The White Stag, Part 2

[The] two Kings and two Queens with the principal members of their court, rode a-hunting with horns and hounds in the Western Woods to follow the White Stag.

— from the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

In Part 1 of this essay I explored the myth and folklore of the White Stag, and how, on the surface, it seems like such a perfect way to bring LWW to a close. Seems, I want to emphasize. I’ve no way of knowing what was in the mind of the author, whether he was drawing on its general mythic background and sampling the soup, or deliberately using its Catholic symbology the same way he used that of the lion.

I’ve also come across a few more connections between the White Stag, Narnia, and Lewis himself.

For one thing, of the two saints who experienced a conversion at the hands of… er, antlers of… the White Stag, one of them was St. Eustace. Yes, the whining wormboy who cops a trip on The Dawn Treader, gets turned into a dragon, and becomes a better human being.

The other is a speech given by Robert Baden-Powell, the British founder of the Scout Movement which later became the worldwide youth organization known as the Boy Scouts (and Girl Scouts — his sister created it.)

The White Stag has a message for you. Hunters of old pursued the miraculous stag, not because they expected to kill it, but because it led them in the joy of the chase to new and fresh adventures, and so to capture happiness. You may look on the White Stag as the true spirit of Scouting, springing forward and upward, ever leading you onward to leap over difficulties, to face new adventures in your active pursuit of the higher aims of Scouting.

Baden-Powell gave this speech in 1933 to the World Jamboree of Boy Scouts in Hungary. It references the Hungarian legend of a White Stag leading the ancestors of the Hun and Magyar peoples into Scythia, but at the same time, it echoes Arthurian ideals of adventure and personal fulfillment.  The second sentence in particular is similar to what the older Pevensies spout when they dither on and on about pursuing the stag past their safety limits. (More about that.)

Internet sleuthing hasn’t unearthed a C. S. Lewis – Scout Movement connection, but in the books, especially Prince Caspian where he goes into the Pevensie’s interminably long trek through a hostile forest, he’s shown he’s done his research on wilderness survival. Of course, that may also be due to his military service in WWI. Yet, a genuine love for the wilderness exploration shines through, and several times he, as the narrator, goes on about how good it is for the kids, making them stronger, more disciplined, more content. Sounds like the benefits of scouting to me! At any rate, perhaps he and Baden-Powell both were drinking from the same fountain.

Now let’s talk about the Royal Hunt itself. In Medieval England, which Lewis idolized, hunting was the domain of the noble class, not mere peasants who were considered poachers. For nobles it was not about survival but leisure, socializing, and conspicuous consumption, not too different, in fact, from the fox-hunting parties as existed in Lewis’s time, with their trained hounds and horses, red uniforms, and after-hunt picnics with champagne.

A 15th century fresco depicting a Medieval hunt in the Italian palace of Manta with dogs, a pack mule, and falcons. Some of the ladies ride their own horses; one has a child with her, and two others ride behind their lovers.

Which brings me to the moral quandary that is not addressed in the books. Narnia is a land of Talking Beasts. Though not explicitly stated, Talking Beasts do not prey on each other. A Talking Leopard does not catch a Talking Mouse for lunch. The mythical Narnians likewise leave the Beasts  alone. No Talking Pigs made their way into Dwarven sausages, or Talking Goats to Giants’ spits. Yet, at the end of LWW, the Pevensies happily ride off with a pack of hounds to hunt a Magic Talking Stag, presumably without asking his permission first. And no, the hounds were not called out as Talking Hounds, which brings up other issues. But I’m not going to go into them here.

Nothing about this makes sense no matter how you look at it. In no other book in the Chronicles is a Narnian creature treated as prey by the Narnians themselves.

Did the White Stag enjoy being hunted? Did he see it as a sort of game with his pursuers… or would he rather have been left alone? Did he give the wishes as the prize, or were they to save his life? Lewis doesn’t say. Neither scenario “fits” into the Narnia that’s been created over all seven books.

So what gives, Lewis?

Likely just first-book syndrome and a lack of having the whole picture yet. Lewis was not a planner like Tolkien, building his world in advance of the story. Lewis crafted the story, and then built the world around it, adding those things that sounded “right.” The result was delightful, but contradictions aren’t too hard to find. According to some biographers Lewis was thinking about revising the Chronicles shortly before his death, and perhaps it would have cleared up the most glaring inconsistencies.

Even given the sketchy morality, the hunt was an elegant solution to a glaring problem — that of returning the kids. I suppose they could have fallen asleep in their Narnian beds one night, and waken up in their English ones; but that’s not Lewis. The hunt is a fairy tale solution to a fairy tale problem. It fits, even without the burden of the White Stag’s symbolism. The kids come back through the wardrobe door, none the worse for wear (and dressed in the clothing they disappeared in) to the gentle consternation of Professor Kirke, and the story’s over.

But, then there’s the lamppost, which adds yet another level of complexity.

Artwork by Dave Quizzle. I love the old-fashioned, 1950s lithograph look of it.

As the White Stag bookends the book’s start and finish, so does the lamppost, and it’s arguably even more of a element, almost a sentient character. Its mysterious location is never explained in the book, or why it is always lit, or even why it exists. If I wanted to, I could posit that it, too, represents God/Christ, lighting the way to the path the kids need to deepen their faith. But that doesn’t sound like Lewis either. It was an element of the original drawing he saw that inspired the book in the first place.

The hunt would have worked just fine without the lamppost, and it fact, I think that’s how many who have read the book as a child remember it. The kids chase the stag, which goes further and further into the brush, and as the kids push the branches and bracken aside they suddenly fall out of the wardrobe with their English minds and bodies back.  But, the Pevensies see the lantern as they chase the stag, and it sparks something long-buried in them.

And as soon as they had entered [the thicket] Queen Susan said, “Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.”

“Madam,” said King Edmund, “if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.”

“Marry, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”

“Sir,” said Queen Lucy. “By likelihood when this post and this lamp were set here there were smaller trees in the place, or fewer, or none. For this is a young wood and the iron post is old.” And they stood looking upon it.

Then said King Edmund, “I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream.”

“Sir,” answered they all, “it is even so with us also.”

Reality intrudes with a wake-up call.

Though Lewis did not intend for the Pevensie’s stag-aided return to be downbeat — the book ends not in tragedy but on a  jolly note  (“Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”) with hints of adventures to come — many adult readers have thought it so, for good reason. For example, there’s the flowery Medieval dialogue above, which seems lifted from another book, and is hard for an adult to follow, let alone a child. I know that the first time I read the chapter (at age 11)  I whizzed through it as  blah blah blah oh, lampost! let’s follow blah blah no  let’s not, resenting the intrusion of these rather thick, funny-talking Renaissance Fair people who had suddenly taken the place of my four beloved protagonists. Maybe that’s the effect that Lewis wanted; to make the child reader would root for the Pevensies to return to their old selves, not linger in Narnia as effete dandies like the fellow at the start of this post. If this was the case, surely the dialogue was meant for laughs, not to be taken seriously. Lewis was indulging in a bit of fun by writing a pastiche, the same way he skewered Romance tropes later in later in The Silver Chair. I admit I like this idea.

It would have been great if the dialogue had ended there, and they walked past the lamp after the stag until they popped back through the wardrobe.

But wait! There’s more, and it’s a bit tragic.

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