The White Stag, Part 3

The White Stag represented by a trio of dancers

The White Stag was represented by a trio of dancers in this stage version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, their cervine nature only hinted at by black noses and white plumes that represent antlers.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this topic I looked at the folklore and symbolism behind the White Stag, then at how that folklore and symbolism was both right, and wrong, for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the world of Narnia itself.  I’ll continue in that vein and also take a look at how that element of the book has affected readers.

This is the second half of the conversation grown Lucy, Peter, Edmund, and Susan have after they see the lamp post that “worketh strangely” upon them.

“And more,” said Queen Lucy, “for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern, either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change of our fortunes.”

“Madam,” said King Edmund, “the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also.”

“And in mine, fair brother,” said King Peter.

“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my council we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further.”

What’s interesting here is that it’s Queen Susan who warns the others against the stag and the lantern! It’s as if she has some inkling they will lose their adult selves and become schoolchildren again. Remember, from the previous excerpt quoted in Part 2, she’s the one who first saw the lamp post and called the others’ attention to it. Without her being the dog in the manger, they might have gone right on by. And as it turns out in the infamous last chapter of the infamous last book, Susan is the missing one, the one who’s dismissed their whole Narnian experience as a childhood game, which is weirdly prescient given the other books weren’t written yet.

Things get worse for Susan. Her warning is overridden by the others.

“Madam,” said King Peter, “therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved.”

“Sister,” said Queen Lucy, “my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase.”

“And so say I,” said King Edmund. “And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands.”

“Then in the name of Aslan,” said Queen Susan, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”

This is the first time in a long while I’ve read this whole section and the first time I’ve analyzed it so carefully, and it really does seem to paint Susan in a bad light. The others, in their High Medieval speech, imply she’s something of a killjoy, not brave or adventurous enough. In a way this echoes the bickering of the kids all throughout the book over what to do and how to do it, as siblings do bicker. Here they’re only doing it more politely, and more archaically, and as an adult, I do get a chuckle out of that. Lewis took care to show how their basic personalities are still intact: Susan is annoyingly practical; Lucy headstrong and adventurous, but naive; Peter is concerned with keeping face; and Edmund, on exploring this psychological change in himself.  It’s a masterful turn, and I doubt child readers appreciated it, or even many adult readers, for that matter.

And yet, given the life-changing nature of the choice that lies before them, and the fear it inspires, Susan is the only one who clearly says no. And, even as she acquiesces at the end, she is the only one who clearly says yes, as if she’s been the gatekeeper for all of them. So twice she is damned, once for being a killjoy, the second for being the sealer of their doom. It’s very intriguing that Lewis assigned her that role.

Of course, a reader’s interpretation of all this depends on whether he or she is rooting for them to stay kings and queens, so the adventure continues, or to return to England where their parents are presumably worried about them. But going by all the delights they find in Narnia, the deck is pretty stacked.

The whole plot twist recalls fairy tales like Rip Wan Winkle and the Japanese fable of The Fisher Lad (Urashima Taro) where the protagonist makes some innocuous mistake that causes them to travel into, or be cast out of, another world, and find on their return time has gone on without them and all they’ve known and loved has gone, even their own youth. Of course, the Pevensies return only seconds after they had left, making this blow a softened one, but still they’ve lost the fantasy world they fought for, by a choice they didn’t realize the full consequences of. How could they, when their memories of England had been lost?

I’m also reminded of the Greek legend of Persephone, who was forced to remain in Hades because she ate a few pomegranate seeds. Of course she was hungry; of course the seeds were small and inconsequential. But she broke the rule and had to pay the price. So did the Pevensies; they ignored Susan’s warning, and their own conflicted feelings, and so lost what they held most dear.

The Stag Hunt, by Nardjes Misaki

The Stag, by Deborah J. J. Lee

Lewis doesn’t go on to say if all they’ve lived and experienced in Narnia has turned into a shadow once they’re back home, as their memories of England had turned into a shadow while they were in Narnia.  He wrote LWW thinking it would be only one book. In Prince Caspian, however, Lewis makes it clear: they’ve forgotten much of their Narnian  experiences by being back in England, and only when they return there do their memories come back. This is used by Lewis as a means to play up the mysteriousness of the initial chapters of the book and mirrors the loss experienced by the Narnian creatures themselves, but it’s still more melancholy than a jolly good detective story.

What this all means symbolically, in the context of Narnia’s Christian underpinnings, is up for grabs. A case of  “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world” again? In that scenario, it’s clear the kids must leave, put aside Narnia and all its adventures as a thing of childhood, which doesn’t make sense as Susan did that very thing in the last book and Lewis mocked her for it. (She also didn’t die horribly in a train crash.) It’s important, too, to remember that the kids themselves were the cause of departure, even if they weren’t properly in their own minds. If they had remembered fully, their choice to remain kings and queens, or return to their parents in 1940s England, might have been more poignant. But Lewis’s handling of the incident deprived them of agency and made them look thick, unfortunately. He got his metaphors a bit muddled.

I’ll also say this memory loss of the Pevensies is not consistent. It changes according to the needs of the later books. In The Horse and His Boy, the older Queen Lucy has no problem relating the story of how she came into England through the wardrobe. And in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, she accesses those memories immediately after Caspian’s crew fishes her and Edmund out of the water. I have to wonder if Lewis intended to rewrite that part of LWW, to retcon to fit with the later books.

Here’s two ways the incident has been depicted.

The illustration at top is from the first edition of LWW, by Pauline Baynes (she had colored it here for a later edition.) Note the nip-waisted doublets and thigh-high kinky boots on the men, a fashion choice that makes me wonder if my dislike of the adult Pevensies was due to their dress and not their speech. I wasn’t fond of the floppy plumed hats either, which look foppish and effete. As for Lucy and Susan, it’s hard to tell what they’re wearing, aside from a short cape and the same floppy hat.

Oh, and Peter and Edmund are wearing pointy spurs on their boots, which, even if these are non-talking horses, seems cruel.

The 2005 Disney movie improves on the costuming by making it more generically Medieval. The girls wear  pre-Raphaelite gowns and the boys capes, tunics, and leggings, with lots of velvet and satin. Not exactly riding clothes, and I don’t think they would have worn gold crowns while hunting, but it looks better.

In my next post I’ll review some fanfic that features the stag.

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