Repost: World-Building Your Allegory

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content; but be aware that there is an ableist term that I no longer use (apologies!) and I am no longer comfortable with my analogy of Narnia to Russia. I do enjoy teasing apart the world-building of "where does all the food come from?", however.] 



Narnia Recap: The four Pevensie children have moved away from London to escape the bombing out to a country house where Lucy -- the youngest -- has made a strange discovery by looking into an old wardrobe.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 2: What Lucy Found There

When Lucy steps into the wardrobe, she finds a winter wonderland on the other side: an entire forest carpeted in a thick blanket of snow, and an actual honest-to-goodness faun in the middle of the forest, complete with shopping packages and a cheery little umbrella. The faun greets Lucy pleasantly, takes her to his home for tea, provides some essential world-building, and then urges her to flee back to England before danger can befall her in Narnia.

   "GOOD EVENING," SAID LUCY. BUT THE Faun was so busy picking up its parcels that at first it did not reply. When it had finished it made her a little bow.
   "Good evening, good evening," said the Faun. "Excuse me -- I don't want to be inquisitive -- but should I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?"

The Chronicles of Narnia in general and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in particular draw heavily on Christian and Arthurian legends, particularly those involving the coming -- or, rather, returning -- of a true kingdom, one sanctioned by God and governed by God's representatives on earth. And while none of the books could be called a true allegory, there are many allegorical elements within the books: Aslan is quite clearly an allegory for Jesus, his father The Emperor is the Father God of the Christian Trinity, and a very good case could be made for Peter Pevensie as the boy Arthur come to rise from obscurity to claim a bitterly divided kingdom as his own.

Chapter 2 is, in many ways, about laying the world-building foundations for this new world, and indeed almost everything we will learn about Narnia in TLWW will either be laid out in plain English here in Chapter 2 or foreshadowed here and then expanded upon in Chapter 8, so let's go ahead and combine the two a bit and discuss some of the world-building implications here.

The first thing you need to know about Narnia is that it's currently under the oppressive rule of a woman called the White Witch. The White Witch is not the legitimate ruler of Narnia -- she wrested control of the country through her magic and her evil allies a hundred years before -- and she has been using her magic to torment the populace with a 100-year-long winter. The inhabitants of Narnia, however, have taken cold comfort in a prophecy that her reign will come to an end when Aslan returns and four humans sit upon the ancient thrones of Cair Paravel. Because of this prophecy, the White Witch has ordered that any and all humans are to be brought to her immediately for instant removal from the running, so to speak.

Most of this will not be outright explained until Chapter 8, but almost all of it is heavily foreshadowed in the world-building of Chapter 2 as Mr. Tumnus the Faun describes the magical beauty and Grecian creatures (fauns, river gods, naiads, and so forth) of Narnia to the spell-bound Lucy, so I'd like to go ahead and talk about it here.

   "My name's Lucy," said she, not quite understanding him. [...]
   "You are in fact Human?"
   "Of course I'm human," said Lucy, still a little puzzled.
   "To be sure, to be sure," said the Faun. "How stupid of me! But I've never seen a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve before."

Mr. Tumnus the Faun has never seen a human being before in his lifetime. This is probably partly because the White Witch has been carefully removing competition for her throne in the last 100 years or so that she's been the ruling power in Narnia, but it's also very clearly because, in Narnia, humans -- true Daughter-of-Eve/Son-of-Adam humans -- are actually quite rare. They are also, in Lewis' imagining, automatically a sort of royal class or ruling party, by virtue of their descent from the "royal" line of Adam and Eve. What's puzzling to me, though, is why no one ever questions this.

Now, I don't mean that in the sense that I expect hereditary ruler-ship to be questioned, although that in itself would be a valid point: why should a handful of foreign kids be better suited to rule than, say, an adult animal or faun or centaur or river god who has lived their entire life in Narnia and might perhaps be a little wiser, a little more in touch with local feelings and customs, and not -- you know -- eight years old. No, those are good and valid questions, but there's certainly more than enough precedent for people of young ages, foreign inclinations, and zero experience whatsoever being given thrones merely through an accident of birth, and so I'll give Narnia a pass on that one.

No, what I find interesting is why the Adam/Eve lineage is considered royal at all in a world full of talking animals and nature goddesses.

In classic Christian mythology, God created the world in seven days, starting with light and water and land and plants, working his way up to animals, and then capping off his grand creation with the invention of humans. These humans are given dominion over the earth and the animals, because they are implied to be very different from the animals. The thrust of the story is ultimately that the animals were given instincts, but that humans alone were made in a godly image: they have intelligence, understanding, and free will. They have, in essence, an inner spirit that sets them apart from the cats and dogs and elephants and squirrels and mice.

This is why Adam and Eve are important: they have intelligence and language and philosophy and free will and permanency. Their souls live on after them in the afterlife; their legacy lives after them in the things they are able to create and leave behind. They don't just eat and sleep and live and die; they make and create and learn and play. And whether or not you agree with the implications of this myth, that mankind is somehow more special than the other animals on this planet, it is at least fairly easy to understand how our ancestors might have thought so.

But Narnia is a world where that humanness -- language, intelligence, philosophy, free will, and the creation of legacies -- is extended to every imaginable type of animal and hybrid. There are talking beavers, fencing mice, dancing fauns, philosophical centaurs, sea-faring minotaurs, and nature deities whose lifespans far exceed our own. In a world filled with animals and hybrids who are essentially "human" in every way except physically, humans no longer have a monopoly on being made in the divine image. So why, I wonder, would a legacy reaching to Adam and Eve be any more important in this world than one reaching to Brenda and Brice, the first intelligent beavers, or Mickey and Minnie, the mice who first walked the earth and laughed in delight at its wonders?

Of course, later books in the series will try to retcon this problem a bit, but the question of why the Pevensies are more legitimate as rulers than anyone else in the land of Narnia is never fully answered to my satisfaction. It's a common issue with allegories: when starting out with the end in mind -- that the Pevensies are the Chosen Ones to rule Narnia based on their biological lineage -- the author must remember to fully justify their ending along the way. A handwave in the direction of Adam and Eve only really makes sense in a world where Adam and Eve can justifiably said to be essentially different from all the other living creatures. In Narnia, the only thing that sets humans truly apart from the animals is that there aren't very many of them around -- and rarity isn't necessarily a good justification for regal legitimacy.

   "This is the land of Narnia," said the Faun, "where we are now; all that lies between the lamppost and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the eastern sea. And you -- you have come from the wild woods of the west?" [...]
   "Meanwhile," said Mr. Tumnus, "it is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long, and we shall both catch cold if we stand here talking in the snow. Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?"
   "Thank you very much, Mr. Tumnus," said Lucy. "But I was wondering whether I ought to be getting back."
   "It's only just round the corner," said the Faun, "and there'll be a roaring fire -- and toast -- and sardines -- and cake."

The White Witch is painted very clearly throughout the book as an illegitimate ruler in two essential ways: her biological illegitimacy and her tyrannical tendencies. The biological issue is relatively simple -- though she claims to be a "Daughter of Eve", she is really descended from Adam and Lilith, not Eve -- but the cruelties of her rule are somewhat more... problematic.

For reasons that are never really developed in the book, the White Witch has chosen to use her magic to blanket all of Narnia in a perpetual winter. It is implied that this winter began at the beginning of her reign, 100 years ago, and the worst part is that though it is always winter, it is never Christmas -- there hasn't been a Christmas in Narnia for the last hundred years.

As far as evil acts go, mucking with the weather to make everyone cold and wet and miserable is, I suppose, pretty darn mean, but it's not an act that makes sense within the narrative. Lucy will go back with Mr. Tumnus to his house for tea, and the two of them will have butter and toast and sardines and more toast and boiled eggs and cake and presumably even tea for tea, with no mention of how these things could be procured in a world where it has been winter and nothing else for the last hundred years.

Throughout this novel, the fact that it has been winter for as long as anyone in the book has been alive (which the exception of Aslan and perhaps a few of the longer-lived mystical creatures) is repeated again and again without any real understanding of what that might mean. Food is procured without there ever once being any kind of shortage on any wanted item; the frozen rivers team with fresh fish that can be easily caught once a nice hole has been cut in the ice. Spring, when it comes halfway through the novel, should in itself be an existential crisis for the bulk of the characters -- the Beavers, in particular, have never seen anything but winter in their lifetime -- but it's accepted with laughter and happiness all around, like any normal spring thaw would be to us.

And never is it explained why the White Witch -- whose defining characteristic is lust for power -- would expend so much energy on something so strange as a perpetual winter. In an agrarian country like Narnia, it can only impoverish her as a ruler and weaken her country to external invasion. Even if she doesn't care about her subjects starving to death, she has to eat, and so do her loyal minions that form her army -- why would they export money and jewels for food rather than relax the frost a bit and grow their own?

I'm not about to suggest an alternate character interpretation of the White Witch where she's really a decent ruler doing her best in a tough situation (though I do like the Eragon fanfics that do basically just that very thing with Galbatorix); any system of government where the opposition is summarily turned into stone statues is not a healthy system of government. However, I'm also not ready to just throw up my hands and assume that the White Witch is an idiot. If she's willing to impoverish and weaken her lands by plaguing them with a perpetual winter, I've got to assume she's getting something more in return than just EVIL LOLZ.

Look at the map of Narnia, and what do you see? The only possible threats to Narnia can come from the north, the south, and the sea to the east. The north is populated by giants, loyal allies to the White Witch. The eastern seaboard, after a 100-year frost, must be completely frosted over at this point and unapproachable by any ships not equipped with ice cutters. That leaves the only threat to the south -- the Archenlands and the Calormen, both of which are used to temperatures far higher than freezing and who would be ill-equipped to invade the snow-blanketed land of Narnia. Narnia under the rule of the White Witch has essentially become Russia circa 1800s: cold, impoverished, and not worth trying to invade. 

The thing is, the true ruler of Narnia isn't the Pevensie children any more than it is the White Witch -- the true king of Narnia is Aslan the lion. But Aslan has been gone for the last century; he left one day and never came back, and no one has seen him since.

   "Aslan?" said Mr. Beaver. "Why, don't you know? He's the King. He's the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father's time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He'll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus." -- Chapter 8

Because Aslan left, Narnia was left vulnerable to hostile takeover. The White Witch claimed Narnia for her own, ascended the throne, and magically petrified any and all who opposed her. But in the time since she took the throne, the politics of Narnia have at least been stable. The icy winter that the White Witch has imposed on the country has impoverished Narnia and hurt the spirit of the land, but somehow the inhabitants still find a way to grow or import wheat, honey, and tea, and somehow fish still frolic and play in the frozen rivers. In the meantime, the White Witch has established peace treaties with those who would threaten Narnia to the north and her magical winter has made Narnia unapproachable and uninteresting to those in the east and the south.

The White Witch, for all her evilness and illegitimacy, is taking care of Narnia. She's doing it in the most selfish, evil manner possible, but she is keeping the inhabitants free, safe, and mostly alive. Aslan, on the other hand, couldn't even be bothered to do that when he left Narnia vulnerable to invaders a century ago.

In the allegory of TLWW, if Aslan is Jesus, the White Witch must be Satan. And yet, in order for this allegory to work, the White Witch's rule needs to be marginally worse than Aslan's rule. So far, I'm not sure I'm confident giving a gold star to either ruler right now.

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