The Enclosed Garden in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia

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A garden enclosed is my sister my spouse;
a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
-Canticles 4:12

I.  Introduction

To Christian writers, landscape and its seasons are not merely backdrops for plots and characters.  As places of destination they are integral elements of quest narratives or pilgrimages.  More importantly, nature’s cyclical patterns often function as maps of the human soul:   “[t]o the Christian, the seasons’ round, often represented by a contrast between spring garden and winter wilderness, is a natural figure of man’s spiritual life” (Stewart 105).  This correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm is a classical belief that pervaded Christian literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  One specific structure of landscape that has been widely used by Christian writers to narrate the cycle of Christian history, from paradise to wilderness and back to paradise, is the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus). The enclosed garden was such a common trope in medieval and Renaissance art that “scarcely an event from the life of Christ exists for which some artist at some time or other has not provided a backdrop of an unfinished enclosure [….] The touchstone of the enclosed garden [was] an emblem (hortus mentis) of man’s inner being.  This is how the figure was used by St. Teresa and St. John, and how it was used by Herbert, Vaughan, and Marvell” (Stewart 47, 169).  As J.T. Rhodes and Clifford Davidson also affirm, “[t]he beginning and end of time were marked by the garden”  (95).

A. Bartlett’s The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic is of great help in interpreting these gardens and their motifs.  Giamatti defines the Garden of Eden as “a place of perfect repose and harmony” (11) which exists “in some normally inaccessible part of the earth, which might become the goal of man’s search and, in a literal as well as metaphorical way, the object of his dreams” (15).  The traditional motifs of this garden in its ideal form are trees, fruits, green hills, sweet odors and a well or fountain. It is also usually located on a mountain, “a befitting spot of worship” (Porteus 45).  Moreover, as Stewart writes, “[n]ight cannot fall in the enclosed garden because the sun, who is the Son, has eternally risen”  (110).  However, this garden can also be a garden of loss, a type of Gethsemane, a moment of temptation or a place where temptation is actualized as in the biblical Garden of Eden, a place where the self folds back, serpentine, on its own image (Gillespie 314).  A serpent, dragon, or worm (or witch or ape in Lewis’s Chronicles) is sometimes lurking in this garden.  As a place of actualized temptation, it becomes a non-garden-a wilderness, exposed to spiritual and physical onslaughts, a dry land, a wild wood, a thick forest, harboring dragons and serpents in its midst, and also, in the case of Lewis, a courtyard of petrified animals, or a field of snow-all metaphors of exile and isolation in various forms:  doubt, rebellion, restlessness, failure, and fear (McGrath 24 and passim).

Building on Genesis 2:8-10, as well as the images of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 and John 15, biblical exegetes saw the vineyards as “lands enclosed from the open wilderness by the art of man’s husbandry” (Stewart 53).  To Isaiah, the vineyard is Jerusalem, the Lord’s garden built on a fruitful hill and surrounded by a fence (Isaiah 5:1-2), the City of God.  Early medieval and Christian commentators went on to view the vineyard as a metaphor of the church, a divine enclosure with God/Christ as gardeners, set off from the rest of the world through God’s mercy.  On the individual level, the garden is the soul; the wilderness is the corrupted flesh.  Man acting in cooperation with God/Christ will attain a place in the celestial garden.  Thus the “wild is separated from the regenerate” (Stewart 54).

In describing his various gardens in the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis draws heavily upon these traditional motifs of gardens in biblical, classical, and early Christian literature.[1] Before writing the Chronicles, he had explored in depth this long tradition of garden poetry in The Allegory of Love (1936).[2] In his discussion of the Roman de la Rose, the most famous and influential of all medieval garden poems, Lewis compares Claudian’s garden of the Hesperides, “the land of longing, the Earthly Paradise, the garden east of the sun and west of the moon” (75-76), to the Good Shepherd’s pasture which is the true garden, the celestial paradise.  He writes, “[w]hen we have seen the true garden we look back and realize that the garden of courtly love is an impostor” (151).  Lewis’s belief in an absolute truth will resurface in his fiction, in the description of the garden in The Last Battle and at other points throughout his Narnian retelling of Christian temptation and redemption. A close reading of the Chronicles, in canonical order, reveals that these multiple levels of meaning regarding the garden imagery operate to some degree in the three types of gardens that are vital to Lewis’s overarching narrative:  1) the garden created (a type of the biblical Garden of Eden) in The Magician’s Nephew which focuses on the inward struggle of the soul in the context of temptation;  2) the garden restored (a type of terrestrial paradise) in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader which focuses on the trials of the fallen soul and its restoration into a community that experiences rest and refreshment of the spirit (the church by analogy); and 3) the garden eternal (a type of a celestial paradise) in The Last Battle, the locus of full perfection, open to all of Aslan’s followers and analogous to the Christian heaven.