How are legendary and/or mythic references incorporated into the narrative structure of texts, and what are the ideological implications of this use?
In C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, both authors have made use of the mythic and legendary – the mythic being fictional characters believed in by the ancients, like Greek gods and heroes; the legendary being based on real characters doing fictional deeds, like King Arthur. These figures, creatures and flora, with associated names, paraphernalia, and magical properties, have been used by untold authors over the centuries, and are used in these novels by Lewis blatantly, and Cooper subtly.
Both authors, when using these mythic and legendary sources for their novels were attempting to provide an ancient authenticity to their narrative. I believe that Susan Cooper achieved this aim, albeit to a culturally illiterate child audience, with her use of Celtic and Arthurian legends, and Anglo-Saxon poems that include Beowulf. On the other hand, C S Lewis’s mixed bag of mythic source material includes mythical Greek creatures, Nordic dwarfs, Andersen’s Snow Queen, fairy tale giants, talking animals and the traditional cultural legendary figure, Father Christmas. Rather than creating a coherency, they meld uneasily to delineate Narnia’s fantastic ‘other-worldness’.
To children of Lewis’s time, to whom the Greek legends would be known – stories like The Golden Fleece – the various mythical Greek creatures: Centaurs, Satyrs, Nymphs, Dryads, and Minotaurs, with their accompanying characteristics of playfulness, mischief,
allure, and blind-rage, would be recognized as ‘not real’, mythical. And as a result of the animated version of Hercules, today’s children may also recognize them as belonging to a mythical time. Even his use of anthropomorphized animals, a la Aesop fables, is consistent regionally, though of another time. If Lewis had stayed with these creatures as his source material then his Narnian background would have been consistent.
That is not to say that the books are not successful. The moral theme of the battle between good and evil, subtly underpinned with Biblical symbolism, both for the adult reader, and for children to understand the Christian redemption/salvation story in a familiar and less-frightening mode, carries the narrative effectively. The plot is well-constructed, with the use of the wardrobe as access between the parallel worlds, and the narrative quite gripping, especially to a child.
At the end of his first chapter Lewis introduces the Faun, Tumnus, a creature straight out of Greek mythology, who “[f]rom the waist upwards … was like a man, but his legs were shaped like a goat’s … [with] goat’s hoofs … [and] a tail”. (Lewis, 1988, p. 15) Simultaneously, by Tumnus, addressing the protagonist, Lucy, as a ‘Daughter of Eve’, Lewis introduces the underlying Christian theme. These two, the mythic/pagan and Christian, are used in juxtaposition throughout the narrative, complementing and supporting each other in Lewis’s construction of allegorical redemption fantasy.
Definitely, it is fantasy, and accepted as such by its audience. But with the diversity of mythic characters, to an adult reader, the glaring intrusion of the inconsistent – like Father Christmas – mars the serious nature of the narrative. If the White Witch had been based on the Greek goddess, Medusa, with her ability to turn the living to stone, she would have belonged with the other mythic creatures, in the warm climate of the Mediterranean. This mythic Greek background is established by the titles of Tumnus’s books, “The Life and Letters of Silenus or Nymphs and Their Ways or Men, Monks and Gamekeepers: a Study in Popular Legend or Is Man a Myth?” (ibid, p. 19) and by the stories he tells, of Nymphs, Dryads, the wish-giving milk-white stag, wild Red Dwarfs, “old Silenus on his fat donkey” (ibid, p. 21) and Bacchus (the God of Wine).
However, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, representing cold heartless evil, the White Witch, with her plan to keep Narnia “[a]lways in winter and never Christmas” (ibid, p. 23), belongs to the far northern regions of Scandinavia. Britain, where the ‘real’ world is set, could by its similar northern setting and weather readily accept her as its antagonist. But then the warm-climate Greek creatures would have to go, and Lewis would be left with the “Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins” (ibid, p. 138). Most of these originate in the pagan Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythology favoured in the Middle Ages. Narnia could then be medieval as it appears in the last chapter of the novel, currently at variance with the Greek creatures. With the prophecy of Cair Paravel “that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life”. (ibid, p. 77) combined with the adventure of facing and defeating evil, adds a medieval quest theme to Lewis’s narrative. The White Witch is also identified as being descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, who “was one of the Jinn” (ibid, p. 76) and from the giants on the other side. So Christian evil is linked with pagan mythical evil, maintaining Lewis’s use of religious allegory – a medieval construct.
Using a Robin Red-Breast – “good birds in all the stories” (ibid, p. 59) – who understands what the children say, to introduce the animal world, Lewis anthropomorphizes the animals in his story. Mr and Mrs Beaver, a la Wind in the Willows, give support and nourishment to the children, and reinforce Christianity by also referring to them as ‘Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve’. The African lion, Aslan, as King of Beasts is an archetypal symbol of Kingship, a metaphor for courage, leadership, strength, and good – with legendary links to the medieval king, Richard the Lionheart, who epitomized bravery and fairness. If Narnia was modified to be northern, then as the lion of the British crest, Aslan would belong, and his majesty would not be undermined by the mythical inconsistencies.
In fairytale terms Aslan represents the fairy Godmother who counteracts with good magic the evil magic of the villain. In religious terms he represents Christ/saviour, especially when he willingly sacrifices himself for the redemption of the traitorous Edmund. In pagan terms Aslan represents “the Deep Magic …. [from] further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned”. (ibid, p. 148) With his arrival in Narnia comes spring, thawing the snow of the Witch’s cheerless winter, with Father Christmas close behind. A northern European (including the British Isles) cultural figure, the traditional bearer of joy, Father Christmas is also “a mythical and fantastical character made “holy” … his gifts … are either tools with which others are to be served or armor for the battle against evil.” (Filmer, 1984, p. 18) He also refers to the children as ‘Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve’. Out of place in Greece, he fits in well in the northern land of Narnia.
When Aslan finally enters the narrative, at a place with a Druid altar, the Stone Table, and medieval pennanted pavilion, he does so surrounded by mythic creatures, which include four giant centaurs, “a unicorn, and a bull with the head of a man, and a pelican, and an eagle, and a great Dog … and two leopards.” (Lewis, 1988, p. 115) While half of these are Greek in origin, the others are consistent with the medieval theme. The unicorn, belonging to multiple mythologies – ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Biblical – came to the height of its popularity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, where it was used symbolically and allegorically. It was “connected with the idea of strength, virility … and a certain arrogance …. [while] … embod[ying] gentleness and a desire for solitude” (Bradley, 1980, p. 9) An eagle is traditionally powerful, and keen-sighted, with an ability to soar to and dive from great heights, and destroy with its talons. Often aligned neutrally or with the side of good in the fight against evil, it symbolizes the neutrality of truth and justice.
Lewis calls upon other fairytale creatures, such as giants, dwarfs, and dragons to join the mythical Greek winged horse, Pegasus, in his catalogue of mythic creatures. Aligned on the side of evil with the Minotaurs (Greek bull-headed men), and Spectres, was a “flurry of foul wings and a blackness of vultures and giant bats” (Lewis, 1988, p. 142), the vultures eaters of carrion/harbingers of death, and the bats legendary bloodsuckers. As Chief of Police, the huge wolf, Maugrim, traditionally medieval by name, with a wolf’s vicious reputation belongs on the side of evil. Turned to stone by the White Witch for telling her that Father Christmas has arrived in Narnia, the group of Christmas revellers – a squirrel family, two satyrs, a dwarf and a dog-fox – is a typical example of Lewis’s mixing of his mythical sources.
Calling upon traditionally and symbolically evil characters from the mythical past to highlight the nature of evil, and its power, Lewis creates a sharp distinction between good and evil. By his use of the traditionally and symbolically good characters to overpower the evil ones, he shows his readers that through perseverance ‘Good’ will prevail. He deals with themes of trust and betrayal, and his protagonists, and hopefully his readers, learn respect for nature, responsibility for their behaviour and actions, and that all actions have consequences. With his sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan, Lewis illustrates the Christian theme of hope and salvation – that death is not necessarily final.
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Cooper’s use of the mythical and legendary, unlike Lewis’s mixed bag of characters, was based upon the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Old English, pre Christian poems and legends of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the persona of King Alfred, and the medieval Middle English tales of King Arthur, Merlin and Herne the Hunter. The Celtic cross, the circle of continuity quartered by the pathways or elements of life, was one of the symbols and artifacts Cooper used to authenticate the magic and fantasy of her parallel worlds.
Cooper is here … weaving a tapestry of Anglo-Saxon history
and culture around historical or literary individuals who, like
Alfred and Arthur, are described as “Lords of the Light”. These
individuals are connected to each other through genealogy and
culture. …. Alfred … is parallel to … Arthur…. [Both] held off
violent invaders as cycles of invasions, defense, conquest, and
assimilation [we]re repeated.” (Drout, 1997, pp. 242 & 234-5)
Influenced by J R R Tolkien and by C S Lewis, whose lectures she was fortunate enough to attend, her narrative followed the fantasy hero quest pattern.
The mythic and legendary incorporates the historical, both Christian and pagan. Because of this Cooper was able to utilise, within her Dark is Rising narrative, historical factors, such as the ring-giving by kings, and historical pagan beliefs, such as the possession of magical (as well as healing) properties/powers by magicians, trees and plants, birds, animals, bells, colours, gems, stone and pathways. The narrative contains many symbolic elements. On the tapestries in the Hall of Time, Will saw “a silver unicorn, a field of red roses, a glowing golden sun” (Cooper, 1976, p. 43), symbols of magic/peace, blood/royalty, and Light/God. Later he saw “the brightest image of all: a masked man with a human face, the head of a stag [magic], the eyes of an owl [wisdom], the ears of a wolf [intuition] and the body of a horse [strength].” ibid, pp 55) In small ways she incorporated these legendary notions to create an authentic atmosphere. Her protagonist, Will Stanton, is not just an eleven year old boy who is the last of the Old Ones to be born into and thus complete the circle. Nor is his quest to find and link the signs of Light, based on the Celtic cross, to be undertaken solely in a modern environment.
By her use of ‘co-existing’ time, Cooper has Will move back into the Middle Ages, with all its trappings – tapestries on the walls, huge carved wooden doors, forests that “swallow up whole villages and hamlets” (Cooper, 1976, p. 65) and the use of candles, not just for light but as a symbol of pure/divine protection. In fact her novel is sign-posted throughout with these medieval minor details that validate the major characters and events, like the presence of Merlin in the form of Merriman, Herne the Hunter who chases the Dark away, the Rider and the Walker, and the Anglo-Saxon burial ship that surfaces at a crucial time in the narrative. While the latter is a substantiating detail, it is important to note that it provides more than just a location for the acquisition of a sign. Aligned with the Sutton Hoo find – of a
ship-burial of a king of East Anglia late in the seventh century
on the Suffolk coast …. with cultural monuments …. ceremonial
and symbolic treasures …. nearly a century before the composition
of Beowulf …. [in which] the first Danish king Scyld Scefing … [of]
the fifth century (Wrenn, 1970, pp. 4 & 3)
was borne on a funeral-ship out to sea – Cooper’s ship carries with it, to the privileged reader, knowledge that enhances the narrative. When it is carried off by the flood waters of the swollen Thames, this reader equates it with the usual fate of a dead king being cast adrift in his ship, sometimes aflame as a pyre. Her mentor, Tolkien also used this motif in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as no doubt have many other writers through the ages.
Cooper’s use of this ship illustrates her careful and detailed use of legendary material to provide historical reality to her narrative. Although the king in the Sutton Hoo find was absent from his ship – he had been buried with Christian ceremony while the pagan ritual of the ship-burial had occurred in his honour – Cooper described him as lying in state, as an illusion. According to Merriman, “[o]n any other night of the year … he would be dust”. (Cooper, 1976, p. 236) She dressed him in the accoutrements of his time, of the Sutton Hoo time, the fifth century.
The mailed figure lay … with sword and shield at his side and
treasure piled round him in glittering mounds. He wore …. a
great engraved helmet … of a long-snouted animal … a wild boar.
No lesser man could have merited the silver dishes and jewelled
purses, the great shield of bronze and iron, the ornate scabbard,
the gold-rimmed drinking horns, and the heaps of ornaments.
The only things she omitted were the Byzantine silver spoons found in the Sutton Hoo ship.
With both Sutton Hoo, and Beowulf there is “a blending of pagan and Christian ceremony and sacrament … [a] Christian use of essentially pagan material; … conserving pagan tradition with progressive Christian adaptation … an essential and most characteristic feature of Anglo-Saxon culture” (Wrenn,1970, p. 4) and Cooper’s narrative. Gillian Spraggs has accused Cooper of showing her Old Ones as more potent than any Christian theology. She is concerned about the novel’s message, that the ‘good’ side may perform any action, whether morally wrong or inhumane, in the cause for world freedom from the Dark/evil, equated with world peace.
I disagree with Spraggs’ stance. I believe that by Cooper’s blending of the pagan with the Christian she authenticates her forays into the Middle Ages, while retaining the integrity of Will’s present. An example of this integration between the cultures occurs with Merriman’s warning to Will.
Through all this midwinter season [the Dark’s] power will
be waxing very strong, with the Old Magic [pagan] able to
keep it at a distance only on Christmas Eve [Christian].
And even past Christmas it will grow, not losing its high force
until the Twelfth Day, the Twelfth Night – which once was
Christmas Day [medieval Christian], and once before that,
long ago, was the high winter festival of our old year [pagan].
(Cooper, 1976, p. 57)
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As a result of the mythic and legendary material used, both novels carry the notions of heroic quest adventure, which includes fierce battles against and final success over evil often symbolised by darkness. Both contain a degree of medieval chivalry, elements of wizardry and magic, and the unreality of fantasy. In the Lewis series, there is a distinction between the fantasy land, Narnia, and the real world, with a specific point of entry between them. But in Cooper’s series, fantasy occurs as an extra dimension intermingling with the real world, enhancing and challenging the reader’s perception of reality. “Cooper allows the intrusion of myth and magic into the fictionalised mundane world, and like Lewis, resurrects Logres, the spiritual Britain of the legendary King Arthur, to influence matters in the present day. (Filmer, 1992, p. 120)
Ideologically, both novels champion the fight for what is right and good, and the suppression or defeat of evil in all its forms – including personal behaviour. Both use religion, Christian and pagan, as vehicles for their message of heroic endeavour in the face of one’s fears. As backdrop for her tale, a part of the accepted reality of life, Cooper “is sceptical of traditional religion, but articulates hope in and through the caring and commitment of human beings …. emphasising [that] the power of love [is] greater even than the “High Magic””.(ibid, p. 120) Lewis allows religion to intrude into his narrative in allegorical form – Aslan as Christ figure – to carry notions of Christian redemption and salvation.
While I have argued that Lewis has been inconsistent with his over-use and mixture of the mythic and legendary, there are those who believe that as a fantasy creation, anything goes – especially when the fantasy is aimed at a child audience. This is a valid point-of-view, but I believe that children are entitled to the nonsensical or unreality of fantasy having an intrinsic logic. This I believe Cooper’s novel has, and is consequently more ‘believable’, more thrilling, ideologically more successful, and more relevant to today’s reader.
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(C) Copyright Jud House 4/09/2005
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