Today is Canada’s 150th birthday. Although I now live in the USA, I’m Canadian and I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about CS Lewis’ tribute to Canadian and Greek efforts in World War II for a long time.
Yes, I know Narnia is not one of the Seven Kingdoms and Lucy Pevensie isn’t Sansa’s long-lost cousin, but hey it’s Canada Day. Plus the possible history behind these symbols is pretty cool – and Canada’s national holiday gives me a chance to talk about both.
No doubt I have some misgivings about writing about CS Lewis. His frank Christianity makes me squirm as do claims that he was an anti-Semite. I don’t know much about these allegations, but he did marry a Jewish woman so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I worry that some of his animal/nation symbols could be construed as a touch jingoist. But, it was a different world.
Setting aside those irresolvable controversies, I was excited to notice some non-religious symbolism in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because it confirms what I’ve long believed: the world’s greatest fantasy novels use often use historical symbolism – rather than religious allegory – to make statements about the world. When you examine the symbols and historical allusions in CS Lewis, George RR Martin, Tolkein, and even JK Rowling, it’s hard not to conclude that literary critics must miss this stuff so they don’t see the value in fantasy.
Often fantasy is marginalized as “kid stuff,” junky pulp fiction, or not for serious people. But, fantasy isn’t always silly. Great fantasy transcends these stereotypes through more profound messages – often about war – and that’s why it resonates with us.
Drilling into Lewis’ symbols made me wonder whether The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been fundamentally misunderstood. The Aslan/Christ metaphor comes across so strongly that it’s come to eclipse what may have been Lewis’ real goal: to teach children about World War II and its aftermath.
(Apologies in advance for any unbearable Canadian pride, and the fact I’m omitting so many countries that contributed to WW2 in this article, but sometimes it just feels like Canadians get forgotten. So, it was great to spot this Narnian nugget.)
What Lewis ultimately creates in the first of his Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – is ultimately a PG-13 hybrid of the world during World War II and communist Russia.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe begins when the Germans were bombing London during the World War II. Mirroring the real-world fate of kids in wartime England, the Pevensie children are evacuated away from London’s bombs. They are sent to stay at the great home of a scraggly, white-bearded professor in the English countryside.
While the youngest child (Lucy) is playing hide-and-seek, she slips into a wardrobe and stumbles out in a snowy land known as Narnia, where she Mr. Tumnus, a faun – perhaps a symbol for Greece. Mr. Tumnus almost sells Lucy out to the Narnian secret police, but changes his mind. (Incidentally, in mythology, fauns are known for being untrustworthy to travelers.)
Lucy leaves Narnia. Once back at the country house, Lucy tells her tale to her sister Susan and brothers Peter and Edmund, the latter of whom mocks her.
However, Lucy eventually returns to Narnia, scoffing siblings in tow, and seeks out Tumnus.
At Tumnus’ cave, the foursome find the door charred and blasted open – and Tumnus missing. It’s a sanitized replay of the Nazi’s nocturnal arrests – and the ones that would follow in the USSR. Maugrim and his secret police have ransacked Tumnus’ cave and arrested him for high treason. (Read: the Nazis capture Greece.)
When the stunned Pevensie children leave Tumnus’ cave, a robin – a sign of not only spring but also of hope in this ever-winter land – guides them towards a clearing where they meet the first of two beaver (Mr. and Mrs. Beaver).
Narnia is in the grips of a tyrant’s spell that blankets the land in snow and freezes its political enemies. Lewis is making a pointed warning about Soviet-era Mother Russia, as famed for her army halting, snow covered plains as she is for permanently silencing dissidents in Siberian gulags. (At the end of World War II, Churchill thought that Russia was such a grave threat to England that he tried to persuade the war cabinet to sanction an attack against Russia and continue the war.) Jadis, the White Witch, is likely Russia.
Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are almost certainly a tribute to Canada – the beaver is Canada’s national animal.
Many of World War II’s major players are here in Narnia: Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Canada), Tumnus the Faun (Greece), Aslan (the English lion that is resurrected not unlike Britain who nearly lost World War II), the wolf/Alsatian (Germany) who serves Russia), and perhaps a (French) fox. Strangely, however, there are no eagles in Narnia.
The last name Pevensie is likely an allusion to England itself and foreshadows the quartets successful conquest over the White Witch; Pevensey is the village where William the Conqueror landed in 1066.
The Beaver Invites the English Children to a Safe Home in a Snowy Land
Perhaps The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’s most defining image, for me at least as a Canadian, is Pauline Bayne’s depiction of Mr. Beaver hiding behind a tree, calling the Pevensie children over to him.
Here is a conservative, timid, industrious little beaver risking his life not only to protect the vulnerable, but also for the greater good.
World War II was not going well for the British.
In 1939, German planes began to fly night raids, dropping bombs on sleeping English towns and cities. Experts predicted massive casualties and families began to evacuate their children from London – sending them into the country side. The English began to evacuate their children overseas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps noted by Lewis, Canada sheltered the most children.
By the spring of 1949, more and more countries had fallen to Germany. After France fell to Germany in June 1940, the English believed that Germany would cross the English Channel and conquer them imminently. England alone was the last European country holding fast against total German conquest.
On June 19, 1940 the British government announced an official program to evacuate its children “a total of 20,000 could be sent off immediately,” stated the announcement, “of which 10,000 would go to Canada.”
Much to the astonishment of officials, parents – terrified their children might become a casualty of war – submitted 211,448 applications in the first year. This represented half of the children in the country who were eligible for the program. That’s how scared British parents were.
Initially, fifty-thousand Canadians offered to take the children in. If you pause to compare this to our Syrian refugee response, you realize what an amazing outpouring of support this was. It was simply a different world.
Canadian support of the allies and the English people effort didn’t stop there.
Mrs. Beaver Sews Clothing
Inside the Beaver’s den, Mrs. Beaver greats the children from behind her whirring sewing machine. Lewis’ beavers are busy and industrious. Depicting Mrs. Beaver sewing is an apt tribute to the contribution of Canadian women in their efforts to support World War II.
In addition to munitions and military supplies, the war effort devoured staggering amounts of food, boots, blankets, clothing, and other cloth goods. The textiles weren’t just needed for the troops. Bombed out residents needed new clothing to survive.
When the English lost their homes during the Blitz, the bombs also incinerated their clothing and any other possessions inside the house. When survivors fled to the refugee centers (“Rest Centres”), many wore nothing but their pajamas since the blasts came in the middle of the night.
The staggering amount of destruction and chaos German bombs caused is hard to even picture today. During World War II, Nazi bombs fell 59 times on the English city of Plymouth – a shipbuilding and, thus, strategically important center. In 1943 alone, the Plymouth Rest Centre provided clothes for 17,000 people.
In Canada, among other efforts, local Women’s Volunteer Service centers encouraged women to sew, knit, quilt and pack “ditty bags” for people serving overseas.
Canadian women stitched and sent 25,000 quilts to Britain and Europe (via the Red Cross) for war relief.1
Almost immediately after Canada entered the war on September 10, 1939, Canadian women organized themselves into volunteer leagues – such as the Women’s Voluntary Services – to contribute to the war effort.
“The W.V.S. collected and distributed clothing from all over the world. In total over 20 million garments were distributed. The organization worked with the American and Canadian Red Cross to provide this relief. Between 1941 and 1945 the W.V.S. collected 3 million garments, 85,000 sheets and bedding, 86,000 blankets, 350,000 quilts, 16,000 boots and shoes and 262 tons of jam from generous Canadians through the Canadian Red Cross.”2
Perhaps out of political correctness, Disney decided to omit the image of Mrs. Beaver sewing. By doing so and leaving the walls of the beaver den empty, they eviscerated a key theme in the Lewis’ novel: the willingness of nations to come together to fight conquest and tyranny. With nothing more than bombers and a battle, the Narnia movie loses much of the novel’s tribute to WW II (and warning about post-WW II).
To be continued…