The Myth and Magic of Narnia

The Myth and Magic of Narnia
by Theodora Goss

When I was a child, I searched for a way into Narnia. Didn’t you?

There were no wardrobes in the modern suburbs where I grew up. But at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, after Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have returned from Narnia, Peter asks Professor Kirk whether “there could be other worlds  –  all over the place, just round the corner  –  like that?” Professor Kirk replies, “Noting is more probable.” And in Prince Caspian, Aslan explains that the Telmarines who conquered Narnia initially came from another world through “one of the magical places of that world, one of the chinks or chasms between that world and this. There were many chinks or chasms between worlds in old times, but they have grown rarer. This was one of the last: I do not say the last.” Can you imagine how those sentences gave me hope? There were other worlds out there: perhaps the world in which Narnia existed, perhaps others as magical. And if I could find the right chink or chasm, I could travel between the worlds, like the children in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

(Nyads and Dryads by Walter Crane)

Even when I was a teenager and had stopped believing in the possibility of such thresholds, I sometimes thought, if I walk under those tree branches, the ones that look like a doorway  —  perhaps I’ll end up in an alternate reality, one in which magic is real, in which animals talk. That is the spell Lewis cast on so many of us: he made us long for fantastical worlds. In The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller describes her own enchantment with Narnia and the disillusionment many readers feel when they realize that the Chronicles are not simply fantasy, but filled with Christian symbolism. Miller writes, “I felt tricked, and for a long time I avoided even thinking about Narnia.” I did not respond in the same way. Although I realized that Lewis had incorporated religious themes into his novels, most importantly in the death and resurrection of Aslan, I regarded myself as rather clever for having discovered them. But also, for me, Lewis’s Christian symbolism was not at the core of the Narnia books: it was not what made them so appealing. That appeal had to do with their fantastical quality, with the books as fairy tales.

Lewis himself was troubled by simplistic religious readings of the Chronicles. In a letter complaining about allegorical readings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, Lewis wrote, “My view wd be that a good myth (i.e. a story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put). Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows: into a myth he puts what he does not yet know and cd not come to know in any other form.” The Chronicles were meant to have the multivalent meanings of myth. They were meant to be fairy tales, in the way Tolkien uses that term in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”: “that is, they recount events that take place in Fairy-Land, a magical mysterious realm inhabited by such creatures as fairies, dwarves, witches, giants, and dragons, a realm that creates a sense of mystery and wonder in all who come there, whether children who enter it through magic portals or readers carried there by the magic of well-crafted words.”

Narnia has no fairies in it, but there are plenty of fauns, nymphs, dryads, centaurs, marsh-wiggles, Father Christmas, and of course talking animals. Lewis’s creatures originate in different mythological traditions. Tolkien, a linguistic and mythological purist, objected to such eclecticism. The two Oxford professors had met in 1926 at a faculty meeting. With a group of friends, they formed the Inklings, a literary group that included some of the most important fantasy writers and scholars of the day. After the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tolkien commented to Roger Lancelyn Green, an Inkling who had been one of Lewis’ students, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s children’s story. It really won’t do, you know!” We might have expected this response from a writer so meticulous in creating his own world that he invented entire languages for its inhabitants. But that eclecticism was part of what drew me to the Chronicles. I was convinced that although Lewis had incorporated Christian symbolism into his novels, they were primarily about the beauty and joy of the old pagan world that every schoolchild studied at the turn of the century, simply as a side-effect of learning Greek and Latin.

(Maenad on Ancient Greek Pottery)

Lewis was a trained classicist, having won first-class honors in Greek and Latin at Oxford, and like Tolkien, he was fascinated by Norse myths, such as the death of the god Balder, whom he encountered in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Tegnér’s Drapa.” Longfellow’s poem begins with the mournful lines, “I heard a voice, that cried, / ‘Balder the Beautiful / Is dead, is dead!'” Balder has accidentally been killed by his brother, but according to prophesies, he will be reborn again after Ragnarök, the death of the gods and destruction of the present world. Balder is one of the dying and reviving gods of ancient myth: others include Tammuz, Osiris, and Adonis. Lewis believed that pagan myths could be read as precursors to the truth of Christianity. For Lewis, Jesus was also a dying and reviving god, but the myth of Jesus was, without losing its mythic quality, true. It was, not simply myth, but miracle. However, if we read the Chronicles as scholars of the fantastic, we can see that Aslan is himself a dying and reviving god. The figure most closely associated with Christian symbolism is also rich with pagan associations. Lewis himself would not have seen this as contradictory.

Here, I will focus on what fascinated me about Narnia as a child and still fascinates me as an adult: the rich, eclectic mythological background of the characters we find so engaging in the Chronicles. Most of Lewis’s magical characters come from classical mythology, but Norse mythology is also represented, and there are hints here and there of eastern mythological figures of various sorts. Some of Lewis’s characters appear in so many different traditions that they can’t be classified in this way: Father Christmas is known the world over, and the White Stag appears in the tales of many cultures, including Celtic myth and Arthurian legend. But we can generally divide Lewis’ magical characters into three categories based on the mythological traditions in which they originate: classical, northern, eastern. And of course there are the creatures Lewis simply made up, which are original to Narnia.

I. Creatures from Classical Mythology: Fauns, Dryads, and Centaurs

The Chronicles are filled with creatures from classical mythology; Greek and Roman myths were probably Lewis’s primary mythological influence. In his introduction to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis said that his writing process started with a mental image of the faun who would become Mr. Tumnus, carrying an umbrella and packages through the snowy woods:

“He was only a little taller than Lucy herself and he carried over his head an umbrella, white with snow. From the waist upward he was like a man, but his legs were shaped like a goat’s (the hair on them was glossy black) and instead of feet he had goat’s hooves. He also had a tail, but Lucy did not notice this at first because it was neatly caught up over the arm that held the umbrella so as to keep it from trailing in the snow. He had a red woolen muffler round his neck and his skin was rather reddish too. He had a strange, but pleasant face with a short pointed beard and curly hair, and out of the hair there stuck two horns, one on each side of his forehead.”

(Pan and Psyche by Edward Burne Jones)

Although Mr. Tumnus is clearly a faun, half-man and half-goat, he is considerably more domestic than the wild satyrs and fauns of Greek and Roman mythology, which were associated with sexuality. Lewis consistently made mythological figures more child-friendly. In Greek art, they were not necessarily depicted as half-goat, although they did have animal characteristics. They may have gained their goatish appearance through their association with Pan, a god of the natural world, who was consistently depicted as half-goat. Pan was also a musical god who created the pan-pipes when a nymph he was pursuing turned into reeds. Mr. Tumnus plays a flute to lull Lucy to sleep during her first visit to Narnia, when he intends to turn her over to the White Witch.

In the myths, satyrs and fauns were often shown pursuing nymphs, the spirits who live in trees, lakes, and streams. We meet these classical figures in Narnia as well. In Prince Caspian, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy return to a Narnia ruled by the Telmarines, who have denied its magic and persecuted its magical inhabitants. During their journey to assist Caspian in his battle against the Telmarines, Lucy wanders among the trees, thinking about the old magical Narnia she knew:

“A great longing for the old days when the trees could talk in Narnia came over her. She knew exactly how each of these trees would talk if only she could wake them, and what sort of human form it would put on. She looked at the silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing. She looked at the oak: he would be a wizened, but hearty old man with a frizzled beard and warts on his face and hands, and hair growing out of the warts. She looked at the beech under which she was standing. Ah – she would be the best of all. She would be a gracious goddess, smooth and stately, the lady of the woods.”

Narnia is awakened again when Aslan returns, reanimating the natural world. The Dryads and Hamadryads, who are the spirits of the trees, return to life, as do the Naiads, who are the spirits of the waters. Even the god of the Great River raises his head and pleads with Aslan to be released from the bridge that the Telmarines have built over him. Greek and Roman myths were filled with such nature spirits: every valley and spring seemed to have its individual deity.

(Chiron and Achilles on Roman Fresco)

In Prince Caspian, Lewis associates the minor deities of the Greek and Roman world with Narnia. Once they realize they are at Cair Paravel, Peter reminds the other children that when they were kings and queens in Narnia, “Pomona herself,” the Roman goddess of gardens and fruit trees, put fortunate spells on the apple orchard. Two other important Roman deities appear in Prince Caspian: Bacchus, the Roman version of Dionysus, the god of wine, and his teacher and follower Silenus, who is often depicted as an intoxicated old man riding a donkey. Bacchus is followed by his Maenads, wild girls who make Lucy and Susan nervous. As well they should, since in classical mythology the Maenads or Bacchantes were dangerous. They were known for going into drunken frenzies in which they would tear apart animals with their bare hands, eating the flesh raw. Bacchus, Silenus, and the Maenads present us with another instance where Lewis made his Narnian characters significantly less frightening and sexual than their originals.

Centaurs also fall into this category: in Greek and Roman myths, they were not always the wise teachers typified by Chiron, the centaur who was a tutor to Greek heroes such as Theseus, Achilles, and Jason. Chiron was prophet who, after his death, became the constellation Sagittarius. Lewis seems to have based his Narnian centaurs on Chiron: they are great warriors as well as wise astronomers who can foretell the future, and it is considered an honor to ride upon their backs. In The Silver Chair, Lewis describes them as “solemn, majestic people, full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars,” and tells us that “To ride a Centaur is, no doubt, a great honour (and except Jill and Eustace there is probably no one alive to-day who has had it).” However, in classical mythology, centaurs were considered as wild and lecherous as satyrs. It is obvious from the Chronicles that Lewis loved horses. His equine characters are always noble, like the centaur Glenstorm in Prince Caspian, the pegasus Fledge in The Magician’s Nephew, or the unicorn Jewel in The Last Battle. (Although the unicorn is not a figure from classical mythology, it was described by a number of Greek and Roman writers, such as Aristotle and Pliny.)

Fledge is one of my favorite characters in the Chronicles. Although he is initially a London cart-horse named Strawberry, in Narnia he is given wings, like Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. In Prince Caspian, classical figures such as fauns, dryads, and centaurs must return so that Narnia can be reborn. The land cannot live without myth. Lewis implies that if we mythologize the world, figuratively if not literally as Aslan does in the novel, it can come to life for us, as Fledge is rejuvenated in Narnia.

II. Creatures from Northern Mythology: Dwarves and Giants

Lewis’ use of classical mythology is almost entirely positive in the Chronicles: we meet no bad centaurs. His use of figures from Norse mythology, such as giants and dwarves, is more ambiguous.

(Illustration for Das Rheingold by Arthur Rackham)

Giants certainly occur in Greek mythology: in order to establish their rule, the Olympian gods had to defeat a race of giants, and anyone who has read the Odyssey is familiar with the Cyclops. However, in the Chronicles, giants have distinctly northern characteristics. They live in the north of Narnia, and they are either foolish, cruel, or both. In The Silver Chair, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum see giants throwing rocks at another rock on Ettinsmoor (a name based on the old English word “ettin” or giant), and are told it is the only game they understand. More dangerous are the intelligent giants of Harfang; the children and marsh-wiggle are almost eaten after they are directed to Harfang by the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who has trapped Prince Rilian in her underground realm. Her alliance with the giants makes sense, since she is of the lineage of the White Witch, who is descended from giants.

In Norse mythology, the giants predate even the gods. The first of all living beings was Ymir, the father of all giants, whose body emerged from melting primordial ice. As the ice continued to melt, it exposed a giant cow who licked the ice for its salt, exposing the first god, Buri. His son Bor married one of the giants, and their three sons, Odin, Vili, and Vi, were the first of the Norse gods. They killed Ymir, from whose body they formed the earth, turning the maggots in his body into the first dwarves. Like Narnian dwarves, Norse dwarves live underground and are superior craftsmen, making many items for the gods, including Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear. The Lady of the Green Kirtle also lives under the ground, although her subjects are not dwarves but gnomes from the deeper land of Bism, where even the gems and metals are alive.

In Norse myths, giants and dwarves can be either hostile or benevolent, which is true of Narnian giants and dwarves as well. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the giant Rumblebuffin fights on Aslan’s side against the White Witch. Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that he comes from “one of the most respected of all the giant families in Narnia.” In Prince Caspian, the wicked dwarf Nikabrik urges Caspian to summon the White Witch’s help in the battle against the Telmarines. However, the dwarf Trumpkin is a loyal Narnian who refuses to join Nikabrik and even serves as regent while Caspian sails on the Dawn Treader. We see this ambiguity in The Last Battle, in which a group of dwarves turns against Prince Tirian in his last battle against the Calormenes, telling him that henceforth, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

(Illustration for Das Rheingold by Arthur Rackham)

The White Witch herself is associated with northernness. She brings endless winter to Narnia, and when Eustace first meets her, she is on a sledge driven by a dwarf and drawn by reindeer. In The Silver Chair, we are specifically told that she “came out of the North,” and at the end of the novel she and the Lady of the Green Kirtle are described as “those Northern witches.” The chief of her secret police, the wolf Fenris Ulf, is named after Fenrir, the wolf who is destined to kill Odin at Ragnarök, also identified as Fenrisúlf in the myths. When she refers to the letters written on the Stone Table that allow her to take the life of any traitor, she says that message is also “written in letters deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the World Ash Tree.” This tree is reminiscent of Yggdrasil, the ash tree whose branches rise up to the heavens and at whose base the Norse gods hold court.

Although Lewis loved northerness, the mythological figures he takes from Norse myth are ambiguous: they can be on Aslan’s side, or on the side of the various witches of Narnia. Perhaps their moral ambiguity has to do, in part, with their appearance. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says, “there may be two views about Humans,” but “there’s no two views about things that look like Humans and aren’t.” He explains, “when you meet anything that’s going to be Human and isn’t yet, or used to be Human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.” When Mrs. Beaver mentions that she’s known good dwarves, Mr. Beaver replies, “precious few, and they were the ones least like men.” We do meet a good half-dwarf in Caspian’s tutor Doctor Cornelius, but in Narnia, mythical creatures that look human, like giants and dwarves, are the most morally suspect.

III. Creatures from Eastern Mythology: Jinns and Dragons

I use the term “eastern” loosely for mythological traditions that Lewis’s generation might have classified as “Oriental,” meaning to the east of Europe on the map. There are not many creatures from eastern mythology in Narnia: for the most part, Lewis filled his world with creatures from European myths. But the way he presents the country of Calormen is heavily influenced by a European view of the east, specifically the Ottoman Empire. I find Lewis’s treatment of Carlormen the most troubling aspect of the Chronicles. In The Horse and His Boy, the country comes to represent everything that is not Narnian, and “Narnia and the North!” becomes an anthem for those seeking to escape Calormen oppression. In The Last Battle, Narnia falls to the Calormenes, a defeat that presages the end of the world itself.

(Nine Dragons by Chen Rong)

However, easternness appears even in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr. Beaver tells the children that the White Witch is descended from “your father Adam’s first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other side she comes of the giants.” In Jewish mythology, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. Because of her refusal to submit to him, she was cast out of Eden and turned into a demon who seduces men and devours children. She may originally have been a Babylonian deity who was later incorporated into the Jewish tradition. In medieval iconography, Lilith was associated with the serpent that tempted Eve, and the Lady of the Green Kirtle turns into a serpent at the end of The Silver Chair. A serpent also appears in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the form of a dragon: while Eustace sleeps on a dragon’s treasure, he turns into a dragon himself. Although legends of dragons are found in Europe, they are also associated with Asia. Like most figures from eastern mythological traditions in the Chronicles, Lewis’s dragons are unambiguously evil.

Jinn are magical spirits from Arabian folklore. They are described in the Koran as one of the three races created by Allah (human beings, angels, and jinn), although unlike human beings, who were made from clay, jinn were made from fire. In the Koran, Satan is sometimes identified as a jinn who rebelled against Allah; both Lilith and the jinn are linked to Satan, giving the White Witch a particularly dubious lineage. The other great enemy of Aslan is the Calormene god Tash; with his vulture’s head, Tash resembles the animal-headed gods of the Egyptian pantheon. In his depiction of evil in Narnia, Lewis reflected the racial and cultural prejudices of his times: evil is foreign, and specifically “Oriental.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the White Witch tempts Edmund during his first visit to Narnia, she does so with Turkish Delight.

IV. Creatures of Narnia: Marsh-wiggles and Talking Animals

Some of Lewis’s most enchanting Narnian creatures are not based on traditional myths but simply made up, like the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum. Lewis himself called Puddleglum and the talking mouse Reepicheep his favorite characters. Narnia’s talking animals may be based in part on the characters in the stories Lewis and his brother made up as children about the imaginary world of Boxen. Lewis’s animal characters included King Benjamin (a rabbit), Lord John Big (a frog), and Viscount Puddiphat (an owl). However, these characters were essentially human beings in animal form, rather than fully-realized animal characters like the Beavers in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the badger Trufflehunter in Prince Caspian, or the owl Glimfeather in The Silver Chair.

(Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

We have already seen that anything resembling the human becomes morally suspect in Narnia. Although Lewis may not have done so consciously, he continually attempted to reinforce the difference between what is and is not human: only human beings, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, are allowed to rule Narnia. This anxiety about the boundaries of the human may have been a response to Darwinian evolutionary theory, which challenged those boundaries and the Christian creation story on which they were based. When the White Witch binds and slays Aslan, among the creatures helping her are “evil dwarfs and apes,” and in The Last Battle the talking ape Shift, who not only dresses in clothes but actually claims to be a man, brings final defeat to Narnia. However, Lewis’s own creatures, the satyrs, nymphs, centaurs, dwarves, marsh-wiggles, and talking animals of Narnia, continually challenge those boundaries. In The Silver Chair, when Puddleglum realizes he has eaten a talking stag, he feels “as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby,” and although the first king and queen of Narnia are human beings from our world, Lewis tells us that their sons “married nymphs” and their daughters “married wood-gods and river-gods.” Despite Lewis’ attempt to differentiate between what is and is not human, in Narnia the boundaries between them are not at all clear.

It is the various tensions in the Chronicles, such as between Christian symbolism and pagan myth and legend, that make them the important literary works they are. If we recognize those tensions, those of us who loved the books as children can return to them with adult appreciation as well. Miller writes of having made that journey: “When I finally came back to Narnia, I found that, for me, it had not lost its power or its beauty, at least not entirely.” Like Miller, I recognize Lewis’s limitations and prejudices. However, the Chronicles have never lost their power for me, in part because I read them not as religious allegory but as fairy tales, which is certainly one way Lewis would have wanted them to be read.

(This essay was originally published in the Folkroots column of Realms of Fantasy magazine.)

Research Sources:

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. Modern Library, 1998.

Hooper, Walter, ed. Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace, 1985.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Prometheus Press, 1959.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Miller, Laura. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Little, Brown, 2008.

Rose, H.J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Including Its Extension to Rome. Methuen, 1965.

Schakel, Peter J. The Way into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide. William B. Eerdmans, 2005.

Zimmerman, J.E. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Harper & Row, 1964.

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