In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis says that Father Christmas is the sort of person you only meet in a place like Narnia. But what is a “place like Narnia”? Isn’t there only one such place, with talking animals, tree-spirits, giants, spells, dwarfs, prophecies, and the sharp contrast of good-and-evil?
Come to think of it, there is. J. R. R. Tolkien called it “faerie.” Ursula K. LeGuin called it “Elfland.” If you’ve been there, you know that place. (If you haven’t, pick up some fairy tales and start reading!)
What makes Narnia faerie—the realm of nature-magic, deep as the land? I’ve mentioned some of its trappings. But, as Ursula K. LeGuin reminds us, trappings do not a good fantasy make. And, love it or don’t, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a good fantasy. An authentic journey into faerie—a kind of faerie, too, that you can see and feel in your mind.
Lewis achieved just the right mix of realism and magic. The rules of Narnia are clear, things aren’t arbitrary—people really do bleed there—and yet the magic is real (within discernible limits). So is that what makes this novel a journey into faerie? The skillful realization of magic within a believable world? Does technique a good fantasy make?
Or is it the fact that it is a journey, through a portal and into a woods—for it does start in the woods, like many fairy tales. Is it the fanciful device of the wardrobe, a new thing (relatively speaking) juxtaposed with an old thing (the faerie wood)? Does that make it authentic fantasy, a journey into faerie?
Or is it the sharp contrast between good and evil? The White Witch couldn’t be more evil; Aslan couldn’t be more good. Is this stark contrast what gives it that magical quality?
Or what about the smallness of the characters? Lucy, the youngest of four and a girl (in patriarchal England) is first to discover the portal. And she’s the one who seems closest to Aslan—she and Susan, in the first book, and Lucy alone as the adventures unfold. Even Peter is only a child, though a very responsible, grown-up eldest son. Edmund, who experiences the greatest transformation (after Narnia itself), is the proto-typical younger brother. These little people, small characters, become—but don’t start out as—realm-shapers. They fall into something that’s already been going on. They’re the target of prophecies of old, innocent though they are of them. Does this, then, constitute Narnia as faerie?
No. It’s like chasing the wind, or defining the shape of a spirit. Narnia feels like faerie because, in some mysterious way, C. S. Lewis opens a door on faerie. It’s faerie as C. S. Lewis encountered it. And he had the elfish power to weave its odors and sights around us.
I don’t think he could have done it, if he hadn’t been there himself.