Always winter, and never Christmas, said Mr Tumnus. Think of that.
When I read these words as a small boy, I would try to imagine. And the most horrible part to me, then, was the thought of not getting any presents. Seemed a bit selfish of the White Witch, keeping the Narnians from their Christmas presents with her enchantments. No summer baseball was bad enough, but using some magical jiggery-pokery to keep Christmas out of winter was just bad form. In that sense, I guess I imagined the White Witch as first cousins to the Grinch: The Witch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season…
But this year, as I reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), a different idea struck me.
Remember that moment when Edmund slips outside, on his way to betray his family and the Beavers? And once he’s outside in the snow, he discovered ‘that the daylight was almost gone, for it had been nearly three o’clock when they sat down to dinner and the winter days were short’ (100). Even allowing for multiple courses and the after dinner chatter, it can’t even be 4pm yet, and yet it’s nearly full dark.
Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. This is not some bright Midwestern winter, where the snow is meant to fall thick and deep, full of winter sports and jollification. This is a British winter of icy winds and fog, where heavy snow comes with knife-blade cold and creeping damp, where the sun barely gets above the southern horizon by 9am, and sinks again by 4pm.
Narnia is bound in this cold, British winter, just before Christmas. Every day is today—19 December, more or less—and the season never turns to the feast of lights and the solstice, the lengthening days and the growing brightness. The White Witch keeps Narnia forever in the darkest night of all the year. It is a time of hardship and peril, traditionally akin to Halloween when mortals were considered more susceptible to the influence of the Other Side, but without the consolation and grace of the solstice and Christmas. Put another way, Narnia is held captive in an unfulfilled Advent.
Now, C. S. Lewis recalled that his stories primarily began as unconnected images—a faun carrying parcels and umbrella through a snowy woods, a magnificent golden lion, a tall queen in a white sledge—and he wrote stories when the images aligned themselves into coherent narratives. And there is no real reason to doubt him, however unrewarding his account may be critically. Some of these images surely sprang, Athena-like, from the fecundity of Lewis’s imagination: his most vivid tableau—the faun and the little girl be the lamppost in the middle of the wood—is to my knowledge without clear precedent.
But, like any author, Lewis was subject to literary influence; as a professor of literature, he was acutely aware of the literary traditions in which he worked, as his suppleness in handling the symbol of the lion demonstrates. And it is, indeed, in literary tradition that begins to explain the complex malevolence of the White Witch.
The initial difficulty the White Witch faces in gaining Edmund trust is simply the cold. Edmund’s teeth are chattering with cold, so the White Witch conjures ‘a jewelled cup full of something that steamed’, and Edmund is warmed ‘right down to his toes’ (42).
By this point in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, most readers will have guessed that the Queen is the same White Witch who so terrified Mr Tumnus; Edmund, however, is none the wiser. He is simply lost in the cold, at once awed by this volatile stranger’s beauty, and reassured by her comforting words and actions.
It is worth noting here the subtly of the White Witch’s manipulation. Her actions—tucking the child in, giving him something ‘sweet and foamy and creamy’—are maternal; had they been done with good intentions, they would have even been responsible actions for a grown-up to take upon finding a small child lost in the woods without a coat. Better still, the White Witch becomes almost grandmotherly, plying Edmund with sweeties, asking what he would ‘like best to eat’:
The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. (43)
Edmund proceeds to devour the entire contents of the box. Bear in mind, though, that Turkish Delight is by no means a substantial pudding; Lewis even takes care to describe them as ‘sweet and light to the very centre’ (43); generally, the better it is, the lighter it is. At a rough guess, to get ‘several pounds of the best Turkish Delight’, there would be four or five dozen pieces in the box, each about two inches across. Even as a grown man with an unrepentant fondness for sweets, I know I couldn’t manage more than two pieces of Turkish Delight at a sitting. The White Witch’s indulgence has encouraged Edmund in mind-boggling levels of gluttony.
The malevolence of the indulgence is reinforced by a small but significant detail: the box of Turkish Delight is ‘tied with a green silk ribbon’ (43). This at once suggests something uncanny about the Witch, and about the Turkish Delight. This is the only time the colour green is associated with the White Witch, and one of only three mentions of the colour before the coming of Aslan’s spring.* In the Irish folk tradition, which Lewis knew well, it is the colour of the fairies, and fairy enchantment (Thompson F178.2). So, too, is the silk—an extremely valuable fabric in Europe until quite recently, at one time as prized as gold, an extravagance typical of the fairies (Thompson F166.1).
So it is quite clear that, as the narrator says, that it is ‘enchanted Turkish Delight’ (44). The conjuring and presentation gift is an act of glamourie; it is this more than anything that puts Edmund in the White Witch’s power. And there is some indication that food, and indulgence, is her usual mode of enchantment. Mr Beaver remarks grimly of Edmund that ‘[h]e had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food’ (95, emphasis added). The White Witch in fact opposes wholesome food, with a Puritan-like condemnation of Christmas dinner as ‘this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence’ (126); hearty food and enjoyment are antithetical to her tyranny of glamourie and control.
Unlike some tales, there is no specific prohibition against eating food in the other world (Thompson C211.1); the children eat with Mr Tumnus and the Beavers without any ill effect. The danger appears to come from ‘eating food produced by a spell’ (C220.1, but cf. C240); the enchantment is ultimately a deception and roomfuls of Turkish Delight turn out to be crusts of stale bread, and starvation (121-122). The White Witch, then, is firmly in the tradition of the wicked witch from the fairy tale—the tradition of poisoned apples and candy houses, of cottages with chicken feet, of ruby slippers and the hearts of stars.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the fairy tradition is used only briefly as a sort of mythological garnish, establishing the White Witch as an analogue for the beautiful, perilous, and child-abducting fairy queen. Lewis would return to fairy lore, the ballad tradition, and the sensibilities of the Celtic Twilight in The Silver Chair (1953). The White Witch herself, and Lewis’s image of an imperious, pale queen of winter, seems more directly drawn from the literary fairy tale tradition. Consider her entrance, when she meets Edmund in the woods. The sledge pulls alongside, pulled by two reindeer whiter than snow, driven by a fat dwarf:
But behind him, on a much higher seat in the middle of the sledge sat a very different person—a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat, and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand. Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern. (37)
When the White Witch first appears in her sledge, she is haughty and imperious, until she abruptly decides to sweeten Edmund with kindness.
“My poor child,” she said in quite a different voice, “how cold you look! Come and sit with me here on the sledge and I will put my mantle round you and we will talk.”
Edmund did not like this arrangement at all but he dared not disobey; he stepped onto the sledge and sat at her feet, and she put a fold of her fur mantle round him and tucked him well in. (41)
This description, and the White Witch’s subsequent spiritual abduction of Edmund, seems to echo the analogous passages in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (1845), a text it seems impossible Lewis would not have known. In Andersen’s story, when the little boy Kay first sees the Snow Queen, she appears ‘like a young lady, dressed in the finest white gauze, made of a million little flakes like stars. She was so beautiful and delicate, but she was of ice, of dazzling, sparkling ice; yet she lived; her eyes gazed fixedly, like two stars; but there was neither quiet nor repose in them.’ When the Snow Queen abducts Kay from the market, she is driving ‘a large sledge […] painted quite white’. She is ‘wrapped up in a rough white mantle of fur’, later identified as a ‘bearskin’. When Kay recognises the mysterious sledge-driver as the Snow Queen, ‘she put him in the sledge beside her, wrapped the fur round him, and he felt as though he were sinking in a snow-wreath.’ The Snow Queen kisses him on the forehead, and Kay ceases to feel the cold.
The central image—a tall, pale queen wrapped in furs, riding a white sledge through the snow—is the same. And Lewis’s word choice in his description—‘sledge’, ‘fur’, ‘mantle’—suggest conscious allusion to Andersen; certainly the queen’s action of setting the boy in the sledge, tucking him round with her mantle, and warming him, is nearly the same in both texts. Once under the power of the queens, Kay and Edmund both become spiteful, ill-behaved children, each being mean and hurtful to a little girl who loves them.
It seems possible, then, that the White Witch may be derived at least partly from the Snow Queen. And Lewis seems to nod to the abduction of Kay when he says that Edmund ‘had been afraid that she might drive away with him to some unknown place from which he would not be able to get back’ (45). That Lewis acknowledges his literary predecessor and then deliberately sends his story in another direction is critically significant. The White Witch, of course, has already determined to kill Edmund, and is pretending to be comforting and maternal simply in the hopes of finding other children to destroy, further entrenching her power over the winter-bound kingdom. Edmund is spiritually and emotionally already present in White Witch’s house, like Kay at the feet of the Snow Queen, and just as much in need of rescue. But he is physically present with his brother and sisters for much of the following chapters. It is this abduction of the mind and emotions that makes the White Witch so insidious.
Keep in mind that fairy tales and competent fantastic literature externalizes the inner-workings of the mind and soul. Always winter, and never Christmas then, the curse of the White Witch, is a mental, emotional, and spiritual description. Here, again, Lewis seems to have taken his cue from Andersen. Kay is soothed by the Snow Queen’s not because it warms him, but because his heart turns to ice and he can no longer feel the cold. A similar freezing comes over Edmund; after eating the White Witch’s enchanted food, he is described as ‘becoming a nastier person every minute’ (52), and he deceives himself into admiring her to the point of betraying his family. Even the gentle Mr Tumnus, after living so long in the unending winter, has agreed to become a kidnapper and spy.
Of course, in the end, the White Witch can’t keep Christmas out, anymore than the Snow Queen can keep Gerda from rescuing Kay, and leaving the winter for spring, and childhood for adulthood. The Narnian thaw that begins with the arrival of Father Christmas and turns into a Narnian spring when Aslan arrives. Christmas, in Narnia as in the children’s own world, heralds both a changing of the seasons and a spiritual rebirth; Advent is fulfilled in the lengthening days, the growing light, and in the adoration of the Magi. Fittingly, the coming of spring takes place not just in the snowbound landscape, but in Edmund: ‘And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized the frost was over.’ (129)
Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Produced by Diane Bean and David Widger. Project Gutenberg. 10 October 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1597/1597-h/1597-h.htm
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950. London: Collins, 2001.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-index of folk literature. Revised Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955-1958. http://www.ualberta.ca/~urban/Projects/English/Motif_Index.htm
* The other two uses of the word describe the ‘dark green ice’ of the beaver’s pond, which the children cross to enter the Beavers’ house (78), and which is covered by the snow as they look for Edmund after dinner (92). On the one hand, this is simply literal description of thick ice on deep river-water; on the other, it suggests the liminal passage to the children’s initiation into the Narnian narrative; after crossing through the liminal space of the ‘green ice’ and eating with the beavers, they can be said to have become truly Narnian.