What is Father Christmas doing in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
Why do Silenus, satyrs (fauns) and other creatures from classical mythology appear in the story?
In his famous study of Lewis’s work called Planet Narnia, Michael Ward asserts that he has found an underlying system behind all seven of the Narnia books: each of them is built around, represents, or is inspired by, a planet in the medieval cosmology. In the Middle Ages, these were Mercury, Venus, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all orbiting in perfect circles around the Earth which formed the ‘ground’ of the universe. Specifically, Ward finds that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has the qualities of Jupiter or Jove (which helps explain Father Christmas); Prince Caspian is based on Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on the Sun; The Silver Chair on the Moon; The Horse and His Boy on Mercury; The Magician’s Nephew on Venus and The Last Battle on Saturn.
Ward carefully counters any objections, pointing out that Lewis was intensely interested in both astronomy and pre-Copernican symbolism. He also points to various similar references to the planets in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and in his poetry.
In one sense, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with Ward or not for two reasons - Planet Narnia is a close reading of what has become known as the Narniad and is fascinating regardless of the overlying theory; and it doesn’t harm Lewis’s books either way.
But though Planet Narnia is well worth reading for anyone who enjoys Lewis’s work, one can’t help thinking that there is another, perhaps deeper or wider point about Lewis’s fiction which is being missed. All of these detailed references to aspects of mediaeval cosmology - which are certainly there whether or not you believe that they add up to a cohesive code for the books - must serve a purpose, especially in the hands of a master author like Lewis. The very first question that one should probably try to establish about Lewis as a writer is this:
'What effect did he want to create for the reader?'
Apart from obvious effects, like laughter, or entertainment, it’s also clear that Lewis, Christian or not, wanted to achieve more subtle and mixed effects, not least a sense of enlightenment or elation about the nature of the world. Most great fiction can produce a range of effects, from extremes of physical sensation to the transmission of purely intellectual ideas. These effects can be categorised as positive and uplifting, or negative and introverting.
Another question one might ask is 'Why didn’t Lewis just sum up the effect he wanted to create on readers in one sentence, or even in one word, and hand it to readers on a slip of paper straight away?’ In other words, why go to all the trouble of creating an effect on a reader through a story?
If he wanted to entertain, he could have related an anecdote; if he wanted to enlighten, he could have written an essay. (Lewis after all was a master of both.) Why construct an elaborate world, based on the mediaeval cosmos or not, in which some kind of convincing action can take place? Why invent and insert 'characters' including the initially out-of-place Father Christmas, manoeuvring them through scenes until they reach the end of a thing called a ‘plot’?
If we accept that Fiction is a set of procedures or tools used by writers to create specific effects upon readers, and that Lewis deliberately chose to use fiction to produce exact effects, we can also surmise that his use of mediaeval imagery and thought was conscious. While one may disagree with Ward’s emphasis on the planets in relation to each book in the Narniad, for example, one cannot really disagree that Lewis knew what he was doing and was attempting to achieve something specific, as he says:
To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series - the plot, as we call it - is only really a new whereby to catch something else.
Lewis would have agreed that fiction writing is a kind of spell. Writers try to create an effect or set of effects on readers without readers knowing particularly what they are doing. The effect has to somehow 'sneak up on them'. Though Lewis had an antipathy to magicians generally, a fiction writer is really a master magician: he or she uses forces below or behind the conscious awareness of readers in order to produce, in the end, a range of distinct effects, both conscious and unconscious. Rather than just telling a reader what effect you want to create and creating that effect beneath (or above) the reader’s conscious awareness, a writer of fiction engenders that effect almost without the reader’s permission. That’s partly why we read books: we want them to surprise us.
And Lewis's fiction did indeed have an overall purpose and product, as we will see.