Narnia Business–Mr Tumnus and the allure of intertextuality

I’ve been rereading the Narnia novels, in order to write them up for the Our Mythical Childhood survey. A labour of love, a katabasis (or anabasis) into old memories–of first and later readings and selves–in childhood, young adulthood, and later adulthood, with changing situations, opinions, and perspectives. In Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics, Alison Waller has written about the ways that we change and remain the same, about how our identities are shaped by our childhood readings, and about what’s at stake when we go back to our favourite books–and I’m bearing her work in mind as I read.

I’m reading with a professional purpose, of course, to look for the Classical elements of Lewis’s work, and I’m enjoying rediscovering and finding anew these moments–the faun, Mr Tumnus, trotting through the snow clutching his umbrella; the sudden appearance of Bacchus and Silenus at a party; other mythical beasts such as centaurs, dryads, and naiads. Lewis’s Classicism seems to me to be celebratory in nature–the gorgeous bits, the bits that look good in paintings, a birthday-cake Classicism if you will. It mingles with his medievalism and Christianity–pagan motifs offsetting his Christian belief. I’m no expert on Lewis, or medievalism, or theology, or any of these things, but there’s something about the way it’s intermingled with talking animals and figures out of fairy stories that is alluring, especially to children who enjoy reading. (As a child, I was fascinated by the overlap between the White Witch’s castle, and the castle of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen.)

Indeed, the idea of allure has been striking me. I’m thinking quite a bit at the moment about speculation and fantasy–about the elements that take us into fantasy worlds–part of the escapist joy of reading can be going entirely into a place of make-believe and what-if-ness, of playing around with ideas, and living inside a world of stories. Maria Tatar’s Enchanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood is another scholarly work that’s resonating with me as I reread the Narnia book–in it, she talks about what it is about the idea of literary enchantment, of getting lost-in-a-book that turns people into lifelong readers.

Is there a danger to getting lost-in-a-book? Of course, and I think Lewis is well aware of that in his presentation of Mr Tumnus–that alluring but slightly creepy faun, whose cosy house is of course a gateway to entrap Lucy Pevensie and her siblings, so that they don’t help return Aslan to Narnia, and stop it being ‘always winter and never Christmas.’ But that hint of danger is also what draws us in to reading–after all, the great journeys of the heroes are not without trials and challenges, and it raises the stakes for our reading if we recognise the perils facing our characters.

Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie face danger and overcome it. Edmund is nearly swallowed up by it, when he succumbs to the wishes of another alluring stranger, the White Witch, who drugs him with magical Turkish delight, and causes him to turn traitor to his family and his own morality. I’m sure there are many parallels between her behaviour and other witches and enchantresses of past literature–what I like so much about Lewis’s use of intertextuality here is that it shimmers in and out of recognition.

How much a child reader recognises of these moments is unclear. Children, by virtue of their very newness to the world, to stories, and to reading, may not pick up on every reference or allusion, which is probably a good thing, as the allure of intertextual rabbit holes can distract one thoroughly from a good story. But they may be struck by these references, be intrigued by the sense of a world of knowledge they don’t yet have access to, and may also find them forming part of a tool kit for later reading and imagination. Which is what, I think, makes Lewis’s approach so delightful and memorable–he presents the allure of intertextual frameworks to come.

–Elizabeth Hale

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