The White Stag, Part 1

Friend or foe?

It’s getting close to the end of the 2022 Summer of Narnia. Though I got to explore some topics I wouldn’t have ordinarily written about (depictions of Aslan in theatrical productions, AI used to generate images of Jadis, my own Narnia fanfic) I’ve been remiss in exploring the ones I set out to do at the summer’s beginning. One of which was this one.

For those who need a refresher, the White Stag is a singular magic creature of Narnia that appears only in the first volume of the Chronicles, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There he comes into the story twice. Once at the beginning, in an offhand remark to Lucy from Tumnus (“He told about . . . long hunting parties after the milk-white Stag who could give you wishes if you caught him”) and again at the end, when the Pevensies, now adult kings and queens, choose to follow him into Lantern Waste and so re-enter the wardrobe, becoming children again as if only a few seconds had passed and not many years.

For child reader me,  the stag came across as just another magical element of the story, and I accepted it. Both mentions work elegantly like a pair of bookends. But adult me wonders wonders which came first, stag as local color, or stag as plot device.  In other words, if Lewis intended the creature to be a one-off mention, then decided at the end to use that one-off as a McGuffin to get the kids back; or, if he came up with the McGuffin at the end, and inserted a mention of the stag at the beginning. As a writer I would work in the former way; but whatever the case, I don’t think Lewis put a lot of thought into it. LWW was conceived as a stand-alone book and the White Stag was just one more ingredient in the mix, returning the kids in a fairy-tale fashion that matches the fairy-tale nature of the book, which I’ll go into later.

So, the first question of the day is, what’s a magical White Stag doing in Narnia anyway?

The answer is, he belongs there. Lewis based his creation on an idealized Medieval England and White Stags do figure in its myths. Herne the Hunter, a ghostly being from English folklore, sometimes took the form of a white stag who stalked the woods.  Going back further, the Celtic god Cernunnos had the horns of a stag and was associated with deer; both he and Herne are depicted in various legends as the leaders of The Wild Hunt, a folkloric trope common across European mythology. Specific details vary, but the Hunt is supernatural in origin, with supernatural creatures as the hunters and sometimes the hunted, and to see it brings strife or ill luck. If any of these names sound familiar to you, they’ve been repurposed by many contemporary fantasy writers and artists who’ve added their own twists on them.  Which is nothing new; romances of the late Medieval period did the same thing, incorporating elements like the Welsh Mabinogian, King Arthur, and the world of the Fae into their own versions of the Wild Hunt. All this is interesting, but let’s get back to the White Stag himself.

Non-magical white deer occur in nature all the time: they are albinos, animals born with a lack of melatonin, which gives them pigmentation. To ancient human hunters they  must have been awe-inspiring sights, marked as special or sacred prizes. Perhaps they weren’t killed for food but captured, or allowed to roam freely as envoys of the gods. From there it would be a short step for people of the tribe to believe such a creature might grant wishes. Folk tales all over the world are full of magic wish-granting animals, which they usually used to make humans let them go.

Oh, and a stag would not necessarily have to be albino to be white. Leucism is a condition that also lightens an animal’s pigmentation, but while albinos have a complete lack of melatonin, leucistic animals retain small amounts so they often appear as just very pale versions of their normal selves. They also don’t have the eye problems of albinos and a greater protection from the sun’s UV rays.

“I’m leucistic, and I love it!”

The pic above is some of the rare white deer that roam the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York. The herd has been protected since 2016. When visiting family members there it was always a delight for me to  look for them as we drove by this place. In the wild, the survival of such light-colored animals would be uncertain, as they would be more visible to predators. But in a protected place, like within the fencing of a military base, they thrive and are able to reproduce.

All these influences, albino deer, sacred animals,  forest gods with antlers, and supernatural hunting parties can be thought of as swirling around in the background as nebulous archetypes that readers would already be familiar with.

In the end, though, Lewis take the majority of his White Stag character from the Arthurian legends with which he was most familiar. There, the hunt for the elusive creature serves as a metaphor, like the Holy Grail, for mankind’s spiritual quest, considered not idle pleasure but a noble pursuit. When the stag was sighted, it was signal to the knights to begin a new quest. In France, writer Chrétien de Troyes plays with the same idea, but in a more prosaic way. In one of his romances King Arthur and his knights go hunt the stag for an Easter feast, and whoever catches it wins the right to kiss any noblewoman of the court.  There’s also an echo of the White Stag in the tales of Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast, which had the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, and the feet of a stag, and like many Medieval beasties, was notoriously difficult to capture. Again, that also went hand-in-hand for the search for spiritual perfection, and how hard it was to achieve.

St. Hubertus and the White Stag

Later yet, the White Stag became conflated with Christ himself, promoting visions leading to the conversions of several saints, as well as symbolizing, with his pure white coat and victim status, Christ’s suffering. A similar  miracle happened to King David of Scotland on seeing a pure white stag with a cross between its antlers, inspiring him to found Holyrood Abbey on the spot.

If something seems familiar about the image of a stag with a crucifix hanging between its antlers, it’s because you’ve likely seen it before, in a bottle of Jägermeister.

Now here’s an interesting story. Jägermeister meants “Master Hunter” in German, which is where the liquor, an herbal apéritif typically served before a formal meal, originated. Its creator Curt Mast was an avid hunter and named it such in the early days of Nazi Germany, where Nazis lapped it up, tickled by the name’s referenced to their own newly elected Reichsjägermeister (Reich Hunting Master) Hermann Göring.  Göring had just taken on that title, which refers not the Wild Hunt but the more prosaic duties of forestry and game warding. When it came time to design a label, Mast or someone in his employ came up with the cross-bearing stag, symbol of Saints Hubertus and Eustace… who were the patron saints of hunting!

And why did these saints see a stag? A line in the Old Testament, from the Book of Psalms, declares “As the hart pants after the fountains of water; so my soul pants after thee, O God” leading, at some point, the stag to symbolize the soul’s longing for purification through the sacraments of the Church.

 I never believed I’d draw a line connecting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Celtic mythology, Catholic symbolism, hunting saints, Nazi Germany, and a hard liquor currently popular in America, but that that’s what happened, honestly.

Since Lewis was also a very visual writer — remember that story of how a picture of a faun with an umbrella and packages inspired the start of the Chronicles? — he may have also been inspired by pictures like these, from children’s storybooks of the early 20th century.

Later, when the Art Deco period began in the 1920s, the design world was full of sleek does and stags symbolizing speed.

Lewis might also have been visually influenced by British heraldry. Shields, coats of arms, and family crests are displayed everywhere in England, from tins of fish to church hangings, and many of them featured white stags, like this one.

Coat of arms for the London borough of Lewisham

The crown, or coronet, on the stag’s neck is a symbol of royalty. King Richard the II adopted a similar white stag with a collar-crown as his emblem. His stag wore it connected to a chain as if the creature was on a leash, symbolizing the burden of his kingship as being both a ruler and a slave.

White stag from the Wilton Diptych, 1395–1399, painted for Richard II of England. You can just barely see the antlers.

English heraldry is chock-full of lions, unicorns, dragons, mermaids and other mythological creatures as well, some of them Grecian or Roman. It doesn’t take much imagination to posit a whole Neverland of these fantastic creatures just by idly glancing around the local castle.

Going by all this, having the Pevensies in their pseudo-Arthurian Court gallop to hunt a fair yet elusive White Stag who may grant their heart’s desires seems, as a plot device, very elegant indeed. Especially since their heart’s desires are, unknown to them (and unexpressed by Lewis-the-narrator) is the yearning for God, which can only be brought into full bloom back in England, and as adults. As Aslan says in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,  “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

Did Lewis really plan it that way? It’s doubtful.

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