Season's Readings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

Rather more pagan than its reputation, Narnia delivers many consolations for wintry existence, including glorious feasts and a thrilling Father Christmas

"Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!" The White Witch who has plunged Narnia into an everlasting freeze is the antithesis to Father Christmas; like him, she travels by sleigh and reindeer, dispensing delightful sweetmeats, but the jingling of her bells is a herald of mortal danger rather than celebration. When, later in the book, her powers on the wane, she comes across a group of satyrs and small animals enjoying their Christmas dinner, she rounds on them: "What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?"

When CS Lewis was writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in 1949, the times were hardly self-indulgent. Though it is only mentioned once, the novel is set during the second world war, the children evacuated from London air raids to the rambling country house in which they find the wardrobe that acts as a portal to Narnia; and it's not hard to see in the longing for comfort and warmth in unending depths of winter a reference to the privations of war and rationing. The book is full of snug boltholes, from Mr Tumnus's cave to the Beavers' hut, and laden with glorious midwinter feasts: the "wonderful tea" Lucy enjoys with her faun ("a nice brown egg, lightly boiled... and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake"), the fresh-caught trout the children eat with the Beavers (accompanied by "a great big lump of deep yellow butter ... from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes").

And of course Narnia is a country at war, with a lupine secret police force, and a resistance movement making moonlit flits across the snowy landscape. There's a poignant moment when Mrs Beaver is loth to leave her precious sewing machine behind to be smashed up or impounded: "I can't abide the thought of that Witch fiddling with it, and breaking it or stealing it, as likely as not." Informer Edmund has his own snowy trek, to the Witch's icy palace, during which he gets thoroughly wet and miserable; the wintry landscape is sublime, but also properly hard-going.

While the blanket of snow helps to delineate Narnia's magic at the beginning of the book, with the onset of the thaw heralding Aslan's arrival, an even better literary spell is cast as Narnia is revealed in all its vernal glory ("you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white"). Lewis's genius is to telescope the symbolic rebirth of Christmas and the real rebirth of spring into a few dozen pages: the jingling of sleighbells, along with the "chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing, roaring" sound of running water, breaking in on the muffled stillness of snow.

Lewis takes Father Christmas as seriously as young children do. When she meets him, Lucy "felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still". Huge, "in a bright red robe with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest", he is a red man rather than a green man, but similarly a pagan life force to set against the Witch's deathly spell. He shares Aslan's quality of inspiring joy and fear.

When I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe alone I was still young enough to be genuinely scared by Pauline Baynes's cramped, cross-hatched illustrations, especially the picture of Edmund on forced march, bound in ropes, and the Hieronymous Bosch-like depictions of the Witch's monstrous cohort crowding in at Aslan's sacrifice: they have the corrupting quality of revealing more horrors the longer you look at them. There are some bloody passages in the book – battles in which "everything was blood and heat and hair" – as well as chilling restraint: "Horrible things were happening wherever she looked." Perhaps the most frightening moment comes when Edmund, at first unnervingly referred to by the Witch as "the human creature", eventually becomes an "it" to her.

But reading the novel as an adult I've been heartened by how fresh and nuanced Aslan is – not the portentous Jesus-in-a-mane I'd grumpily cast him as after discovering the Narnia books' Christian subtext. Narnia remains a pagan, pantheistic realm of centaurs and giants, unicorns and satyrs, talking animals and living trees, Bacchus and Father Christmas. Its most pure expression is the overflowing of pan-species joy as the statues enchanted in the Witch's palace come back to life: "the light and the sweet spring air flooding into all the dark and evil places which needed them so badly".


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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