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Reclaiming Narnia: Walking Trees, Talking Beasts, Divine Waters

By Jonathan Woolley

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Image by Skullb3at

I – Radical Voices from the Lantern Waste – Opinions That Won’t Be Chronicled by Prof. Lewis.

“Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roaring caterwauling of Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all other truths. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.”

“There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.”

“Aslan, or the White Witch? The messianic agent of some foreign emperor, or some despot from a dead world? Are those our only choices?!”

“Susan was the best of them, really. The High King was never here; more interested in fighting foreign wars and chasing valour than government. Edmund was clever, yes – but you couldn’t trust him. He’d say one thing, and do quite another, if he thought it “just”. As for Lucy, she was all play and passing fancies. She barely had any time in between all her “romps” – as she called them – to think of anything else. But Susan had common sense, and a kind heart – and wore the burden of governance well. And she also knew the awful game of Power that Aslan had set before her, and how it was to be played. She knew what a marriage – her marriage – could mean for Narnia; Peace, and safety from our enemies. Enemies Peter and his lot never wanted to stop fighting.”

II – To Narnia, and the North

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was six. The triple volume we had in our house contained the first three books in the series – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy. I can still remember the front cover now; a thick, starry-blue border, edging around a rolling green landscape that swept up to high mountains beneath a clear sky. In the foreground stood the Great Lion himself; Aslan looking gold and glorious as always. It was an evocative image, and it drew me in.

My parents were surprised and overjoyed when I started reading such a long set of novels, all on my own. I devoured the books; first reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and his Boy, and finally The Magicians Nephew. I remember whisking my way through pages and pages of text, whilst my friends at school were still stumbling through books that were mostly pictures, and way-big typefacing. Words like “gifted” were bandied about over my head in hushed tones.

I didn’t care about that, though. I was worlds away – dancing with fauns, fleeing from wolves and fording the Great River. I was in love. In love with Narnia, its people, its places, its culture. It was a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy – it wasn’t some ethereal Neverwhere, hard to imagine separately to its bookish casings – it felt like (what I now call) ethnography; a thick description of a real place with realistic people. There are plenty of less-than-pleasant parts of Lewis’ vision – the sexism towards adult women, the blatant xenophobia, the authoritarian glint in Aslan’s leonine eye – but I didn’t notice any of it. To my six-year-old mind, the nasty hobby-horses of Lewis’ rode past unnoticed; the Christian allegory, 1950s imperialism and 1930s misogyny moving over my head, perhaps written at a level only older children could reach.

What did stick with me was the obvious Paganism upon which Lewis drew – the walking trees, the speaking beasts, the divine waters. I recognized them at once as friends and true gods, following them into the wild, forgotten places of the text, whilst Lewis played his Game of Thrones in the wide, open country of chapter upon chapter.

III – A lamentable surfeit of Pevensies

Bparavelecause Lewis did focus upon heroes. Heroes, by and large, I didn’t really care about. Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Jill, and even Lucy seemed rather old-fashioned to the millennial me. I was frustrated by how I was expected to only empathise with a person if they hailed from my own world. I felt patronized even at age six by this authorial choice. It was for this reason that my favourite in the series was The Horse and His Boy; here was a book where those irritating Pevensies and their fellow travelers only got involved at the edges. This book is also, incidentally, populated by characters who have the least interest in Aslan – Shasta and Hwin barely know who he is, Aravis doesn’t care, Bree doesn’t get him at all despite using him as something of a battle-standard.

But what I really loved about Horse was that it gave a precious insight into ordinary Narnia. Towards the end of the book, Shasta, on his way to the capital of Archenland, manages to find his way into Narnia proper. There, he meets a community of everyday Narnians – dwarves, fauns, talking beasts. Simple people, leading their uneventful, happy lives in the forest. Shasta spends a-few short hours amongst them, eating bacon and seeing what he’s been missing all those years in the south, before rushing off to save the day. The narrative follows him, but my heart remained in those quiet woods. I read that chapter again and again, wishing the pages would open up and lower me down gently onto a bower of golden leaves and celandines; only to be greeted by a band of dwarves with a kettle on the boil.

I read the rest of the books only later, receiving them a couple of Christmases later. I loved Prince Caspian – the trees and awakening gods avenging themselves on dull Telmarine Narnia struck a chord that still sounds in my heart today. As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn’t actually take place in Narnia, and ended in what seemed at the time to be a sort of fuzziness I couldn’t pierce (i.e. Christian allegory) so I didn’t much care for it. The Silver Chair, overwhelmingly bleak, had brief points of relief for me in shedding light on the irascible marsh-wiggles and a positively Bosch-esque winter celebration when Eustace, Jill and co. return to Narnia.

IV – Crying from onions

Snarling_lionAnd then I read The Last Battle. Each page left me feeling worse and worse. Here was the land I loved being torn to pieces. The trees being felled, the waters stilled, the animals broken as dumb beasts. Things got worse, and worse. And then, when all seemed darkest, Lewis rewarded me with the utter annihilation of Narnia, and most of its people, in fire and death.

What replaced it? A heroes reunion. Christian Allegory. More Pevensies. In short, everything I cared least about, was assured salvation!

The Narnia I loved – that magical Arcadia half-way between dreaming and waking – was replaced by something I found utterly incomprehensible. “Like an onion, but bigger on the inside” – what utter madness, I remember thinking, that doesn’t make sense at all! My visual imagination struggled to grasp this eschatological bulb, trying to imagine it as simultaneously England-and-Narnia-and-Everywhere all at once. I failed. The Christian intention of the books, once entirely invisible to me, had now become all there was to see. Aslan’s Country was an entirely foreign land to me.

I was nine or ten at the time, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t understand why Narnia had gone, or if it had gone, at all. I cried because I felt that all those nice, ordinary Narnians – simple people, who asked for nothing except a peaceful life – must’ve been exactly the sort to be tricked by Shift and his idiotic donkey-lion, Puzzle. Puzzle (and I really couldn’t believe this part) was allowed into this post-Narnia place, despite the fact that he had shown exactly the same level of ignorance that the others had done. they had been damned, yet he had not. I cried because I knew the Narnia I had believed in, was, in the eyes of the author, gone. And what’s more, he felt that was a good thing.

Now I am older. I ended up converting to the faith that Lewis himself followed – Anglican Christianity – in the vain hope of recovering some of the mystery I had felt close to in reading those first books, and that had been thoroughly banished by The Last Battle. I now realize that it was at around the time that I read that damn book that the rot to set in – the gradual loss of innocence that was less about becoming interested in stockings and lipstick and boys, as Lewis might have it, and was more about believing the world didn’t actually have any magic in it at all. Lewis successfully broke the spells woven through my Pagan heart, by shattering it in two – for a while, anyway. In the depression that followed, I was vulnerable in precisely the way that Christianity is so adept at exploiting. As such, I became a Christian.

In the end, Christianity did little for me. It energized the worst parts of my character – the self-righteous, self-hating, self-denying tendency that I still have trouble with – and left me feeling harrowed and guilty over my sexuality, my body, and my philosophical outlook. I spent years worrying about being gay and about possibly doing something that would get me sent to hell. The voices I heard on the wind told me I was safe. But the angry words of other Christians told me something different. I doubted.

Gradually, though, I was guided back into Paganism. Those voices in the wind revealed themselves as gods, not one God and his saintly minions. Those angry words were shown to be vacuous and fearful by plenty of good education and reflection. At Cambridge and through Druidry, I found my community – my Narnia. And now, after all these years, I’ve found myself again too. Now, when I look back upon Narnia, I can understand its less pleasant side.

V – Laying siege to Cair Paravel

Although it is fair to extoll Lewis’ oevre as a seamless work of genius, you can see two very distinct sides to the land he envisioned. One, embodied by the central stronghold of the monarchy at Cair Paravel – is deeply Christian in nature; focussed around noble, exemplary people, who do great things for the sake of their faith in Aslan, and can be ranked according to their relative power and sanctity. Its enemies – represented by various other castles, from the giant’s playground at Harfang, to the visciously racist Tashbaan, and the glittering misogynist edifice of the White Witch’s House – rather than being the opposite of Narnia, are more like parodies of Aslan and his power base. The hierarchy imposed through Cair Paravel remains strictly consistent across the canon; coordinated by the Emperor Beyond the Sea through Aslan, his proxy. By contrast, the forces of evil are totally divided. The White Witch. Tash. The Lady of the Green Kirtle. Shift. All move largely independently of one another, whereas Aslan exerts complete and magisterial control over all his agents.

But this axis of united good and disparate evil in a Christian vein is balanced by Narnia’s other side: its Pagan face. Mostly represented by various genius loci (naiads, dryads, hamadryads), fauns, satyrs, centaurs, dwarves, and of course, talking beasts, here is the lived existence of Narnia, between the moments where Aslan (or his enemies) appear and fight it out for supremecy. Because the story turns about the axis of the good and bad castles, we hear about this other aspect to Lewis’ world only in fragments; night dances led by Bacchus, a river god who prefers to be unshackled by bridges. These beings distinguish themselves from the enemies of the Lion, because they all submit to the Emperor, and accept that they live better under his rule. But they nonetheless sit apart from the castle lot – the reason being, that they are disbarred from sitting in government. It is only Sons of Adam, and Daughters of Eve (i.e. humans) who have that right. Just as the gods of Narnia all submit to Aslan, so all Narnia’s other-than-human inhabitants, must submit to human authority. Their diversity is harmless, because it is disempowered.

This is a fudge; a bit of theological fancy footwork, by which Lewis does a cut and shut of Pagan and Christian theology. The Pagan world – of gods, speaking beasts, talking trees, divine waters and so on – is permitted to exist, but only insofar as it submits to the authority of the preordinant Christian cosmos, populated by humans as God’s agents. What’s more, the idea that Paganism can exist independently is not even treated as a possibility; you either fall under the shadow of Cair Paravel, or that of her many enemies.

VI – There, but for the Grace of the Gods

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Faun_einer_Amsel_zupfeifendI have a personal theory about Lewis. As a young man, he expressed a deep and abiding love of the myths and stories of Old Europe. He felt keenly aware of this indefinable quality of “Northerness”, that he attempted to capture in Narnia. But as he grew older, he embraced first atheism and then Christianity. Paganism became, for him, a sort of “gateway drug” to Christian belief – in his view, people needed to become good Pagans, before they could be made good Christians. Although in later life he firmly classed Christianity as superior, this was not always how he viewed the world. Personally, I wonder about this theological journey – I suspect that, had Lewis been born some fifty years later or so, he would have happily embraced Paganism from the beginning. Had I lived in the time that he had, I would probably have remained an unhappy Christian – a faun in exile.

Lewis’ vision of Paganism – as the proletarian, lower stratum of a universe over which the Christian God and his chosen followers ride triumphant – is a powerful parable for how we, as Pagans, choose to see ourselves. For contemporary Paganism is like the ordinary Narnia of Lewis’ imagining. We as a society play in our glades, groves, and meads; singing with trees and rivers; feasting and drinking, celebrating with our merry gods without tiring. And yet, all the while, a war is going on: a war between the Ruling Power of our world and His vicious reflections. According to the apologists of Capital, there is no alternative to their glowing vision of a world powered by growth and money. The pitiless extremism of Islamic State, the ruthless despotism of Putin’s Russia – all are every bit as evil as Witches or Telmarines. And so, many of us – like ordinary Narnians – put their trust in a regime that promises to fight for us, rather than fight ourselves for a world where such regimes of threat and counter-threat are no longer necessary.

And what fate awaited such Narnians in The Last Battle? Most of them, confused and frightened, were swallowed up in a world-ending cataclysm, arising not simply from the misdeeds of the Evil Others against whom their Emperor rallied, but from the war itself. Only a precious few – “heroes”, in the eyes of the elite, and not ordinary Narnians at all – survive their world being overturned in fire and water, in time and the wrath of dragons.

The sad fate of the ordinary Narnians is what ultimately awaits us, should we allow the hegemonic forces of our world to set our discourse for us. What we must do is learn how to reclaim Narnia for its people; so that the bucolic vision of joy it inspires is not merely a happy sideshow to the real End of History playing out around it. We are the speaking beasts, the walking trees, the divine waters – Narnia and the North, and all they represent, are our birthright; we must reclaim them from those who would dominate them. Is it possible to live in a world without castles, without the war, without lions and witches? In my heart, there sits a little six year old boy, who dreams of sunny fields and quiet woods where dryads and dwarves dwell untroubled; who knows the answer must be yes.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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34 Comments »

  1. ‘We are the speaking beasts, the walking trees..’. This piece is beautiful, Jonathan. I got a lot of identification with it – thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I love this, though I must confess that I really identified with Lucy as a child. Thinking back on it, I think I still do. The relationship she had with Aslan was one I aspired to have with the Christian G-D, and one I found with my Patroness when I became a devotional polytheist. There’s also the fact that I’m the younger sibling to a brilliant elder sister who succeeds at everything she tries. So I felt a lot of sympathy for Lucy regarding her relationship with Susan…but I never got how the Pevensies (including Lucy!) were all so cool with what happened to her in the Last Battle.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Don’t get me wrong: I’m not strongly agin Lucy (or any of the Pevensies – I adored Lucy, and had a massive crush on Peter as a kid). My objection more is about their strongly elevated role in the narrative – as opposed to ordinary Narnians. I, like you, found their hyper-positive response to the ending of the Last Battle to be utterly unfathomable – as was their phlegmatic approach to being sent home in both Wardrobe and Caspian. If I walked through a wardrobe now and was suddenly transported back to when I was sixteen, I think I’d be plotting the quickest way to make a Lion-skin rug.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m currently working on my own Jadis cultus. I read the books against the grain – in a Gnostic style, if you like. What if Lewis misunderstood Jadis and even the Lion? What if they are all something more? I am working on see Jadis as an avatar of the Gnostic Sophia, the bringer of divine wisdom into the world, easily misunderstood by those who don’t have Her wisdom, her different way of seeing. I love your own interpretation – good to see others doing something similar!

    Liked by 4 people

    • This is fascinating – I’d love to hear more about your work with Jadis (she is the noble daughter of a giantess and a human, after all). On a more prosaic level, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing some Narnia fanfic, and I was tempted by the idea of giving Narnia the Wicked treatment – but in the end, I found it too difficult to transport Jadis into the status of a heroine like Elphaba.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You capture the magic of Narnia so perfectly: “a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy”. My experience of reading the books was very similar to what you describe, my favourites similar to yours, for the same reasons – with one difference: I adore the Dawn Treader. Not for the human story, but for the world beneath the waves, the questing spirit of Reepicheep; the magic and mystery that comes from leaving behind all that is familiar and voyaging into the unknown, with an open mind. Perhaps even then my heart belonged to Manawydan.

    I could never bring myself to finishThe Last Battle. After the first few chapters, I mourned the loss of the magial world I loved, and swore to resist those destructive forces wherever I found them in this reality. We are the divine waters.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Ahh yes. If you are one of Manawydan’s, your fondness for Dawn Treader would indeed make a lot of sense. For myself, I’m far more of a home body. I hate traveling, and feel no see longing. Perhaps that would explain our differing preferences 🙂

      As for the Last Battle – yes. I wish I hadn’t ever finished it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As a teenager, I loved The Last Battle, because it hinted at a universalism my evangelical Christian community had never allowed me to dream of. Emeth would never have made it to their paradise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fascinating! Being brought up in a broadly Anglican/Atheist household, for me the assumption was very much that Good People Went To Heaven, with religious affiliation being somewhat irrelevant. I can see how the universalism promised by Emeth’s acceptance into Aslan’s country would have been far better than what evangelical Christianity would have assigned him.

      Personally, though, I found Emeth’s whole course to good so far as it went, but still troubling. If you could accidentally worship Tash, rather than Aslan, how could you ever be sure you were doing the latter and not the former? The whole point of Christianity – supposedly – is that it provides clear moral guidance as to how we should lead our lives. And yet, if evil can easily masquerade as good, and you will be damned eternally for meekly obeying it (as is commanded in Scripture), then how on Earth can we be reassured of our Salvation?

      Christians can’t, I suppose. Ironically, they have thrown all their uncertainty into making money. Surely God wouldn’t allow evil men to prosper…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My family used the Narnia books (all of them) to teach us to read when we were little. The Magician’s Nephew was my favorite for many reasons, and one of the reasons was the line that your blog post takes it name from. It is an invocation that still brings tears to my eyes.

    Pagan Narnia was something that I was accutely aware of growing up, because despite my family’s laid-back Episcopalianism they spoke scathingly of how “Heathen” CS Lewis was. I’ve seen it through much of his work; the science fiction trilogy (though it felt like there was a serious redaction of it in That Hideous Book), Narnia, and of course Till We Have Faces which I think is one of the finest modern Pagan novels.

    I will admit to a love of one of the castle figures – as a child, Jadis (especially as portrayed in the Magician’s Nephew) was my hero. I didn’t understand why till later in life, but despite her being a truly horrid being she is the only female character in the novels that she is in who is allowed to express power, strength, will and authority.

    The magic in this series is great, and I appreciate your thoughts on it and how it is reflective of our modern situation. We are the talking beasts, the walking trees, the divine waters!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Spirit Mama and commented:

    May 28, 2015

    I love this so much. Narnia has been my happy-place since I was little. And now I unapologetically smother my child with it 🙂 I have to say though, I never read The Last Battle. And now I don’t l think I ever will.

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  8. Despite being someone who attended Oxford University (as a visiting student for one year as an undergraduate) and who is a medievalist by trade, I have not read Tolkien or Lewis, other than some of the medieval translations of the former and some nonfiction of the latter on mostly medieval topics. Of the Inklings, I’ve actually read more Charles Williams than the others (and feel he’s terribly under-rated, though given his colleagues’ stature, it’s somewhat understandable why)…

    I keep thinking I might rectify this one day…but, I often prefer to find out more about the more ancient things, and read new editions and translations of those texts, than to read modern fiction, no matter how good or important. Hmm…

    That having been said–for good or ill, I’ll leave you to decide it!–your writing here makes me want to give the books a try. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

      • Yes–Taliessin Through Logres is the main thing of his I’ve read. He’s one of very few modern Arthurian writers before about 1980 to get lycanthropy back into the mix, and he does it uniquely (to my knowledge) with Lancelot, so that’s even more interesting. I have a few of his other books around (now in storage) that I hope to have a look at one day.

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  9. Lovely essay! Did you know that in Neil Gaiman’s midwest US home, his yard has a slope at the bottom of which is just the same sort of light-post?

    I read Narnia when I was in college about 40 years ago, and a proto-Pagan. I think it was a read-once for me.

    Sara Teasdale’s nature poems grabbed me hard in 9th grade. Very visual conjuring by words to help you see what she saw (but not on the seashore with shells).

    I can’t remember when I first read George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, and the Princess and Curdie. The Grandmother figure made a huge impression on me, and I definitely felt she was likely a Goddess.

    Then in the mid-80’s there was Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, and others in that set of worlds, that tied so many of my disparate interests together. I wanted to live in Tamson House, in that Pagan Alternate Ottowa later called Newford.

    Some time, the story of how you came to be a Boy Made of Sky would be welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s always tempting to categorize the thing that universally we must struggle against as in those things outside that which we love. But pagans, Christians and atheists alike: we all must struggle against fear that stimulates selfishness. Jesus of Nazareth, the archetype for Aslan, demonstrated the joyous possibilities of victory in that struggle. The Last Battle, unfortunately, demonstrates Lewis’s conclusion that we are going to discover the hard way the costs of failing to learn from such demonstrations. When I read it, I had the sense that the author himself found it painful – much of it read like a great soul-cry.

    I am glad that you are choosing to pay attention to the creatures in the land. The Pevensies always let their minds wander, getting caught in the “real” world, and Narnia – the silent land that rests all around us – suffered as a result.

    Like

  11. As some one who has read nearly everything Lewis has written, this piece pleases me tremendously. Also, I didn’t read Narnia until I was 21 and firmly ensconced in Christian tradition. It’s allegory seemed to straight forward, especially as the series goes on. Both Lewis and Tolkien are tremendously influenced by the English Paganish Romantic/nature/mythic heritage. It is no wonder that they in turn continue to influence modern Paganism.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I read the Narnia books to my six year-old little sister when I was 15. I found the ending of the Last Battle painful to read for myself and to expose my little sister to. I was convinced that Tolkien’s blast against allegory in his prefice to the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ must have been specifically aimed at Lewis’s Narnia.
    I noted at the time that the supposedly paradise (I agree ‘onion like’, and perhaps to evoke the geometry of Dante’s Empyrenum) of the after-world had like the promised world-to-come of John’s Appocolypse ‘no more sea’. Such a world was dead at age 16 and remains dead at age 63

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tried and tried and tried to read that trilogy, forcing myself through the first two, finding I couldn’t face the third.

      His Till We have Faces was wonderful when I read it in my teens, but haven’t read it since.

      Like

  13. Thank you so much for re-invoking the beauty I found in these books as a young teen. I nearly cried.

    A little sidenote: have you read Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan”?

    Like

  14. I was touched by the paragraph that began “In the end, Christianity did little for me,” because I feel the same way. About Christianity, but not about Jesus. I’m still a Christian, and hoping to fight the twisted fundamentalist view from the inside. I think we’re on the same journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I am still catching up to all the reading from ‘Gods and Radicals’, and have now read two of your pieces. I love how you write. I love what you say. I love your work. Thank you.

    Like

  16. Never have I found my thoughts on Narnia and Lewis expressed in such a clarified way, in such a poetic way. Thank you Johnathan. I too grew up with the chronicles of Narnia on tv and through book and it’s only in the last few years that I have read them again after shunning them through a period of black thought. The way I feel about the places I grew up, I imagined them as Narnia. Rivers and hills of Yorkshire and valleys, mountains of Wicklow. Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. Merry meet merry part.

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