Father Christmas in Narnia
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Chapter 1 -- The Mystery
For those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand. ( )
Do you remember when you first heard the story of Lucy Pevensie pushing her way through the back of a wardrobe and finding herself in a snowy wood? Do you recall how you felt when Lucy had tea with Mr. Tumnus and learned that his world, the kingdom of Narnia, was ruled by the evil White Witch, who had banished the old days of jollification? Undoubtedly, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains one of literature’s greatest fairy-tale openings.
I first followed Lucy as she entered the wardrobe when I was a young boy—too young to read for myself, but not too young to be read to. My older brothers and I jumped into our parents’ bed one Sunday morning, and my mother read aloud the opening chapter from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We loved it. Sunday by Sunday, the Ward family worked its way through the whole book, and eventually through the six other Narnia Chronicles as well.
Give Father Christmas the Sack!
But one thing confused me about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was surprised when Father Christmas appeared. I didn’t expect to meet Santa in Narnia. I was glad he was there, of course, and I was pleased when he gave out the presents. But I somehow felt that Father Christmas belonged to a different kind of story world.
When I got older and began to study Lewis’s works more seriously, I discovered that many other people felt the same way. In fact, one of these people, Roger Lancelyn Green, a good friend of Lewis’s, had urged him to leave out Father Christmas.
Why had Lewis kept him in? It didn’t make sense. Father Christmas is a character who represents the festival of Christ’s birth, yet no one in Narnia ever shows any knowledge of a character called Christ. They know only of the Christlike lion Aslan. How, then, do the Narnians know of Christmas? What do they mean by Christmas? It looks like an elementary mistake on Lewis’s part.
Several other scholars have made the same complaint as Roger Lancelyn Green. They say the appearance of Father Christmas “strikes the wrong note”; it’s “incongruous.” One expert said that “to be true to his fantasy world, Lewis should perhaps have created a Narnian equivalent to our Christmas instead of taking it into Narnia.”1
Admittedly, a character called Father Aslanmas sounds awkward and probably wouldn’t have been a good idea, but it would have made much better logical sense. Better still to have left Father Christmas out entirely—or so I felt.
This puzzle about Father Christmas was the beginning for me of the great Narnian mystery. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a powerful and attractive story, and yet it seems to have a weakness that a six-year-old could identify. How could this be?
Perhaps it was simply a careless error on Lewis’s part, indicating that he hadn’t given much thought to the story. But that seems unlikely, given that he included Father Christmas even after hearing Green’s objections. It may have been a mistake, but it wasn’t a careless error! Lewis clearly thought there was good reason to keep Father Christmas in the story.
But what was that reason? It was a question I wanted the answer to. I continued to ponder the oddity of Father Christmas’s appearance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe even as my family moved on to the next books in the series. And then I noticed mysterious things in the other Chronicles as well:
The Roman god Bacchus organizes a kind of riot in Prince Caspian and makes everyone merry with wine—but did Bacchus really belong to that story? I wondered.
And how come the children fail to recognize Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair? It was obvious to me that the young man in black clothes was the lost prince they were looking for, and I couldn’t see why it took them so long to realize it.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all was The Horse and His Boy, which seemed to me just one long journey across a desert.
The Good Book and the Seven Good Books
Early on, I was baffled by the series on another level. We were a churchgoing family, and my parents told me that some of the characters in Narnia were linked to biblical characters. Aslan, the lion king, was rather like Jesus, they said. Just as Aslan died on the Stone Table in order to rescue the guilty Edmund from the hands of the White Witch before returning to life, so Jesus died on the Cross to save people from sin and then rose from the grave. Lewis himself (so I later learned) once wrote to a child explaining that the whole Narnia series was “about Christ.”2
I liked the idea that there was a second level of meaning to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And I could see biblical connections in some of the other books too. The way Aslan sang Narnia into being in The Magician’s Nephew was a bit like God creating the world in Genesis. The Last Battle was like God’s judgment on the world in the book of Revelation.
What was mystifying was that the biblical links in the other four Narnia Chronicles were not half so obvious. In fact, they were barely present by comparison. Yes, Aslan was still there, and he was still like Jesus in various ways (guiding, teaching, forgiving, and so forth), but there was no clear connection between the overall story and any major episode in Jesus’ life or ministry.
In Prince Caspian Aslan enters the story among dancing trees before giving a great war cry. What did that have to do with Jesus? I wondered.
In The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” Aslan rips off a dragon skin, is made visible by a magic spell, and flies along a sunbeam like a bird. You could find biblical sources for some of these ideas, but what, if anything, tied them together? I was curious.
In The Silver Chair Aslan doesn’t appear bodily in Narnia at all but stays in his own high country above the clouds—as if Jesus had gone back to being just “God in heaven” rather than “God with us.”
And in The Horse and His Boy (on top of its long journey across the desert that so mystified me), Aslan is mistaken for two lions, or maybe three lions, and does a great deal of dashing about. He is said to be “swift of foot.” Now, why would you make your Jesus-like character “swift of foot”? Jesus is never shown running in the Bible!
Jesus’ birth, of course, is recorded in the Bible and is obviously a very important event—on par with Creation, salvation, and the final judgment—yet (as I have already pointed out) there’s no Narnian version of Christmas, no story about Aslan being born as a cub in Narnia like Jesus was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Nor is there a Narnian version of the Ascension, when Jesus returned to heaven. Nor is there a Narnian Day of Pentecost, when the Christian church was born.
Since three of the Chronicles were clearly connected to biblical passages in Genesis, the Gospels, and Revelation, I thought it strange that the remaining four Chronicles weren’t as clearly linked to other major events in the Bible story.
In short, the Narnia books were as mysterious on their second level (the level of biblical parallels) as they were mysterious on their first level (the level of the basic story).
“Every Chapter Better than the One Before”
Although I was occasionally puzzled as a young reader, I still hugely enjoyed the series in general. In fact, I adored it. Reepicheep and Puddleglum were the two standout characters. The Wood between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew fascinated me. I laughed at the foolish monopods in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” and I grieved when Father Time brought the whole sequence to a close at the end of The Last Battle. I wished I could join the characters in that heavenly story “which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”3
What a vital, colorful world Narnia was! Perky jackdaws cracking jokes. Guilty dragons made soft and tender. Castles shining like stars on the seashore. Despite being confused at times about his mysterious methods, I thought C. S. Lewis was simply the best author. I was a bookish boy, so I had lots of other stories to compare his work with. Without a doubt, the Chronicles were my favorites.
At school, when my teacher asked the class to make a picture representing the storybook we liked most, it was easy to know what to do. I drew three silhouettes: one of a lion, one of a witch, and one of a wardrobe. I then filled them in with different crayons: gold for the lion, white for the witch, brown for the wardrobe. And finally I put them through a typewriter (we still had typewriters in those days, not computers) and typed “cslewiscslewiscslewis” back and forth across each silhouette. I was very proud of the resulting picture, and I remembered it thirty years later when one night, while I was a student at Cambridge University, quite unexpectedly I had the idea that led to this book. We will come back to those silhouettes in the final chapter.
Did He Plan It?
Yet as I eagerly immersed myself in the series on one hand, I continued pondering its mysteries. The question came down to this: Was it possible there was a third level of meaning that tied together all the puzzling elements—or were the books planless, without any governing logic?
The answer most people have given is that Lewis was deliberately drawing on a rich and wide range of traditions as he created the world of Narnia. They suggest there was no particular logic to his choices—apart from the very loose and vague logic expressed in the old proverb “Variety is the spice of life.” “Don’t press too hard,” they imply. “These are only children’s books! They’re not to be taken seriously. Narnia is a glorious hodgepodge, nothing more.”
Many reviewers have thought the books are effectively planless—just Lewis having fun and not taking much care how. One critic describes Narnia as a “jumble,” “full of inconsistencies.”3.5 Another critic says the Chronicles are “uneven” and “hastily written.”3.75 A third critic thinks Lewis wrote “glibly” in a “whizz-bang, easy-come-easy-go, slap-it-down kind of way.”3.9
One primary reason critics think this is because Lewis’s great friend J. R. R. Tolkien thought so. Lewis read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to Tolkien, who hated it. Yes, hated it! In Tolkien’s view, Lewis had thrown together things from different traditions (talking animals, English children, fauns and centaurs, Father Christmas, etc.) without good reason.
Tolkien so detested what Lewis had done that he soon gave up trying to read the Narnia books and therefore didn’t actually know them very well. He later admitted that they were outside his range of imaginative sympathy.
However, because Tolkien is now such a famous figure, his views have received a great deal of attention. Lots of people have drawn a sharp contrast between Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is set in Middle-earth, and Lewis’s Narnia. Middle-earth is obviously extremely detailed in every respect; it even has its own invented languages. Tolkien wanted it to have what he called “the inner consistency of reality.”4 The Lord of the Rings was published with no fewer than six appendices!
And yet I believe the classic stories of Narnia deserve to be taken very seriously. What we read as children is perhaps the most important literature we ever read because we’re then at a very formative stage of life. “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world” goes the saying. And if that’s true, what about the hand that holds the bedtime fairy-tale? For that matter, what about the hand that writes the bedtime fairy-tale?
C. S. Lewis, as a writer for children, shouldn’t be dismissed with a casual wave of the hand. Since they were first published in the 1950s, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia have been translated into more than thirty different languages and are now firmly established as classics of English literature. Walden Media’s film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the top-grossing movies ever made. Simply because of the series’s popularity, it matters that we understand what he was up to.
Although Narnia doesn’t have the same kind of obvious detail as Middle-earth, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t detailed in its own way. The question we ought to ask is, what kind of detail does it have? Did Lewis just throw in anything that struck his fancy, or was there a more careful intelligence at work?
As I got older and began to read C. S. Lewis’s other writings, I became ever more intrigued by the seemingly random aspects to the Chronicles. They were not what you would expect of a man like Lewis with a highly trained mind. In his younger days he was tutored by a rigorous, logical thinker, William Kirkpatrick, who taught him that he should always have reasons for anything he said.
And it’s easy to see that Lewis lapped up what Kirkpatrick taught him because randomness and mishmash are not to be found in his writings. Lewis is so famous as the author of Narnia that most people are unaware he had a day job. His career wasn’t in writing children’s books; it was in the world of academia. He taught for nearly thirty years at Oxford University and nearly ten at Cambridge University. His ability to think logically and express himself clearly enabled him to have such a successful career as a university professor.
Lewis’s special field of academic interest was the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He had a vast knowledge of European literature, ranging across a thousand years up to about the year 1650. The biggest book he ever wrote was a massive doorstop of nearly seven hundred pages with the snappy title English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. It was part of a multivolume series called the Oxford History of English Literature, which took Lewis fifteen years to write.
When I read Lewis’s academic books, I noticed that he was a very careful writer, as a learned scholar ought to be. He didn’t slop words together thoughtlessly but paid great attention to every single phrase he wrote. One of his closest friends, Owen Barfield, once said of Lewis that “what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”5
As a professor, Lewis enjoyed studying the works of old authors like Dante and Chaucer and Spenser, whose poems “cannot be taken in at a glance.” He added, “Everything leads to everything else, but by very intricate paths.”6
Lewis also wrote a good deal of poetry. I am amazed by how complex it is. He made his poems as intricate as possible, and the subtlety of his word choice and rhyme schemes is simply jaw-dropping. He pointed out that the poems that look as if they have no special pattern were actually the most complicated.
As for his views on fairy-tales, the same love of complexity was there too. Lewis thought that the best fairy-tales have a very strict logic to them. They had to possess order and pattern or else they wouldn’t please their readers. Just because a fairy-tale is full of magic and marvels doesn’t mean that things can be “arbitrary,” he said.
And what Lewis believed about the world of fairy-tales reflected his beliefs about the real world. As a Christian, he thought the universe had been made by God with very definite purposes. Even though the universe has been spoiled by sin, nevertheless God’s plan is still being worked out. If only we had eyes to see it, we would notice the divine plan even in seemingly meaningless events—“the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect.”7
Lewis’s view of fairy-tales sheds light on the Narnian mystery because it suggests that Lewis would have been very likely to write the Chronicles with the most careful attention to detail. The reason Father Christmas appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might not have been obvious to me. I might not have been able to explain the ways in which the books relate to the Bible. And yet that probably meant I was just too far away from Lewis’s imagination to understand what he was doing. If you like, I was one of “those outside.”
The more I looked into this issue, the more I realized there was probably an inner meaning to the Narnia books even if I couldn’t spot what it was. I felt rather like the Victorian astronomer John Couch Adams, who concluded the planet Neptune must exist even before he actually observed it in the night sky.
Adams saw that there was a kink in the orbit of Uranus, which indicated there was a planet beyond Uranus, hidden from view but exerting the pull of gravity. A year after he realized this, Adams saw the mysterious planet through a telescope for the very first time. But he knew it existed before he observed it. (We will come back to Neptune in a later chapter because Lewis attached great importance to its discovery.)
The situation I was in reminded me not only of the search for the planet Neptune but also of what Lewis said about some of his favorite authors. He said each of their stories “at first looks planless, though all is planned.”8 That was the Narnian mystery in a nutshell! It looked planless, but surely it was planned. The question I needed to answer about Narnia was this (please excuse the pun): did Lewis plan it or did he not plan it?
The Narnia Code
In addition to the “hodgepodge” theory about the way Lewis wrote the Chronicles, there is another possible explanation. There might be a secret reason why Lewis retained Father Christmas, a hidden logic to his creative choices. Could Lewis have been following some underlying imaginative plan that he kept to himself? Was there perhaps a Narnia “code” waiting to be cracked?
The idea of secret codes usually makes people roll their eyes in disbelief—quite rightly, too, in most cases. When someone claims to have found a hidden code, it nearly always turns out to be a lot of nonsense. The Da Vinci Code is the most famous fictional example of this kind of far-fetched silliness.
And yet we shouldn’t jump to a conclusion too quickly. Lewis was interested in codes. Many people know that he dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, and named Lucy Pevensie after her. Hardly anyone knows that he had another godchild named Laurence Harwood and that Lewis often sent Laurence letters containing “puzzles to solve or secret writing to decode.”9 (Harwood reprints these codes in his book C. S. Lewis, My Godfather). The possibility that Narnia itself contains some kind of coded meaning is not a completely wild or crazy idea.
Lewis said that most of his books were written for tous exo, which is the Greek way of saying “those outside.” He was referring to the passage in the Bible (quoted at the beginning of this chapter) in which Jesus said that He taught in parables so that “those outside” may be always seeing and never perceiving.
In other words, Jesus’ stories needed to be decoded in order to be properly understood. Often, when He was alone with His disciples, Jesus explained the inner meaning of what He had said to the crowds. His parables are a prime example of coded language being used for a good purpose.
Suppressed by Jack
Assuming for a moment that Lewis did have a plan behind the series, is it really possible that he could have kept the plan to himself and told no one about it? Did he have the sort of personality that was capable of sitting on a big secret of this kind? Let us consider the evidence.
On the one hand, Lewis was an honest and straightforward man. He had a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude to life, which went well with his self-chosen nickname, Jack. (He never liked his given names, Clive and Staples.) One of his closest friends, George Sayer, said that he and Jack talked together “in the frankest way as friends should” and that “I have never known a man more open about his private life.”9.5
On the other hand, Sayer also records the exact opposite about Lewis! As well as remembering how open Lewis could be, Sayer said “Jack never ceased to be secretive.”10 Lewis could put up a smoke screen if he wanted to keep something private.
As a writer, Lewis sometimes wished to keep his own identity private. In order to do so, he used several different pen names in the course of his career.
One pen name was Clive Hamilton, which he used for the first two books he published. He gave one of these volumes to a friend without letting on that he himself was Clive Hamilton. The friend discovered it only later.
Another pen name was N. W. Clerk. N. W. stands for “Nat Whilk,” the Anglo-Saxon way of saying, “I know not whom.” Clerk means simply a writer or author. Altogether, then, “N. W. Clerk” means “a writer whom I don’t know.” Lewis used this name for one of his last books and was so keen to conceal his identity that he even disguised his style of writing.
But the most obvious and striking example of Lewis’s secretiveness was when he got married and told no one what he had done. (This is what the film Shadowlands is all about.) He kept it secret for the best part of a year—an extraordinary thing to do! He even hid it from his good friend Tolkien. What is more surprising, would you say? To keep a marriage secret or to keep a literary code secret?
Speaking of surprises, Lewis wrote an autobiography called Surprised by Joy. It avoided mentioning so many important things that one of his friends joked a better title would have been Suppressed by Jack!
George Sayer remembered a time when he was out walking in the countryside with Lewis and they came across a bedraggled fox that was being chased by huntsmen with hounds. The fox ran off into a wood, and then the huntsmen rode up on their horses. Lewis shouted out to the first riders, “‘Hallo, yoicks, gone that way,’ and pointed to the direction opposite to the one the fox had taken. The whole hunt followed his directions.”11
All these things show that Lewis was capable of keeping secrets, sometimes very major secrets (such as his marriage), and that he didn’t mind misleading people if he thought there was good reason to do so.
The more I found out about his personality, the more I suspected there was a hidden meaning to Narnia.
Reading what other people had written about Lewis and Narnia, I noticed that I wasn’t the only person with this suspicion. Lots of people who have studied the Chronicles and their author have asked themselves, “There’s more going on here than meets the eye. But what is it?”
Many different answers have been suggested.
One scholar tried to show that the seven Narnia stories are linked to the classical virtues (faith, hope, love, justice, prudence, temperance, and courage).
Another couple of scholars took the exact opposite approach and suggested that Narnia’s unifying theme was the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride).
Numerous other ideas have been put forward, such as the seven sacraments and the seven sections of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (a poem Lewis loved), but none of these ideas proved to be the solution to the riddle.
I myself once made a halfhearted attempt to link the Chronicles with different plays by Shakespeare, but I soon abandoned it. I knew I was just “twisting” the Chronicles to fit in with my own thinking.
And so the years went by. While I was a student at Oxford University, I occasionally thought about this mystery, trying out one idea and then another—without any success. I steadily read more and more of Lewis’s works, teaching and lecturing and writing about them. I even lived for three years in what had been his Oxford home, The Kilns, working there as a warden and curator, sleeping in Lewis’s old bedroom and studying in his study.
Then I moved to Cambridge and began to write a doctoral thesis on his imagination. One night, when I was thirty-five years old and lying in bed in my college room, just about to go to sleep, I had a thought. I sat up in bed and said to myself, That’s it! I’ve got it!
The mystery was solved. I had cracked the Narnia code.
Excerpted from The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens by Dr. Michael Ward, Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. Used with Permission.
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