1. How does this book fit into the entire Chronicles of Narnia?
C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) include seven titles, about four children who discover a magic land called Narnia. There are talking animals, fauns, a witch, and the heroic lion, Aslan. The children return many times to Narnia, becoming Kings and Queens and fighting battles between good and evil. Though children’s books, they have been made into films and are appreciated by all ages.
Lewis described the origin of the story from a picture he had first imagined at the age of sixteen of a faun with an umbrella carrying packages in snowy woodland. That later became an initial scene in Narnia. During World War II, with the Germans bombing London, children were evacuated to the country. In 1939, Lewis, like the Professor in the book, had opened his home, the Kilns, and taken in four schoolgirls. One of the children, like Lucy, was fascinated with an old wardrobe at the Kilns and imagined there was a door on the other side. This reminded Lewis of the magic wardrobe in The Aunt and Anabel by Edith Nesbit, a favorite childhood author of his. He decided to write a children’s story though he only completed one paragraph. He did not finish it until a decade later.
At first the lion Aslan was not in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but Lewis had a number of dreams with lions during the writing and when he added Aslan, it was the touch he needed. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was written first and published in 1950, but in chronological order of events as they happen in the fictional world, The Magician’s Nephew, telling of the creation of Narnia, should come first, though not published until 1955.
The boy Digory Kirke of The Magician’s Nephew becomes the Professor Kirke of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He travels to other worlds and witnesses Aslan creating Narnia but unfortunately brings the Witch Jadis with him, who eventually makes Narnia frozen. Digory plants a magic apple from Narnia in his backyard. It becomes a tree, the wood of which is used to build the wardrobe in Kirke’s house. It is a doorway back into Narnia.
Originally Lewis only meant to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but Roger Lancelyn Green, a member of Lewis’s literary club, the Inklings, asked him how the lamp-post came to be in the wood. This led to the other books. The Magician’s Nephew was published as the sixth in the series, as it had been written in that order. Beginning in 1980 HarperCollins began to publish the series in their internal order, putting The Magician’s Nephew first.
2. How did Lewis’s participation in the Inklings Club influence the book?
The Inklings was an informal Oxford literary group between the early 1930s and late 1949. Some of the members included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Christopher Tolkien (J. R. R. Tolkien’s son), Warnie Lewis (C. S. Lewis’s elder brother), Roger Lancelyn Green, Hugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, and Nevill Coghill. Readings and discussions of the members’ unfinished works were the purpose of the meetings. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, and Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve were read and discussed. They met Thursday evenings in C. S. Lewis’s college rooms at Magdalen College, and they also met Tuesdays at a local pub, The Eagle and Child.
Although there were differences, many of the members were Christian, like Lewis and Tolkien, and several were like them interested in medieval, Norse, and Celtic literature. Both Tolkien and Lewis were medieval scholars at Oxford, but they lamented they could no longer find the kind of heroic fiction they liked and studied, such as Beowulf and the Kalevala. The writing of fantasy, stimulated by the example of the Victorian fantasist, George MacDonald, became for them a timely reinvention to combat the evils of the modern world, giving alternative visions. The Inklings in general disliked modernist writers because their own interests concerned philosophy, language, theology, and ancient literature.
It was here that Tolkien was encouraged to write Lord of the Rings, which C. S. Lewis defended in reviews, explaining it should be taken seriously as a moral depiction of good and evil. He mentioned that the book was full of the experience of their generation who lived through World War I. The members encouraged one another but could also be brutally honest. Tolkien, for instance, did not like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He thought that the many mythological beings clashed, with Father Christmas and an evil witch, talking animals, and other creatures from Greek mythology all mixed together.
3. How does Lewis use Christian ideas in his work?
The work of C. S. Lewis fits generally into the philosophical position of Christian humanism. Christian humanism is a union of Christian and humanist principles that includes Christian belief and virtues along with ideas of individualism and human freedom. The concept that humans are made in the image of God means that individual creativity and personal dignity are important. Lewis was a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods in which Christian Humanism blossomed. Humanists studied ancient languages, especially Greek and Latin, but Lewis also had an interest in modern languages and Norse myth. Famous Christian humanists were Petrarch (1304-1374), Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), Sir Thomas More (1478 -1535)), and John Milton (1478-1535).
C. S. Lewis’s most famous works, the Chronicles of Narnia, even though they are stories for children, contain Christian themes. Narnia is a sort of Eden in bondage with the children as “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve.” Edmund betrays his friends to the evil Witch, who is a Satan figure, and she demands that Edmund fulfill the law of traitors, forfeiting his life to her. Aslan is a Christ figure sacrificed on the Stone Table for Edmund’s sake and then resurrected to drive evil out of Narnia. Some readers have objected that the stories are merely Christian allegories dressed up as fantasy. Lewis, however, was an expert on allegory and denied this charge, calling the Christian ideas “suppositional.” In a famous letter to a Mrs. Hook in 1958, he says that Aslan may be a figure like Christ but is not an allegory for Christ: One should ask the suppositional question “What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia?”
If Aslan had been an allegorical figure, he wouldn’t have had the powerful appeal he has. He is a rounded character, the wise, and good ruler of Narnia, who has supernatural powers but behaves like a lion. Both frightening and lovable, he produces a feeling of awe. He is not a wooden symbol, for when it is announced, “Aslan is on the move,” the reader feels with Lucy a “deep shiver of gladness” (Chpt. 10, p.107). Many heroes serve a Christ function in a tale, without standing for the actual Christ. As Milton would argue, Christ became a new model for heroes, more noble than a mere warrior. Aslan rules Narnia through love, and the Witch tries to rule through cruelty, fear, and power. Thus, Aslan demonstrates the values of service and unselfishness. The great Lion Aslan gives children a feeling of security that good is the ultimate force of the world.
4. How does this book fit into the history of fantasy writing?
Modern fantasy is a type of story that takes place in a non-existent world, often used to comment on the contemporary world. The fantastic is an ancient mode of storytelling however (The Arabian Nights; The Odyssey). Though some critics deny that modern fantasy is literature, Tolkien and Lewis and fellow Inklings saw it as the highest sort of literature with its spiritual journey and serious purpose.
Many fantasies use the technique of accessing a supernatural realm that is just adjacent to the normal historical world. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, is set during World War II, and though the historical events are not directly commented upon, the Witch has taken over Narnia like the sort of totalitarian rule much of Europe experienced. The implication is, as Joseph Campbell says, that myth is “a forgotten dimension of the world we know” (The Hero With the Thousand Faces). The supernatural is thus made to seem plausible and all around us, as easy as going through a wardrobe.
Modern writers of fantasy have to account for their fantastic worlds, for they are separate from the common everyday reality people know. Lucy is thought to be telling a lie about the wood beyond the wardrobe until the others see it. On one side of the wardrobe is the England of 1940 and crabby Mrs. Macready, the housekeeper. On the other side are fauns and talking beavers. In traditional tales, however, of the kind that Tolkien and Lewis liked to read, no such justification is needed, for the everyday world was perceived as magical in itself. Beowulf fights monsters or other warriors without having to go through a doorway between them. It is often pointed out that the industrial age with its material values brought on the necessity for fantasy writing. Lewis and Tolkien saw the modern world as needing the spiritual element found in these old tales.
The medieval romances, were filled with magic, like Le Morte dArthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1408–1471). In the rational eighteenth century, however, realistic fiction was becoming the norm, and so the Gothic tales such as The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole were clear inventions of thrilling adventures with ghosts and curses. The literary fairytale, like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, balances realism and fantasy. Hans Christian Andersen told his fairytales in all seriousness, and they had a moral undertone. George MacDonald, the Scottish Christian minister, wrote the first adult fantasy, Phantastes (1858). C. S. Lewis regarded MacDonald as his mentor: “Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later,” said Lewis, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” MacDonald showed Lewis and Tolkien how to combine myth and religious themes. Tolkien and Lewis set the trend in the mid-twentieth century for the whole fantasy industry that has since sprung up.
5. What is important about the reference to Lilith in the book?
Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia, is said to be the daughter of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and on that she bases her claim to the throne of Narnia that rightfully belongs to humans. Peter asks if the Witch is really human, and the answer is no, because her mother, Lilith, was part Jinn (evil Genie or spirit) and part giant. Lewis contrasts Jadis as the daughter of Lilith, Adam’s first but evil wife, with the legitimate Daughters of Eve, Adam’s true wife. Lucy and Susan are thus the descendents of Eve, the rightful human inheritors of the Eden-like Narnia, while the Witch is a usurper. The story of Lilith takes the pressure off Eve as the original sinner and accounts for how evil got into the world. In his scholarly work on Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lewis had defended Eve as a noble woman.
The mythical figure of Lilith has a long tradition that Lewis taps into for the Witch’s character. In general, Lilith is regarded as a succubus, or vampire, who seduces men and eats children. She is a child-killing witch. Originally a type of Mesopotamian storm demon who brought disease and death (the lilitu), she is also associated with the Lilith of Jewish folklore, created at the same time as Adam. Lilith would not obey Adam and left Eden after mating with Samael, a Satanic archangel, from whom she bore demons. Samael and Lilith joined to become the Satanic snake who seduced Eve, Adam’s second wife.
Lilith has been a favorite figure in literature and in fantasy. Goethe included Lilith in Faust, Part I (1808) where he has Faust dance with the witch Lilith. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith was a famous painting (1863) showing her with poppies and white roses, symbols of death. George MacDonald wrote a novel called Lilith (1895) in which the evil Lilith eventually finds salvation. In some modern interpretations, Lilith is a maligned fertility goddess, the patroness of sacred prostitution.