The most iconic character (after Aslan the Lion, that is) of The Chronicles of Narnia is The White Witch, the villainess of both the first book and the sixth, and referred to in all the others. She’s a sorceress, a wicked queen, a petty spoilsport, a warrior general, and a femme fatale all in one. When the series begins (I’m using the old chronology here, of publication date) she has ruled the once-fair land of Narnia for a hundred years, covering it in eternal winter, and ruling it with the help of her secret police force of wolves (shades of Hitler and Mussolini) and army of evil dwarves, wraiths, hags, and haunts. A prophecy has been made that she will lose her power when the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve sit on the thrones at Cair Paravel, so she polices her realm most closely for visitors of human blood. When Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensie kids, stumbles into the realm through the titular wardrobe, the real story begins.
The White Witch’s name is given as Jadis in the text, though she’s never referred to by it, and that name is given through the medium of a written order and not spoken. But she’s the same Jadis who appears five books later in The Magician’s Nephew as a sorceress-queen who kills the entire population of Charn with a single spoken magic word.
In LW&W she’s regal, brittle, thorough, and calculating, as well as being tall and inhumanly beautiful. No misshapen wart-faced witch, she. In Pauline Baynes’s illustrations she has long black hair which has become iconic for the character, even though her hair color was never mentioned by Lewis.
We meet her first in the forest when she comes upon young Edward, who has stumbled into Narnia in the hope of proving his sister Lucy wrong about its existence. Here, in the first visual depiction of her, she stops her sleigh and looks at him in an unfriendly way. It’s so simple and delicate, yet so strong, how she frowns and leans forward with her whip in her hand, and Edward raises his hand to his mouth in astonishment. In a later illustration it’s implied she uses the same whip on him, though the sinisterness is undercut by the silly Turkish slipper-like shoes she wears which are inappropriate for a wintry forest.
Barbara Kellerman played the White Witch in the BBC live-action version from 1988. Her depiction adhered closely to both the original illustration and the character as depicted in the book: haughty, brutal, slightly mad. You can believe she’s ruled Narnia for a hundred years.
Tilda Swinton’s version from the 2005 Disney big screen movie. The sled design is right-on, but overall I am not a fan of this depiction. Though a wonderful actress, Swinton lacks the vitality of Kellerman’s version (despite her turn as a faux-Boudicea in the battle scenes.) Her White Witch is less brash and fun, and more distant. Autistic, almost. Swinton specifically asked to play the role as a blonde, to draw attention away from the witch being seen as a POC with dark hair, and towards a more Aryan one with allusions to Nazi Germany. But the blonde dreadlocks are just wrong. How does she comb them?
Well, I guess she doesn’t. The flowing hair she wears for the the big battle scene was supposedly Aslan’s.
As for the metal headpiece, the two points that come down over her forehead doesn’t make sense. How easy would it be for it to get knocked out of position and the points penetrate her skull or eyes? And the spangly blue gown she wears in the throne room, with its wide shoulders and exaggerated neckline, is too cartoonish for Swinton’s slender frame.
An illustration by Christine Birmingham for one of the later editions of LW&W. I like this one even better than Baynes’. It’s evocative of a cold, clear afternoon on a forest road, and the palette is attractive: pale blue, red, white, and gold against which Edmund’s human coloration stands out. The White Witch wears her hair pulled back, looking both cruel and serene.
I wish I knew the name of the artist who made the wonderful rendition above, but I can’t read Russian. It’s almost perfect, save for some difficulties of scale: both Edmund and the reindeer are far too small.
In this one Edmund meets the White Witch by moonlight. He’s in his pajamas, as happened in the movie, instead of short pants like in the book. He’s shivering so we know it’s cold, and the White Witch is about to offer him a hot drink as she does in the book. She’s got a smirk on her face which is out of character, but otherwise, it’s OK.
|The same scene, by artist Deborah Maze, for a 1997 picture book adaptation. The witch here shows a little too much… glee… as she tempts an underage boy, putting her arm around him as he’s mesmerized by the steaming chalice. Well, we’ll get around to that in the section below.|
The Snow Queen
If all these depictions seem familiar even to those who haven’t read the book, they are right. The same scene occurs in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Snow Queen, in which the glamorous, supernatural Queen of Winter encounters young Kay as he is sledding in the woods. She tempts him away from his childhood sweetheart Gerda and carries him off in her sleigh.
Sometimes, as in the Russian illustration above, the Snow Queen has Kay hitch his sled to hers. Other times she bundles him up inside with her, with more than a little hint of eroticism in it.
Though sex is not mentioned, it’s a tale of seduction: a young boy lured away by an older, more worldly woman who keeps him enthralled. But for all her glamor she is emotionally cold, leaving it up to Gerda to fight for what’s hers and bring him back home. I’m pretty certain Lewis played around with this motif on purpose. Edmund, like Kay in the story, is a twisted sort, with the difference being his flaw is cruelty, while Kay’s personality has been warped by a shard from a magic mirror.
Two vintage Snow Queens, the second in a sleigh bedecked with bells, and both of which Lewis may have read as a child.
The White Witch’s castle
After eating the Turkish Delight, Edmund returns through the wardrobe where he lies about being in Narnia, making Lucy cry. But a few days later all of the siblings enter the wardrobe to escape a tour group, and see for themselves that Lucy was telling the truth, and Edmund lying. But they don’t know Edmund has promised the White Witch to deliver them to her. At some point during dinner with the Beavers, he sneaks off to her castle.
Concept art from the movie. Too ornate and oversized for my taste, in the way CGI makes it all too easy to do. The white tiger was not in the original book.
Edmund sees the statues of the petrified Narnians as the White Witch waits expectantly for him. The scale here is better, but errs on the side of being too narrow and intimate. Edmund’s apprehension is a nice touch.
The White Witch shows her anger and Edmund cowers. Aside from the odd hitching of her arms, this depiction does a good job with her the castle. Like a Medieval church it has a vaulted ceiling and hanging lamps, and it made of stone blocks. The wolf at her feet looks like a cross between a rat and a lion, harking back to Aslan… but she’s the anti-Aslan, as Lewis intended: Yin – Female – Cold – Silver vs. Yang – Male – Warm – Gold.
An animated version of LW&W by was released by Rankin/Bass and broadcast on CBS in 1979. I remember watching this and my brother making fun of it. Judging from the screen grab of the White Witch on her throne below, it was pretty awful. Peter’s clothes (turtleneck sweater, bellbottoms, and pointy-toed Beatle boots) are suspiciously dated for the late 70s when disco, the punk scene, and Valley Girl fashion were entering the mainstream. How this won an Emmy award I don’t know.
There’s some interesting discussion about the cartoon here.
Leo and Diane Dillon depict a literally bubbleheaded White Witch here in their unmistakable style. There are some interesting details here, like the Negro features of the dwarf and the strange bird heads on the chair’s armrests. Her wand, more of a staff, is tipped with a skull. She seems to be baring her teeth in the same way the wolf is. Very nice image.
Edmund goes from the frying pan into the fire! The White Witch looks ready to poke him with her spear here as the wolves snap and howl. The artist’s technique is very like that of Erte which is no mean accomplishment.
I’ll be posting Part II later.