Lewis heavily drew on pulp SF and fantasy tropes to create the masterpiece that is Charn; but he also drew on the good old-fashioned fire and brimstone of The Bible.
Since it was, and may still be, the most-read book in Western Civilization, it’s natural that many of its stories influenced fiction of a fantastic bent that came later. Westerners who never even picked up a Bible still know it through cinema epics, church sermons, and Sunday School… not to mention contemporary allusions, satires, and parodies. It’s safe to say the big, bad Biblical cities of Ninevah and Uruk, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Alexandria, Byblos — and especially Babylon — still bubble in the subconscious of most Westerners and create eerie resonance upon reading the descriptions of Charn.
Which, I think, is what Lewis wanted. Charn is an ancient city, a desert city, filled with temples, pyramids, chariots, slaves. It was intended to invoke humanity’s first city, the largest and grandest of them all, of which all subsequent cities are but a pale copy.
As for the actual Biblical cities, the jury is still out on which is the oldest or how populous they were. All we have are ruins to go on today, which are much less impressive than Charn’s as they have not lain undisturbed in a sterile planet for millennia.
To the original, uncredited writers of the Bible, however, the first cities must have filled them with awe. From within they might have seemed to stretch out forever, as Charn does. The feeling of hugeness, human variety, luxury and vice must have been overpowering. When they went to describe it to the farmers and shepherds back home, they must have used superlatives, not objective descriptions that could be quantified.
Lewis the storyteller took those gasped-out superlatives and made them real. Like those ancient witnesses, he waxes into hyperbole. Charn isn’t just huge; it covers the Earth. It really is that massive, that rich, that wicked. Charn is Babylon on steroids.
Babylon has a bad rep in the Bible, of course, especially in Revelations; but most of that is due to the authors’ politics. In actual history, it was learned and cosmopolitan, the New York City of its day. And like that present-day city, it had a reputation for excess that translates into irredeemable wickedness and punishment from God.
Let’s take the Tower of Babel, an Old Testament story that tells of a city of humans seeking to reach heaven by building a gigantic tower. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, God smites them, by destroying the edifice and, furthermore, scrambling their capacity to all speak the same language. The Book of Genesis does not mention the city’s name, but modern archaeologists equate it with a ziggurat built to honor the god Marduk in Babylon. Babylon strikes again!
Two versions of the Tower. The one at top is a modern digital creation, the bottom one the famous depiction by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The modern one is ominous yet sterile, with oversized architecture and a dull, red atmosphere that would serve well as Charn’s. Bruegel’s Tower is, in contrast, wildly out of proportion and uses forced perspective, to no avail, to give a sense of the tower’s height. But it’s delightful nonetheless, giving the impression of an immense building that sort of… folds back into itself, and into the clouds, rather than proceeding upwards. Again, very Charnlike.
Some fans picture Charn as a version of Egypt. This is just wrong, IMO. Egypt never fell into disaster, it remained robust and its own entity into the modern day. Egypt was too religious and ceremonial a model for freewheeling Charn. Charn’s models are Assyria, Sumer, the cities of the Levant.
When Charn was alive, it may have looked like this.
This is assuming, as per my private hypothesis, that Charn’s sun was bright and yellow when the city was at its height.
Charn with a redder sun.
Like Babylon, Charn inspires gravid, potentuous prose: “Such was Charn, that great city, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds.”
“I have stood here when the whole air was full of the noises of Charn; the trampling of feet, the creaking of wheels, the cracking of the whips and the groaning of slaves… “
“This was the old banqueting hall where my great-grandfather bade seven hundred nobles to a feast and killed them all before they had drunk their fill. They had had rebellious thoughts.”
As the last Queen of Charn, Jadis embodies another trope of the Bible: The Whore of Babylon.
Raised a Catholic (as Lewis was) I know exactly where he was coming from with Charn and its Queen. She’s at once the inspiration of all the unnamed wickedness and also part and parcel of it.
Jadis is not literally a whore, of course. Lewis doesn’t mention sex, so Jadis could be a virgin Queen for all we know. But the emphasis on her superhuman beauty and physique, and penchant for luxuries, is certainly female and sensual. She’s also a Warrior Queen, her Empire swallowing up other nations and enslaving or destroying them, and as the last Queen, a prefigure to End Times. She even requests a dragon to ride in The Magician’s Nephew, a symbol of female power, while her archetype in Revelations makes do with a seven-headed horned beast.
Queens Jezebel, Zenobia, and Semiramis certainly played a role in Jadis’s conception as well, and it’s telling that these powerful female rulers were assumed by later, male-dominated eras to have let their sexual appetites fly.
Lest we get too serious about Jadis and Biblical scholarship, I’ll close with this:
[…] Part II […]