In my previous posts on this subject (see below), I looked at how Lewis’s wartime experiences affected him and also some of the literary considerations we must take into account when considering the question of war in the Chronicles of Narnia. This week I would like to take a few moments to consider the first of several instances where I believe it is possible to see the Great War’s effects in Narnia: In Narnia, war has a very clear, sharp edge and portrays none of the stereotypical glorification of battle often found in literary sources.
It is clear that war and its accoutrements in Narnia are no more glorious or frivolous than in real life. There is no sense of fun or grandeur in any of the various Narnian scenes. For instance, when Aslan is preparing Peter for battle in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, his advice is purely straightforward and down-to-earth. There is no hint of war as a game, beyond a very brief scene where Peter shows off his sword to Mr. Beaver, something that is more likely a comment on young boys than on war (105, 143-144). Later, in the battle itself, there are praiseworthy heroics, but they are of the sort inspired by hard necessity rather than a desire for laurels and they are purchased dearly. Edmund’s attack on the Witch is the stuff of song and legend, but ends with him shattered, broken, and bloody (175-176).
Caspian’s war against his uncle is anything but glorious, with the rebels shortly pinned up in Aslan’s How to be ground slowly down by Miraz’s superior forces. The aftermath of the failed attack before Caspian blows Susan’s horn speaks for itself: “The best of the bears had been hurt, a centaur terribly wounded, and there were few in Caspian’s party that had not lost blood. It was a gloomy party that huddled under the dripping trees to eat their scanty supper” (Prince Caspian 88). Shasta also observes the same sort of dull frankness as he watches the Narnians prepare to relieve the siege of Anvard in The Horse and His Boy. The archers testing their strings, the giants donning their spiked boots, the big cats prowling, soldiers checking their equipment, all takes place in general silence. There is no mindless boasting, no singing, or jesting. Even the usually boisterous Corin has become solemn, pointing out the vultures circling overhead. “They know we’re preparing a feed for them,” he says (176-177). Later, when Aravis remarks that it “must have been wonderful” to be in the battle, Shasta simply replies that it “Wasn’t at all like what I’d thought,” implying that he had been disabused of some of his more boyish notions (197).
The actual fighting itself is also surprisingly harsh for what modern readers would expect from a “children’s book”, though Lewis is careful not to carry it to excess. While Lewis describes the large battle at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in mostly general terms, in The Horse and His Boy Lewis he is more frank. The Hermit of the Southern March, while keeping Aravis and the horses apprised of the fighting notes that he had seen one of the giants fall, “shot through the eye, I suppose.” Later he states that “King Edmund is dealing marvelous strokes. He’s just slashed Corradin’s head off.” When judging Rabadash, King Lune plainly remarks that to “have cut his throat in the battle would have eased my heart mightily.” Edmund agrees, hoping that if Rabadash broke his word again, that it would be in a place where he could “swap off his head in clean battle” (The Horse and His Boy182, 184, 206).
It does not take much imagination to see in this the harsh realism of Lewis’s own experience in the army. Rather than Lewis using literature to obscure reality, here he uses reality to keep literature in check. World War I taught Lewis that wars are not to be encouraged, but treated with cold practicality by those who must face them. Lewis believed that the “child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man” (Of Other Worlds 34). In the Chronicles, Lewis did so.
Next Week–War in Narnia: The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010. A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.
Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. San Diego: Harvest, 1994.
________. Prince Caspian. New York: Collier, 1972.
________. The Horse and His Boy. New York: Collier, 1970.
________. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Scholastic, 1987.
Posts in the War in Narnia Series: