Examining Mythology in "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis
The wonder of opening a book feels very similar to the experience of opening a wardrobe door and finding oneself in another world. Stories told to children as they prepare for bed act also as vehicles for transportation of imagination, and when the book opens, a journey begins. When C.S. Lewis wrote his seven-part series for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, he realized that not only the children in on Earth going to read the stories, but children in future generations of Narnia will also enjoy the stories as they pass down. Therefore, for both group’s enjoyment, Lewis created in his novels a solid mythology all its own for the Narnian world, and in the books also created an anthological story of how his myth filtered down throughout Narnian history. In the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis creates a viable mythology that stands alone according to his standards, passed down through oral, prophetic, and natural means.
C.S. Lewis delighted in all forms of Earth’s mythology. Many studies of Lewis’s life comments upon the different references to Greek, Norse, Arthurian, Christian, and many other mythologies in the Narnia books. David Downing asserts in his book Into the Wardrobe that “for Lewis, a well-constructed story draws upon…universal images and meanings. Much of the thematic richness of the chronicles derives from Lewis’s skill in drawing on mythic patterns” (34). C.S. Lewis did many scholarly studies on mythology and had definitive ideas of what made a myth and what did not. In judging the idea of myth and truth, Lewis in his sermon “Myth Became Fact,” deemed that “myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to” (141) and later, speaking specifically in reference to Christianity, “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens” (141). Understanding this aspect pinpoints exactly what Lewis believed determined a “myth.” Lewis, according to his own work, believed that even true events fit into the category of “myth,” though generally society equates “myth” with “false.” He, in An Experiment in Criticism, creates a checklist of sorts for deciding if stories fit the elusive “myth” category. Therefore, in determining that Lewis wrote a complete and viable mythology that lives inside Narnia and affects its people, those specific characteristics all must pertain to the Narnian stories and determined fit within the stories and their world. While Lewis published these characteristics in An Experiment in Criticism, Leland Ryken and Marjorie Mead, in their book A Reader’s Guide Through the Wardrobe, simplify the wording and summarize the explanations when Lewis’s wording could confuse the reader. Application of these shorter explanations sometimes better describes Lewis’s meaning.
The first characteristic of a myth states that “mythical stories are so striking in themselves that their power over the human psyche is inherent in the stories, quite apart from the literary skill, or lack of it, with which a given storyteller has told the story” (Ryken and Mead 107). One instance of the Narnian myth severely impacting the human psyche shines in the second book, Prince Caspian (PC), where Aslan heals the crying schoolgirl’s sick auntie. Healed from near death, the aunt opens her eyes to see Aslan, and she exclaims, “Oh, Aslan! I knew it was true. I’ve been waiting my entire life. Have you come to take me away?” (217). This quote bears significance because when the aunt opens her eyes and sees a lion’ face before her, he does not identify himself as Aslan, the aunt simply knows. Lewis never tells readers if the aunt has ever seen any sort of lion, only that her niece has never (216). The aunt then says, “I’ve been waiting for this my entire life,” suggesting Aslan never before visited her, and she therefore relies on faith to believe the myths. This woman takes to heart the myths that she heard long ago, and she fervently believes, even to the point of wishing for it her whole life and asking immediately, without fear, if Aslan takes her away. She wants to go with him. The personification of Aslan who represents the central belief in the Narnian myth, means that, when characters react to Aslan’s presence or lack thereof, they react to the myth itself and that character’s belief in them comes to the surface.
The second aspect of myth, which C.S. Lewis does not consider among his checklist in Criticism, but noted by Ryken and Mead, states that “mythical stories ‘have a very simple narrative shape—a satisfactory and inevitable shape, like a good vase or a tulip’” (107). Most of the time, humans or animals hear the story of Aslan or Peter the High King or King Caspian the Seafarer as children, therefore the storytellers must speak simply, but a good mythology always possess innumerable depths in which one may explore in adulthood. This fact perhaps determines why Lewis chose to have the Pevensie children young when they first come to Narnia, and in fact nearly all heroes of the stories, excepting King Frank and Queen Helen, the first Narnian royalty, help Narnia while still children or young adults. The stories about heroic children mean to inspire the children listening to the stories into faith in Aslan and his work. Peter Schakel, in his book Reading With the Heart: The Way Into Narnia, discuss this child-like simplicity when dealing with the theme of Deep Magic: “Through Deep Magic,” he says, “Lewis is depicting in a form which appeals to imagination and emotion, in a form children can relate to, what he described conceptually in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity” (23). Therefore, the myth and the aspects of the myth, must present in a simple, clear manner in which children can understand. If the complexity of the myth befuddled the children, less people would believe in Aslan because of hindrances one usually achieves as adults, like skepticism, ideology, and negative attributes of the Narnian adults and would halt the acceptance of Aslan and other stories.
The third characteristic of a myth states that the myth must, “even at first hearing…is felt to be inevitable” (Ryken and Mead 107) and “the pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise” (An Experiment in Criticism 43). In PC, the very young Caspian, speaking to his Uncle Miraz about Old Narnia, in other words, Narnia before the Telmarine invasion in 1998 Narnian time (NT) (Duriez 136), says that he wishes he lived in Old Narnia primarily because, “the animals could talk and there were nice people who lived in the streams and the trees.…And there were Dwarfs. And there were lovely little Fauns in all the woods. They had feet like goats” (43). Caspian only brings up elements of surprise and suspense when his Uncle Miraz says, “At your age, you ought to be thinking of battles and adventures” (43). Caspian then highlights those elements of Old Narnia, and retells the exciting events of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW) to Miraz. While Lewis’s myth contains many elements of suspense and surprise, the story forgets them quickly and the hearers instead relish in a peaceful Narnia. For Lewis and Narnia, the battles provide a means to a new ending that lacks surprise or suspense, for Aslan brings only peace and whenever men rule on the throne of Narnia in his name or according to his will, peace abounds. Schakel notes that “victory for the Narnians comes only through Aslan: that is, perhaps, the central theme of the series” (15). Therefore, however the Narnians must get to this state, they will, for they relish in peace, not battles.
The fourth characteristic of a myth states that “the characters in a mythical story do not primarily appeal to us as fellow human beings; rather, ‘they are like shapes moving in another world” (Ryken and Mead 107). Two places within the Chronicles highlight this element well. The first place, in The Last Battle (LB), King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, thinks about the old Narnian stories in a time of sorrow. He ponders his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather King Rilian’s adventures with the “two mysterious children” and determines that “it’s not like that with me” (51) because the stories appear so magical that Tirian cannot relate himself to the characters in that story. He then thinks about the events told in PC and again decides, “that sort of thing doesn’t happen now” (51). King Tirian holds the stories to such a high regard, and the stories contain so many magical elements to persuade him to think they operate higher than everyday life, proving the fourth characteristic of myth. Trumpkin the Dwarf in PC, still struggling for solid belief in the myth of Aslan and Cair Paravel, does not accept the children as participants in the stories because of their young age, which Trumpkin views as a weakness. He imagines older, larger-than-life superstars and not the bunch of children in weird clothes who stand before him. In the short time he considers the myth possible, he already elevates Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy to a status which the actual children do not qualify; the conjured picture in his head contradicts reality, and Trumpkin therefore will not accept the truth of the children at fiThe fifth characteristic states that “myth is a type of fantasy story that ‘deals with impossible and preternaturals’—in other words, it transcends our natural world and moves into the realm of the ‘supernatural’” (Ryken and Mead 07). In LWW, Aslan embodies a figure living above the laws of physics and time, subject only to the laws of the Deep Magic. Aslan possesses abilities to disappear, reappear, possess invisibility, and selective invisibility, and many things humans and animals cannot accomplish. Aslan does not have to follow the ways of humans, nor the will of the humans, for, after all, “he’s not a tame lion” (LB 19). Paul Ford, in his encyclopedic Companion to Narnia, identifies that the Emperor-Beyond-The Sea produces the Deep Magic, and “the Deeper Magic against which Aslan cannot work” (193). In fact, Aslan would not dare to work against the Deep Magic if he could, for when Susan asks, “Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?” (LWW 156), he says, “Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” (156) and the narrator mentions that “nobody ever made that suggestion to him again” (156). As stated in earlier paragraphs, the concept of Deep Magic supposes a Narnian equal for what Lewis describes in Mere Christianity as “The Law of Human Nature.” Lewis asserts in the text God’s creation of the Law of Human Nature. He states that “I should expect to find that there was, so to speak,…a Power, behind the facts [of the Law of Human Nature], a Director, a Guide” (25). For Narnia, Aslan acts specifically as a guide, and his father, the Emperor-Over-The-Sea, portrays the creator of the Law. Therefore, Aslan portrays both Guide of the Deep Magic and subject. The presence of Magicians, such as the Magician of the Dufflepuds’ island, develops another aspect of supernaturalism in Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT). The Magician calls any sort of magic with books and wands “rough magic” (499), a phrase Aslan also calls “dark Magic” on page 206 of Magician’s Nephew (MN). The Green and White Witches from The Silver Chair (SC) and LWW, respectively, generally work in this Rough Magic. From Earth, the amateur Magician of Uncle Andrew works with Rough Magic in an extremely rudimentary fashion. To the children who hear the stories and have never met a talking animal, this element also develops a vapor of transcendence from the natural world.
The sixth characteristic that makes a myth states that “the experience may be sad or joyful but it is always grave. Comic myth…is impossible” (An Experiment in Criticism 44). To find this characteristic in Narnian myth, one must focus on endings. In LWW, MN, PC, VDT, and SC, the children always leave when their work finishes, excepting in LWW, where they grow into the roles of Kings and Queens of Narnia and then accidently leave, ending a very prosperous and abundant life to come back to living as school-age British children during World War II. At the end of LB, all die in a horrific train accident, Narnia ends, and any New Narnian Myth ceases possibility. With looking specifically at MN, the audience hears an enjoyable, even funny tale, such as when the animals ruthlessly abuse Uncle Andrew (154-158) but the end of the story feels bittersweet, for King Frank and Queen Helen get to rule Narnia while the children must go back living as children in England, although their lives improve significantly. Only Horse and His Boy (HHB) has a truly “happy ever after” ending in which “Aravis also had many quarrels…with Cor, but they always made up again, so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently” (241). In the realm of the entire Narnian myth, however, this instance portrays one happy ending in a sea of hardships. Deep subjects such as death, battles, and struggles with a lack of a multiple number of comical characters flood Narnia myth. The reader must endure as Reepicheep, one of the select few funny characters, sails off in search of Aslan’s country, not again seen until the end of the series. Reepicheep’s leaving shows one of many, many sad partings. In SC, Puddleglum, the other truly comic character, must ride into the sunset, so to speak, also never seen until the end. In LB, C.S. Lewis does not allow Narnia to continue to grow and prosper, he must destroy the world.
The seventh and final myth characteristic states that all myth “’is not only grave but awe-inspiring. We feel it to be numinous.’ In myth there is a sense of awe and if the wholly transcendent ‘other’” (Ryken and Mead 107). The hearers of the stories such as LWW most likely amaze in the sudden appearance of the four children from another world. No one born in the Narnian world has ever traveled to earth (Jadis comes from an entirely different world, Charn.) In fact, Mr. Tumnus, unfamiliar with her home planet, calls Lucy’s home “the far land of Spare Oom where the eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe” (LWW 13). Significant magic weaves throughout the story, manifested mostly in this transcendence between worlds, and brings the wonder of other places into the tales at which Narnian children would marvel. Not contextual evidence gives the impression the Earth children discuss their home planet at length, except in HHB when Lucy, “told again (they had all, except Aravis and Cor, heard it many times but they all wanted it again) the tale of the Wardrobe and how she and King Edmund and Queen Susan and Peter the High King had first come into Narnia” (238). This quote suggests Lucy has told the stories before, but any references to England in the Narnian myth disappear into obscurity. Aslan certainly never mentions England to the Narnians. Until the final events in LB, the world of Earth presents a significant, unanswered mystery. From this mysterious world, people important to their history have come. C.S. Lewis created a myth so powerfully developed with magic that the Narnians could not possess other stories quite of this caliber without the Deep Magic and transcendence, nor as fantastical as the ones presented.
Now that the stories in The Chronicles of Narnia prove a viable myth according to the basis of C.S. Lewis’s own characteristic checklist for myths, the question remains of what happened to these stories after they happened. The story as it happens tells only half the history…the second half of the story tells how the stories pass down: either orally, naturally, or prophetically.
The story seems, by context, handed down most often by much the same method as Lewis employs by authoring children’s books—adults telling the stories to children at their bedtimes. No contextual evidence records that the myths appear in book form in Narnia, although this does occur in the “Prince Caspian” movie. This method of storytelling to the very young occurs widely—while many people in the books do not believe the stories; nearly every character in the book has at least heard the tales. Noticeably, many in Calormen have not heard the stories of Aslan, for Shasta and Aravis do not realize that the lions they encounter can protect them instead of eating them.
In the Narnia controlled by the usurper Miraz, who wants to crush all knowledge of everything to do with Old Narnia, history lessons in schools and with tutors only allow coverage of the time period after the Telmarine invasion of Narnia in 1998 NT. Everything about the Old Narnia country lives covered up, denied, and forbidden. The stories come alive in this hostile environment by children’s nurses, such as Caspian’s nurse, secretly telling their young charges the stories at bedtime. Not everyone learns of Old Narnia, but the ones who do seem to know of it learn about it this way. Caspian’s nurse probably learned of Narnia this way, for the reader meets her again as the auntie who has waited “my whole life” (PC 217) for Aslan when he heals her. Caspian’s tutor, Dr. Cornelius, later reaffirms Caspian’s stories and the young prince learns much of Old Narnia. Interestingly, unlike many oral traditions on Earth, Narnian myth does not change with the telling by many people or by age of the story. The Narnian myth played out in LWW lives as the same myth Tirian knows in LB, and Tirian’s correct knowledge of the myths enables him to see through the deceiver, Shift. After Caspian’s coronation and the overthrow of the Telmarine government, the knowledge of the myths expands freely and openly throughout Narnia through schools. Tirian most likely learns the myths this way, although he, the son of the king, likely had a private tutor instead of a schoolroom. The Narnia under Tirian regards the knowledge, forbidden under Miraz, as fact and history.
The myth also filters down “naturally.” A myth may pass itself down naturally by affecting the hearer’s instinct or by proving itself using strictly metaphysical means. Myth asserts itself using natural means in PC when Edmund delivers the proposal from Peter to Miraz for the one-on-one battle. Sopespian, an evil man high up in the Telmarine government says to his confidante, Glozelle, when Edmund walks up, “he is…a kinglier man than ever Miraz was” (192). Like a true Telmarine, Sopespian does not know the Old Narnian myth, or if he has heard it secretly, disbelieves it, nor does he know the true nature of the man standing before him. In SC, a similar thing happens, when Prince Rilian, after “he has been held captive for a decade” (Ford 374) by the Green Witch, comes face-to-face with Narnians for the first time in a decade. The narrator says, “there were some old [Narnians] who could just remember how…King Caspian had looked when he was a young man and saw the likeness. But I think they would have known him anyway…there was something in his face and air which no one could mistake. That look is in the face of all true Kings of Narnia, who rule by the will of Aslan” (238). This recognition of Rilian portrays another instance in which the truth of the Narnian myth and the rule of Aslan flutters down through metaphysical means. Rilian’s descendant, Tirian, has a similar instance with Eustace and Jill before he realizes their identities. The narrator records that “the wonder of walking beside the creatures from another world made him feel a little dizzy: but it also made all the old stories seem far more real than they had ever seemed before…anything might happen now” (60). Tirian, like Rilian and Sopespian, grabs onto the truth of the myths without instruction by man or animal, and the myth reveals itself to them without needing physical means to spread itself.
The myth also uses a natural factor that manifests itself more as an “instinct” that grows within a character. Shasta in HHB gives the prime example of an instinctual factor. Raised on the eastern coast of Calormen by a fisherman, Shasta feels unhappy and does not feel like he belongs. He “had never been able to love [his father] and he knew that a boy ought to love his father” (8) and relief washes over him when he finds out the truth about his supposed father instead of feeling devastated. Shasta constantly looks to the North and wonders greatly what lies there, over the mountains. Even though his body resides in Calormen, his soul lives over those mountains. He does not know about the princely blood that ruins through his veins, blood from the line of Archenland, located directly North of the eastern coast of Calormen, over the mountains. Shasta’s origin truth manifests itself in his instincts.
Caspian, on the other hand, comes from the lineage of Telmar, but despite growing up under Telmarine rule, longs to live in the time of Old Narnia. Surrounded by oppression where talk of the old tales jeopardize one’s life, Caspian refuses to believe his uncle’s assertions that the tales of Aslan and the Pevensie children never happened. The young Caspian, realizing his Uncle’s beliefs about the old stories, could trust that Miraz tells the truth and stopped believing, or succumb to forceful persuasion, and then punish Dr. Cornelius when he, too, tells Caspian stories of Old Narnia, but he does not. Caspian could easily disbelieve the stories about Old Narnia and seek employment as another mindless Telmarine drone, but he stands by his convictions and constantly asserted what he instinctually knows as truth, and for that faith, Aslan rewards him.
Narnian myth passes down by prophecy, the third way. The first prophecy, encountered in LWW, happens when the Beavers tell the Pevensie children of Aslan’s role in defeating the White Witch. Mr. Beaver calls the prophecy an “old rhyme” (85). The other prophecy told by the Beavers involves the Pevensie kids potentially crowned the future Kings and Queens of Narnia, and will bring peace. In VDT, Reepicheep tells of a personal prophecy given to him by a Dryad when he still slept in a cradle as young mouse that “Where the sky and water meet,/ Where the waves grow sweet,/ Doubt not, Reepicheep,/ To find all you seek/ There is the utter east” (433). Lewis used prophecy to tie the elements of Narnian myth together and give it a fantastical feel. Ford states in his Companion, “all these prophecies are fulfilled in the Chronicles, and Lewis felt that prophecy could be used in a story for giving a sense of providence and of how free will and destiny work together” (355). One sees fulfillment of Reepicheep’s prophecy on page 247 of VDT, when he finds sweet water suggested in the second line of the prophecy, and sails off for “where the sky and the water meet,” Aslan’s Country. Later, in LB, Reepicheep’s presence in Aslan’s Country confirms that he has indeed reached “all you seek.” Prophecy furthers the story in a form of foreshadowing and carries the truth of the Narnian myth with it. The prophecies reaffirm the facts of the myth by foretelling orally what will happen naturally. In this way, two of the methods of passing down myth unite.
When Lucy Pevensie stumbled on the snow of Narnia for the first time, she stumbled upon a country with a life, history, and a myth of its very own. By C.S. Lewis’ own definitions of myth, the stories held in The Chronicles of Narnia create a viable, living myth, passed down through oral, natural, and prophetic means. While children on Earth have reveled in the stories for over fifty years, the children of Narnia, also listening to the stories read by their mothers or nurses, have enjoyed the stories for many thousand years, and both sets of children remain equally entertained with the strong narrative myth of Narnia.
Downing, David. Into The Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Duriez, Colin. A Field Guide to Narnia. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Ford, Paul F. The Companion to Narnia. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Lewis, C.S. "Myth Became Fact". Lewis, C.S. Essay Collection. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 138-142.
—. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge, UK: U of Cambridge Press, 2000.
—. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
—. Prince Caspian. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Horse and His Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Magician's Nephew. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Silver Chair. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
—. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Mead, Marjorie and Leland Ryken. A Reader's Guide Through The Wardrobe. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Schakel, Peter J. Reading With The Heart: The Way Into Narnia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.