Many of C. S. Lewis’ most profound experiences were literary. From a young age, Lewis was a voracious and engaged reader who immersed himself in Classic and Romantic literature and ancient mythologies. The characters and ideas he encountered in his readings left deep and lasting impressions on how he viewed himself and the reality around him. What depictions and symbols of females in literature affected Lewis’ understanding of females? How do his literary ideas of the feminine determine the female characters he creates? Are Lewis’ experiences of females in literature consistent with the life experiences of real women? How do these multiple influences manifest themselves in female representations in the Chronicles of Narnia?
These questions are significant, considering that an estimated sixty-five million people have read C. S. Lewis’ multi-volume Chronicles of Narnia. It is safe to assume, simply on the basis of demographics, that roughly one half of these readers are female. What do these stories, written by a man who “no sound delights…more than male laughter” (W. H. Lewis 14), say to female readers about what femininity is and about what is valuable about females? With what sorts of characters can female readers identify in Lewis’ stories, and how are female characters represented?
These questions are significant because the reader of any narrative will often accept the societal norms within the text as the author intends these norms to be seen, regardless of their correlation to actual life experiences.
A work succeeds, becomes an event, by a massive repetition that takes up norms and, possibly, changes things. If a novel happens, it does so because, in its singularity, it inspires a passion that gives life to these forms, in acts of reading and recollection, repeating its inflection in the conventions of the novel and, perhaps, effecting an alteration in the norms or the forms through which readers go on to confront the world. (Culler 106)
As the Chronicles are read and re-read by millions around the world, Lewis’ representations of female gender norms have the potential to affect existing personal and societal concepts and values of gender and femininity. An informed critical reading of these stories is crucial to understanding the presuppositions and influences at work in the text.
Lewis’ private and published writings reveal his ambivalent fascination with female physical beauty. Lewis is intrigued by female beauty, but he is so distrustful of it that he can only explore abstractions of physically beautiful women. These females are synonymous with a feminine ideal, yet are, paradoxically, dangerous. In his writing, Lewis only addresses the individual details of a woman’s personality when he has rendered her sexually unattractive, sometimes by age—either the too old or the too young—or by some sort of paranormal quality, but most often by appearance. Lewis’ readers see the personality of a sexually viable woman only if she is too ugly to be considered conventionally attractive. Lewis’ most complex female character, the narrator of Till We Have Faces, is described as so hideously ugly that people can barely stand to gaze on her face.
In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’ distrust of female beauty evidences itself in his absorption with mythic female figures, indicated by the strong presence of the villainous women, themselves the primary embodiments of individual evils. Rather than representing authentic female experiences, these characters function primarily as symbols of the seductive nature of evil. Lewis’ villainous women are powerful sorceresses and provocative temptresses who create a strong association in the Chronicles between great beauty and clever cunning. Physically, these women are the most overtly stunning in all the Narnia stories, but the more beautiful they are, the greater the evil which they embody.
The Narnia tales chronicle a shift in Lewis’ depiction of sexually mature females, specifically the villain-temptress characters. Throughout the seven books, Lewis’ portrayals of these women metamorphose from flat reproductions, collages comprised of various literary femme fatales, to a final nuanced individual that is both a coalescence of various influences and—what is infinitely more personal—her distinctive self.
Lewis’ love of fantastic and Romantic literature serves as a vessel for his imagination, and takes him to places and people that he could never reach on this earth, but wanted desperately to experience. He developed an early tendency to live vicariously. While studying at Great Bookman, he wrote to confidant Arthur Greeves, “I have no personal experience of the thing they call love, I have what is better—the experience of…anyone else I have read” (qtd. in Wilson 44). Lewis’ young imagination and scholarly mind were immersed in a world vividly inhabited by figures such as Macdonald’s Lilith, Coleridge’s Geraldine, D. G. Rosetti’s Lady Lilith, and Keat’s Lamia and La Belle dame Sans Merci. In creating the world of Narnia, Lewis assumes a similar position to that of many of his familiar literary forefathers in his treatment of female physical beauty and seduction. The two qualities go hand in hand: those who manifest these qualities are inherently dangerous and untrustworthy, and beautiful seductresses are both powerfully fascinating and malignant.
Lewis depicts the personification of evil as female; a powerful though understated fact in the Chronicles. There are three kinds of archenemies to be encountered in Narnia: 1) political states like Calormen and Telmar, 2) supernatural forces such as Tash, and 3) the temptresses, the Green Lady and the White Witch (Empress Jadis). Female beauty can never be trusted, and more likely than not, it is seductive, dangerous, and evil. As Lewis writes in The Silver Chair, “the lesson of it all is…that those Northern Witches always mean the same thing, but in every age they have a different plan for getting it” (240). Initially, the female villains appear indistinguishable from one another as embodiments of the same evil. Yet the villain-temptresses are some of Lewis’ most memorable and—quite literally—colorful characters.