Nothing Yet in Its True Form: Shifting Portrayals of Female Villains in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia

October 31, 2007
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In The Silver Chair, the witch-like Lady of the Green Kirtle is first described in connection with the evil serpent who kills the queen of Narnia, King Caspian’s bride, Ramadu’s daughter, and Prince Rillian’s mother. Neither the Lady nor the Queen possess given names. Lewis, and thereby the reader, identify the Green Lady’s color with her qualities of jealousy and seduction, and the Queen with the men by whom Lewis defines her. The Lady’s green color emphasizes her jealous hunger for power, both over the person of Rillian and the nation of Narnia. The Green Lady is the most overt seductress of Lewis’ female villains. Her first action, killing the Queen, eliminates any competition she may face for Rillian’s “love” and attention. Her serpentine nature associates her with Lamia, Keat’s infamous heroine in his poem of the same title. Lamia is “a palpitating snake…of dazzling hue…A full-born beauty new,…a maid/More beautiful than ever…spread a green kirtle” (Keats 860). These femme fatales are robed in identical garments (i.e. the green kirtle), and both ensnare the object of their desire with tantalizing beauty.

Her identification as a serpent also links the Green Lady to the mythic figure of Medusa, a familiar literary symbol of the duality of female attractiveness. “The association of women with Medusa…evoke[s] an aspect of the sex which [is] both fascinating and dangerous” (Dumoulié), a concept with which Lewis the Classical scholar was quite familiar. Medusa “is celebrated for her personal charms and the beauty of her locks,” which are in fact serpents. Like the Green Lady/serpent, Medusa’s body is “covered with impenetrable scales…[and her] looks had the power of killing or turning to stone” (Dumoulié). Although those who fell under the Green Lady’s spell did not physically turn to stone as did Medusa’s victims, they became psychologically petrified, captive to the power of her suggestion. Similarly, in his poem Christabel, Coleridge depicts a beautiful witch-woman, Geraldine, who he also relates to a serpent. Like Medusa and Lewis’ Green Lady, Geraldine can “put a rapture in [the] breast, / And on [the] lips and o’er [the] eyes” of her victims with a single glance, till “what [they] knew [they] could not tell, / O’er-mastered by the mighty spell.” Along with Coleridge and Keats, Lewis affirms a strong connection between female beauty and the forced submission to the woman’s evil will.

The first time the Green Lady reveals her human form, she is described by Rillian as “the most beautiful thing that was ever made” (Silver Chair 59). Prince Rillian has fallen under the powerful spell of the Green Lady’s seduction, but the Lord Drinian, less vulnerable to her charms, describes her as “the most beautiful lady he had ever seen…[who] beckoned to the Prince with her hand as if she bade him come to her. And she was tall and great, shining, and wrapped in a thin garment as green as poison. And the Prince stared at her like a man out of his wits. But…it stuck in Drinian’s mind that this shining green woman was evil” (59). The older, more experienced Drinian is less susceptible than the young and passionate Prince to the Lady’s seductive power, and she quite literally captivates him. Rillian soon resembles the knight of Keat’s La Belle Dam sans Merci, lulled asleep and held “in thrall…alone and palely loitering” by a mysterious temptress (846).

In the Green Lady’s second appearance, this time to Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum, her captivating beauty is emphasized once more. She is all pleasing affectations with her artificial, trilling speech “as sweet as the sweetest bird’s song,” and her “fluttering dress of dazzling green…was lovelier still” (Silver Chair 89). Her song and garb again recall Lamia’s singing sweetly while clad in fluttering robes that “flaunted with the daffodils” as her lover drinks in her beauty and sweet songs (Keats 861). The two children are enchanted, calling her “simply super” (Silver Chair 92). They overlook the more sinister possibilities behind her pretty words and sweet laughter. While they note the silent passivity of the man accompanying the Green Lady, Jill excuses his behavior as “just [wanting] to look at her and listen to her lovely voice. I’m sure I would if I was him” (92). The Lady’s power to charm and persuade extends beyond Rillian to affect the children; Eustace wants her, and Jill wants to be like her. The Lady’s power relies on her sexual appeal and aesthetic beauty, both deceptively pleasing. Only Puddleglum’s crusty cynicism affords him protection from her provocative allure.

In the final confrontation between the Green Lady and Eustace, Jill, Puddleglum, and a disenchanted Rillian, the Lady again uses all her seductive powers to lull them back into her control. She bewitches the atmosphere and assumes a pleasing manner of conversation, and then gently persists in trying to reason them out of their belief in Aslan, the Overworld, and the quest for redemption to which they have dedicated themselves. It is a powerfully suggestive scene, depicting a beautiful and deceitful woman talking the travelers out of their wits. She uses circular logic to convince them to reject their experiences of truth in favor of the reality that she creates for them in her own kingdom and under her power. With the subtleties of the Lady’s argument, Lewis allies seductive female wiles with alluring arguments dissuading one from belief in the Christian faith. It is a startling insinuation. All that withstands the Lady’s provocative speech is Puddleglum’s stubborn faith and loyalty to the truth of his experiences of Aslan and the Overworld.

Lewis’ characterization of the Green Lady is a comment on the smoothly deceptive nature of seduction. The beautiful, sexually fascinating, female is a serpent in disguise; she is waiting hungrily to capture and devour men, and thereby consume their power. She is a strongly negative character, but almost entirely symbolic. There is no suggestion of her individual reality. Like Coleridge’s inexplicable Geraldine, the Green Lady’s origins are unclear, the source of her power unknown, and the motivation for her appetite for power go unaddressed. Even her defeat in the underworld is somewhat obscure. Is it her wrath at Puddleglum’s defiance or hatred of the name of Aslan that causes her to assume her serpentine form? It is in this form that Rillian beheads her, an act that apparently kills the Lady, but leaves little explanation for the source of her power. Is she a serpent, a demon, or a quasi-human sorceress? Perhaps she symbolizes seduction, with her sexuality the source of her power to enchant. Lewis does not state that Rillian and the Lady have a sexual relationship, but the symbolism of her hiding the handsome Prince deep in the hot earth, alone, for over a decade, and her promise to be Rillian’s queen in his Overworld kingdom indicate the probability of such an affair. Lewis avoids the subject of sexual liaisons, but the mythic symbols the Green Lady evokes suggest the possibility of such an explanation. Lewis cites the fairy tale, as the perfect expression of the images that formed the basis of the Chronicles, precisely because “these images…demand no love interest and no close psychology…[and] the form which excludes these things is the fairy tale” (Of Other Worlds 36). Yet Lewis attempts to present the Green Lady as a truly provocative temptress resembling Keat’s Lamia. Lewis’ descriptive language falls far short, however, of conveying the Green Lady’s sensuously hypnotic power, avoiding her body and face and emphasizing her voice and clothing. These conspicuous omissions recall Coleridge’s comment on the witch-beauty of Geraldine, whose naked form he mysteriously describes as “A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (448). Of course Lewis is not going to employ overtly sexual descriptions in a children’s novel. Why, then, does the Green Lady’s power spring from her sensuality (of which, however vaguely it is depicted, there is no question that it is evil)?

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