here. He talks about the Witch’s ‘crew’, and says, ‘Eh? What’s that?’ I just don’t hear those phrases as Aslan for some reason. They sound more like the Professor.

When the girls walk alongside Aslan, with their hands on his mane, I really wanted to be able to do the same. As a child, I really loved Aslan, and the thought that I could be so close to him really appealed – for some reason even more so as he seemed so vulnerable here.Despite being raised going to church every Sunday, I never really felt a strong faith or connection to the church as a child. I distinctly remember thinking that if Aslan existed in our world, I would definitely be a total believer, and go to his church all the time. I felt almost sad that nothing in this world made me feel the same. Apparently, a parent once wrote to Lewis worried that her son loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis reassured her that he was simply loving Jesus through Aslan, but I’m not so sure that applied to me.

Again we have the list of evil beings, although Lewis says that he can’t describe some in a children’s book as they would be too terrifying. Of course, this allows the imagination to fill in the blanks with its own personal fears.

Here apes are mentioned as being on the side of evil, which echoes later events in The Last Battle.

The death of a main character in a children’s book (more so than in YA literature) is a big deal. I can’t remember the time before I knew that Aslan wasn’t ‘permanently’ dead, but I’d be interested to know the reactions of readers who weren’t aware of this. The killing itself, however, wasn’t what really made me feel sad at this point. If Aslan had died in battle I would have accepted it. It’s the cruelty, the spite, the bullying, the pettiness. They shaved him, for no other reason than to humiliate him.

This is the part of the book where the Jesus ‘supposal’ really sets in. It wasn’t apparent to me as a child, but it is very clear now. This chapter has many parallels with the Bible, which I think warrant a separate post to explore them fully. The jeering and mockery echoes the crown of thorns, the ‘INRI’ carving and so on.

What are the origins of the Witch’s knife? Why is it stone? Is it associated with the Stone Table? Did she make it, or acquire it? What was its ‘strange and evil shape’?

In my mind, this scene is linked with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Tr0otuiQuU) thanks to its use on the audiobook which I own. I think the music reflects the mood of the scene perfectly.

Lewis manages to make the scene of the murder of a favourite character really moving and oddly beautiful. I suppose that is how he may have seen the crucifiction – a terrible thing but with amazing consequences.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter thirteen. Deep magic from the dawn of time.

Synopsis: The witch prepares to kill Edmund. He is rescued by a party of Narnians. The witch and the dwarf disguise themselves and evade capture. Edmund is reunited with his siblings. The witch and the lion speak privately about her claim on Edmund’s blood. Jadis renounces her claim.

The Witch mentions, when planning to kill Edmund, that the Stone Table ‘is where it has always been done before’. Who has been killing people there? Why? Is that what it is supposed to be used for? And why does the dwarf say that it won’t be put to its proper use again for a long time?

I always wanted to know more about the evil creatures the Witch sends for: boggles, cruels and the people of the toadstools to name but a few.

I couldn’t find any particular symbolism for the intended sacrifice against a tree – it seems to just be for convenience.

Could the Witch always transform herself? Or is this sort of magic something she has learned somewhere?

Not knowing exactly what Edmund and Aslan discussed seems more powerful to me than if we had been given the whole conversation. Lewis is masterful at creating memorable prose, but also allows the reader moments like this where he invites us to fill in the blanks. I wonder if Edmund ever discussed it with anyone, later in life.

Calling the dwarf ‘Son of Earth’ reminds me of Tolkien’s stories of the first dwarves sleeping under the ground, waiting to be awoken.

We see here that the Witch is not the equal of Aslan in power – she cannot look him in the eye.

Here is our first mention of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea. I suppose, looking at it from a religious point of view, the Emperor would be God the Father to Aslan’s God the Son, so he would be very important. However, the lack of detail given about him, beyond the fact that he exists, means that I was never particularly interested in him. None of the Narnians seem to focus on the Emperor much either, looking to Aslan instead for help and guidance. This is one of those aspects of the book which I never gave a second thought when younger, and have only started to wonder about recently.

What are the firestones mentioned by the Witch? (Could they come from the mountains of the Sun, where Lucy’s cordial originates?) Where is the Secret Hill? What is engraved on the Emperor-beyond-the-sea’s sceptre? Why? How does the Witch know about it? Surely she’s never seen it, and Aslan wouldn’t have told her. Does anyone else share this knowledge?

Here we come to, for me, one of the book’s most confusing passages. Why, unless the Witch has ‘blood as the Law says,’ will Narnia have to ‘perish in fire and water’? Why is the Witch entitled to this? Why would Narnia’s existence be made so vulnerable? Who would this rule apply to if the Witch died? Maybe this is a reflection of something biblical I’m unaware of, but it strikes me as strange. I understand the idea of an eye for an eye applying to an individual, but not how it impacts the whole country. Is this the first betrayal? If not, did the Witch claim other people?

Poor Susan! Once again, she has the worst of it, when she innocently asks if the magic can be worked against. It most definitely can’t.

In Pauline Baynes’ illustration, Aslan stands upright like a human. This is the only time he is drawn this way. But it corresponds with descriptions of him clapping and shaking hands.

For all her hauteur, the Witch makes a most undignified exit here!

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter twelve. Peter’s first battle.

Synopsis: The children meet with Aslan and the other Narnians. Aslan shows Peter Cair Paravel, and tells him he will be High King. Susan blows her horn for help, and Peter kills the wolf which is attacking her. Peter is knighted.

Once again, Narnia is lovingly described, with ‘cool green thickets…wide, mossy glades where tal elms raised the leafy roof far overhead…dense masses of flowering currant.’ Narnia was based on the countries where Lewis lived – Ireland and England. As someone who has lived in England all their life, this makes the imagery of its nature familiar and reassuring for me. I wonder whether it is different for readers living in different climates. Do they picture Narnia as more similar to their homelands, or is it the difference that they enjoy?

Once again the characters are described as ‘dreamy’.

Poor Susan is given a blister. She can’t seem to get a break!

What were the origins of the Stone Table? Who made it? Who carved the writing into it? What language was the writing? Is there anything else similar in Narnia?

The description of Aslan’s camp reminds me of the sorts of scenes you find on medieval tapestries, and paintings of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This site has examples of the sorts of images I’m thinking of: http://www.cardinal-creations.com/joomla/index.php/classes/pavilion-class

I have to admit, as a child I had pretty ‘nerdy’ interests. My classmates were into horseriding, ballet and so on. I was into history, especially anything to do with knights, jousting, armour and castles. So naturally these elements in the Narnia stories really appealed to me. Did they appeal to other people as much? I have no idea. But I loved the idea of chivalrous knights in shining armour riding out to do battle with evil foes etc. etc. It seemed, to young me, a much more exciting way to live than growing up in suburban England in the 1980s.

Centaurs always seemed a little frightening when I was younger. They were so serious and strange, and didn’t seem to go in for much humour or light-heartedness. J. K. Rowling’s depictions of centaurs in the Harry Potter series echo this, with centaurs in both books being thoughtful star-gazers and fierce warriors.

When we finally see Aslan, we are again reminded of his good but awe-inspiring nature. ‘People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children ever thought so, they were cured of it now.’ This is echoed in the idea that he’s not tame.

Lewis lightens the intensity here by having the children and beavers all jostling to avoid being the first to speak to Aslan due to their nerves. Finally Peter accepts his role as leader and steps forward.

I didn’t know when I was younger what someone ‘ministering to’ me would involve, but it sounded cool.

Again, Peter is told he will be king of the country he is in, and seemingly takes it  in his stride. No-one questions why these particular children were chosen for such a monumental task.

Now Susan is chased up a tree by a raging wolf, and is on the verge of fainting. Her troubles continue!

Whenever Lewis writes about fighting, war or killing I think of his experiences in the First World War trenches. In his writing he is dismissive of them as an ‘influence’ but I can’t imagine anyone could go through that horror unaffected. The description of the fear, confusion and horrible physical details of Peter’s fight with the wolf felt very real to me.

Lewis tells us that Peter and Susan cry, and kiss each other – as you would – and then tells us that ‘in Narnia no one thinks any the worse of you for that’. This suggests that Lewis agrees with the Narnian approach on such matters.

Laura Miller mentions in ‘The Magician’s Book’ that she noted details like the importance of cleaning your sword after battle and stored them away for reference. I know exactly what she means – I did just the same.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter eleven. Aslan is nearer.

Synopsis: The witch orders her wolves to hunt down the children and beavers. The witch, the dwarf and Edmund ride out on her sledge. They encounter a merry party of Narnians. Spring arrives in Narnia.

Again, Lewis weaves humour into the story through his understated turn of phrase.  Edmund had been ‘having a most disappointing time’.

Edmund refuses the dry bread – his manners haven’t improved – but changes his mind when he sees the Witch’s response.

Finally, Edmund admits to himself the truth of the situation. He wishes desperately that he is dreaming and will wake up. Dreams feature regularly in the Chronicles. Often characters are unsure, at least at first, if they are dreaming or awake. I’ll try to combine all the examples of this into a separate post in future.

For some reason, the Witch turning the party of Narnians to stone really, really upset me when I was younger. I used to skip this part of the text, and fast forward the scene in the cartoon version and audio book. (I don’t remember doing this with any other section.) I think it was because I feared that the creatures would never be turned back. Lewis talks about them becoming covered in moss, then their stone faces crumbling away. It’s so sad! Apparently, another young reader worried about this and wrote to Lewis, who reassured them that when the Witch died, all her spells were broken and these people were fine. I must admit it is easier to read this section now, knowing that the animals survived!

When the Witch bites her lip so that it bleeds, it echoes the contrast of her red lips against her white skin, as mentioned when we first see her.

Lewis’ descriptions of the coming of Spring are beautiful. Running water makes a ‘strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise…murmuring, bubbling, splashing’. Then ‘mist turned from white to gold…shafts of delicious sunlight struck down onto the forest floor’. I didn’t know what celandines were when first reading this story, but I knew I was happy to see them covering the ground. Lewis loved nature, and describes the flora and fauna around Edmund with real affection. I always think of this passage when I hear Vaughan-Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, and vice versa. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR2JlDnT2l8) Lewis reminds the reader of the simple pleasure of birdsong, with birds ‘sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks’.

Of course, this isn’t just an ordinary change of season. It means renewal of the real Narnia, the end of the Witch’s rule. In terms of the religious associations, there is the link with rebirth, resurrection and Easter. Now it is the Witch who is in denial – about this and about the return of Aslan.

Narnia re-read. LWW Chapter ten. The spell begins to break.

Synopsis: The beavers and the Pevensies leave the dam and hide in a cave. They meet Father Christmas, who gives gifts to the three children.

I assume this is the intended response, but when Mrs Beaver was busily packing the food they are going to take on their journey, I was desperate for them to just get going, just as Susan was. (But then, in real life, I’m the sort of person who likes to be a good hour early for a train.)

As a child I longed for Narnian adventures, but re-reading them now they seem to be a lot more stressful than I remembered. Trekking through the snow for hours while trying not to leave tracks or be caught doesn’t sound fun at all. I think I must have skimmed over those parts and focused on the feasts and living in castles.

We aren’t told what they drink in the cave, but it sounds like some sort of brandy or whisky.

I love the little detail that when beavers are excited, their grammar suffers. Who knew?

The idea of Father Christmas existing in the Narnian world has troubled some people. Why would Christmas happen, if Jesus doesn’t exist there, only Aslan? Wouldn’t Christmas be peculiar to our world? To be fair, it isn’t logical in the slightest, but Lewis liked the idea, and so he used it. I’ve never heard a child question it when they read the story, and these stories are for children after all. In a wintry, snowy story full of magic, it makes its own kind of sense. (Although Tolkien would completely disagree with me.)

Father Christmas is described in a way which is similar to passages about Aslan. He is good, and glad, but also solemn. Lewis returns again and again to the idea that something can be happy and serious at the same time: ‘Lucy felt running through her that shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still’.

I have always wondered what Edmund’s gift would have been. Was there one ready for him?

There has been a lot of discussion about Lewis’ attitude to women, both in the Chronicles and in his other work. This is definitely a topic which warrants its own post, so I won’t go into it too much here. He says in this chapter that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Taking this statement in isolation, to be fair to Lewis, women generally didn’t fight in battles at the time of writing. (There are exceptions of course, such as the women fighting in the Red Army in WW2.) The same is true of the battles which occurred in the medieval world Narnia owes so much to. His contemporaries would mostly have agreed with him. However, reading this as a young girl I was confused. How were battles any different if women fought in them? Why couldn’t I fight for Narnia if I did manage to get there? Weren’t battles always ugly? In later Narnia stories girls do fight in battles, but not here.

Of all the gifts, the one I really wished I could have was the diamond bottle containing the healing cordial. There were other swords, shields etc., but I’d never heard of anything like this.

Once again, the ‘good’ characters enjoy a wholesome meal, this time having tea and sandwiches.

Narnia Re-read. LWW Chapter nine. In the Witch’s House.

Synopsis: After leaving the others, Edmund makes his way to the witch’s house. Here, he meets Maugrim, who takes him to the witch. He tells her about the others’ plans.

The first few lines of this chapter are a classic example of the conversational narrator: ‘And now of course you want to know what had happened to Edmund.’ A few lines later is another sentence which makes use of the combination of the everyday (its style and tone) and the magical (its content):’There’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food’. Lewis speaks with such authority on points like this that as a child I assumed he had experience of them himself.

This chapter really spells out the way that we can end up doing or saying really terrible things even if our intentions were nowhere near as bad or as serious as the end results of our actions. Edmund would like to have the upper hand against his older brother. He’d like to be an important Prince. He wants to scoff more Turkish delight. He doesn’t really want his siblings hunted down and killed. He doesn’t allow himself to think through the possible consequences of what he is doing. Again, Lewis tells us that really, deep down, Edmund knew how evil the Witch was. He lied to himself about her in order to carry on with his plan.

Actually getting to the Witch sounds like a thoroughly miserable journey. Edmund is lonely, cold and vulnerable. But again, he keeps himself going with those seductive thoughts about ‘paying out’ the others, and ruling Narnia. This section reminds me of ‘The Screwtape Letters’, where such ideas are discussed at length.

Edmund’s plans for Narnia show a lack of empathy with the natural world around him – he wants to have cinemas, cars and modern roads. This is the opposite of how Lewis felt about ‘progress’ and we are supposed to disagree with these ideas. Lewis and Tolkien were both in agreement on this point – for example Tolkien invites the reader to watch with horror as Saruman destroys a forest to make way for ‘industry’,  with his ‘mind of metal and wheels’.

Lewis can be very funny, with a dry sense of humour showing throughout his writing. (This is key to his work, The Screwtape Letters.) Here, Edmund plans to make laws ‘against beavers and dams’. Lewis has a knack for showing us totally plausible thoughts of different characters, like this one. Even if they are unaware of how foolish they sound, the reader is left in no doubt.

The Witch’s house is like a character. The word ‘house’ is even capitalised. The needle-like towers, strange shadows, iron gates and snow everywhere are a total contrast to the cosy homes of the ‘good’ characters which we have seen so far.

One of the statues is said to be a dragon. I don’t remember there being mention of a dragon elsewhere in the book, but I may be wrong.

The shock of the wolf not  being a statue always made me feel almost sorry for Edmund, despite the way he has been behaving so far. The sudden horror and fear is so easy to imagine.

Was the Witch ever so frightening as when she asked for the harness ‘without bells’ to be used? The calculating menace it suggests really gives you a chill when you read it.

Narnia Re-read. LWW Chapter eight. What happened after dinner.

Synopsis: Mr Beaver explains what happened to Tumnus. He also explains who Aslan is and shares prophecies with the children. The others realise that Edmund has disappeared.

Lewis often mentions stories, and which of his characters have read them. (Laura Miller’s ‘The Magician’s Book’ discusses this better than I ever could!) Peter’s ideas for rescuing Tumnus clearly come from a book. Lewis almost treats stories and legends as manuals for how to recognise and deal with different situations.

The children feel like Aslan’s name is ‘good news’ – this of course is what ‘gospel’ means. So the religious theme has appeared in earnest. I must admit, it took me longer than it probably should have to make the connection between this story and the Christian resurrection story. When I did work it out I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, as someone with only the vaguest idea of what they might or might not believe. It’s been mentioned before, but it’s worth repeating: the Narnia Chronicles are not  allegories. That would mean that everything represented or corresponded with something Biblical. Lewis described them instead as ‘supposals’: supposing that there was a world like Narnia, how would God manifest himself there? What might happen? The two narratives run alongside each other, meeting in places, but are not always the same. For some people, the religious element is what they love about Narnia. For others, it spoils them, or makes them ‘preachy’. Neither describes my feelings. I loved the stories from my first experience of them, when I didn’t know about this ‘undercurrent’. I still love them. I’d love them if they were Buddhist, or atheist, or Sikh. This subject is so huge I’m hoping to look into this properly in a separate post once I’ve completed my re-read.

When the children are told the rhyme about humans needing to rule Narnia, either they don’t realise fully what the implications are, or they are remarkably relaxed about their destiny involving being the rulers of a dangerous, magical world they’ve only just arrived in. Everyone seems very calm about it!

I wonder why the Witch didn’t set up home in Cair Paravel. Wouldn’t it have lent credence to her claim to rule? And who maintains it? Without a whole team of staff a castle like that would just be a ruin. Who built it? How old is it? Is it fully furnished? (I think I’ve probably spent too long thinking about this for someone with a full time job.)

Once again, Susan regrets coming to Narnia. She doesn’t exactly get the best lines, does she? Her main job in this story seems to be worrying and being afraid.

Here is where the three siblings see just how far Edmund has gone ‘wrong’. It’s easier for the beavers to spot it, but when they do, the children know that he really has betrayed them. Things are getting serious. Basically, a powerful multi-murderer is going to try to hunt them down and kill them, using information provided by their own brother. If they died in Narnia, what would happen in our world? Would they just disappear?

Narnia Re-read. LWW Chapter seven. A day with the beavers.

Synopsis: The Pevensies follow Mr Beaver to his house, where Mrs Beaver gives them dinner. Mr Beaver tells the children about Aslan for the first time.

I haven’t been able to find any symbolic or mythical reason that Lewis would have chosen beavers as animals for his story. Apart from being known as hard-working, the only other thing they seem to be associated with is Canada! In Britain, they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century, but have recently been reintroduced.

Again, the children show us their key traits through their speech. Edmund is suspicious of the motives of others. Susan is worried. Lucy is trusting. Peter is confident.

The idea of sentient trees is one which recurs throughout the chronicles. Lewis’ close friend, Tolkien, also used them in his Middle Earth books. Both writers felt that trees represented a lost or dying world that they loved, and cast them as characters in their stories. I’m hoping to explore this further in a separate post in future. It has been said that the booming voice of Treebeard the ent, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was based on Lewis.

Lewis uses clear descriptions of the nature surrounding the characters to build up an image of Narnia as a country. However, I find it really tricky to know how much of the Narnia I see in my mind’s eye is straight from the text. I suspect large chunks of it come from Pauline Baynes’ illustrations and the 1979 animated film. The Narnia of my imagination is probably an amalgam of all the different sources I’ve grown up with.

Aslan is first mentioned in this chapter. Of course, he is key to all the Narnia stories. In the edition I’m reading at the moment (Lions, paperback, 1980) this same excerpt is used on the cover of the book. It describes the children’s responses to hearing Aslan’s name in a very ‘Lewis’ way: each emotional response is related to the reader using an everyday idea that they would be sure to understand: ‘Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave or adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or delightful strain of music has just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.’ Again the simple sounding narrator’s voice is used with total assurance and effectiveness.

I love Mr Beaver’s pride in his dam, replying to compliments with ‘Merely a trifle,’ but clearly delighted.

Some people have found it incongruous that Mrs Beaver has a sewing machine. They wonder how such technology exists in Narnia, when much of it seems to be some sort of medieval equivalent. Tolkien was troubled by Lewis’ ‘slapdash’ world-building, which combined details and ideas from everywhere. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was painstakingly developed. But Lewis wasn’t so concerned with making a workable economy for Narnia as using it to reflect our own world back to us, and as a backdrop to telling stories. If he liked the ‘feel’ of something, he used it. I have to say, much as I enjoy the rich detail of Middle Earth, Narnia was always the place I longed to get to, so his approach worked for me.

I wonder if the beavers have first names. The other animals all seem to.

Again, ‘good’ characters are shown to have a cosy, homely home. This idea of cosiness comes up again and again in the chronicles. It must have been something Lewis really enjoyed.

Food in Narnia really seems to matter. It is always so lovingly described, you wish you were there eating it. The fresh fish, butter and potatoes eaten here are simple food, but described so well you really wish you could pull up a stool and tuck in!

Pipe smoking appears in both Narnia and Middle Earth, as does drinking alcohol. This reflects the authors’ habits and the habits common at the time.

Re-read. LWW Chapter six. Into the forest.

Synopsis: All four children enter Narnia. They find that Tumnus has been arrested. They discuss helping him. They follow a robin into the woods.

After moving between worlds during the first five chapters, the book now moves into Narnia, where the story continues until the last chapter.

Peter’s exclamation of ‘by jove’ is another example of outdated expressions used by the children. However, there may be more to it than that. Michael Ward’s book, ‘Planet Narnia’ puts forward the theory that each of the Narnia books is linked to a different planet or star, specifically the ideas and associations which that planet/star had in the medieval world. He asserts that LWW is linked throughout to Jupiter, or Jove. I’ll be reviewing this book soon, and will give more detail there, but his evidence is persuasive.

Peter is shown to be the natural leader here, and his sincere apology to Lucy contrasts with how Edmund has treated her.

I wonder what happened to the fur coats in the end.

Reading about what was done to Tumnus’ cosy cave is really sad, especially the slashed picture of his father. For readers in post-war Britain, maybe this scene echoed what people had heard about secret police and the like in Axis and Eastern Bloc countries.

Who actually wrote the notice? It says, ‘signed, Maugrim’. Does this mean that talking animals can read and write? How would they do this? (Yes, I’m probably over-thinking this.)

Susan is always the least keen to do things. She wants to turn back here, but when the Pevensies encounter the lamppost in the final chapter, it is also Susan who doesn’t want to pass it towards our world. Maybe she’s just trying to be sensible and look out for her siblings.

A robin leads the children further into the wood. Robins are very popular birds. They feature in British and European folktales, for example in Babes in the Wood. They were linked to the Norse god Thor. Robins are often associated with Christmas (which is about to happen in Narnia for the first time in a very long time) and there were also legends that its red feathers were caused by the blood of Jesus marking the robin as it tried to comfort him on the cross. All these associations would, I think, have appealed to Lewis when choosing his messenger bird.

The children are now at the point where they can’t go back – they don’t know the way. The reader knows that whatever is going to happen, it will be in this world, not ours. Which of course is what we want to read about.

Re-read. LWW Chapter five. Back on this side of the door.

Synopsis: Lucy and Edmund return to our world, but Edmund lies to Peter and Susan about what happened. They are so concerned at Lucy’s insistence that Narnia exists that they ask the Professor for advice. All four children hide in the wardrobe. 

I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t feel for Lucy when they read what Edmund decides to do here. Anyone who’s ever stood and listened to a lie being told – about them – will empathise with her sense of betrayal. No wonder she couldn’t speak.

Edmund’s surprise at Peter’s reaction demonstrates his lack of maturity and empathy. We haven’t been told the children’s actual ages, but his immaturity contrasts with Peter and Susan’s concern for Lucy. They are clearly more ‘grown-up’.

All the books I’ve ever read about the chronicles agree that the Professor is based on Lewis’ beloved tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick. When Lewis first met him, Kirkpatrick surprised him greatly with an unexpected response to a throwaway comment Lewis made. Here Professor Kirke does just this, to Susan and Peter. Just as Kirkpatrick would have done, he then uses logic and questioning to draw his unexpected conclusion. This section really appealed to me as a child, as it was so different from the kinds of things adults usually said when I spoke with them. What I didn’t realise at that time was that the Professor’s assertion that, “Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth,”  echoes the ‘trilemma’ Lewis writes about in Mere Christianity. Here Lewis tries to convince his reader that, “Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman, or something worse.” He presents three alternatives for us to choose from in both cases, hoping that we will choose to believe each person is ‘telling the truth’.

I wish I knew exactly what it was that leads Kirke to say that the house is ‘very strange’. Apart from the Narnian wardrobe, what else is there? I’d love to explore it.

I love the Professor’s plan: ‘mind our own business’. I can just picture the children’s expressions when he says this.  They’d tried so hard to be sensible and grown up, too, and here was an adult telling them that multiple worlds were probably around every corner, but it was nothing to get het up about!

Re-read. LWW Chapter four. Turkish Delight.

Synopsis: Edmund speaks with the White Witch. She gives him enchanted food and drink, and questions him about his family. She instructs him to return to her house with his siblings. Edmund then meets Lucy but doesn’t mention what he’s been doing.

Edmund and the Witch’s conversation is like an unpleasant echo of Lucy and Tumnus’. Lucy was confused by the faun’s polite questioning, as is Edmund when he is asked what he ‘is’. In contrast to the friendly conversation Lucy enjoyed, Edmund is threatened and called an ‘idiot’. He is afraid of what the witch will do to him and reluctant to get onto the sleigh.

I’d love to know what the enchanted drink was. I suppose I imagine it to be similar to a chai latte, or a spiced hot chocolate. All we know is that it was ‘sweet, foamy and creamy’.

Turkish delight. This is such a memorable detail from the story. As a child it sounded so exotic, so luxurious. I now know better. The real Turkish delight is a pleasant enough sweet, but it’s not something I could gorge myself on. (There are many sweets which I could do this with – biscuits, cakes, puddings, chocolates, pattisserie…) I imagine many people have felt the same when they’ve tried it: this is it? This was what Edmund craved so badly? But then, I suppose it’s extremely sugary, and sugar and sweets were rationed in wartime Britain. (In fact, they were rationed until 1954.) Edmund would have been excited about anything sweet. Also, the varieties I’ve tried haven’t been enchanted by an evil sorceress from another world, so what do I know?

Reading about Edmund stuffing his face, while carelessly betraying poor Tumnus, I felt uncomfortable recognition. I recalled times when I’ve thoughtlessly said something when my mind has been on something else. Words can do such damage. This is our first clue, I suppose, that Edmund is capable of not just standard naughtiness, but maybe something worse.

On my re-read I found myself wondering why the witch didn’t ask Edmund to take her back to the door he’d entered Narnia through. Wasn’t she curious? Wasn’t she concerned about what else might come through it?

Something I find really interesting about how Edmund’s portrayal is that he’s never truly  fooled by the witch. He knows she is evil. He’s scared of her. He knows he’s choosing the wrong ‘side’. She’s not fooled him or tricked him. He does that to himself. This fits with ideas Lewis wrote about in his apologetics. He believed that every action, every decision we make, either turns us a little more towards the ‘right’ path, or in the opposite direction. We lie to ourselves, convince ourselves, talk ourselves into things we know we shouldn’t. Having been a complete idiot on many occasions, making some very questionable decisions (teenage me in particular) this idea, and Edmund’s thoughts, really strike a chord.

Re-read. LWW Chapter three. Edmund and the wardrobe.

Synopsis: Lucy  returns from Narnia and tells her siblings about it. They look in the wardrobe but there’s nothing there. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy and Edmund both enter Narnia separately. Edmund meets the “Queen of Narnia”.

You can’t help but feel heartily sorry for Lucy when the wardrobe has changed back to a standard piece of furniture. Again, Lewis shows his keen memory of how things feel when you are young . He never dismisses fear, anger etc. in his young characters. It is important to them, so it is important full stop. Lucy’s misery feels really genuine.

As a child I was careful to remember the advice which the narrator gives the reader throughout the chronicles. I would never  be foolish enough to shut myself in a wardrobe, I promise you. As a child I was quite shocked that Edmund did! Apparently Lewis added these warnings at the suggestion of a concerned reader. (This is mentioned in Downing’s ‘Into the Wardrobe’.)

Of course, Edmund’s first experience of Narnia is different from Lucy’s – he has already been told about the place by his sister, even if he didn’t believe her. I was particularly struck by the assertion that, “He looked round him again and decided that he did not much like this place.” As someone who spent more time than I’d care to admit casually strolling into the backs of cupboards and wardrobes, ‘just in case’, I can’t imagine having this reaction to finding a secret land in a spare room. Younger me is shouting at Edmund in disbelief, “You’re in NARNIA! Don’t you know how lucky you are?”

I’d never noticed that the reindeer had gilded antlers before. I wonder how this would be achieved.

I have to admit, when I saw the 2005 film of this book, I didn’t understand why the White Witch’s battle chariot was pulled by polar bears. There weren’t polar bears in Narnia, were there? But during this re-read, I’ve spotted that the Witch’s dwarf is here described as wearing polar bear fur, so the mistake was mine, not the film’s!

According to Colbert’s ‘The Magical Worlds of Narnia’, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’ served as a template for Jadis: a Queen who travels in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, tempts a boy to come with her to her cold castle, wrapping him in her furs, and enchants the surrounding lands to ensure a permanent winter. Added into the mix could also be Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam (she is described as being an ancestor of Jadis’) Ayesha, the domineering villain of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure stories, and even the devil. For me, two things strike me most on the first meeting with this character. Firstly, her appearance is so striking: her white face and red lips. Secondly, she immediately puts me in mind of those people we have all encountered at some point who are charming when they need something, but when they don’t, show their true colours. Readers are left under no illusions about this character’s true nature, even without recalling what we learned from Tumnus in the last chapter.

Re-read. LWW Chapter two. What Lucy found there.

Synopsis: Lucy has tea with Mr Tumnus. He reveals what he had planned to do, then takes Lucy back to Lantern Waste. She returns to our world.

I love the exchange between Lucy and Tumnus. He is so courteous, and they are both charmingly confused by each other. The idea of the ‘bright city of War Drobe’ and the land of ‘Spare Oom’ amused me no end as a child. It still puts a smile on my face: such a wonderful description given to something so mundane.

Mr Tumnus’ invite to tea sounds so cosy, so inviting, I always wished I could go. His homely cave reminds me of any number of real life British homes from my childhood. It is just the place you’d want to return to after a brisk winter walk.

Food in Narnia invariably sounds delicious. Here, the food is old fashioned, simple and reflects the sort of food Lewis enjoyed. (A. N. Wilson discusses this in his biography of Lewis.) The thought of a lightly boiled egg and sugar- topped cake always appealed to me. I’d even give the sardines a go, just this once.

There’s another mention of a stag here – this time it’s the white stag, who grants wishes. I only found out as an adult that Lewis didn’t create this creature. A quick nose around the Internet gives layer upon layer of meaning here: it appears in Celtic and Eastern European legends; it symbolises the beginning of a quest; it acts as a messenger from magical worlds; it is involved in the story of St Eustace; it heralds peace and joy; it is a symbol of and worthy quarry for royalty. More recently, a pale stag (well, a patronus version, anyway) acts as a guide for Harry Potter.

Tumnus explains that wintry Narnia isn’t the natural state of affairs. Again, in a few simple sentences, Lewis makes old Narnia sound like somewhere I’d really, really love to go. Who wouldn’t want to go treasure hunting with wild red dwarfs?

“You’re the nicest faun I’ve ever met.” I love this line: he’s the only  faun she’s ever met!

It was only very recently that I noticed that the faun’s name is first given as Tumnus- it is Lucy who adds the ‘Mr’, presumably because to her, Tumnus sounds like a surname.

The illustration showing Tumnus and Lucy walking through the woods is probably the one I have seen reproduced most frequently. An Etsy search finds it on pillows, jewellery, allsorts. It really encapsulates the Narnian mixture of the strange and the familiar: the strangeness of a faun with a woollen scarf, and the familiarity of trees in winter either side of a rough path, and a friend holding an umbrella.

One idea which is present throughout the chronicles is that it is never too late to change, to be sorry, to do the right thing. Tumnus deciding to let Lucy leave, at his own risk, is the first example of this. It’s a much more interesting way to introduce a character than having them be a straightforward ‘good guy’ from the start.

Re-read. LWW Chapter one: Lucy Looks Into A Wardrobe.

Synopsis: The Pevensies are living as evacuees in the British countryside during WW2. Lucy climbs into a wardrobe, accidentally finding Narnia, and a faun.

I suppose I should start with a quick mention of why I am beginning my re-read with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, instead of The Magician’s Nephew. There are two schools of thought on the order in which the Chronicles should be read, which I’ll be looking at in more depth soon. For me, the books provide the richest reading experience when you begin with LWW.

I often wonder how I would react to this book if I’d never read it before. The story is so familiar, with so many associations built up over the years, it is impossible to say. Even people who have never read the book recognise the image of a girl finding a snowy world in the back of the wardrobe. It’s part of our culture now.

The first thing that strikes me is the simplicity of the introduction. There’s no thrilling first-sentence ‘hook’ of the kind I was told to look out for in school. The writing is economical and throws us straight into the story. When you’re as good as Lewis, you don’t need to use the language tricks we were taught at school.

Something I always loved, although as a child I couldn’t articulate it, is the style of narration in the Narnia books, and this begins immediately. Some fantasy books are so serious, and full of florid descriptions, but here Lewis tells us conversationally about the servants in the house, and gives us snippets of information like the distance from the house to the nearest post office. It feels like we are talking with a friend. The children are introduced through their conversation, which gives us clues to their personalities straight away. Edmund is drawn perfectly within just a few lines. Those of us with older brothers probably recognise him immediately.

I hadn’t noticed before that a stag is mentioned here, which echoes the final chapter’s theme.

For some reason, when the children are listing animals they might see, it reminds me of ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ from The Wizard of Oz.

The stories are, of course, set in a particular time, and the language here reflects that. I wonder if children now would know what a wireless was, or why the proximity to the railway station is considered relevant. I don’t suppose many children now refer to people as ‘old chap’ or ‘old dear’. I first started reading the books in the 1980s, and I never questioned these old fashioned terms; I wonder if that is still the case for readers in 2015.

Lewis makes his children act like children – something many writers struggle with – and that can be seen when Lucy rubs the fur coats on her face, when Edmund tries to hide his laughter at the strange old professor, and when the siblings bicker over nothing in particular. Lewis never seems to have forgotten how children ‘are’.

The faun is introduced with such care that even before I have reached Pauline Bayne’s illustration, I can picture him quite clearly. It is such a memorable image. I wonder what the paper-wrapped parcels actually contained – we never find out.

In her book about her relationship with Narnia, ‘The Magician’s Book’, Laura Miller discusses the idea that Lucy opening the doors to a wardrobe, and travelling through them to a new world, reflects the reader’s experience of opening the pages of the book and doing the same. I love this idea, which had never occurred to me but which now seems quite obvious.

Some stories take a while to get going. That accusation could not be levelled at LWW. By page 15 I’ve met the main characters, and am now in a strange new place with a faun.