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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Empress Jadis is depicted with more depth and complexity of character than the Green Lady or the White Witch. Lewis deals with Jadis’s motivations, weaknesses, origins, and development, elements that remain virtually untouched in his earlier villain temptresses. That Jadis has a given name alone sets her apart from the other two, making her far more personal. Jadis is the cruel and power-hungry sorceress queen of the dying world of Charn. The empress is “seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful,” but her beauty is “terrifying…[with] her fierceness, and her wildness” (Nephew 72, 80). Digory reflects that “in all his life he had never known a woman so beautiful…[while Polly] couldn’t see anything specially beautiful” (54). Jadis’s physical allure has a greater effect on males than on females, which is a reassertion of Lewis’ belief that sensuality is the male abuse of sexuality. Males are more susceptible to her power and control, as is clear from the captivating effect she has on Uncle Andrew. But this sensuality is far less impressive than its female equivalent, a hunger for power, as is made clear by the juxtaposition of Jadis with Andrew; the former is impressive while the latter is pathetic. Andrew keeps forgetting “how she had frightened him and thinking more and more of her wonderful beauty” and flattering himself that “the Witch would fall in love with him” (89). Jadis “is not interested in things or people unless [she] can use them” (86), but her beauty still gives her power to intimidate and control. She is not flirtatiously seductive like the Green Lady, but the allure of her beauty convinces people, particularly men, that she could possibly be sexually available to them when in fact she has no intention of being so.

Jadis affects other characters in The Magician’s Nephew, but is also affected by them throughout the story. The weakened and vulnerable Jadis in the wood between the worlds is “so pale that hardly any of her beauty is left” (78), certainly not the threat she poses in Charn, England, or even Narnia. Whereas the White Witch and the Green Lady work their evil magic on others largely in isolation until each is defeated in a final titanic confrontation between Aslan’s mighty goodness and their own fallible enchantments, the confrontation between Jadis and Digory is seductively private rather than monumentally public. She tempts him with sympathy for his heart’s desire, a subtle seduction far more difficult to resist than overt magical oppression and assault, the tactics employed by the White Witch and the Green Lady. In the end Jadis is not defeated. Her power is merely deflected for a time, but Lewis indicates that either she herself or some descendent of hers returns many years later as the White Witch to bind Narnia in ice and snow. Since people, good and bad, rarely just go away, even Lewis’ resolution of Jadis’s character reveals greater nuance than either of the other female villains.

As the Chronicles progress, Lewis’ depiction of villainous women shifts quite dramatically, increasing the depth of these characters from the first book to the last. If one assumes from the outset that there are three female villains in the Chronicles, then Lewis makes a noticeable shift from the flat, symbolic depiction of the White Witch and a similar though more detailed description of the Green Lady to a final, remarkably thorough characterization of the Empress Jadis. This shift shows a significant change in how Lewis views female characters, and in particular the villain temptresses. While the first two temptresses are identified by color associations, the last temptress has a name—Jadis—and a personality. The White Witch and the Green Lady appear and are vanquished mysteriously, but Jadis has a history and is riddled with weaknesses. By the end of the Chronicles, the reader sees a villain who is multifaceted, exerting power and revealing vulnerability in her interactions with other characters. Jadis stands in stark contrast to the isolation and mystery that surround the White Witch and The Green Lady’s origin, characters, motives, and sources of power. Lewis presents Jadis’s motivation and history, rather than implying that she is evil simply because females are more prone to abuse power for evil than males, and because the story needs an interesting villain.

If one considers the final comment Lewis makes on these characters in the sixth book, that the White Witch and Jadis are one and the same villain, the implication of Lewis’ shift in attitude toward his temptress characters becomes much greater. If the two females are one, then Lewis does not simply create a better and more nuanced character in Jadis. As a writer, he recognizes the incompleteness of his prior characterization of the White Witch, finding it so lacking as to be worth the space of another book, with detail sufficient for a separate individual. By recognizing and acting upon the need to transform the Witch into Jadis, Lewis is contradicting his earlier assertion of female villains as functional symbols of immutable evil. Their evilness is impenetrable save by supernatural intervention whereas Jadis’s is fallible and even vulnerable. By book six, Lewis recognizes the flatness of the White Witch’s character. Rather than creating a new temptress, he fills in the incomplete character of the earlier villain. Whereas the Green Lady and the White Witch are collages and reflections of literary villain temptresses familiar to Lewis, Jadis is a culmination of a variety of influences whose nuanced character emerges as a unique individual.

Lewis’ portrayal of greater depth and nuance in a temptress reveals a consistent trend in his understanding of and subsequent writing about females. Fellow writer of fantasy books published for children, Ursula Le Guin writes of this sort of revolution in the fantasy kingdom, “Revisioning…can see the myth as a myth: a construct, which may be changed; an idea which may be rethought, made more true, more honest…the ‘world apart’ of a fantasy inevitably refers back to this world.” With the character of Jadis, we encounter Lewis as a man who no longer sees women predominantly as symbols of beauty, temptation, façade, virtue, or goodness. Rather, he has begun to see vulnerability even in the most impassive faces of evil. This balance of symbol and reality, one that at times seems so absent in the Chronicles of Narnia, reflects a maturing trend in Lewis’ appreciation and understanding of various female characters and abilities. Lewis is revisioning Narnia, for he is rewriting the myth central to his own life as his understanding of that myth changes. As readers, recognizing such a shift in Lewis’ thinking and writing deepens our understanding of the ideals embedded in these stories and heightens our appreciation of the spiritual, literary, and societal nuances of Lewis’ work.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.