The Fictional Universe of Narnia

I am editing a paper Mythcon in August in Norton, MA. I am quite excited to be presenting some of my work on The Screwtape Letters and the Ransom Cycle. It is an unusual audience, a mix of scholars and fans of fantasy literature. It may be the only academic conference where the ladies are asked to remove their wimples and the men are asked to leave their weapons (whether traditional or magical) in the umbrella rack outside. It is also quite likely that the avid fans in the audience will know more about the topics than the academics presenting–certainly that will be the case with me.

I am participating in a panel on Arthur and the Inklings, but I am also presenting my paper, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters.” It is where I suggest that the fictional world–what we call “the speculative universe”–of Screwtape is also that of Ransom. By contrast, it seems that Lewis most well-known world, Narnia, has no connection at all.  As part of the original paper, I wrote a short section that tests the Narnian speculative world a little bit. It was a section I quite liked, but it has to be cut from the paper. During my presentation it will be only 30 seconds long.

But I thought it was still good, so I’m sharing it here. It also gives readers an opportunity to share some of our favourite parts of the Narnian world.

The Fictional Universe of Narnia

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellAs a world-builder, C.S. Lewis is perhaps most famous for his creation of Narnia. By the close of the seventh Chronicle, the imaginative construct goes far beyond the country of Narnia to include a myriad of possible universes linked by the Wood between the Worlds. Of these universes we are invited into three: a geocentric land of Narnia, the unsung world of Charn, and the Earth. Of Earth, we have referential events in history like WWII and the wartime exodus of children out of London. According to the beginning of The Magician’s Nephew (1955), the readers’ grandfathers were children and little boys were made to wear stiff collars at the same time the first Narnia story took place.

But we also have a hint that the Chronicles are not set in historical England, but in the England where “Mr Sherlock Holmes” was a real person “living in Baker Street,” and we may be liable to bump into the Bastable children when they were “looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.” Perhaps, as Lewis believed fantasy reading made every wood enchanted (“Three Ways of Writing for Children“), so he believed good fiction infiltrates the life of every city, weaving its fictional and referential histories together.

The result is that the speculative worlds of Edith Nesbitt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are aligned in some imaginative way with Narnia. This sort of literary intertextuality is nothing new to Lewis. Neither are the literary echoes limited to the Earth-bound stories in Narnia. From the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle (1955), Narnia slowly fills with talking beasts, Marsh-wiggles, giants, satyrs, naiads and dryads, gnomes, centaurs, Dufflepuds, and various races of men and witches, dwarfs and gods. Narnia is a mythologically rich world, and the Chronicles of Narnia are a veritable legendarium of European and West Asian traditions mixed with beings of Lewis’ own invention.

Narnia MapWithin the Chronicles, we have an imprecise but relatively full timeline of Narnian history.[1] We have a Narnian creation story—not the creation of the Narnian universe itself, but the Aslanic filling of the world with verdant song—and some of the streams of anthropological and biological development. We have the stories of Charnian and Narnian apocalypse, but the future of the (fictional or factual) Earth is unknown to us. The physics of the Narnian universe seem relatively clear. As on Earth, boats float in water, swords shed blood, humans can breathe the air, gold is hard and snowflakes are not. But it becomes increasingly evident that the operational physics of Narnia do not tell the entire story. Within the sweet water and cool earth of Narnia there are inhabited worlds, and there are places along the edges of the world where shed blood has a different meaning. Humans can breathe, but so can humanoid stars. In Narnia, water may turn a man to gold, and snowflakes may not melt even in July. Readers of Narnia will know that the metaphysics and magic are more layered there than they first thought.

Carpenter Tolkien LettersCan the architecture of Narnia bear this complexity? Humphrey Carpenter, for example, said that Lewis borrowed “indiscriminately from other mythologies and narratives,” throwing in “any incident or colouring that struck his fancy” (Inklings, 224–227; cf. Sayer, Jack, 312-313).[2] Certainly, the Chronicles of Narnia are stylistically different than Tolkien’s mainstream Middle Earth books. And, as far as we know, there is no legendarium or world-building Bible behind Narnia as there was behind Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote heroic epics out of an unprecedented mythology while Lewis wrote imagistic stories whose speculative framework grew as the stories developed.

Ultimately, the critical reader can decide about the cohesiveness of Narnia. It could be that what Carpenter calls unevenness in Lewis is what people find most charming and inventive. It is doubtful that Lewis imagined unicorns in Narnia when he sat down to write the first book, but it is not incongruous when one appears in the last book.

Yet, the breadth of possibility is not endless. Lewis’ mythological borrowing in Narnia is limited to sources within his own civilizational sphere. Moreover, there are some things that would be inauthentic to Narnia. While the appearance of the god of wine to lead the bacchanalia in Prince Caspian raises eyebrows, something about the world would break with the introduction of a vampire or Wellsian alien.[3] For all Arthur Conan Doyle is referenced in the telling of a Narnian tale, the summoning of Sherlock Holmes (or his next generation equivalent, Lord Peter Whimsey) to investigate the messianic claims of the purported Aslan in The Last Battle would be a step too far. The intertextual layering has its limits.

White Witch Edmund TildaSwintonRegardless of whatever framework may be behind the creation of Narnia,[4] in a very real sense the books are meant to be a slow unveiling of Lewis’ imaginative cosmos. We see this in the way the reader is introduced to Narnia in the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We watch as Lucy, the kind of girl who knows better than to lock herself in a wardrobe, begins to wonder if her improvised hiding place is not bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Her experience is extremely sensual. She revels in the feeling of the fur coats against her cheek until they become scratchy tree branches. She hears the crunch of mothballs beneath her feet only to feel the surprising texture and temperature of snow in the dark. Then there is light ahead in the darkness, and snow falling in a wood.

As Lucy enters Narnia she encounters significant incongruity. She is in a wood instead of an abandoned room. It is dark where she is standing, but she can see the daylight of her room through the wardrobe doorway. It is snowing here and raining in the world she has left behind. Lucy follows the light and finds, of all things, a city lamppost burning brightly in the middle of the lonely wood. As she contemplates the little flame, a fawn comes into view—doubtless the first half-goat/half-man Lucy has ever encountered.

Tumnus & Lucy with Christmas packagesAs we watch Lucy coming to terms with her new world, we are surprised once again. It is the mythological creature and not the human that is startled and disoriented by the sight of the other. The fawn is carrying what look like Christmas parcels in a land where it is always winter and never Christmas (so we discover). Quite apart from not talking to strangers as a girl who knows better than to lock herself in a wardrobe should know, Lucy engages with this very strange stranger and actually goes to his home. The angelic mediator we might expect in this dreamlike tale is actually a traitor, and a rather ridiculous one at that. He sells Lucy to the dictatorial leader of the land, and then promptly sets Lucy off to safety. In a pool of tears, the traitor forfeits his own life for his victim’s. Either Tumnus the fawn is very bad at treachery, or there are other principles at work, ideas that slowly unfold as the reader uncovers the secrets of the land of Narnia.

In any case, as Lucy discovers the land of Narnia, so does the reader. The Narnian speculative universe in its entirety is revealed slowly over the length of the seven chronicles. Lewis as a world creator of Narnia is nimble and creative, so that it is very much a pay-as-you-go universe. And yet it is not complete chaos or indiscriminate pastiche. There is a coherence to Narnia, and the reader is gradually introduced to that world just as the children: a little surprise, the sense of something foreign, and a bit of adventure ahead.

[1] See Walter Hooper, Past Watchful Dragons, ch. 5.

[2] Note that Joe Christopher offers some critical questions about how far these are Tolkien’s critiques rather than Carpenters, “Tolkien: Narnian Exile” Mythlore 55 (Autumn 1988): 37-45. Green and Hooper note the inconsistencies in Narnia, Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (Glasgow: Fount, 1974).

[3] Though, indeed, there are some parallels between the aliens of H.G. Wells’ First Men In the Moon and the earthmen of Prince Caspian. It could be that the Lefay Fragment was abandoned because its Digory and Polly story of fairy godmothers and trees that talk was beyond the scope of the Narnian framework.

[4] I.e., see Michael Ward, Planet Narnia.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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54 Responses to The Fictional Universe of Narnia

  1. jubilare says:

    “Carpenter, for example, said that Lewis borrowed “indiscriminately from other mythologies and narratives,” throwing in “any incident or colouring that struck his fancy”” – a practice I approve of. 🙂 Often richness comes from bringing things together instead of trying to invent entirely new things, and great imagination can combine many, if not any, elements to good effect! Tolkien drew just as much from outside sources, only he was a bit more limited in the traditions he used.

    I am not sure a vampire would break Narnia, though I agree about the Wellsian alien. The difference is that vampires hale from the old stories of many cultures, like the unicorns or dwarves and fauns. A Narnian vampire, if one existed, would probably be a far-cry from their current manifestations, though. By the way, is it it spelled “fawn” or “faun” in the Narnian books? I thought it was the latter.

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    • There’s a guest blog post for you to write Jubilare: “No, Brenton, I don’t think a Vampyre Would Break Narnia.” Great topic.
      Vampire is on the edge for me. Although Lewis used some of the gothic feeling, I’m just not sure that world would work. But one of the other cultural vampires might.
      Great response!
      I’ll have to look up fawn/faun. Are they just variants, or different classes of hnau?

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      • jubilare says:

        Hahaha, I will have to think on that, but I will give it a shot! The gothic and the post-modern vampires would be out of place, but I think there are variations on the theme he could have used, if he pleased. I’m… uh… “opinionated” about vampires. ((What? Jubilare opinionated! Surely not!))

        It depends on who you ask. In modern usage, at least, “fawn” is a young deer, while “faun” refers to the beings of Greek mythology. Historically, though, I think both “fawn” and “faun” were used for the mythological variety.

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        • I will have to research that. I surely did not mean a young deer! (though many children would not have seen one of those either)
          And think about the Vampire thing. It could be more general–how far the Narnia world could stretch.

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  2. I dunno, George MacDonald wrote some great macabre vampire stories and he was practically Lewis’ idol! 🙂

    Even after years of studying the Inklings, I realized something new about the big gap between Tolkien and Lewis while reading your great article. Lewis writes so that the reader is swept up in new revelations with the protagonists. The world unfolds for the characters and we experience the revelations with them. Tolkien’s world always preexists the reader and we feel the immense weight of untold and hinted histories. Even the characters we follow in Tolkien often feel a bit more distant, because we usually have less access to their minds. Interesting to contemplate that difference and wonder if perhaps Tolkien’s distaste for Narnia was founded in some part in the intimate and exploratory nature of Lewis fiction.

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  3. robstroud says:

    Wow. Wish I could attend… Your presentation would be number 1 on my list of sessions!

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  4. WriteFitz says:

    Well said, Mlandersauthor! I’ve tried to put my finger on why I love Lewis’ tales over Tolkien’s. I think that’s a great summation. As a reader, I enjoy being a part of the unfolding mystery and discovery. LOTR sort of leaves me feeling distant, as if I’m suspended above the tale, or impatient, as Tolkien does indulge in much ‘telling’ and the microscopic details become tedious. Feels like blasphemy to admit it to all of the unabashed fans here, but, there…I said it 🙂 The Hobbit did not have that effect like the trilogy, however.

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    • I think we all have different tastes, and different reading for different reasons. Lord of the Rings lifts me up and takes me to a new mental place–sometimes a new heart place. Narnia is nostalgic and creative. Lewis’ science fiction (the Ransom Cycle) is intellectually rich. I don’t really go better or best, but different kind of likes.

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      • Hey, there’s no shame in disliking a classic, especially if you can articulate what it is you don’t connect with in the work! They are definitely distinctly different, in someways even opposite experiences. I personally enjoy both immensely, but Lewis is a lot easier to pick up for a bit of light reading! I think it’s also interesting to point out that both authors directly reflect the type of fiction they were influenced by. While both had a hug respect for Norse and Arthurian mythology among much other literature, Lewis was an avid, even voracious, fan of “low-brow” literature, reading and being heavily influenced by adventure novelists like Ryder Haggard and promoting the reading of scientifiction (the early term for what is now the sci-fi genre). He was always publically proposing that speculative fiction and really any genre that some subculture of people deeply connect with is therefore a valid form, regardless of his fellow academics opinions on what constituted true literary quality. Check our “On Stories” for a bunch of great Lewis essays on his perspective on what is valuable in written fiction as a form!

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      • jubilare says:

        Wise man. 🙂 I think that’s why I am always more than a little uncomfortable when someone asks what my favorite-something-or-other is.

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      • WriteFitz says:

        Good way to explain it. I suspect when life is less full, I will be able to sink into LOTR and enjoy it. Narnia is lighter reading for certain. Easier to pick up and put down when your house is full of kids. Alas, they are almost grown and, hopefully, reading for longer stretches of time will become more realistic!

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    • jubilare says:

      To each their own. 🙂 I’m not offended when other people dislike something I like. I only get prickly when they try to tell me why it “isn’t good.” There’s a wide gap between not connecting with something and attacking its worth.
      I prefer Tolkien over Lewis’s stories (though I love both), but I won’t claim one is better than the other. They are simply different, and perhaps the very things that keep you from sinking into LotR are the things that draw me into the heart of it and visa versa.

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    • That’s an interesting comment – one of the things that I like about both Tolkien and Lewis is how much “telling” they both allow themselves. I’m currently rereading the Narnia series and I’m always so relieved/impressed when he just talks openly to the reader, like someone relating a lost history. He shows a lot too, of course, but he seems to find no shame in just glossing over a long stretch of time with a few remarks about how “they rode for hours” or explains oddities by saying “that’s just how things were those days”.

      As someone who reads more non-fiction than fiction, I find the “telling” so helpful for building context and getting me to care about the showing. When a story is nothing but showing, I have a hard time getting into it!

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      • I too am a fan of the character-narrator. Perhaps one of the more extreme (except for memoir style) is Lemony Snicket. I love it, really. I think Neil Gaiman said that Narnia was where he first realized that books had authors.

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      • WriteFitz says:

        I agree! Lewis does his share of telling as well. I suppose I prefer his tongue-in-cheek way to go about it. Like Jubilare said, not better, just different. The places where the narrator talks to the reader are some of my favorite (or ‘favourite’) parts!

        And yes, Brenton, Lemony Snicket did that particularly well!

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  5. L. Palmer says:

    While working on my own series, I am understanding better how both Lewis and Tolkein added to their worlds as the stories went along. The further they went, the richer things became. I am sure they made little discoveries of corners along the way – even after Tolkein wrote down his rich mythology.
    And what better source for a fictional mythology than that of the world around us? There are wonderful texts and tales which can be adapted and add a richness to a fictional universe.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Someone who knew Lewis – I think, George Sayer – once told me how much Lewis enjoyed Masefield’s Midnight Folk. Might its easy (and, to me, quiter comfortable, even ‘convincing’) mixing of things – talking animals and even toys, King Arthur and his knights, pirates, witches, St. Alpig – have encouraged or ‘fed into’ Narnia, especially?

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You write, ” we also have a hint that the Chronicles are not set in historical England, but in the England where ‘Mr Sherlock Holmes’ was a real person ‘living in Baker Street’”: I’m tickled with this effective passing venture into ‘Holmesian “Higher Criticism” ‘!

    Within the last year of so I read a review in the Dutch Tolkien Society’s magazine of a book looking at that ‘Higher Criticism’ in the background of Tolkien’s great undertaking, but can’t recall author or title – have you run into it?

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    • I haven’t!
      I have emerged from Biblical Studies as a discipline, so I understand the approach well. At some point, someone needs to do a hard core paper on the text critical approaches to Tolkien, and how they shape our understanding (so a metacritical paper).
      What I am doing, David, is actually trying to use biblical studies methods in reading C.S. Lewis’ WWII-era fiction. So I like that you caught this here.

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  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You write, “It is where I suggest that the fictional world–what we call “the speculative universe”–of Screwtape is also that of Ransom. By contrast, it seems that Lewis most well-known world, Narnia, has no connection at all.” First, many thanks for posting this interesting section that had to be cut from the presentation version! Second, when and how may we get to read some version of the very interesting-sounding full paper (in whatever form and length)?

    Third, meanwhile, I have been trying to think about the Chronicles of Narnia as science-fiction or fantasy – and not ‘allegorical fiction’! – in any case, and further how they may indeed be related to the fictional world of the Ransom stories in particular. (I have still not read or watched anything extensive of Michael Ward’s.)

    It is interesting that the posthumously-published story, “Forms of Things Unknown”, has an epigraph from Perenlandra “that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other.” This seems worked out in fascinating ways in Narnia. Another detail of Perelandra (which I have not looked up and hope i am remembering more or less correctly) is something about new rational, spiritual beings in other (planetary) worlds always since the Incarnation having a human-like form, nature, etc. Now, on the one hand this is not true of Narnia (with its ‘talking animals’), but, from another perspective, it is a variously, radically ‘earthly-human-influenced’, and ‘-aided’, world, and the humans involved, though entering into Narnian time and history, are (as far as I can see) all humans from after the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, of Christ, and the institution of Baptism, and Pentecostal coming of the Holy Spirit. And, while Lewis wrote to the Maryland schoolchildren on 29 May 1954 that “I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen’ “, is that that what is in fact happening? Or is the Ascended Lord, “Perfect God and Perfect Man: of a reasonsable soul and human flesh subsisting”, ‘supposed’ as making Himself tangibly, vulnerably, Lionly (but also, Lambly) ‘manifest’ and ‘present’, there? In short, is Narnia peculiarly governed by the ‘supposal’ conditions of Perelandra, however ‘distinct’ a world it is (much more a ‘parallel world’ than any planetary world, whether within our solar system, or galaxy, or beyond would be)?

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    • Okay, these are pretty awesome questions. “what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other” could really be a hermeneutical key, or I wondered as much. I had not thought to extend that to Narnia, or what that might mean.
      There are two problems with “allegorical” as an adjective in Narnia. One is that Lewis, an academic with a published book on allegory, said they weren’t. The second is that usually, behind the phrase “allegorical,” is an implicit value judgement. Allegorical = bad or unsophisticated or antiquated. Judgements we typically skip in reading “Animal Farm!”
      It is a good question. Have you worked it out all told?
      I can share a draft of the paper. Email is
      junkola [at] gmail [dot] com

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        No, I haven’t worked it out: I just keep trying to mull it over a bit more, from time to time, lately.

        Rereading around in Tolken’s Letters not so very long ago, I was struck by something I did not remember: ” ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other.” (Letter 71, 25 May 1944, to Christopher, and inviting rereading for the context in reference to Lord of the Rings!).

        Also interesting is his tantallizing reference (in Letter 294) to “Dante, a supreme poet.” How is Dante different (‘allegorically’-speaking) from other writers?

        Between here and The Oddest Inkling and the Tolkien discussions at Mary Victrix, I am really being stimulated to try to think about ‘allegory’ and ‘romance’ and ‘supposal’ and whatever-all Charles Williams is up to in fictional prose and verse – but its all at a rather yeasty, early-fermentation stage…

        Thank you very much for the offer to share a draft!

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