It was 114 years ago today that C. S. Lewis was born, soon to bring the magic of Narnia to the world of literature! To celebrate, we've extracted the chapter below from Children's Literature in Context by Fiona McCulloch in which she discusses some of the incredible themes featured in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
Though choosing the medium of fantasy, Lewis is influenced by social events, since many children faced evacuation to rural environments during the war. Themes of home are raised, as the children are evicted from their familial home and relocated to an unfamiliar space, inevitably leading to separation anxiety and a journey that helps to heal the lack of security felt in their uncanny environment. Initially, the journey from an urban to a rural landscape transports them from London to rural England, which typifies the influence of Victorian thinking concerning childhood and nature. It also signals a return to a womb-like security, away from the horrors of war to re-emerge changed but unharmed from social trauma and ready to return home. The war raging in the world that the children have escaped from is then mirrored in Narnia, where they are safe to explore the trauma of conflict within the parameters of a framed fantasy world. Narnia is the secondary world that exists beyond the wardrobe’s back, framing a primary world that they can return to. Time also functions as a safety device because, while time passes in Narnia, it is frozen on this side of the wardrobe. In Narnia, the children are empowered by overcoming dangerous adventures and reach adulthood, for, ‘These two Kings and two Queens governed Narnia well, and long and happy was their reign’, yet when they return to their old world towards the end of the narrative, ‘It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide’, allowing them to return safely to their childhood.
Upon arrival at the Professor’s, they learn that the house is a labyrinthine structure of hidden ‘stairs and passages’ and its wild rural location exists on the peripheries of their recognized urban civilization, for there are ‘mountains’ and ‘woods’. Temporarily placed on the Other side of familiarity, the untamed landscape serves as a trope for the imagination, a space beyond adult control that they can wander through, for, ‘That old chap will let us do anything we like’. Following the conventions of children’s literature, the children are liberated from parental authority so that they can find new worlds and explore uninhibited, but with the reassurance that the primary world is always waiting on this side of the wardrobe door. Another indicator of the imaginative realm being housed in the Professor’s Gothic home is ‘a whole series of rooms that led into each other’ that ‘were lined with books’. Having walls lined with books, undoubtedly including fictional reads, this mysterious house – ‘which even [the Professor] knew so little about’ – is steeped in the imagination and serves as a space through which the children can explore their unconscious anxieties and desires. Like the mirror passed through in Alice, the wardrobe ‘has a looking-glass in the door’, emphasizing that Narnia is a realm on the Other side of the mirror. On this side of the mirror, the conventions of the ‘real’ world are framed and reflected back at us but, behind that glass lies Narnia, which will comment from a different angle on events in our world using fantasy’s distortive lens. The use of binaries emphasizes the function of the mirror as a fantasy device to explore a different perspective for, while ‘[i]t is summer there’ in Lucy’s familiar realm, ‘it is winter in Narnia’. In Lewis’s commentary upon the horrors of the Second World War, the innocent connotations of summer associated with Lucy’s childhood are abruptly inverted to symbolize winter as experience with its sterile, dead and cold world that lacks freedom and happiness. Like the trauma of war in Lucy’s adult world, Narnia is blighted by an unnaturally eternal winter, rather like the Fisher King myth used by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to consider the horrors of the First World War. Another intertextual echo of Alice occurs when ‘Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm’ with Mr Tumnus the Faun, which is reminiscent of Alice walking with her arm round the Fawn’s neck in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass.
Lewis draws upon Christian mythology in his use of fantasy as a way of dealing with psychosocial ruptures in society, and uses the imaginative space of Narnia to pedagogically reflect upon Christian notions of good and evil. The restoration of order involves a reinforcement of patriarchal values, particularly in relation to gender roles. The White Witch, epitomized as evil, wields her wand as a phallic symbol of her usurping power while the true King, Aslan is absent. Notably, when she is defeated, Edmund who had been hitherto tantalized and then victimized by her, breaks her wand with his phallic symbol, bringing ‘his sword smashing down on her wand’ (162) and symbolizing a restoration of his masculine power over her and returning Narnia to patriarchal order. The White Witch represents the monstrous feminine, which patriarchy must keep in check: ‘she’s no Daughter of Eve’ but is from ‘your father Adam’s first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn’. She is unmaternal, suggesting a sterility as cold as her landscape, and women without so-called maternal instincts are considered unnatural even now in society. Rather than child rearing, her association with Lilith equates her with infanticide: on the other side of the mirrored wardrobe, ambitious women are punished as demonic in a Christian affirmation of patriarchy. Edmund is initially lured through the consumption of enchanted Turkish Delight, suggesting an exotic Eastern Otherness that is endangering the security of this British child. Having consumed her wares, Edmund is ravenous for more, for it ‘was enchanted Turkish Delight’ and ‘anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves’. This moment echoes the temptation of Adam by Eve after her consumption of the apple and also intertextualizes Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, where Laura devours forbidden fruits from Goblin men and almost dies until she is redeemed by her sister Lizzie’s sacrifice.