Purity and Danger in Narnia

I know, it’s Friday, so I should write a chapter of the Shadowlands serial. But I’m so tired tonight that I can’t write fiction. I’m not sure why non-fiction is so much easier for me to write, but it is. (I used so three times in three sentences. That’s not something I would ever do in fiction. But in non-fiction, at least in a non-fictional blog post, it doesn’t seem to matter as much.)

What I want to do instead is start exploring an idea for my next Folkroots column. I’m thinking of writing about the various creatures in Narnia, where they come from in myths and legends. For example, Mr. Tumnus is clearly a faun or satyr. Where do fauns and satyrs come from? (Greek myth, right? But I’ll have to look that up and provide more information.)

There are two basic ideas I’m starting out with. In each column, I seem to have some sort of underlying argument. I certainly did in my column on “The Femme Fatale at the Fin-de-Siècle.” I think I had one in my column on “Vampires in Folklore and Literature” as well, which is coming out in the next issue. (It will be online as well as in Realms of Fantasy.) Here are my ideas:

1. The first idea is that, despite C.S. Lewis’ Christian message, the Narnia books show a deep love for the pagan mythological world on which Lewis was probably raised as a schoolboy. All boys of the upper classes were raised on the classics, back then, and you can see a love of that world in their works. I see the same impulse in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, in the chapter called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

2. The second idea is that Lewis creates evil creatures in a particular way: they are creatures that break the boundary between the human and the non-human. Of course, he has all sorts of animals with human attributes, like Reepicheep, as well as half-humans, half-animals like Mr. Tumnus. But he tells us specifically, at one point, that you can’t trust things that look human and aren’t, or used to be human and are no longer. Humanity is a special attribute in the Narnia books, and anything that attempts to pass itself off as human is suspect. The most important example is Jadis, the White Witch. She would like you to think that she’s human, but she’s really from the line of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. And we are told that giants and dwarves, who are also uncomfortably human-looking, cannot be trusted.

This second idea came to me years ago after I had read part of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger. In that book, Douglas connects the prohibitions of Leviticus to the Genesis story. She says, if I remember correctly, that those prohibitions were about maintaining boundaries. Certain foods were prohibited because they fell outside the categories that had been established at the creation. For example, lobsters lived in the sea but did not have scales or fins. They did not fit into the category God had created for fish. Anything outside the categories that defined purity was taboo, unclean.

The creatures that torment Aslan before he is killed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are all unclean, minions of the White Witch who break that boundary between the human and not-human. And the human is important, because only sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are allowed to rule Narnia. Humanity equals purity, the ability to function as king or queen. In a way, that rule stands as a sort of bulwark against what is otherwise a jumble of contradictory mythological material. I mean, Lewis drew from all sorts of mythological systems without worrying too much about consistency. Greek centaurs and Norse dwarves? Santa Claus? I believe Tolkien criticized him for that.

So I have a basic idea for the Folkroots column (the mythological basis of the Narnia books), and two basic hypotheses about what Lewis was doing. That should be enough to start with, right?

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5 Responses to Purity and Danger in Narnia

  1. Caitlyn says:

    I look forward to reading the column!
    Naughty confession: when I was a student, I used to get excess argumentative tendencies out of my system by trolling the forums at Narnia Web, finding a thread where all the fundamentalists were preening about how Christian Narnia was, and then pointing out all the underlying paganism. Eventually I was banned for causing trouble.
    It’s the little pleasures that get you through… 🙂

  2. Grey Walker says:

    Hmm! Hmm, I say!

    Now I’m thinking about which fantasy writers make a point of preserving the boundary in their work, and which ones explore boundary crossing.

  3. Rudi Dornemann says:

    That idea of not trusting entities that are “uncomfortably human-looking” reminds me of the uncanny valley, the idea that as robots look more and more human, they seem creepier.

    I wonder if Lewis isn’t in touch with the same root emotion.

  4. Wendy S. says:

    Synchronicity strikes again…I just bought a book called “The Narnia Code” which is fascinating and I think you’d enjoy reading it in conjunction with your planned Narnia posts. It’s so complex, the whole thinking process, but it looks at the planetary aspects that Lewis “actually” based his Narnia Chronicles on. And “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is one of the most beautiful book chapters I’ve ever read. I grew up with mythology and have studied depth psychology and the archetypes that live among us. I’m really looking forward to reading your Narnia posts.

  5. Caitlyn, that’s very funny! 🙂

    I just went to the library today and took out some Narnia books, so I guess my unconscious brain wants to do that column next. I’ll probably post about it several times while I’m writing it. The issue of fantasy writers and boundary-crossing is a very interesting one, and one I’ll have to think about. Hmmm . . .

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