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
As 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.
Within the Chronicles, we have an imprecise but relatively full timeline of Narnian history. 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.
Can 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). 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. 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.
Regardless of whatever framework may be behind the creation of Narnia, 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.
As 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.
 See Walter Hooper, Past Watchful Dragons, ch. 5.
 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).
 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.
 I.e., see Michael Ward, Planet Narnia.