All Things Charn (Part III)

Previous parts of this essay:

Part I

Part II

Since it’s pretty certain that Charn had biblical origins, can we say the same of Jadis? Is she the same as the infamous Whore of Babylon, or is she something more?

One thing Jadis is not, is European. In her own element she wore no tight bodices, no crinoline skirts. Any depictions like this are just wrong. I picture her chemise as clinging but free-flowing, secured with jeweled girdles and scarves.  Her hair is free-flowing also, secured with some spectacular headpiece. She is both barbarian and temptress, as well as a magic-using Queen whose sorcerous abilities, fierceness, and pride place her far above the common populace.

Bayne’s depiction in The Magician’s Nephew gets it half-right.

In her illustration Jadis wears a “mystical” star pendant and a twisted snake arm bracelet, a staple of Orientalist fashion for women. The long cloak she wears of some filmy material is embroidered with eyes, hinting at the Egyptian symbol for knowledge, and her pose is swaybacked with her abdomen thrust forward like a harlot’s. She’s dangerous and slinky in the way that femme fatales of the 1920s were, with their tubular figures and gowns belted low at the hip. The getup recalls, in fact, the fashion sense of silent film actress Theda Bara, whose depiction of Cleopatra tried for exoticism (Bara designed her own costumes) but stayed within the ethos of its time.

The same sense of Edwardian-era Orientalism can be seen in these fancy dress ball costumes of the late 1800s, so beloved of the English nobility, which strive to look otherworldly but remain stuck in their decade.

I wonder if a figure like this was what Lewis envisioned. She certainly looks elegant and queenly. But at any rate, since he gave only hints of Jadis’s dress and appearance, Baynes didn’t have a lot to base Jadis’s costume on.

Jadis’s persona, that of a powerful witch-queen, harks all the way back to the goddesses Inana and Ishtar. They weren’t actual historical figures, but were leaders in their respective pantheons and were also associated with war. They weren’t human either, but neither is Jadis; she is part giant, of the line of Lilith… another connection to antiquity (and as it turns out, apocrypha.)

Other ancient queens may have also influenced Lewis’s depiction. First, Jezebel.

Jezebel is a much-maligned Queen of the Bible whose name has become synonymous with scandalous, sexually provocative behavior.  I still remember my mother calling a young cat of ours a “Jezebel” the first time she went into heat. However the Bible reserves judgement on Jezebel’s sexual expression, instead damning her for instituting the worship of false gods (Baal and Asherah, deities of her homeland Phoenicia) in the nation of Israel. That’s her first wicked deed. Her second was executing a vintner whose vineyards her husband King Ahab coveted.

After a condemnation uttered by the prophet Elijah, and backed up by Yahweh, things began to go south for the royal family. The King is killed in battle and the son who succeeds him dies also. The commander of the army stages a coup and when he enters the city, Jezebel taunts him from a window wearing cosmetics, a wig, and other finery, an act for which she is branded as a hussy though it’s more likely she was merely keeping up appearances as Queen. Her story ends when she is thrown from a window, trampled by a horse, and eaten by stray dogs.

The picture to the left by a contemporary artist holds true to the hussy archetype by posing her in the same  swaybacked stance Baynes does. Her expression is set in petulant, weary demand. In addition, she’s barefoot and wearing a transparent shift and two sets of cloth and metal girdles, the first under her breasts, the second at her hips … and that snake armlet. It’s a wonderful costume, but too revealing for Jadis, who more than likely safeguarded her sexuality.

In the end pride was the ruin of both women. Jezebel sealed her fate by dressing up and taunting the general, showing herself as having an exaggerated sense of self-worth, as Jadis does when she utters the Deplorable Word.

Zenobia’s Last Look on Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Queen Zenobia, who ruled Palmyra, a kingdom of Syria, in the third century AD, may have been another inspiration for Jadis.  Defying the rule of the Roman Empire, she ceded Palmyra from Rome and set herself and her son up as Emperor and Empress. Rome put its boot (sandal, rather) down, and after a mighty battle, she was captured and sent into exile. She weathered the years better regarded than Jezebel. Today she’s considered a national heroine of Syria.

Her costume here is similar to Jezebel’s, but less scanty. She looks determined, saddened, ruthless in this painting. The scenery is very Charnlike with its red sun, high terrace, and city stretching to the horizon. I wonder if the young Lewis saw this painting or its reproduction somewhere and it lodged in his mind (minus Zenobia’s chains of course.)

Yet, I don’t think either of these looks was what Lewis was after.

The third powerful Queen who may have inspired Jadis is Semiramis, who ruled Assyria in the 9th century BCE.  Like Jadis, her name has a snaky, decadent feel, and also  like Jadis, she was both Queen and warrior, and not fully human: she was the daughter of a mortal and a fish-goddess, abandoned by her mother and fed by doves. With such parentage, she was also a sorceress. When her husband King Ninus died, Semiramis disguised herself as her own son and tricked the army into following her directives. She eventually conquered much of Western Asia and built numerous temples, monuments and palaces. As she was heavily mythologized by later scholars, however, it’s hard to separate the facts of her history from the fictions.

Like Jezebel, Semiramis suffered sexual slander after the rise of Christianity. She was said to have had an incestuous relationship with her son and invented both the chastity belt and the means to create male eunuchs, and an Armenian legend has her going to war against a king who refused her advances. The poet  Dante to place her in the second layer of Hell, that of Lust, in his Divine Comedy, because she warred like a man and went after the lovers she wanted, also like a man.

The plot gets thicker. In the mid-19th century Semiramis began to be associated with the Queen of Babylon — yes, that Whore of Babylon — by a Protestant clergyman who wrote an entire tract about it. His reasoning was rife with faulty logic and bad history; the historical Semiramis had little to do with either historical Babylon or the allegorical Babylon of the Biblical Book of Revelations.  But the damage was done to her life and reputation. Unfortunately, some still accept her as the war-mongering, decadent Whore to this day.

Including, I’m sure, Lewis, who may have heard the theories even if he did not totally believe them. She’s a powerful archetype.

There! Circle drawn, from Babel to Babylon to Semiramis and Assyria, and back to Babylon. Assyria was fertile ground for Lewis, as he very likely based Tash on the Assyrian god Nisroch.

It’s hard to find a decent picture of Semiramis (well, there’s the fancy dress photo above, but that’s not really Semiramis) that shows her as the ballbreaker she was. But, I’m going to try.

Semiramis on the battlefield, holding a bow with a bracer on her left forearm, amidst battle machinery and fallen warriors.

Many depictions of Semiramis show her as naked, or nearly naked, from her Babylon association; yet she is still Queenly.

Semiramis, the Queen of Assyria, by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse

The above painting is by French painter Georges Antoine Rochegrosse. who had a special fascination with Semiramis. He was a historical and decorative painter with a sensationalistic flair, halfway between the sensual, opium-scented pre-Raphaelites and the wholesome brushstrokes of Renoir, with a dash of the historicism of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema thrown in. Unlike Alma-Tadema though, his subjects aren’t proper Victorian people playing dress-up. They may look like them (the same models, and all that) but they seem more of an ancient time.

Semiramis Queen of Assyria in the Throne Room, by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse

Another by Rochegrosse. Semiramis sits on her throne, while around her a ritual seems to be taking place. I wish he had given this one the detail of the painting above.

The Queen of Assyria, by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse

This staring figure may also Semiramis, though she looks kind of… glazed and disturbed. She’s wearing red so this may be her Whore of Babylon aspect.

Great Semiramis, Queen of Assyria, by Cesare Saccaggi

Semiramis is more decorative here in this depiction by Cesare Saccaggi, who can be thought of as the Italian version of Rochegrosse.  She wears a pleated gown with scanty beadwork over her boobs and huge circular “earmuffs” that are part of her headdress and look a lot like chariot wheels. The snow leopard is snarling but entirely under her control. She’s coy and crafty but not so regal.

Rhona Fleming in The Queen of Babylon (1954)

Redhead Rhonda Fleming as Semiramis from the 1954 movie The Queen of Babylon, which also starred a hunky young Ricardo Montalban. Her crown with its hanging decorations is a good compromise between the Western idea of a crown and the more caplike Assyrian crown for Queens.

Fleming’s (who recently passed) red hair is not accurate for a Syrian woman, yet it also harks to some fanfic depictions of Jadis as having red hair. It may be the “Evil Redhead” trope, or the red-haired Jadis who appears on the cover of The Magician’s Nephew in this boxed set.

Semiramis also got a turn in the Italian sword-and-sandal epic The Slave Queen of Babylon, also known as I Am Semiramis, in 1963. But the costuming was more in line with 1960s fashion than ancient Assyria, similar to the body-hugging zippered gowns Elizabeth Taylor wore in Cleopatra. In fact, I’m sure it was a total Cleopatra ripoff.

* Smirk *

For my money this is the best depiction of Jadis in Charn that appeared in any of the Narnia books or other media. The style looks similar to this cover so I’m guessing it’s Deborah Maze, the same artist. While not as graceful and whimsical as Barnes, or as skilled as any of the movie concept artists, she paid closer attention to the text and actually did some research. Well, maybe not — Charn’s sky is bluer than blue, when it should be blue-black. But the city, if a mix of architectural styles, looks impressive and exotic, and Jadis looks impressively exotic as well — Egyptian / Superian / Assyrian — and her skin is as pale and white as described in Lewis’s text. Her gown is red, like that of The Whore of Babylon, while also alluding to the war in which she spilled blood like water. She is appropriately crowned and bejeweled for a Queen. It’s a shame this depiction  didn’t get wider attention and languishes on the cover of a truncated, forgotten adaptation.

Well! After all this, I think it’s safe to say a major part of Charn was inspired by the mythologized Babylon, its Whore(s) and Semiramis, both legendary and actual.

Next we’ll look at that war between the sisters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.