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

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The White Witch, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, also embodies evil. She is the first female villain Lewis wrote, and also the most difficult villain to discuss because her character has the least depth. The Witch initially appears to be the most sexually benign of Lewis’ temptress-villains, but the combination of her asexuality and great beauty remains a powerful female symbol. The Witch’s “face [is] white—not merely pale, but white like snow…except for her very red mouth. It [is] a beautiful face…but proud and cold and stern” and utterly unapproachable (Lion 34). She is literally a frigid woman, a frozen lover of ice and cold “covered in white fur up to her throat” (33). “The beauty of colour enhance[s] the loathliness of [the] shape” of her red mouth (1924 Macdonald 65). Placed in contrast to the Witch’s all-white appearance, this single color hints at provocative sensuous possibility. But while the Green Lady’s evil manifests as sensuality, Lewis depicts the White Witch’s frigidity as an expression of unnatural evil. The White Witch binds Narnia in endless, joyless snow that is “always winter and never Christmas” (Lion 20). She rules by cruel magic, blatantly using and abusing the subjects she controls by fear and manipulation. This places her in stark opposition to the “innate” nurturing qualities possessed by many of Lewis’ other female characters.

Like the Green Lady, the Witch’s origins are vague, but Lewis suggests that she is of “Adam’s first wife [Lilith]…And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes of the giants” (88). Lewis had a lifelong fascination with the possibility of quasi-human mythic creatures. He writes to Sister Penelope:

I have, if not thought, yet imagined a good deal about the other kinds of Men. My own idea was based on the old problem ‘Who was Cain’s wife?’ If we follow scripture it would seem that she must have been no daughter of Adam’s. I pictured the True Men descending from Seth, then meeting Cain’s not perfectly human descendents…interbreeding and thus producing the wicked antediluvians. (January 10, 1952)

The imagery Lewis associates with the White Witch as well as his mention of Lilith and “other kinds of Men” resemble another character, George Macdonald’s Lilith. In his novel of the same title, Macdonald’s Romantic exploration of the fate of Adam’s mythic first wife, Lilith, presents a character who bears a striking resemblance to Lewis’ White Witch. Macdonald’s work exhibits a strong influence on Lewis’ life and work. Lewis described the novel Phantastes as “a great literary experience” (March 7, 1916), and in his autobiography he writes that it had baptized his imagination (Surprised by Joy 146). Lewis’ letters confirm that he frequently read and reread Macdonald’s writings.

Lewis’ private library contains an annotated and underlined copy of the 1926 edition of Lilith, and the resemblance of his female villain to Macdonald’s is too uncanny for coincidence. Like the “beautiful face” (Lion 34) of the Witch, Macdonald’s Lilith is described as “radiant in her perfect shape” (1896 Macdonald, 155), an angelic being who spurns procreation with Adam. Both females scorn life and growth. Lilith rejects the nurturing role of human motherhood, and the Witch prevents the spring’s new growth and frequently denies her subjects’ lives by turning them into stone. These two evil females also share a strong association with the color white. Lilith often takes the form of a pure white cat or leopard, and Macdonald frequently describes her flesh as cold to the touch. Lewis goes even further than Macdonald, avoiding any mention of flesh or shape; the White Witch is a frigid female villain. Below her face, the witch is literally clad “in white fur up to her throat” (Lion 33), and she surrounds herself with ice and snow.

Macdonald writes of Lilith, “her first thought was power” (1896 Macdonald 154), but the description applies equally to both women. Lilith declares that “my power to take manifested my right” (213), and the White Witch makes a similar demand on Edmund’s life, saying that “he belongs to me as my lawful prey…His blood is my property…I have a right to kill” (Lion 155). After reading Lilith, Lewis sheds significant insight on his understanding of Macdonald’s portrayal of a female villain and her obsession with the power to take, demand, and rule. In a letter to Greeves, Lewis writes, “One can trace in [Lilith] specially the Will to Power…She is also the real ideal somehow spoiled: she is not primarily a sexual symbol, but includes the characteristic female abuse of sex, which is love of Power, as the characteristic male abuse is sensuality” (September 1, 1933). Lilith confirms this universal hunger of the fallen female for power, asserting, “In me [is] every woman. I [have] power / Over the soul of every living man” (1924 Macdonald, 150).

Also fascinated by the powerful allure of female beauty, poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti writes of his version of Lilith, “her sweet tongue could deceive / …[And She] Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave, / Till heart and body and life are in its hold.” Lewis affirms Macdonald and Rossetti’s intimations that fallen nature in females manifests itself as lust for power, whereas in males the same degeneration results in sensuality. The implications of such gender generalizations are severe. As depictions of female lust for power suggest seduction as the preferred mode for power acquisition, these females would then be guilty of committing a double transgression: lust for power and sensuality. Power-hungry individuals make for more grandiose villains than sensual carousers, thus Lewis chooses female villains. By his choice, he affirms the idea that females are essentially more prone to crave and abuse power than males. And Lilith, along with other literary and mythic figures, is the basis for his presupposition. Lewis’ position appears ridiculously far removed from actual life experience, however, in light of the catastrophic results of masculine abuses of power during the ongoing turbulence of two World Wars.

If Lewis had so clear a source for his characterization of the White Witch as Jadis, why does he provide an incongruous passage five books later that contradicts the earlier explanation of the Witch’s origin? In The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan declares, “The Witch of whom I told you has fled far away in to the North of the world; she will live on there, growing stronger in dark Magic…she has un-wearying strength and endless days like a goddess.…[She] will come back to Narnia again” (206). This description still bears resemblance to Lilith, who, Macdonald writes, “In her, death live[s]…consciously a dead thing…in the hell of her self consciousness” (1896, 215). Aslan is describing the destiny of the Empress Jadis, the villain temptress from the dead world of Charn who is brought into Narnia on the day of its creation. Lewis indicates she will return to threaten Narnia one day as the White Witch. This explanation clarifies the Witch’s mingled animosity and familiarity with Aslan in book one as well as her hatred toward the human children. As a female villain, however, Jadis’s portrayal is quite different from the White Witch, so much so that they are almost unrecognizable as the same character. For the sake of clarity, it is best to talk about the contrasting portrayals of this one character as two separate villains, though the joining of the two into one character will provide remarkable insight into what Lewis does with female images throughout the Chronicles.