All Things Charn (Part I)

This wasn’t intended by the artist to be Charn; but it could be.

Charn is my favorite Lewisian creation … more than Aslan, more than Narnia itself. No other place in fantasy embodies such grandeur, sinisterness, and decadence … which is quite the accomplishment, as Lewis only gives hints of it.

Jadis herself says, in a reflective moment:

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, the thunder of chariots, and the sacrificial drums beating in the temples. I have stood here (but that was near the end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red.

As a child my mind connected the dots: the slaves were prisoners of war being marched by militia to the temple where they would be sacrificed en masse.  Sixth grade, ghoulish  me loved to imagine the evil, wicked goings on there under Queen Jadis. Of course, who knows if that’s what Lewis meant by this passage; but it’s amazing how so evocative and rich a place was brought to life by such spare, off-handed dialogue and a few well-chosen similes.

Lewis’s fellow Inkling J. R. R. Tolkien, in contrast, spelled things out. From reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy I knew exactly how the city of Minas Tirith was constructed and how it works to repel invaders. I can picture the Tower of Saruman the White and the Great Hall of Rohan. The POV characters — the Hobbits — were out of their element and everything was new to them and needed to be explained, and very kindly on the part of the writer to the reader. I can’t say the same thing about Lewis and Charn. As a narrator he was in control and let you know it. Everything he gives the reader is through his editorial lens, yet he also gives the benefit of a doubt, through the characters whose POV he chooses. Both writers had commonality in their subject matter and the omniscience of their voices, and both were prone to an English sense of coziness. But compared to Middle Earth, Charn is more fun for me to think about. It’s the perfect collusion of Bible tales and Weird Tales, SF and Fantasy. Any gaps that are there are for my imagination to fill in.

The concept of a city in ruins, destroyed for its sins, has precedents of course, going all the way back to Sodom and Gomorrah. Atlantis, which Tolkien also drew on for his isle of Numenor, is another source. The  cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, hotbeds of Roman vices buried in pumice from Mt. Vesuvius, might also have influenced Lewis, and let’s not forget Shelley’s well-known poem Ozymandias, of a ruined statue and a ruined kingdom.  Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a castle so vast its inhabitants have forgotten they even live in a castle, might have been another wellspring for world-covering Charn.

What makes Charn unique, however, is its titanic scale and utter desolation.

[Polly and Digory ] went quietly up to one of the big arched doorways which led into the inside of the building. And when they stood on the threshold and could look in, they saw it was not so dark inside as they had thought at first. It led into a vast, shadowy hall which appeared to be empty; but on the far side there was a row of pillars with arches between them and through those arches there streamed in some more of the same tired-looking light. They crossed the hall, walking very carefully for fear of holes in the floor or of anything lying about that they might trip over. It seemed a long walk. When they had reached the other side they came out through the arches and found themselves in another and larger courtyard [… ] into another doorway, and up a great flight of steps and through vast rooms that opened out of one another till you were dizzy with the mere size of the place. Every now and then they thought they were going to get out into the open and see what sort of country lay around the enormous palace. But each time they only got into another courtyard.

There are no furnishings in the rooms the two explore, no glass, drapes, or other decorations; all looks hundreds or thousands of years old. The untold implication is that whatever riches there have long since decayed into dust. Only the stone remains, some tiles, and “a great stone monster with wide-spread wings” a centerpiece of a long-dead fountain, and  “the dry sticks of some sort of climbing plant which had wound itself round the pillars and helped to pull some of them down.”

The action moves from the (comparatively) small rooms of their entry point to the Great Hall of Images, where Jadis is freed by Digory ringing the bell, then opens out into even grander halls and chambers right up to the palace’s entry in “a hall larger and loftier than any they had yet seen” with colossal doors of a strange black substance “fastened with great bars, most of them too high to reach and all too heavy to lift. “

All the while Lewis keeps us moving, ever “onward and upward” to cop a phrase of his, into greater scale and greater strangeness. When Jadis takes the children’s hands and leads them onto a balcony overlooking the city they see:

…a great landscape spread out below them. Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group.

And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of that withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

I believe that Lewis received inspiration for Charn’s sky from the paintings of 1950s space artist Chesley Bonestall. The huge red sun and white star sound like a red giant star and its white dwarf companion, an image both beautiful and desolate.

Artwork by Chesley Bonestall

Red giant star and its white dwarf companion

The white dwarf, though much smaller than the red giant, is the dominant one, siphoning away its companion’s outer atmosphere. It’s a symbiotic relationship, or more to the point, a parasitic one.

If Lewis did indeed base his solar system around the Mira model, the relationship of the stars could be a comment on Charn itself – a small class of magic-using rulers exploiting and draining the greater populace.

That there are no other stars in Charn’s sky implies its universe is even older than it is and at the end of its life as well.

(Growing up I saw a painting of a red giant-white dwarf system many times in the NJ State Museum’s planetarium, done in groovy day-glo paint and displayed under ultraviolet lamps. It was one of the highlights of each visit. If I was wearing anything white that day, I was sure to glow a groovy lavender color as well.)

Alternately, Lewis may be copping a scene from the H. G. Well’s The Time Machine where the device’s inventor, having finished his adventure with the Morlocks, springs ahead through the centuries to an unearthly shoreline over which hangs a bloated red sun… our sun, Sol… grown monstrously huge, staining the sky in odd colors. Lewis describes Charn’s sky as  “… extraordinarily dark—a blue that was almost black” a phenomena observable at the border of manned flight – 70,000 feet or so – resulting from the lack of oxygen. It seems from this Charn’s atmosphere is being drained away as well.

View of Saturn from Titan, by Chesley Bonestall

“A blue that was almost black.”
Saturn as Seen from Titan, by Chesley Bonestall.

Thus, it must be magic that lets any living being still breathe. The air is dry and stale, and there is no water and no life. Not even any hints of life, like moss or lichen. The sense of displacement in Charn is huge. It’s as close as Lewis comes to cosmic horror in the Narnia series. I have to wonder again if he again copped some atmosphere from H. P. Lovecraft, whose fiction included huge, alien cities serving as tombs for eldritch horrors, awash in the light of distant stars. Like Lewis, Lovecraft only hinted at what these alien cities were like.

In fact, Lovecraftian artwork gives a far better picture of the dizzying, dead ruins of Charn than the actual depictions of Charn that I’ve seen.

Illustration of a castle from H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands that is bizarre enough for Charn.

(NOTE: This isn’t to say I didn’t like Pauline Baynes’s illustrations for the original edition of The Magician’s Nephew. Her Charn has a sorta Norman, sorta Italianate feel, like the engravings of ruined cities done by Renaissance artists to prove their mastery of perspective. Her  depiction is distinctive and memorable, and unfortunately never improved upon. Which is sad, because Charn just cries out for other depictions. I’d love to see what modern CGI can do with Charn if Nephew ever gets filmed.)

It is also a shame that Lewis shied away from cosmic horror by having Jadis’s awakening be without irony. She’s destroyed her entire world rather than let someone else rule it and enspells herself to sleep in hope of rescue, only to find out that rescue comes too late by a few hundred million years. What a blow to her self-esteem. Imagine her surprise and shock when she sees that huge, dying red sun instead of the smaller, brighter one she remembered.

“Was it the Deplorable Word that made the sun like that?” asked Digory.

“Like what?” said Jadis.

“So big, so red, and so cold.”

“It has always been so,” said Jadis. “At least, for hundreds of thousands of years. Have you a different sort of sun in your world?”

No, no, no. Methinks Jadis was just disconcerted, and lied rather than admit it. When I first read the book, I was sure that’s the way it happened, Lewis making a telling point about Jadis’s vanity and inflated self-importance. She wasn’t the hot catch she thought she was.

Whatever the case, after the bell is rung the whole palace begins to fall apart, either from the sound of the bell working on the palace’s age and fragility, or the spell preserving Jadis and the Hall of Images being dispelled. Here we have some of Lewis’ crazy humor, Jadis treating the kids like minions, unable to conceive of any different scenario for her resuscitation than infatuation from a powerful wizard (as narcissists tend to do) and giving them orders to convey her to their world, where she barks at Uncle Andrew: “Procure for me at once a chariot or a flying carpet or a well-trained dragon, or whatever is usual for royal and noble persons in your land. Then bring me to places where I can get clothes and jewels and slaves fit for my rank.” It’s amusing and tells us yet more about Charn.

One thing that remains unclear is the Deplorable Word itself. Jadis states that she was left the “only living thing beneath the sun” but did that include plants? After all, a climbing vine was seen to have pulled down some pillars. What about bacteria and fungi? For organic matter to disappear, there must have been decomposition, which requires mold and microbes. And what happened to the world’s water supply?

The sheer age of the world and the loss of its natural processes and atmosphere might explain that; but for the plants, I’ll say the Deplorable Word left seeds and spores intact. Those plants and other organisms ran wild for a few thousand years, but without pollinators, they declined year by year, century by century, until none were left. Furthermore, as Lewis does not say how the Deplorable Word worked and it’s messy to imagine large quantities of corpses everywhere (that alone might have induced Jadis to put herself to sleep) I’ll say the Word, like Jadis’s door-dissolving spell, turned living things into frail heaps of dust that blew away on the wind.

I’ll also posit that, freaked out by what she had done (not for the loss of life, but for a city-world to lord over and the luxuries of her station) she took her place in the Hall of Images, waiting for a rescue from some other world. Though the hitch there is she doesn’t seem a romantic sort or the kind to wait for reanimation by a powerful male. The message on the bell is a bit too coy, her position with the other images too easy to be overlooked. Perhaps she had tried other means of egress, and it was a last resort.

There’s yet another model for Charn and its decayed grandeur: The Dying Earth series by Jack Vance. Vance’s stories take place on a far-future Earth that also has a red, dying sun, but unlike Lewis, his adventures are sprightly, whimsical, ironic, and often gleefully wicked. They are not allegories, and any grandiosity is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The first collected book of Dying Earth stories was published in 1950. It’s within possibility to imagine Lewis reading it or the stories that appeared first in the SF and fantasy magazines of the time.

But perhaps the greater influence on Charn was the Bible.

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