Musty Books: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis (1950)

Edmund. It’s all about Edmund.

Initially, casting a revisionist eye over such a famous novel felt superfluous. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is so entangled with our memories of the collective 20th century childhood that reviewing the book anew felt as pointless as looking for a fresh angle on breathing or sleeping. What more is there to say? We all read it as children. We all pushed through racks of C&A shirts and flouncy blouses to tentatively rap the back of our parents’ wardrobes. We all – on glorious winters mornings, when the curtains were whisked back to reveal the virginal glare of freshly-fallen snow – imagined a fussing faun stumbling around the corner of our streets, pausing beneath the glare of a fizzing electric light with an armful of tumbling parcels.

The story, characters and setting have become part of the iconography of British popular culture. Four young siblings – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – are evacuated from wartime London and billeted to the rambling country pile of an elderly, free-thinking professor whose forgotten spare room wardrobe acts as a portal to the magical, snow-bound land of Narnia. Here, a collection of fantastical fauns, centaurs, giants and various anthropomorphic talking beasties are being repressed by the regime of the tyrannical White Witch; a merciless self-appointed monarch all too aware of the ancient prophecy that, when four human children arrive in the land to claim their rightful seats of power, her days are of dictatorial rule are numbered.

Under the guiding light of Aslan, a messianic lion, the Witch is – of course – overthrown, and the dastardly spell she has cast over Narnia (“always winter but never Christmas”) is dispersed, leaving a legion of liberated beavers finally free to half-heartedly exchange clumsily-wrapped Lenthéric gift sets before falling asleep in front of the Bond film with a feeling of vague, flatulent anti-climax.

I loved it as a child. I bought my copy on Saturday 21st January 1984 from the Middlesbrough branch of Hintons, a long-since defunct North-Eastern supermarket. I was 11. That night, I slept in my Gran’s spare room for one of the final times of my life, this seemingly perennial weekend tradition drifting gently to a poignant end. I read the book in bed, casting vague, hopeful glances at the wardrobe in which still hung a collection of my Uncle Trevor’s mothballed flares, and dozed off shortly after the discovery of the secret police raid on Mr Tumnus’ house. All day, the skies above Teesside had been orange and the air sweetly crisp; and these tummy-clenching portents were fulfilled in magnificent fashion as I slept. “There’s been quite a bit of snow,” said my Gran, hesitantly, as she woke me the next morning. With quivering fingers, she drew back the curtains to reveal my own, personal Narnia. Overnight, the suburban streets of Acklam had been subsumed by a thick, crunchy blanket of undisturbed snow, and feather-duster flakes were still blowing past the window. It remains one of the most magical memories of my entire childhood.

And through repeated readings, the one character I never cared for was Edmund. The scheming, selfish third child, he seemed to exist only to emphasise the stolid, square-jaw heroism of older brother Peter and the innocent credulity of younger sister Lucy; with Susan reduced to meekly suggesting, at regular intervals, that she’d rather just go home and have a quiet night in. It is Edmund who, on a secret solo visit to Narnia, uneasily pledges his loyalty to the White Witch. Seduced by a plentiful supply of Turkish Delight (which, on the book’s publication, must have felt like an impossibly decadent indulgence: wartime confectionary rationing remained in place until 1953), he sells his siblings and their Narnian allies out to his dubious new mistress; lock, stock and – indeed – beaver. The message seemed simple: he was the evil child, concerned only with stuffing his face; a wartime precursor to the ill-fated, gluttonous brats in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But, on re-reading the book as an adult, it is Edmund who provides the story with its real heart and soul. Even as the book commences, his relationship with his siblings is fractious… but understandably so: he is patronised and marginalised by the piously pompous Peter and Susan, and – we later discover – has had a miserable time at school to boot. His siding with the White Witch is merely a misguided attempt to put one over on his insufferable siblings. He is every child… or, at least, every child that has ever felt alienated and excluded by both peers and parents. It is even possible to make a case for Edmund being the most pragmatically open-minded member of the family: suspicious of his siblings’ unquestioning recognition of “goodness” in the outlandish Narnians (“How do we know?” he asks, when Lucy declares at first sight that Mr Beaver is “nice”) and also willing to seek balance in his judgement of the White Witch. “All these people who say nasty things about her are her enemies,” he tuts. Admittedly he’s completely wrong in both instances, but this critical faculty – and his remorse and regret once he has recognised its failure – makes him the most empathetic and downright human character in the book.

The Narnia series has faced criticism in recent years for its espousal of C.S. Lewis’ devout Christian beliefs, with Philip Pullman in particular denouncing the books as “propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in” – while also accusing Lewis of expressing both racist and misogynistic views in his writing for the series. I am much less familiar with the other Narnia-based stories than I am with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, so feel unqualified to offer a defence of them with respect to these accusations, but this book by itself felt unproblematic to me – with the proviso that I am a white, male agnostic, so again possibly not the best qualified to judge. Certainly it is possible to draw parallels between the character of Aslan – who, to absolve the sins of Edmund, permits his enemies to end his life before being resurrected with greater powers – and Jesus Christ. But that particular allegory went completely over my head as a child (which possibly just speaks volumes about the wishy-washy secularity of my own upbringing) and it doesn’t trouble me as an adult. To be honest, Aslan’s story reminds me just as potently of the plight of Obi-Wan Kenobi – which, again, arguably says a great deal about me and my godless 1970s childhood.

What I do find intoxicating is Lewis’ unfettered imagination when it comes to constructing – and populating – the land of Narnia. While his Oxford drinking buddy J.R.R. Tolkien devoted a lifetime to exhaustively constructing the vast, impressively consistent folk history of Middle Earth (as any teenager who, like me, felt duty-bound to wade through doorstep-sized volumes of his Lost and Unfinished Tales will testify), Lewis moulded his menagerie from an almighty mish-mash of mythological sources* – and it’s gloriously barking stuff. Not so much High Fantasy as High-As-A-Kite Fantasy, the scene where the actual Father Christmas tips up to present both children and talking beavers with unseasonably useful presents (sadly not including a Lenthéric gift set) is written with magnificently unselfconscious brio.

(*Apologies, I appear to have suddenly started hosting The Good Old Days)

But what I really fell in love with as an 11-year-old was the sheer, simple poetry of Lewis’ writing, and it still touches me to this day. “And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her: not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

Perhaps, like Edmund – like all children – I had been feeling a little alienated and excluded myself, and needed a portal to another world. But on Saturday 21st January 1984, I read this and my heart opened. And, like the wardrobe door itself, I still prefer to leave it very slightly ajar.

POINT OF ORDER: I’m almost certain that my purchase of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was inspired by my having watched the rather splendid Bill Melendez animated adaptation on TV at some point over the 1983 Christmas period. A little digging reveals that it was shown across the ITV schedules at 10.25am on Thursday 29th December 1983, so I’m assuming this was the screening I saw. Although admittedly that’s a little early for me to have been out of bed during the school holidays.

MUSTINESS REPORT: 1/10. A shameful confession: the copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that I bought from Hintons on Saturday 21st January 1984 (and the reason I can be so precise is that, until 2019, 1984 was the only year of my life in which I managed to write a complete diary entry every day) has vanished. I’ve looked for it everywhere. My new copy is a fresh and clean 1987 edition sourced from eBay, identical to my original in every way other than an extraordinary rise in cover price from 95p to £1.95. Truly, the 1980s was the “greed is good” decade. Even in Narnia.

It also maintains the wonderful cover art by Stephen Lavis, who – as we discovered while discussing The Nature of The Beast by Janni Howker – often based the characters in his illustrations on people that he knew in real life. If you’re the original Peter, Susan, Edmund or Lucy on this book’s cover (or, indeed, the White Witch or an anthropomorphic, allegorical lion) then please get in touch.

3 thoughts on “Musty Books: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis (1950)

  1. Chris October 19, 2020 / 6:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing your memories.

    As someone of a similar age, who grew up in a similar place, I too remember watching the TV Movie at Christmas time as a child, the exact date of which was lost to time (until now).

    I do remember the sacrfice of Aslan really affecting me in a bad way. I cried and cried. It was a truly magical cartoon, and I found it to be, and still find it to be, superior than the later BBC and Hollywood adaptation, despite the clunkiness of the animation.

    I too took that Edmund was a character that I initially loathed, then I grew to feel deep regret on his behalf as he realises the consequences of his betrayal.

    I too am not a Christian, but I have no trouble with universal exploration of morality. You can choose to inject Jesus into the story if you want (and likely were invited to), or you can just fantasise about a world in which there is deeper meaning, and deeper love. I tend to do the latter.

    Anyway – thanks for the write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pahudson74 October 20, 2020 / 8:51 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed the series, and then later rereading as an adult – the sign of a good book. My favourite is The Horse and His boy, which I find to be a great story, but few agree with me!

    Although there is some allegory it’s often overemphasized. That wasn’t his whole purpose in writing them. It’s there but there are other themes, and there was a lot of ‘what if this was different in a different world’. He also said he set out to write an enjoyable story.
    Have you come across The Narnia Code by Michael Ward? He realised a number of years ago that each book in the Narnia series was influenced by a different celestial being (medieval so includes sun, moon and 5 planets) and how all sorts of properties of the particular planet was woven though that book. This is why Father Christmas is in the first story, as it’s about Jupiter, and Father Christmas was seen as the personification. The talk was really good, the book rather long as he goes into details about poetry and science fiction stories by Lewis too which few read. It was amazing to read and see how it was done, and how it is not coincidence. This code was never revealed by lewis and gave no clue outside, but evidently was his secret which he was happy to have incorporated without people knowing.

    Like

  3. pennyswan October 29, 2020 / 7:21 pm

    Edmund has always been my favourite! Reading the whole series you find that he grows into a much more rounded character than the others. I’ve always liked his ability to change.
    Thoroughly agree about The Narnia Code, amazing book!

    Like

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