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.
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)?
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.
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.
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