All Things Charn (Part V)


Engraving by Gustave Dore, showing a hero on a hippogriff flying over a dizzyingly large fantasy city, the lower parts of which lie under clouds. The scale of the place is illustrated by the tiny human figures on the terrace at the lower left. For my money it’s the closest parallel I’ve seen to my own imagination of the place. Click larger to see.

Now that we’ve examined and dissected both Charn and Jadis, I’d like to backtrack a bit.

[ You can read previous parts of this essay here:
Part I,   Part II,   Part III,   Part IV ]

In this post, I speculated, as some Lewis scholars did, that Charn’s name is derived from the word charnel, as in charnel house, a place for butchery, which makes sense considering the bloody war that ended it. I’ve since discovered there may have been other influences. One is the Yiddish female name Charna, meaning “dark” which certainly describes Charn. Another inspiration may be Charnwood, a part of England renowned for its pre-Cambrian fossil discoveries which sits in line with Charn’s ancient history. Lastly, the name Charn is too similar to Narn(ia) to be coincidence, making it easy to think of Charn as the anti-Narnia, so to speak.

It remains up in the air, though, whether Charn was the whole world or just a part of it. I still lean towards the Empire-that-covers-the-world theory, because when Lewis was young, the British Empire would have seemed to encompass the whole world, or a major part of it (as in “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”) In those times Britain may have meant the British isles, or the whole British Empire, depending on the context. The same is also true for Rome in its heyday; Rome may have meant the city, the seat of the Empire, or the Empire itself.

But I also believe that the Empire of Charn was an ecumenopolis, a titanic city that actually did cover its world, as Trantor did in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Like Charn, Trantor’s decay was a cautionary tale.

A View from the Luxor Hotel, Trantor, by SF artist Angus McKie, showing Trantor in its glory.
Trantor’s modern counterpart is Coruscant in the Star Wars universe. You MUST click this to see in all its detail.

I can imagine the original city-state of Charn swallowing up its rivals, growing outwards and upwards as it tacked on territories or destroyed them and built over. Any land set aside for farming would be surrounded by city, forming islands of greenery, and any wild land left would be maintained as playgrounds or hunting preserves for the elites.

Now I’d like to talk about the Hall of Images, the place where Polly and Digory find Jadis on her throne and awake her with the bell. It recalls a mausoleum, a museum, Madam Tussaud’s Waxworks, and a church all at once. Lewis never says the statues are alive, or were once alive; they serve as effigies, the same way the sleeping stone figures did on top of medieval tombs, the kind one might see in Westminster Abbey. Yet, they are more than mere simulacra. The entire hall must have been under heavy enchantment for it not to have decayed with the millennia. Lewis may have been inspired by the life-sized, spooky statues of saints on display in older Catholic churches, particularly those in Spain and Latin America, that seem conscious in the dim and quiet shadows.

Or, since his youth was a time when great archeological discoveries were being made, the Hall was possibly  inspired by rows of seated Egyptian statues facing each other in long colonnades. The way it’s written is striking, yet vague. The Hall might be of any ancient culture.

In addition to being a showcase for Jadis’s awakening, the statues serve as an illustration of Charn’s decay.

Figures from the Hall of Images, by Pauline Baynes

All the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P’s and Q’s, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.

— from The Magician’s Nephew

Perhaps the statue of each monarch was added at their death, a sort of full-body death mask, and arrayed in the splendid clothing they wore in life. I can also see the monarch being sculpted during their reign for that eventual moment, sitting for an artist as if for a portrait.

The whole setting may have served as a plot device on the part of Lewis, but it’s a very powerful one.

Lewis does mention explicitly the hall was made to contain many more statues ( “there were plenty of empty chairs beyond her, as if the room had been intended for a much larger collection of images.” ) Yet the Royal line stops at Jadis, implying that Charn-the-world, in spite of its excesses and decadence, had some life left in it still, but for the Deplorable Word.

But this may be a case of Lewis having his cake and eating it too, as Eric Idle, in the role of the death cart driver, tells a plague victim “Don’t worry you’ll be dead in a minute” in one of the funnier parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This makes me believe hundreds of thousands, not just hundreds or thousands, of years have passed since the Deplorable Word, giving time for Charn’s stars as well as its sun to age and die, the planet itself having died long before then.

This begs the question: Since Charn-the-world is so old by its big red sun, was there another empire when the sun was younger and brighter? And if so, what happened to it?

(Note: Since Charn is not only its own world but exists in its own universe, perhaps things age faster there. After all, Narnia lasted a mere 2500 years. Charn might be even younger, burning brightly and then flaming out.)

The ancient city / lost empire setting, ruled over by an alluring Queen, is, of course, a SFF trope dating back to the Victorian Age, ranging from H. Rider Haggard’s She (1899) and C. J. Cutliffe Hyne’s The Lost Continent (1899) to the earlier The Goddess of Atvatabar by William R. Bradshaw and A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille. The latter two had been published earlier than She (1892 and 1888, respectively) but had not received with the same level of fanfare as Haggard’s book. In The Goddess of Atvatabar the goddess of the title is the immortal Lady Lyone, who falls in love with the explorer who discovers her kingdom within a hollow earth, a trope also employed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Pellucidar novels.

Illustrations from The Goddess of Atvatabar, showing some of the capitol city, very much like how I imagine Charn to be.

The Bradshaw book, which employs a geothermally heated Antarctica as its Lost World, doesn’t have a queen, but there is a love triangle between the hero and two sexually forward native women. In addition, it’s a satire, but the biting wit appropriate to the Victorian Age has long been blunted.

Illustration from A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, showing the hero and his love interest escaping on a pterodactyl.

All these works likely influenced Burroughs who took the trope(s) and ran with it, and after him, Robert E. Howard, who cemented them more firmly within the realm of fantasy. (It’s a future project of mine to read all these Lewis influences and tally them up.)

The trope is still showing up today, notably in modern movie remakes, but also in Michael Moorcock’s depiction of Imrryr, the Dreaming City in the Elric novels, and even in Saturday Morning TV with The Lost City of the Sleestak in the sleekly written The Land of the Lost (1974) which paid it homage.

What was Charn’s society like? Well, we really don’t know. But it’s clear that if Lewis’s Calormen was Arabic-Ottoman-Indian, Charn was Sumerian or Babylonian.

There were magic-using elites, as Jadis says, and slaves, chariots, gongs, sacrifices, and temples. Later, flying carpets are mentioned, a reference to Jadis’s identification with the Jinn, and dragons, of which Sumeria had its kur and Babylon mushussu. By how Jadis describes Charn’s activity, the commotion was continual, which implies a warrior class, a priest class, and a slave class.  What was left over was everyone else – farmers, tradesmen, artisans, merchants. Perhaps Jadis didn’t think them worth mentioning; they were the innocents of Charn, the common people and animals, as Polly says. But then, as with Puzzle the Ape in The Last Battle, Jadis would, as a tyrant, describe the subjects and instruments of subjugation. The slaves may have been a hereditary class, tributes of the Throne, or Charn’s disenfranchised – criminals, the poor, and minorities.

Charn’s sheer size and the groaning slaves also imply many massive building projects. As with Egypt, they were likely for the glory of its rulers.

Fanfic writers, whose creations I have reviewed here, have attempted to fill in these broad outlines. I particularly like ZachValkyrie’s idea that subjugated states send Charn tributes of slaves for sacrifice, and  TheophilusG’s that the Royal family were living Gods and treated as such.

Now I’d like to return again to the theme of Jadis and her sister and their rivalry for the throne. It resonates, I feel, because of of its similarity to Susan’s and Lucy’s rivalries; but also, to the rivalries of the series’ children as a whole. The Pevensies are constantly trying to one-up each other; this a theme through the first three books, after which is it is carried on, in male-female form, in Shasta and Aravis, Polly and Digory. Mostly, one child is trying to appear more intelligent, sensible, or mature than the other; it’s a constant jockeying for status. That’s part of what makes these books still appealing. These kids are real, and like all children, insecure about themselves and their position in the world.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan is the first offender, but Edmund takes up the flag, bullying Lucy and plotting his revenge on Peter after he meets the White Witch. In Prince Caspian, things get worse, with all the kids, with the exception of Lucy, sniping at each other and trying to show their superiority; even Peter even gets into it with Caspian, pointing out that he is the senior king. Cousin Eustace takes this trope to the max in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but it’s Edmund pulls rank and butts heads with Caspian over Deathwater Island; after this episode, the petty sibling rivalries subside. But they do leave an echo that is picked up in Charn.

Though not siblings, the male-female one-upmanships of The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew are even stronger, taking center stage now and even driving the plot: Aravis’s pride vs. Shasta’s stubborness and insecurity in the former, and Digory and Polly’s more natural and childlike testing of each other in the latter. Their bickering contrasts well with Jadis’s feud with her sister, showing the reader how both the low and the high are prone to this particular sin, with the results inevitably disastrous.

And so, such was Charn, that great city.

It’s been quite a trip, hasn’t it? From antiquity to the pulpiest of pulp fiction, to human psychology and modern allegories. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

And oh… please turn off that big red sun when you leave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.