Father Christmas in Narnia

Father Christmas in Narnia
“Father Christmas” illustration © Jef Murray 2012,
all rights reserved. 

What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? I confess it’s one of my favorite scenes in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: the children, along with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, flee from the White Witch across a snow-covered waste, when behind them comes the jangle of sleigh bells. She has caught them! – I was sure the first time I read it. But in one of the book’s sweetest eucatastrophic moments, the sleigh bells belong not to the evil Witch but to the saintly Father Christmas who has arrived to bestow urgently needed gifts. But my delight in this scene is far from universal. Some readers feel there is no place for a Christian figure in a world without Christ. Others object to the mish-mash of characters from competing mythologies such as Germanic, classical and medieval. So how does one explain Father Christmas’ presence in Narnia? Several have tried.

The Syncretistic Theory. Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com and author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, argues in the New York Times

“…what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.”

Miller points out that Lewis was emulating the medieval “Model of the Universe”. In his book, The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote that medieval writers gathered together and harmonized “views of very different origin: building a syncretistic Model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements” that they had inherited, adopted and perfected (12). Accordingly, the English Father Christmas, the dwarfs of Germanic legend, and the fauns and dryads of classical mythology all show up in Narnia simply because Lewis liked them.

The Planet Narnia Theory. Not so, says Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, in a rebuttal letter to Miller’s New York Times op-ed piece. Narnia is not a “hodgepodge of motifs”, but a meticulously-crafted universe, he writes-

“The seven Narnia Chronicles embody the qualities of the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos, which Lewis called ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’”.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, according to Ward, embodies Jupiter and abounds with medieval associations with that planet, including kingly self-sacrifice (Aslan), the passing of winter, and the Jovial spirit: festive, joyful, blood-red (Father Christmas). Ward believes Lewis “included Father Christmas in Narnia not because he had a come-one-come-all attitude to mythological traditions, but because Father Christmas is the nearest thing in the modern imagination to the ‘Jovial’ personality.”

Theory of True Myths. “Tolkien Professor” Corey Olsen, in a lecture for the Mythgard Institute, asserted that our world’s Father Christmas is only a pale imitation of the “true” Father Christmas, whose home is Narnia, for Lewis’ Narnia is the place where true myths exist, a sort of homeland for Platonic ideals-

“At the core of what Lewis and Tolkien both believed about myth and about mythology: that they believe there is something out there, a Real (capital ‘R’) out there. Not only our ideas and our stories but even our world itself are only shadows, are only reflections, are things which point to that Truth (capital ‘T’), that Reality (capital ‘R’).”

Baked Beans in Botswana. Each of these theories is interesting as to why Lewis may have included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But for myself, I found the answer one morning in a most unlikely place: the Okavango Delta of Botswana.  Instead of celebrating Christmas with my family in Colorado, I decided to take an African canoe safari that year. It was exhilarating, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yet still, I sighed heavily at the Christmas Eve campfire and lamented the absence of a Yuletide feeling. Morning dawned hot and bright, and as I sprang from my sleeping bag and tore open the tent-flap, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a pile of tinfoil-wrapped presents stacked beneath a scraggly bush! Each of us campers squealed delightedly as we ripped open packets of baked beans, tennis biscuits, and safety matches. Somehow, in the middle of the remotest place on Earth, Santa Claus had found us after all. That was a great comfort to me, as I’m sure it was to the Pevensie children, that no matter where, someone was watching out, providing exactly what was needed at the exact right moment: a sword for Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, a healing cordial for Lucy, and baked beans for me. Nothing else could have sufficed better at that particular moment than any of those gifts. In quest narratives, supernatural aid often appears to the heroes. And who else could have known what each person needed more than Father Christmas himself? Simply put, he was the right myth for the job.

_________________________

Sources:

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. 1964. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Miller, Laura. “It’s a Narnia Christmas.” New York Times (17 December 2008).

Murray, Jef. Official Website. http://www.JefMurray.com .

Olsen, Corey. “Lewis and Tolkien: Closing Session 8.” Mythgard Institute. Hartley, DE (23 March 2012).

Ward, Michael. “Narnia and Father Christmas’s Jovial Spirit.” New York Times (25 December 2008).

About Kris Swank

Kris Swank is Library Director at Pima Community College, Northwest Campus, and studies fantasy literature at the Mythgard Institute. She has contributed to Tolkien Studies, Mythlore and Silver Leaves journals, has published fantasy poetry, a Minoan murder mystery, and co-authored an epic fantasy short story for the Swedish music CD, Radio Rivendell Compliation, Vol. 2: The Book of War.

12 thoughts on “Father Christmas in Narnia

  1. I think there’s a lot of merit in both the Planet Narnia theory and the baked-beans one. But within the story, I think we need to consider how much Narnia was shaped at its inception by the wishes and expectations of its first King and Queen, Frank and Helen. It is surely due to their sense of the fitness of things that the Beavers, for example, many years later, were such a model Victorian family, and a Faun was in the habit of taking tea. Those below them– their Talking Beast subjects– emulated them. And the One above them– Aslan– would not neglect to give them whatever they needed to feel cozy and at home in their new dominion. I think this included Father Christmas.

  2. Another nice post, Kris! I like the thought that Father Christmas was the “right myth for the job”, as it goes quite nicely with what C.S. Lewis says in On Stories, when he talks about using a giant when only a giant will do :)

  3. Great post, Kris! Excellent summary, and I love your concluding paragraph.

    Helen, I think you’re on to something there. To me, the Magician’s Nephew is the answer to why Father Christmas is in Narnia. And he’s in Narnia for the same reason Bacchus and Silenas and Pomona are there. There’s a wood between worlds, and Aslan/Christ is King of all the worlds. He can ask anyone he wants to make the trip when needed!

  4. I definitely think the notion works that Father Christmas can go to Narnia through the Wood Between the Worlds, and that he is from Frank & Helen’s culture imported to Narnia. But we must be careful to distinguish between internal and external reasons. Within the internal chronology of Narnia, King Frank & Queen Helen and the Wood came at Narnia’s genesis, they therefore pre-date the arrival of the Pevensies and could then account for the presence of FC in The Lion, Witch, & Wardrobe. But though The Magician’s Nephew is currently numbered as the first Narnia book, it was actually the last that Lewis wrote. It was penned in 1954, five years after the 1949 LWW. And unlike his friend, Tolkien, Lewis did not spend significant time world-building before wrote the series, and had probably not comceived of the Wood in 1949. He said he hadn’t even planned on writing a series when he wrote LWW. So readers looking for reasons Lewis may have included FC in LWW must look backward from 1949 rather than forward, which was what each of the theories I mentioned attempts to do. Another theory I failed to mentioned (and I’m sorry, I can’t recall where I encountered it) was that FC serves as the Narnian equivalent of John the Baptist: the precursor to and herald of the greater coming that is Aslan/Christ. Great discussion. Keep those ideas flowing!

  5. Sorry for the weird formatting in the above post. Looks like it hard-returned each time I tried to italicizes something. Anyone have hints for avoiding that next time?

  6. Kris, good points. I do wonder about the extent of Lewis’s planning, given Ward’s thesis. Do you think there could have been more than he let on?

  7. Fantastic post! Michael Ward’s is the only one of these arguments I’d read before, and I liked it. But I liked the Baked Beans one, too, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. In fact, I’m not sure any of these arguments are mutually exclusive, unless Miller’s insists upon the word “simply”.

    Which I am putting in quotes to avoid the hard returns around italics. I have no idea why that formatting bug is occurring, nor how to fix it, but hopefully our tech-elf is looking into it. At least everything’s not in, like, four-point font-size anymore. ;)

  8. Perhaps I’m not a deep enough thinker, but it never bothered me that Father Christmas showed up in LWW. One of the characterizations of the never ending winter was that Christmas never came. The arrival of Father Christmas indicated that Christmas had indeed arrived and was the first clue that the spell was broken.

    If you are irritated that Father Christmas was in LWW, you should first be irritated that Christmas was even mentioned. Christmas should not have even existed in Narnia.

  9. I agree! It never bothered me in the least to see Father Christmas, or Christmas celebrations for that matter, in Narnia. But a heated and prolonged discussion in a course that studied LWW showed me that there are plenty of folk who feel his presence throws them out of their “suspension of disbelief” in a land that did not have Jesus Christ. Should Lewis have then called it “Aslanmas” and “Father Aslanmas”? That’s cumbersome, and I don’t think very accessible to most child readers. But to look at it another way, it’s entirely possible (though not proven) that our Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Saint Nick was himself derived from more ancient (pre-Christian) figures such as the Norse Odin or the Roman Saturn, so he is perfectly acceptable in a world without Christ. He is an archetype, whatever you call him, of Old Man Winter giving way to spring, of the turn of seasons, of the end of the dark times.

  10. At its core, LWW is a children’s book, granted with huge amounts of symbolism that makes it worthy of adult read. In my 20′s, I read the series every year. But for the child readers, what is more sad than the idea of Christmas never coming? This speaks to a child, and another name for it would not have communicated to them in the same way.

    And besides, the long winter is symbolic of the 400 years that there was no Biblical prophesy before the birth of Jesus. Their long winter is preceeding the return of Aslan, and the Pevensy children arriving is almost like their John the Baptist — they each preceeded the arrival of their respective Christ, and everyone in Narnia knew the significance of their arrival. Having Christmas come (even though he used our name for it) to end the long winter ushered in the return of Aslan in bodily form to Narnia, sort of creating their “Aslanmas”, even though that never became a “thing”.

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