Or, Narnia above and below.
Hold onto your hats, folks, for it’s going to be a rocky ride…
Now we come to tricky part of mapping out the world of Narnia – the skies above, and what’s underground. Both areas are magical and not limited by the geography and physics of our world. Both contain worlds and intelligent beings of their own.
They were also not pre-planned. Lewis wrote on the wing, known among the current crop of writers as “pantsing” – making it up as you go along. He likely considered his Narnian creations as elements for the kind of story he wanted to tell, whether or not that made sense for Narnia-the-world’s greater veracity. Some elements were carried over from one book to the next, such Cair Paravel and the idea of the Calormenes being slavers. Other elements, like hags and werewolves, were dropped; after Prince Caspian they are not mentioned again. I would like to think it’s because hags and werewolves are an ill fit for Narnia, but likely it’s because they were not part of the stories that Lewis wanted to tell, so he left them out.
First I’ll examine what is known of Narnia’s underground. Fortunately we have a Pauline Baynes map which was published in the first editions of The Silver Chair.
The diagram shows the reader how Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum tumbled in around castle of Harfang, which lies on a small hill on a plateau between two greater mountain ranges. As you’ll remember from the book, this plateau once hosted the City Ruinous, the lost city of the giants, and the kids stumbled into the earthwork letters that formed an Ozymandias-like inscription. From this point, the Earthmen rescue them from their fall and take them further into the earth, moving southward where they encounter two vast caves containing the Apocalypse beasts and Father Time. The reader doesn’t get concrete measurements of how far they travel, only that it’s long.
What I don’t like about the map is that it seems squeezed to fit in the limited space. Plus, it’s a pictorial map not a geographic one; the elements are all out of scale. There’s no indication of the complexity of a real-life cave system, which are three-dimensional and hard to depict on a two-dimensional map.
The above illustration, looking like a slice of cake, gives an idea of how one would really look.
On to the first stop in their journey.
|Here they passed dozens of strange animals lying on the turf, either dead or asleep, Jill could not tell which. These were mostly of a dragonish or bat-like sort.
— from The Silver Chair
When I re-read this section, it seemed to me the description underestimated the sheer number and size of beasts required to chew up all of Narnia-the-world in The Last Battle. Though Lewis states they travel through this cave for several miles the number of animals is given in dozens, not hundreds or thousands. In the illustration Baynes makes it look like the bodies extend into the distance, a visual metaphor for a greater number, but they are also only average-sized, if odd, animals. Not the kaiju that the later book requires.
|The Dragons and Giant Lizards now had Narnia to themselves. They went to and fro tearing up the trees by the roots and crunching them up as if they were sticks of rhubarb. Minute by minute the forests disappeared [ …. ] The monsters themselves grew old and lay down and died. Their flesh shrivelled up and the bones appeared: soon they were only huge skeletons that lay here and there on the dead rock, looking as if they had died thousands of years ago.
— from The Last Battle
But likely it’s a case of Lewis pantsing as he went along. I wonder if between the writing of the two books he had seen the Disney movie Fantasia and been influenced by the death of the dinosaurs set at the end of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring.
I think of the Narnian beasts as reverse dinosaurs that emerge at the end of time rather than its beginning, though Baynes’ drawing is more fanciful: the central creature resembles a lion, and there are others that recall dogs, aardvarks, otters, and wildebeests. She may have been inspired by the medieval illustration below.
In the same vein, the size of Father Time seems underwhelming in the book compared to the titanic humanoid in The Last Battle who “took the Sun and squeezed it in his hand as you would squeeze an orange.” In The Silver Chair he’s merely cathedral-sized. On the scale of King Kong, but not large enough to reach thousands of miles into the sky as happens during Narnia’s destruction.
(There’s enough of real-world science and history mixed up with sheer fantasy in this book to create a future project.)
After this the trio take a boat trip on an underground sea that takes them further south. The sea lies in a vast cavern but they can’t see the roof or anything else except the immediate area around their boat. This journey has a Styx-like quality, except there is no Charon.
How high is the roof of this cavern? In the area of the witch’s city, its southern terminus, it’s described as thousands of feet high when lit by Bism’s glow, so let’s assume it’s 2,000′ at least (no meters back then in England, thank god) which makes it truly vast. Of course, it being a cave, the ceiling height and lake depth are likely to vary because of the geological processes involved. (The cave journey reminds me of another subterranean trek: the Mines of Moiria, in The Fellowship of the Ring.) Passengers wouldn’t see it, however, because of the lack of strong light.
How deep is the sea and the city? The deepest known natural cave on planet Earth, the Veryovkina cave system in the former USSR region of Georgia, is 7,257′ at its deepest, so it’s fair to say the Underworld goes down at least that far. If there’s any problems with these measurements, let’s handwave them off with Narnian magic. Which we must anyway, as the deeper one goes into the earth, the hotter it gets. The temperature inside the Mponeng Gold Mine, which is at a similar depth, is a toasty 151 degrees and must be artificially cooled for work to go on. But perhaps the huge sea of the Underworld allows heat to dissipate and allows for a more equitable clime.
The city itself is a pretty sizable one, extending for several miles south of the witch’s castle, and at least a half mile from there to the harbor, going by everything Puddleglum, Eustace and Jill encounter on their walk. In the map the castle is depicted as being on a small hill but the text only says it’s on high ground, giving the three a good view of the city when the Earthmen start to panic and the crack of Bism opens. Puddleglum stating what is then obvious to the reader: “If you ask me, I should say that was the central fires of the Earth breaking out to make a new volcano.”
This is of note because for all of Narnia’s geographical oddness, the natives think it has a molten core like Earth does and volcanoes, though none are mentioned in the other books. It’s a simplistic view, more similar to Victorian adventure novels like Journey to the Center of the Earth than modern vulcanology and theories of continental drift. The four don’t speculate as they make their escape, and the reader is distracted by multiple descriptions of the Earthmen as they dodge and dart about, which is, frankly, boring.
As they near the chasm, however, an Earthman tells them that the red glow is from “the Really Deep Land, a thousand fathom under us. … the Land of Bism,” which leads us to one of Lewis’s briefly seen, but most memorable, creations.
The four look over the edge of the chasm.
|A strong heat smote up into their faces, mixed with a smell which was quite unlike any they had ever smelled. It was rich, sharp, exciting, and made you sneeze. The depth of the chasm was so bright that at first it dazzled their eyes and they could see nothing. When they got used to it they thought they could make out a river of fire, and, on the banks of that river, what seemed to be fields and groves of an unbearable, hot brilliance—though they were dim compared with the river. There were blues, reds, greens, and whites all jumbled together: a very good stained-glass window with the tropical sun staring straight through it at midday might have something the same effect.
— from The Silver Chair
Prince Rilian ponders a side adventure into this land but is dissuaded. A fanfic writer, queenlucythevaliant, was not so shy and took up the gauntlet, writing this charming account of what may have happened if the four had proceeded. It’s the only fanfic I’ve ever found about Bism.
I asked Midjourney for a pic of Bism and I got this very nice if abstracted one. Granted I couldn’t go for realism here. There’s no way to use realism from the description, which includes white-hot salamanders swimming in rivers of fire and trees growing rubies and diamonds.
Since Bism is described as being “a thousand fathoms down” and since a fathom = six feet, the molten land lies 6,000′ below them, or a little over a mile. So, if the Narnian surface is, as I’ve posited, 7,250 feet above (I’m rounding off the depth of Veryovkina cave) and Bism lies 6,000 below, we get 13,250 from top Narnia to Bism, or two and half miles.
The journey from the castle, through the city, then up the excavation road takes at least six hours, I guess? They don’t stop to sleep, rest, or eat, but are interrupted frequently, so perhaps it’s more like a day. The whole city slopes upward towards the cavern roof, being built on a hillside, and after they leave it the cavern narrows and proceeds upwards. The whole journey, despite the joy of the Earthmen and the glimpse of Bism, is fraught with peril and edge-of-your-seat excitement, and it’s been fascinating on a re-read. It really does follow the James Bond movie formula of the good guys escaping the self-destructing lair of the villain. Puddleglum even gets to deliver one of his best zingers: “You must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses.” (Which is actually very odd: there are funerals in Narnia? With morticians and undertakers who must be paid?)
But even though the Underworld lights go out at last and they are left in the dark, they find a sliver of moonlight in the earth above, and so emerge into a winter night and a faun’s snowball dance.
What can be said about the geography here is that their journey on the horses doesn’t switchback or corkscrew, like the map makes it look, and the slope is gradual, or else the horses would have had problems. I’d say it’s a few miles at least.
At the conclusion of the book we’re told the lake rises and covers the entire city, so, through the entrance of the new cave, it’s possible to haul a boat down there and go sporting. This implies the water has risen so much the deeper parts of the cavern are now entirely underwater, so what was once a sea is more like a lake with the ceiling dropped. The caves of Father Time and the Apocalypse beasts were above the sea cavern, so when it floods they remained safe. So let’s say one mile +/- for the depth of these, or around 5,280′.
Now we come to the interesting part: what does this all say about the structure of Narnia-the-world?
It is odd that Puddleglum believes in Earth science, that there is a “central fire” (core) that is responsible for vulcanism. In this he is playing the role of the Earth person who gives a scientific explanation for what is magical, like Eustace who says “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas” when he meets Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Likely it’s an authorial mistake and should have come from his mouth, not Puddleglum’s.
But then, there is Bism. So it seems to me there is no core, which is found in a round world, and instead a flaming land that has terrain, more or less, like Narnia-the-world above. A land below a land, and both are flat planes, not concentric circles. Does Bism extend under the crust of all the world? Or just the Narnia part?
I would make a case for just the Narnia part. Narnia has living trees and living waters; no other land does. Narnia was where Aslan began his creation, with the animals and plants dispersing into all the other parts. Some magical creatures, like dragons, giants, and merpeople dispersed as well, but demigods, dryads, and naiads/rivergods are Narnia’s alone. So, I am guessing, is Bism and the layer that contains it. Underneath it and around it is molten rock but only the ordinary sort into which the volcanoes tap. (Only one is ever mentioned in the books – The Flaming Mountain of Lagour – and it’s not clear that it is a volcano.)
Of course, this creates the problem of how the dry, dead gems, which are the husks of living diamonds, rubies, and the like, make their way into the mines. Perhaps Bism is like a bubble in a boiling stew, forever bobbing up and down and moving around under Narnia, leaving blobs of itself behind with gems and minerals that are quickly solidified and fossilized. I like the idea, but it seems like it would be noticeable to the denizens above.
Or maybe there are Bism equivalents of squirrels or other rodents that are denser than ordinary matter and so capable of traveling through solid rock, like the Earth elemental creatures in AD&D. They are the ones who stash the gemfruits somewhere and forget about them, and eventually they crystallize.
What else is under Bism and all the molten rock? I’ll get to that later.