“Don’t open that door,” Brân said before we cut off his head and brought it back from the war. We’ve been stuck here with it eighty years. It never speaks. Nothing happens anymore.
Life’s an endless party. I drink a can every morn, with a light and breezy head look out the window where the tides ebb and roll, open another one. The days are always the same unspiralling cigarette by cigarette.
We’ve got stores of food and nobody has to do any cooking. Cornflakes for breakfast and microwave meals. It’s curry night every night then every night there’s bawdy jokes and dancing.
When we turned the music up, Brân used to sing along but his baritone got too big for our small pop songs. When Pryderi tried to cheer him up by putting a party hat on his head it shrivelled and fell off as he narrowed his gargantuan eyebrows.
Nothing makes him smile anymore. Not even Taliesin’s rude rhymes and limericks.
We know the Awen’s gone sour like the milk we cannot find sniffing round refrigerators that never hum or leak are never empty or grow mould.
“You’ll never find it,” says Manawydan, always in the background shaking his head. The one who keeps his brother’s orders yet stares with longing at the sea.
There’s only so much beer one can drink. Only so many games of cards and poker and gambling chips. Only so many songs that speak of nothing but the emptiness of bliss.
My life’s become a blur of repetition but for the increasing nagging in my soul.
Remember, remember, what’s behind that door? There’s a reason we have to keep it shut, I’m sure.
That’s the point, if you remembered… but I cannot… I cannot hear my soul. I’m getting edgy. I’m off the beer. Heart racing, clammy handed, I’ve got the shakes. Looking at Brân’s head’s beginning to make me queasy. Something within me small, trembling, winged is trying to escape.
I can’t believe they’re reading the same old newspapers, circling the same Monopoly board, leaving no empties where the ash trays never spill.
Manawydan’s asleep on the slouchy chair dreaming of flying away as a great black seabird. He isn’t going to stop me opening that door.
They’re engulfed in the game. Glifau’s got Regent Street and Oxford Street but Pryderi’s heading for Bond Street on double sixes. Ynog’s on the edge of his seat because he’s stuck in jail. Gruddieu’s counting coloured notes. Something’s telling me to remember…
Still I slip from my seat and round the back of the settee. Try to look inconspicuous, like I’m stretching my legs, trying to get a better view in.
That door. That door. It’s a plain old thing: white painted, brass handled, just like the other ones except for the DO NOT OPEN sign Pryderi made from cardboard and string for a joke.
They haven’t noticed me sliding toward it, reaching out, touching the cold metallic handle. Do you really want to end your time on Gwales? Remember everything that should be shut out?
Brân’s eyes flash open.
Without a doubt. I turn the handle and look out. A sea breeze whips in with plaintive cries of gulls telling of every loss we have ever suffered, every kinsman and companion lost, staccato of gun-shots, crash of bombs. The broken cauldron that birthed the Awen and split the atom.
As I look across to Prydain in eighty years nothing has changed. They’re still birthing warplanes from slick white aerodromes and building glassy universities to teach deadly technologies. Sending young men away and bringing us back useless with headless comrades.
I remember every single thing including why I should not have opened that door. The colour fades from Brân’s cheeks. The colour fades from us all. Not a year has passed. Not a thing has changed. We must face the world again and bear Brân’s head with us.
*This story is based on the Assembly of the Noble Head from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion which can be read HERE.
Lorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython.
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
Because 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
And 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
I 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 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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