Monday, 18 August 2014

Re-reading Narnia: 'Prince Caspian'

Mad as I was about Narnia as a child, Prince Caspian was never my favourite among the Seven Chronicles, and the reason is as clear to me now as it was then, only then I put it differently: I just found the long fifty page back-story which tells the history of Caspian and Miraz – not dull, exactly, but certainly a distraction from where I really wanted to be, which was with Lucy and Peter and Susan and Edmund in the ruins of Cair Paravel. I still read it multiple times, of course - I'd have read the Narnian telephone directory, if such a thing had existed - but I felt it wasn't as good as some of the other books.

My eight or nine-year old self was correct. Prince Caspian is clumsily constructed. The first part is the best, in which the children are called back to Narnia and gradually realise that hundreds of Narnian years have passed since they were last there.

Often in writing, everything begins with an image and an emotion – a couple of things that come together like flint and iron, and strike the spark which kindles the book. I’ve got the feeling that in this book the spark of inspiration lasted Lewis through to about page 40, by which time he’d said everything he actually wanted to say. A book, however, has to be longer than that: so he had to work out a plot and people it with characters, and the story of Caspian’s childhood is reasonably entertaining, but it stops the narrative dead in its tracks for the whole middle part of the book. Then follows the children’s cross-country journey to Caspian’s aid - an unconvincing stratagem for a single combat between Peter and Miraz - a couple of treacherous Ruritanian-type lords thrown in for good measure - and Aslan at his worst: unfair, demanding and capricious. If Prince Caspian had been the only sequel to TLTW&TW, one would have to conclude that Lewis had lost his touch.

And yet it all begins so simply and so well, with the four children sitting despondently at the station waiting for the two trains which will separate them and send them away to school (‘Lucy was going to boarding school for the first time’) when –

Lucy gave a sharp little cry, like someone who has been stung by a wasp.
            ‘What’s up, Lu?’ said Edmund – and then suddenly broke off and made a noise like ‘Ow!’
            ‘What on earth –’ began Peter, and then he too suddenly changed what he had been going to say. Instead he said, ‘Susan let go! What are you doing?  Where are you dragging me to?’
            ‘I’m not touching you,’ said Susan. ‘Someone is pulling me.  Oh – oh – oh – stop it!’
            Everyone noticed that all the others’ faces had gone very white.
            ‘I felt just the same,’ said Edmund in a breathless voice. ‘As if I were being dragged along. A most frightful pulling – ugh! it’s beginning again.’

So different is this magic summons from the easy transition through the wardrobe in the first book, I’m tempted to consider it a metaphor for the difficulty of writing a sequel. At any rate, it’s a brilliantly imagined and startling opening as the children are jerked out of England and – holding hands – find themselves ‘standing in a woody place – such a woody place that branches were sticking into them and there was hardly room to move.’

What the children (and the reader) don’t yet realise is that they’ve been called into Narnia by Caspian blowing on Queen Susan’s magic horn.  How Lewis resisted the temptation to have the children actually hear the note of a far-away faerie horn – ‘with dim cri and blowing’, as in the medieval romance Sir Orfeo - I just don’t know: but he was right. He fixes instead on the unpleasant physical sensations of being tugged, jerked, dragged out of one world and into another, and unceremoniously deposited in a highly inconvenient place.
From Roland's to Boromir's, there are many wondrous horns in fantasy literature, but it seems to me that Susan’s horn is a version of the horn of Oberon in the late medieval romance ‘Huon of Bordeaux’, which Lewis knew well. In that tale (translated from the French by the Lord Berners who was Henry VIII’s Governor of Calais), the knight Huon, journeying to Jerusalem, meets the fairy king, Oberon, in a magic wood:

…the dwarf of the fairies, King Oberon, came riding by, wearing a gown so rich that it were marvel to recount… and garnished with precious stones whose clearness shone like the sun. He had a goodly bow in his hand, and his arrows after the same sort, and these had such a property that they could hit any beast in the world.  Moreover, he had about his neck a rich horn, hung by two laces of gold… and whosoever heard it, if he were a hundred days journey thereof, should come at the pleasure of him that blew it.

Perhaps Susan's bow and arrows come from the same source. Characteristically inventive, Lewis shows us, not how it feels to blow such a horn, but what it’s like to be summoned by one ‘at the pleasure of him that blew it’. As the children remark, when a magician in the Arabian Nights calls up a Jinn, the Jinn has to come.

‘And now we know what it feels like for the Jinn,’ said Edmund with a chuckle.  ‘Golly!  It’s a bit uncomfortable to know that we can be whistled for like that.’

We’: original italics. Does Edmund mean ‘we public-school English children’, or ‘we kings and queens of Narnia’?  In either case, the word speaks of privilege… these children have a strong sense of their own position in the world.  But I like the way Lewis borrows the conventions of fairytales and medieval fantasy while turning around to look at them from the other side, so to speak: there's more of this to come.

Within a few minutes the children struggle out of the trees and find themselves

…at the edge of a wood, looking down on a sandy beach.  A few yards away a very calm sea was falling on the sand with such tiny ripples that it made hardly any sound. There was no land in sight and no clouds in the sky. The sun was about where it ought to be at ten o’ clock in the morning, and the sea was a dazzling blue. They stood sniffing in the sea-smell.
            ‘By Jove!’ said Peter. ‘This is good enough.’

Of course, this is Narnia.

To begin with they behave like the children they are, paddling and enjoying the unexpected treat – ‘better than being in a stuffy train on the way back to Latin and French and Algebra!’ – but soon become hot, thirsty and hungry. Then they discover they are on an island, and the narrative swerves briefly into ‘shipwrecked sailor’ mode, Lewis poking a little light fun at ‘Boys’ Own’ type adventures:

Lucy wanted to go back to the sea and catch shrimps, until someone pointed out that they had no nets. Edmund said they must gather gulls’ eggs from the rocks, but when they came to think of it they couldn’t remember having seen any gulls’ eggs and wouldn’t be able to cook them if they found any. …Susan said it was a pity they had eaten the sandwiches so soon. One or two tempers very nearly got lost at this stage. Finally Edmund said,
‘Look here.  There’s only one thing to be done. We must explore the wood.  Hermits and knight-errants and people like that always manage to live somehow if they’re in a forest.  They find roots and berries and things.’
‘What sort of roots?’ asked Susan.
‘I always thought it meant roots of trees,’ said Lucy.

At this point the children's responses are very much derived from the books they've read, but the reference to hermits and knight-errants heralds a change of tone and the discovery of the ruined castle, along with memories of the chivalric past in which the children themselves once lived. At the end of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lewis compressed a couple of decades of the children’s adult Narnian lives into a couple of faux-heroic pages:

Then said King Peter (for they talked in quite a different style now, having been Kings and Queens for so long), ‘Fair Consorts, let us now alight from our horses and follow this beast into the thicket, for in all my days I never hunted a nobler quarry.’
            ‘Sir,’ said the others, ‘even so let us do.’

In this passage it was Queen Susan who didn’t want to follow the White Stag beyond the lamp-post – ‘By my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further’.  When I was a child I had a good deal of sympathy for her point of view: if they’d done as she suggested, they’d all have stayed in Narnia, so she was right, wasn’t she? Looking at that passage now, I see the beginning of a characterisation of Susan which continues into this book too: Susan is gallant enough, and a skilled archer, but she is also cautious, and consistently reluctant to face challenges. This isn’t about ‘being a girl’: Lucy, and in later books Jill and Polly and Aravis are evidence for Lewis’s equal treatment of the sexes.  It’s just the way Susan is: and also something to do with the dynamic of keeping four main characters ‘alive’ and distinguishable from one another. In fact Peter is the most boring of the lot: he never deviates an inch from decent, fair-minded, head-boy, big-brotherhood. If Susan is practical and sharp – unfair sometimes, sometimes a bit of a nag – at least she breathes. 

And now the children find themselves here: in an ancient apple orchard, looking at an old stone wall, and it is Susan’s turn to make discoveries.  ‘This wasn’t a garden,’ she says. ‘It was a castle and this must have been its courtyard.’ And,

‘It gives me a queer feeling,’ said Lucy.

As well it might. This quiet ruin is the emotional heart of the book, and the discovery the children are about to make is – I believe – the point of the entire story; the rest is just window-dressing.

It’s beautifully done.  The ‘yellowish-golden’ apples on the ancient trees come with memories of the Hesperides, the secret garden, Eden – anywhere long-loved and lost. Because when the children do finally realise where they are the realisation is laden with melancholy: this is Cair Paravel, but not as it was: their Cair Paravel is gone for ever.

Still unaware, the children make camp. Susan goes to the well for a drink, and returns with something in her hand:

‘Look,’ she said in a rather choking kind of voice. ‘I found it by the well.’ She handed it to Peter and sat down. The others thought she looked and sounded as though she might be going to cry.

… ‘Well I’m – I’m jiggered,’ said Peter, and his voice also sounded queer. Then he handed it to the others.  All now saw what it was – a little chess-knight, ordinary in size but extraordinarily heavy because it was made of pure gold; and the eyes in the horse’s head were two tiny little rubies – or rather one was, for the other had been knocked out.

‘Why,’ said Lucy, ‘it’s exactly like one of the golden chessmen we used to play with when we were Kings and Queens at Cair Paravel.’

In the Icelandic poem ‘The Deluding of Gylfi’, the tale is told of the end of the Norse Gods, the Aesir, at the day of Ragnarok: after which a new earth will rise out of the sea, fresh and green. Baldur will return from death, and the sons of the gods ‘will all sit down together and converse, calling to mind their hidden lore and talking about things that happened in the past… Then they will find there in the grass the golden chessmen the Aesir used to play with…’

Susan is crying because of the memories the little chess piece has brought back. ‘I can’t help it.  It brought back – oh, such lovely times.  And I remembered playing chess with fauns and good giants, and the mer-people singing in the sea, and my beautiful horse, and – and –’

And now Peter ‘uses his brains’ and declares that, impossible as it may seem, ‘We are in the ruins of Cair Paravel itself.’ Hundred of years must have passed in Narnia, and the four children are in the position of long-lost heroes who return to find only traces of themselves in a world which has almost forgotten them. The revelation is confirmed when they uncover the old treasury of Cair Paravel.

There are many folktales and legends in which people step into fairy rings, or disappear into a fairy kingdom for what seems a few hours, and return to find that a hundred or more years have passed, and no one now remembers them. Lewis would have been familiar with the 12th century story of King Herla, invited to a wedding by a goat-footed pygmy king who ruled underground halls of unutterable splendour.  After the celebrations, the fairy king escorted Herla out of his kingdom -

…and then presented the king with a small blood-hound to carry, strictly enjoining him that on no account must any of his train dismount until that dog leapt from the arms of his bearer… Within a short space Herla arrived once more at the light of the sun and at his kingdom, where he accosted an old shepherd and asked for news of his Queen, naming her. The shepherd gazed at him in astonishment and said: ‘Sir, I can hardly understand your speech, for you are a Briton and I a Saxon, but they say… that long ago, there was a Queen of that name over the very ancient Britons, who was the wife of King Herla; and he, the story says, disappeared in company with a pigmy at this very cliff, and was never seen on earth again…’

In Prince Caspian Lewis has reversed the tradition, so that while in England only a year has passed, in Narnia hundreds or maybe a thousand years have sped by. It’s as if England is a fairyland, less real than Narnia. I’m sure Lewis was thinking of the story of Herla, because once the children realise what’s happened, Peter exclaims, ‘…And now we’re coming back to Narnia just as if we were Crusaders or Anglo-Saxons or Ancient Britons or someone coming back to modern England!’  ‘How excited they’ll be to see us –’ Lucy begins optimistically – and is interrupted by the sight of a boat rowed by armed men who have come to execute Trumpkin the dwarf by drowning.

The book never again reaches the emotional depth of these passages, in which a children’s magical adventure story unfolds into a poignant consideration of the mysteries of loss and time.  Tell me where all past things are?  Where beth they beforen us weren?  Ou sont les neiges d’antan?  Children do ask profound questions about life, the universe and everything, and adults are frequently stumped. I remember asking my mother, ‘What would there be if there was nothing?’ and she couldn’t give a satisfactory answer.  The Narnia stories were my introduction to a good many metaphysical thought-experiments.  What if time is relative and runs at different speeds in different places?  What if there are multiple universes?  What if something could be larger on the inside than on the outside? It was exhilarating.

CS Lewis throws into the first forty pages of Prince Caspian his own experience of sehnsucht, of longing for something unattainable. Childhood? A mother’s love?  Security?  Peace?    

Into my heart an air that kills 
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills, 
What spires, what farms are those? 

That is the land of lost content, 
I see it shining plain, 
The happy highroads where I went 
And cannot come again. 

For me the rest of the book is an anti-climax. Trumpkin – or Lewis – interrupts the narrative with the history of Prince Caspian, a child version of Hamlet whose throne has been usurped by his wicked uncle Miraz, under whose alien Telmarine rule the magic of Narnia has been suppressed. It’s difficult to feel enthusiastic about Caspian – he doesn’t come alive until the next book. I tapped my foot through the story as a child, and I’m still impatient with it now, and with names like Queen Prunaprismia, and academic jokes aimed above children's heads, such as Caspian's grammar book written by one Pulverentulus Siccus, for goodness sake. With the help of the badger Trufflehunter, the trusty Red Dwarf Trumpkin and the untrustworthy Black Dwarf Nikabrik, Caspian escapes to lead the forces of the native Narnians, but finding his rebellion in trouble, blows on Susan’s horn for aid…

Bad Black Dwarves. I was always rather sorry for Nikabrik, bound for a bad end after trying to enrol a Hag and a Wer-wolf to Caspian’s cause. In fairytales and myths the colour black represents night and death – and by extension, evil. In the real world, I don’t need to say, the ‘white = good, black = bad’ equation has caused a great deal of trouble. Narnia isn’t the real world but a fairytale, so perhaps it’s unfair to vilify Lewis for employing the symbolism of fairytales. I merely note it’s a shame that all Black Dwarfs seem to be dodgy customers – as though hair-and-beard-colour determined your character.

Who are the usurping Telmarines?  They come from a country named Telmar, beyond the Western Mountains, though it never appears on any of the maps drawn by Pauline Baynes. Prior to that they came from our human world – or Caspian would have no legitimate claim to the throne of Narnia, which by Aslan’s command must be ruled by a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve. This is of course a reflection of Genesis, in which Adam is given rule over the birds of the air and beasts of the field. So… how has Telmarine rule gone wrong?

‘It is… the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and the Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them,’ (says Doctor Cornelius to Caspian). 

For Telmarines, read – who?  What is Lewis trying to say?  Who or what was it in our world which did its best to drive out belief in and cover up the memory of fauns, satyrs, the spirits of trees and fountains? The Church?  The Puritans?  The Education System? Is this a plea for freedom of imagination? I don’t quite know what’s going on, but it seems to be a muddled but sincere claim for the vital importance of myths and stories. Or – possibly and more controversially – for belief itself. At any rate, Narnia without its magic is a poor place.  

When Aslan finally does turn up, he reveals himself at first only to Lucy, and there’s a reprise of TLTW&TW in which this time Edmund believes her, and Peter and Susan do not. Aslan is much less loveable, much more manipulative, in this book.  He puts people to the test.  He terrifies Trumpkin by seizing and shaking him – even though the children know that  ‘Aslan liked the Dwarf very much.’ (And this is how to reward him?)  He refuses to heal Reepicheep’s lopped-off tail until the other mice prepare to cut their own tails off in solidarity with their brave leader.  You can see the difference most clearly in the bacchanal, Aslan's Romp with Bacchus and the wild girls, which so closely resembles Aslan's joyful gallop with Lucy and Susan through the springtime Narnian woods, in the previous book.  But what in TLTW&TW was sheer delight, culminating in the release of the Witch's stone prisoners, in Prince Caspian  becomes vengeful and aggressive. Aslan frightens a group of schoolgirls and their teacher:

Miss Prizzle… clutched at her desk to steady herself and found that the desk was a rosebush. Wild people such as she had never even imagined were crowding round her. Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs. Gwendolen hesitated. 

One is led to assume – by disassociation – that by contrast to the fat legged, dumpy girls, Gwendolen is slender and pretty. And therefore good, brave, open-minded?  Guilty of fat legs or not, Gwendolen joins in Aslan’s bacchanal. This passage has not stood the test of time very well, and neither has its companion piece a page later, in which Aslan terrifies a classroom of boys who jump out of the window and are turned into pigs: shades of the Gadarene Swine?  We are meant to understand that this is all right because the boys had been persecuting their young teacher whom Aslan welcomes and addresses as ‘Dear Heart’ – but the general air of ‘it serves ‘em all right’ leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Prejudices run rife. No allowances are made.  There is no quarter.

Finally, why have Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy been brought to Narnia at all?  What is their narrative function? Not one of them really affects anything. Peter’s challenge to Miraz is ultimately a failure, ending in the very wholesale battle he had hoped to avoid. Only Aslan’s intervention with the trees, in a scene reminiscent of the march of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings, saves the day for the native Narnians: and one assumes Aslan could have roused the trees any time he liked. Susan and Lucy literally go along for the ride.  Prince Caspian seems to me to have been hastily and carelessly written, with very little of the love and attention that is evident in the first book.

There are moments. I love the scene in which Lucy almost calls the trees awake, dancing through the moonlit wood. I love the descriptions of the rich loamy earth which the trees eat at the great banquet after the victory. And of course I love the first meeting with one of Narnia’s great characters, the chivalrous and martial mouse, Reepicheep. All in all, however, this is a book to be read for the sake of the first few chapters.

Things look up – a long way up – in the next title, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  But that is a post for next time.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Re-reading Narnia: 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'

Here is my much-worn, much-loved childhood copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I was given my first Narnia book, The Silver Chair, when I was seven years old – a little girl living in Yorkshire in the 1960s. I went on to read the series out of sequence, ending with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: it depended on what I could buy with my pocket money or find in the public library.  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, The Last Battle in 1956, the year of my birth: so I suppose I was among the first generation of child readers of these tales.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect the Narnia stories had on me. I adored them, I was super-possessive about them. I regarded Narnia as my own, private, secret kingdom – so much so that when my mother, who read aloud each night to me and my brother, suggested she might read us The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I vetoed the suggestion.  Narnia was mine; I wanted to keep it all to myself.  It was horribly selfish, but that was how passionate I felt.  I read and reread them for years.

It’s decades now, though, since I sat down and read all of them through.  Did the charm fade?  I don’t know. The books were so much a part of my childhood that they still feel to be a part of me.  So I’ve decided to begin again, to remind myself of what enchanted me and discover if it still has the power to do so. Over the next few months, I’ll be reading the Seven Chronicles of Narnia and letting you know my thoughts.  Don’t expect academic crispness. These are likely to be long rambling posts with lots of digressions and asides as I follow wherever the fancy takes me.  I hope you’ll tell me your own thoughts along the way.  

So here goes: let’s talk about Narnia.

The first thing that strikes me now about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is how short it is: 170 pages, many with full, half, or quarter page illustrations by Pauline Baynes.  I’d guess the length is not more than 35,000 words – about right for a book for seven-year olds; but books for seven year olds written today do not commonly explore such rich emotional depths when dealing – if they deal at all – with subjects such as death, rebirth, police states, loyalty and treachery.

TLTW&TW is described by CS Lewis, in his dedication to his god-daughter Lucy Barfield, as a fairytale. Like a fairytale it deals in images, in strong, simple emotions, in primary colours, in poetic metaphor: and like a fairytale, it demands suspension of disbelief and a willingness to go along with the narrator.

Es war einmal ein K├ÂnigThere was once a King –

There were once four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

It doesn’t matter where or when a fairytale takes place, so Lewis disposes of the Blitz – the reason the children are sent away from London – in half a sentence. What they leave behind doesn’t matter. What matters is where they arrive: this house ‘in the heart of the country’. Which country?  We aren’t told. It could be Scotland rather than England: the housekeeper has a Scottish name, and the children talk excitedly of mountains, woods, eagles and stags: but it’s the seclusion that matters. This is a secret and special place, and the further in you go, the more secret and more special it gets: inside the house there is a room, inside the room there is a wardrobe, inside the wardrobe there is Narnia…

Old houses and old castles are important places in fairytales, and there is often, too, a special hidden room.  In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the soldier must follow the princesses through an opening under the bed:

The eldest went to her bed and tapped it; whereupon it immediately sank into the earth, and one after another they descended through the opening…

and down a stair to a fabulous land where the trees have leaves of silver, gold and diamond, and where twelve princes row the princesses across a lake to a beautiful palace, to dance all night till dawn. This land is neither good nor bad (though one senses it is disapproved) but magical: other. Alternatively, as in Bluebeard or in the English folktale Mr Fox, the secret of the hidden room may be horror and death. Narnia will turn out to contain both beauty and terror.

So when Lewis chose a homely wardrobe for his doorway to Narnia  (we all had wardrobes in our bedrooms back then, before the days of fitted cupboards) he was employing a device common in fairytales, where the domestic and ordinary frequently reveals the magical and the unexpected.

Here is the wardrobe – ‘the sort with looking-glass in the door’ – standing alone in an empty room. ‘Nothing there’, says Peter.  But Lucy investigates. ‘This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!’ she thinks, pushing her way further in through the fur coats.  And next:

Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

A word about Lucy.  Philip Pullman has accused the Narnia books of being – among other bad things – sexist, of delivering the message ‘Boys are better than girls’. People who agree with this tend, I suspect, to be thinking of ‘the problem of Susan.’ But I was a little girl reading the Narnia books, and I was never in any doubt that the main character, the clear heroine of the three titles in which she takes a prominent part, is Lucy. Any child, boys included, reading TLTW&TW will identify with Lucy for the simple reason that it’s so unfair when her siblings don’t believe her about Narnia – and even more unfair when Edmund actually lies about it. It’s as easy to identify with Lucy as it is to identify with Jane Eyre, and for the same reason: children hate injustice.

Lucy’s main-character status has always been so obvious to me, I’m puzzled why Philip Pullman has failed to spot it. Is she too gentle for him? She may not be Lyra, or even Dido Twite, but the Narnia books were written for and about children, not teenagers - and quite young children at that. Judging by the games they play and the way they squabble, Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, is probably about seven years old in TLTW&TW – the same age as me when I first read it. This would make Edmund eight or nine, Susan perhaps ten and Peter between eleven and twelve. Seven year olds – of whatever sex – don’t tend to be feisty, kick-ass action heroes. Lucy is sensitive, courageous, honest and steadfast, and Lewis clearly cares for her far more than he does for any of the boys. Peter and Susan are ciphers in the way older children often are in family stories of the era. Like John and Susan in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, their main role seems to be that of surrogate parents to younger, livelier, more irresponsible siblings. Edmund is a very ordinary little boy whose silliness, jealousy and deceit are realistically sketched. Most children have occasionally behaved and felt like Edmund. But Lucy stands out. It is she who discovers Narnia, she who befriends the faun, Mr Tumnus.  (And it’s Lucy and Susan, not the boys, who witness Aslan’s death and return to life: but more on the religious front later.)

Like Snow White, Lucy is quickly befriended by a denizen of the forest. And as in the seven dwarfs’ cottage, the cosy safety of Mr Tumnus’ house is soon compromised by the power of a dangerous queen. More terrifying still, Tumnus confesses himself  to be a deceiver, an informer: ‘I’ve pretended to be your friend and asked you to tea, and all the time I’ve been meaning to wait till you were asleep and then go and tell Her.’ Because, and remember these books were written during the Cold War, Narnia is quite literally a police state.

‘We must go as quietly as we can,’ said Mr Tumnus. ‘The whole wood is full of her spies.  Even some of the trees are on her side.’

Ashamed of himself, Tumnus is not now going to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, though this will put him at serious risk of torture and death –

‘…she’s sure to find out. And she’ll have my tail cut off, and my horns sawn off, and my beard plucked out, and she’ll wave her wand over my beautiful cloven hoofs and turn them into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s.  And if she is extra and specially angry, she’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue of a Faun in her horrible house until the four thrones at Cair Paravel are filled – and goodness knows when that will happen, or whether it will ever happen at all.’

This is strong stuff for young children – strong stuff for anyone. I think the reason why, in my experience at least, children aren’t very upset by it, is that they feel safe in the hands of the narrator. Lewis never forgets who he is writing for. The potential terror of Lucy’s predicament is modified by Tumnus’ repentance. The danger to her, once recognised, is already over. And for Tumnus himself, well – the danger is real enough, but this is clearly the kind of story in which good characters will, ultimately, be all right.

Children are sensitive to narrative voice, both as readers and auditors. A parent reading aloud to a child can offer reassurance at scary moments. Lewis-as-narrator offers reassurance partly by interposing himself between the child-reader and the text – commenting upon it or explaining it, thus keeping frightening or sad material at a safe distance; as in this passage from the chapter after Aslan’s death:

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 were ever going to happen again.

Is this condescension?  I don’t think so. As a child, I never felt Lewis talked down to me, I felt he spoke as an equal, that he treated me seriously. He acknowledges the depth of children’s emotional experience, misery as well as happiness. By addressing the child reader directly, he turns Susan and Lucy’s grief into something we can share and understand, and the moment of Aslan’s death is thus softened and becomes more bearable.

The other method by which Lewis gently defuses fear or terror is a deft use of comedy – for example when the children and the Beavers bustle to get away from the White Witch.

‘…The moment that Edmund tells her that we’re all here she'll set out to catch us this very night, and if he’s been gone about half an hour, she’ll be here in about another twenty minutes.’

‘You’re right, Mrs Beaver,’ said her husband, ‘we must all get away from here.  There’s not a moment to lose.’

The tension is both heightened and comically undercut by Mrs Beaver’s insistence on the careful and extensive packing of ham, tea, sugar, bread and handkerchieves –

‘Oh do please come on,’ said Lucy. ‘Well I’m nearly ready now,’ answered Mrs Beaver at last… ‘I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring?’

Hurry, hurry! – the child reader thinks, yet at the same time is both amused (Mrs Beaver is being funny) and reassured (Mrs Beaver is a mother figure, and if she’s not scared, neither need we be).

If Lewis were not so skilful, this could and would be a deeply unsettling book.  There’s Edmund’s treachery – to his own brother and sisters, no less.  There’s the scene of the Faun’s cosy house in ruins –

The door had been wrenched off its hinges and broken to bits. …Snow had drifted in from the doorway and was mixed with something black, which turned out to be the charred sticks and ashes from the fire. Someone had apparently flung it about the room and then stamped it out. The crockery lay smashed on the floor and the picture of the Faun’s father had been slashed to shreds with a knife.

It’s no small achievement to be this frank, this clear about spite and violence and hate – confirmed by the denunciation on the door signed ‘MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police’ – in a book for small children which most of us remember as full of magic and delight. There’s the threat to Edmund himself from the White Witch, who is ready to murder him. There’s the truly upsetting scene when the Witch turns to stone a happy little party of fauns and animals, for the crime of telling the truth. (This is also the moment at which Edmund feels compassion for the first time.)

‘What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?  Where did you get these things?’
‘Please, your Majesty,’ said the Fox, ‘we were given them …’
‘Who gave them to you?’ said the Witch.
‘F-F-F-Father Christmas,’ stammered the Fox.
‘What?’ roared the Witch… ‘…How dare you – but no. Say you have been lying and you shall even now be forgiven.’
At that moment, one of the young squirrels lost its head completely.
‘He has – he has – he has!’ it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

All this, before we’ve even got to the death of Aslan.

As is well known, JRR Tolkien didn’t get on with Narnia, and one of the things that annoyed him about the series was Lewis’s carefree – or slapdash, depending on your viewpoint – world-building, bundling together everything and anything he’d ever loved in myth, legend and fairytales. Thus Narnia has not only talking animals out of Beatrix Potter or The Wind in the Willows, it also has nymphs, naiads, dryads and river gods from classical mythology, and giants and dwarfs out of the Northern legends. It borrows Green Ladies from medieval romances, and mystical islands from Celtic voyage tales and, in this one first book, it has Father Christmas.

But when a writer has come up with a lovely phrase like ‘Always winter and never Christmas’, well what is he to do? I don’t mind this single meeting with Father Christmas in Narnia, although I do think Lewis was wise not to invite him back. He seems to me to echo the appearance of Grandfather Frost in Russian fairytales – the white-bearded old spirit of the snowy woods who just may, if you address him politely, give you gifts (rather than freezing you to death). Personally I find Father Christmas in Narnia easier to accept than Tolkien’s facetious reference to golf in The Hobbit, when Bilbo’s ancestor Bullroarer Took knocks off the head of the goblin king Golfimbul. ‘It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented at the same moment.’ Such self-conscious flippancy was one of the things that put me off The Hobbit as a child.

And now for the vexed question of religion.

People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t. Lewis wrote a textbook about medieval allegory – ‘The Allegory of Love’ – and knew what it was and what it wasn’t. There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child. Aged about ten, I remember saying shyly to my mother that ‘it almost feels as if Narnia is real’.  (What I actually wanted to say was ‘I believe Narnia is real’ – because the alternative, that Narnia had no existence except between the pages of a book – was almost unbearable.) My mother didn’t spoil the book for me by telling me that Aslan is meant to be Christ.  She just replied quietly, ‘I think you’re meant to feel that.’ And so the religious message in the books remained invisible to me – at least until The Last Battle more or less rubbed my face in it. Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls a year or two ago, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christian elements in the Narnia stories. They hadn’t noticed, either.  There is a difference, I think, between the ways in which children and adults read. Children are more immersed in a book – more trusting, more literal. They take what they read at face value. They don’t come up for air and think, as adults do, ‘Just what is this author trying to say?’  

Does this make children potentially more vulnerable to prejudice and propaganda? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to look at a much more obvious attempt at Christian fantasy by the Catholic children’s author Meriol Trevor, written a decade after the Narnia books, in 1966. In The King of the Castle (Macmillan), a sick boy, Thomas, finds his way into the world of a picture hanging on his bedroom wall and meets Lucius, a shepherd with a phoenix ring, who believes himself to be the son of the High King. Reviled, disbelieved, eventually hanged, Lucius is restored to life by a Messenger of the High King, and claims his kingdom. The Christian message was obvious to me when I read the story as a child, but it didn’t capture my imagination, and a recent re-reading showed why: Lucius is wooden, the resurrection scene almost perfunctory, and there seems no narrative reason why the viewpoint character Thomas should be in this world at all.  The book has nothing of the verve, the colour, the energy of the Narnia stories.

Philip Pullman speaks for many who consider the Narnia books outrageous propaganda for the pernicious doctrine of an all-powerful God who demands innocent blood to atone for the sins of a supposedly corrupt humanity. From this viewpoint TLTW&TW is dodgy stuff.  For a Christian reader, however, such a view is a travesty of the New Testamant stories and the doctrine that declares Christ to be a facet of a living and loving God who shares in the suffering of the world. No one, least of all myself, is going to be able to reconcile such opposite perceptions.

But remember CS Lewis called his book a fairytale, and in fairytales the world over, good and innocent characters who die, come back to life.  Think of Snow White in her glass coffin! In The Juniper Tree, the murdered boy is transformed into a beautiful, mysterious bird which deals out justice, rewarding the good and destroying the wicked, before turning back into a living child again. In Fitcher’s Bird, the third bride is able to restore her murdered sisters to life and escape the house of the sorcerer. Resurrections occur in fairytales because here, if nowhere else, there is a real chance that justice and goodness may prevail over evil and tragedy. Lewis came to Christianity through stories: he took them seriously: he regarded the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ as a fairytale which really happened.  We don’t have to follow him all the way.  But we can still be moved by the tales.

It is perfectly natural for a child to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and to see Aslan as no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him. Though the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch is the heart of the book, that ‘deep magic from the dawn of time’ works just as well on a non-Christian level. A beautiful, icy queen: a golden lion. ‘When he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again…’ Of course Aslan comes back to life! Who can kill summer?

My childhood copy of the map of Narnia...

Picture credits

All artwork by Pauline Baynes.  The full colour illustration of Lucy and Mr Tumnus is from Brian Sibley's 'The Land of Narnia', Collins Lions, 1989