Décembre 2022 | From Bacchus to Plato: Greco-Roman Mythology and Philosophy for Children in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia are fantasy tales destined for children and their style is therefore clear and simple. This does not prevent them from being deep and complex, presenting the reader with multi-layered meanings, thanks to a very rich intertextuality. Among C. S. Lewis’s many sources of inspiration, Greco-Roman mythology and Plato’s philosophy play an important part in the construction of his universe. Greco-Roman mythology has become hugely popular in children’s and young adult fantasy. Plato and his interest in the difference between reality and illusion has also inspired numerous authors. However, Lewis was among the first to draw from these sources and to use them in fantasy books meant for children. He introduced mythological creatures and Platonic ideas in his stories, not just by copying them but by adapting them in a way which was natural and effective, while at the same time being highly original.
The Chronicles of Narnia sont des contes de fantasy à destination d’enfants, et par conséquent, leur style est clair et simple. Cela ne les empêche pas d’être profonds et complexes, présentant de multiples niveaux de lecture possibles, grâce à une intertextualité très riche. Parmi les sources d’inspiration de C. S. Lewis, la mythologie gréco-romaine et la philosophie de Platon jouent un rôle prépondérant dans la construction de son univers. La mythologie gréco-romaine est devenue très populaire dans les œuvres de fantasy à destination des enfants et des jeunes adultes. Platon et son intérêt pour la différence entre la réalité et l’illusion ont aussi inspiré beaucoup d’auteurs. Toutefois, Lewis a été parmi les premiers à s’inspirer de ces sources pour écrire des livres de fantasy destinés aux enfants. Il a introduit des créatures mythologiques et des idées platoniciennes dans ses histoires, non pas en les copiant simplement, mais en les adaptant d’une façon naturelle et efficace, tout en étant hautement originale.
When C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), he aimed them at children and therefore strove to be clear, brief and simple in style, which does not mean shallow or simplistic. Indeed, C. S. Lewis respected children too much to patronise them and he believed children’s books which could not be read by adults were not worth reading at all. The imaginary world he created was rich and complex and one of the ways he achieved this was by drawing from numerous sources outside the Bible, including Norse mythology, cultural references from the Middle Ages and from early twentieth century England. Among his sources of inspiration, Greco-Roman mythology and philosophy play an important part in the construction of his universe. In Narnia, you can come across fauns and dryads, centaurs and nymphs, as well as Bacchus and Silenus themselves. Plato’s philosophy, especially the theory of perfect pre-existing forms and their earthly copies, is also prevalent. Lewis introduced these elements in books meant for children, not just by copying them but by adapting them in a way which was natural and effective, while at the same time highly original. Numerous authors for children have used Greco-Roman mythology since Lewis’s time, and it has become a hugely popular theme in children’s and young adult literature. Some authors have also been inspired by Plato since then. The Chronicles of Narnia belong to the fantasy genre and some critics even consider Lewis to be one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, along with his friend and contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien (Besson 103). As such, it is natural that myths and fairy tales should be counted among their sources of inspiration, being generally considered the oldest forms of fantasy that exist. Precursors to Lewis and Tolkien, like George MacDonald, William Morris and E. R. Eddison, were influenced by Greco-Roman mythology to a certain extent, but with the exception of MacDonald, the books were not meant for children. Lewis was one of the first to draw from these sources in books specifically aimed at a young audience. While inspired by Greco-Roman mythology, he managed to reconcile its pagan imagery with the Christian message he wanted to convey. Not only did it add an aesthetic quality to his stories, it also acted as a sort of praeparatio evangelica. As far as philosophy is concerned, the possible link between Platonic and Christian concepts had been noticed long before Lewis, but the way he illustrated them contributed to creating a world which has a unique power of attraction.
Greco-Roman Mythology in Narnia
Out of the nine categories of Narnian creatures mentioned by Doctor Cornelius in Prince Caspian (50), six come straight from Greco-Roman mythology: the walking trees, the naiads, the fauns, the satyrs, the gods and the centaurs. As Amanda Niedbala puts it: “Before Narnia came to life with all of its Christian ideals, Narnia was Greek” (72). Lewis loved mythology on an aesthetic level but he did not merely people Narnia with these creatures in order to make it look more beautiful or exotic. So what was his purpose?
In Prince Caspian, which takes place hundreds of years after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Narnia has been under the tyrannous rule of the Telmarine people for generations and all magic seems to have disappeared from the land. Towards the end of the story, while Peter and Edmund are fighting Miraz’s army, their two sisters, Susan and Lucy, remain with the all-powerful Lion, Aslan, who has come back to re-awaken Narnia and its magical creatures. While fierce battles are raging in one part of the country, one night, somewhere in the middle of the forest, a great feast takes place in the presence of some special guests. Bacchus is there, described as “a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild” (136-7). He gives the impression that “he might do anything—absolutely anything” (137). He is accompanied by a lot of Maenads, girls as wild as he, and by an enormously fat old man seated on a donkey, Silenus, who keeps shouting “Refreshments! Time for refreshments!” (137). Vines start to grow everywhere, so fast that they are soon covered in delicious juicy grapes. Everybody begins eating, with “no table manners at all” (138) and there are “sticky and stained fingers everywhere” (138). That evening the trees wake up and dance with the whole party in the forest.
The next day, while the trees go to help the boys on the battlefield in a scene which may have been inspired by Shakespeare, Aslan, Bacchus, the Maenads, Silenus, Susan, Lucy and a whole group of animals, free the god of the river from his chains, that is to say, they destroy the bridge that crosses the river by growing so much vegetation around it that it collapses into the water within a few minutes. They also free some schoolchildren from their classrooms and invite them to dance, while the rooms become forests, and the desks rosebushes. One girl, Gwendolen, joins the dance with two Maenads who help her “take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing” (171).
Lewis has sometimes been blamed for allowing Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery, to be present in a book destined for children. The scene was left out from the 2008 film for a similar reason. There is no need to read between the lines, as some, especially in conservative Christian circles in America, have done. The feast in Narnia is neither unwholesome, nor debauched. Under Lewis’s pen, the mythological character of Bacchus is transformed, the wine of the ancient tales becomes grapes, the drunkenness is mere joy, the sex is changed into innocent games, and the trances into “wildness.” Lewis’s adaptation of the Greco-Roman myth could be described in Linda Hutcheon’s words as a “mixture of repetition and difference, of familiarity and novelty” (114).
In Lewis’s narrative, Bacchus first and foremost symbolises freedom. R. D. Stock even calls him “the genius of the series” since The Chronicles of Narnia’s most pervasive theme is “spiritual emancipation and its concomitant joy.” Bacchus liberates everyone he meets, including the trees which were forced into sleep, and the children restrained by good manners, uncomfortable clothes and repressive schools. Although he was not against schools as a place of learning, Lewis himself, being an introvert, suffered greatly at the boarding schools he attended as a child. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he wrote about the uncomfortable clothing he had to wear and about the experience of being at his first boarding school in a chapter he chose to entitle “Concentration Camp” (24).
Bacchus also represents Nature in all its wildness and power, but, as Lewis wrote in Miracles, Nature has to be checked by Reason (29-37), and that is the role played by Aslan. It is made clear in the narrative that, although the transformations that take place happen thanks to Bacchus’s powers, Aslan is in command. For instance, the river god looks at Aslan when he asks for help, yet the Lion’s reaction is to have Bacchus perform the actual freeing. There is no ambiguity as to who is in charge. Though, as someone who “might do anything” (137), Bacchus is potentially dangerous, the girls are safe in the presence of Aslan, who channels all this energy and joy. Bacchus is literally under the authority of the Lion.
While Lewis did not start writing The Chronicles of Narnia with the idea of converting anybody, its central message is undoubtedly a Christian one. Therefore, even if Aslan is shown to be superior, the issue of the presence of Pagan gods and the Christ-like Lion within the same narrative needs to be raised. By having Bacchus and Aslan coexist, Lewis, who was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, followed the example of great Christian poets like Spenser, Milton or Dante. To them, this juxtaposition was entirely natural. To quote Lewis himself, Spenser used “mythological forms to hint theological truths” (Allegory of Love 355) for it was “by far the best method of writing poetry which [was] religious without being devotional” (355-6) as it allowed God to appear “frequently, but always incognito” (356).
Lewis did not mean to show a conflict between pagan religions and Christianity. The Norse, Celtic and Greco-Roman mythologies he came across enchanted him, as they appealed to his imagination far more than Christianity did at first. He was finally convinced that Christianity was true, not in spite of his love of mythology but thanks to it. Tolkien, and a few other Oxford friends, showed him the inconsistency of his position: he was strangely moved when he read a Pagan story of a sacrifice or a dying god who came to life again. Yet when he came across the same story in the Gospels, he did not care for it because of his prejudices against Christianity (Collected Letters 1 977). When he realised that pagan mythology was strewn with Christian motives, he imagined that God had used mythology as a veil under which he chose to appear to men, who were created with senses and imagination, so that they “might see [His] face and live” (Pilgrim’s Regress 169).
Lewis had been put off religion in his childhood: he hated what he perceived to be its hypocrisy, its restrictiveness and he loathed the fact that you had to speak in a low voice at church, as if you were at someone’s sickbed. When he rediscovered Christianity around the age of thirty, thanks, among others, to his friend Tolkien, he was taken aback by how exhilarating he found it to be. He named his autobiography Surprised by Joy, with a capital “J” and in it, he refers to “Joy” as spiritual longing. Lewis wanted children to be able to have access to the Gospel, which comes from the Old English gōdspel and which literally means “good news,” without encountering the obstacles he had had to face. He believed that by “casting [the stories of the Bible] into an imaginary world,” he would be able to “[strip] them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations” and “make them for the first time appear in their real potency” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories” 120).
Thus, in Prince Caspian, the presence of Bacchus next to Aslan plainly intends to show that to follow the Lion means to be offered a life of freedom, joy and fulfilment rather than one of asceticism, constraint and mournful piety. By using a mythological veil, Lewis intends to “get past the watchful dragons” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories” 120) of the children’s defences and to speak directly to their imaginations.
The differences between a thing and its reflection, reality and illusion, light and shadow fascinated Lewis. It is therefore not surprising that Plato, the philosopher who wrote about perfect forms and their earthly copies, appealed to Lewis to the point that, in Paul Ford’s words, “there is an almost continuous Platonic undercurrent” (316) in The Chronicles of Narnia.
In The Silver Chair, a Green Witch keeps Prince Rilian, the future king of Narnia, a prisoner in an underground world. She has cast a spell on him and has him believe that she is trying to cure him from a severe illness, that she is in love with him, that she wants to marry him and that she will offer him a kingdom. In reality, she is planning to make him turn against his own people and she only craves power. Rilian can be compared to the souls in Plato’s Phaedrus, who are imprisoned in bodies and who have forgotten where they came from.
In Chapter 12, when Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum come to the rescue of the Prince, the Green Witch arrives just in time to prevent them from leaving and tries to cast a spell on them too. The means she uses are reminiscent of the famous Allegory of the Cave, in Plato’s Republic. The men who are chained in the cave never see daylight, do not even suspect that there is an outside world, and know only the shadows projected onto the wall thanks to the light of a fire behind them. In the same way, the Green Witch wants the children to believe that there is nothing outside the underworld, that only the lamp they can see in front of them is real and that they have invented a bigger and more powerful lamp they have called “the sun.” Likewise, the Aslan they speak of is just a big cat with a mane. The witch wants them to believe that the original is a copy and vice versa.
Later in the same story, Lewis again develops the idea that what seems to be true in our world may actually only be a copy of something which exists in another world. Once they have left the witch’s lair, Jill, Eustace, Puddleglum and the Prince discover the world of Bism, which is crossed by an underground river of fire. On its shores they can see bushes on which living gold and precious stones grow. The gnome who is their guide explains to them that what they call gold, silver and gems are only dead effigies of realities that are alive and growing in the underground world of Bism: “There I’ll pick you bunches of rubies that you can eat and squeeze you a cup full of diamond-juice. You won’t care much about fingering the cold, dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones of Bism” (164).
The influence of Plato is even more obvious in The Last Battle, and the Greek philosopher’s name appears in it explicitly. In the last book of the series, telling us about the apocalypse of Narnia, an ape uses a donkey covered in a lion’s skin and has the inhabitants of Narnia believe that he is Aslan who has come back. He makes them enslave Talking Animals, murder Dryads, all in Aslan’s name. In order to deceive people, he never shows them the donkey in the full light of the sun, but always at night, with just a fire as a source of light. The allusion to the Allegory of the Cave is manifest again.
Eventually, after a fierce battle, Narnia is destroyed and all the protagonists enter Aslan’s country where a great surprise awaits them. Far from finding themselves in an unknown place, they seem to recognize Narnia. But, how is that possible, they ask, since the old Narnia has just been destroyed before their very eyes and moreover, did not Aslan tell Peter that he would never come back to Narnia? Professor Kirke then explains:
When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world … and of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream. … It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools! (159-60)
Aslan himself confirms this a little later when he mentions “the Shadowlands” they have left forever (171).
Lewis is here inspired by Plato’s theory that each reality in the material world on earth has a perfect equivalent in the spiritual realm. These ideas, or perfect forms, belong to a superior reality, which Plato calls the Good. Just as Thomas Aquinas did before him, Lewis sees this supreme Good as God himself, and the ideas as God’s creative thoughts.
Again and again, Lewis writes that everything that is good on this earth is a copy of a superior reality in heaven. Every human being feels a “sweet desire” which makes them want to go back to the world they were made for and not to be content with their earthly life. This desire for another world which cannot be explained was probably inspired by Augustine’s concept of summum bonum (3, 10), a supreme happiness every human being aspires to and which can only be found in God. According to Lewis, the desire for another world proves that this world exists, just as hunger proves that humans were made to eat (“The Weight of Glory” 99). This desire has to do with what Rudolph Otto called the “numinous,” that is to say a manifestation of the sacred beyond any rational element.
Several characters in Narnia feel this desire without a discernible object, this spiritual aspiration. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta does not know that he was stolen from his parents when he was a baby. He lives in the southern country of Calormen, with a fisherman he takes to be his father. However, his true country is in the North and he has always felt attracted to it without knowing why. It is like a “delightful secret” to him (12). When the protagonists finally get to the real Narnia at the end of The Last Battle, the unicorn claims that he has come home at last to his real country, that he has been dreaming of this place his whole life and he states that “the reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this” (161). It is an example of a “sweet desire” which has finally found its object.
The notion of “sweet desire” can be found in the biblical text, although it is not expressed in the same terms. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament writes that God “has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3. 11, NIV), thus hinting that every human being aspires to something more than this earthly life. Lewis himself does not quote the Bible but rather The Symposium by Plato as an epigraph to The Pilgrim’s Regress, his spiritual autobiography, shaped in the form of an allegory: “This every soul seeketh and for the sake of this doth all her actions, having an inkling that it is, but what it is she cannot sufficiently discern …” (1).
The way Lewis uses Plato to represent Aslan’s country, that is to say Narnia’s equivalent of paradise, makes him original in that he departs from the usual popular vision of heaven as a place which is purely spiritual and ethereal, and which may have made people in general and children in particular reticent to the idea of going there for fear of being bored. In Lewis’s vision, paradise is not a place where our human bodies are missed, but a place where we have bodies which are more real than the ones we left behind. Indeed, the whole new world is more concrete, more tangible, truer than the one we know now. We live in “the Shadowlands” but one day, we will join our true country and, in an essay called “Transposition,” Lewis compares the change we will undergo to a bulb becoming a flower or an architect’s plan becoming a three-dimensional cathedral (276).
According to Alistair McGrath, commenting on Platonic themes in Narnia, Lewis’s achievement is to combine naturalness and originality, allowing him to “[expand] minds by exposing them to such ideas in a highly accessible and imaginative form” (302).
In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis used a popular genre—children’s literature—partly because he believed that this art-form suited him as it compelled him to be brief, to the point and “to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said” (“On Three Ways” 102). Being clear and concise did not prevent his stories from being meaningful on multiple levels. He thus made them attractive to children while also appealing to adults.
Lewis loved Greco-Roman mythology and he thought of Plato as a great philosopher. He did not used these narratives and ideas in his stories for children out of a desire to be original by trying something new. He actually despised artists who were always pining for originality. He thought the best way to be original was by not trying to be. Living in an age when evolutionism was fashionable, he fought what he called “chronological snobbery,” that is to say the idea that everything new is better than what is old in principle. On the contrary, he felt attracted to ancient wisdom and culture. Mythologies from past civilisations appealed to him in a particular way. To him, they were more than just beautiful and entertaining stories. They contained universal truths. That is why he drew from them to create his own stories, including the ones for a young audience.
By weaving old traditional narratives and wisdom into a new fabric, Lewis, like Tolkien, and later J.K. Rowling—to name but a few—created innovative works of art which were intended for young people but which can be read by a much larger audience and which will certainly stand the test of time.
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Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero is a lecturer in English literature at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens and a member of the CORPUS research team. Her PhD, published in 2011, explores gender relations and the role of women in the works of C. S. Lewis. Her work focuses on children’s and young adult literature (on fantasy in particular), on gender issues and also on the interface between literature and theology.
Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero est maîtresse de conférences à l’Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens) et membre du laboratoire CORPUS. Elle est l’auteure de L’Évangile selon C. S. Lewis, Le dépassement du masculin / féminin dans la quête de Dieu (Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011). Elle s’intéresse à la littérature de jeunesse (en particulier la fantasy), aux représentations du masculin/féminin et à l’intertextualité biblique.
 American author Rick Riordan is one of the most prolific in this category. He wrote the Percy Jackson (2006-2010), The Heroes of Olympus (2011-2015) and The Trials of Apollo (2016-2019) cycles.
 The Allegory of the Cave has been a notable source of inspiration. In YA literature, especially dystopia and speculative fiction, the question of knowing whether what we experience is the reality or an illusion has appealed to a lot of authors. The earliest example is probably Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (1964), a science-fiction novel featuring a description of simulated reality which later inspired the Matrix films. More recently, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009) has dealt with a similar theme.
 George MacDonald, sometimes referred to as the “grandfather” of fantasy (Brawley 48), was influenced by Greek mythology in his books for children, but the allusions remain discreet (Sofa 150-1).
 I have consulted several sources on children’s literature (Escarpit, Grenby and Immel, Fetjaine) and I could find virtually nothing before the twentieth century when the fantasy genre as we know it today comes to existence.
One exception is E. Nesbit, who paved the way for fantasy, in that her work inspired C.S. Lewis, and who stages a phoenix in one of her books, The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). In the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1851) and its sequel Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) in which he retells a series of Greek myths to children. However, it is not so much a re-writing as a child-friendly version of them. The characters are slightly idealised: for example, in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus does not abandon Ariadne on an island after promising to marry her. In Hawthorne’s version, Ariadne refuses to flee and prefers to stay with her ageing father whose only love she is.
The other author who can be said to have been inspired by these themes—although in a far less obvious way—is Tolkien, who is often considered to be the founding father of modern fantasy. As far as Plato is concerned, see for instance Katz and Day, “Plato” entry. As far as Greco-Roman mythology is concerned, it did not play a huge role. Tolkien preferred Norse Mythology. See Day, “Greco-Roman Mythology” entry, and Harvey, “The Valar and gods of mythology” entry, 50-52 (also see 113-114 on riddles, 220 on immortals and 259 on fate).
 Praeparatio evangelica, meaning “preparation for the gospel” is a term used by Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Regress (207) to refer to the need to prepare people who have never heard of the Gospel. It is originally the title of a work of Christian apologetics written by Eusebius (4th century AD).
 He was influenced by his predecessors, so much so that what you find in his works is not Plato, but “Plato as his doctrines are filtered through St. Paul, Augustine, the Florentine Neo-Platonists, and the Christian Humanists.” (Johnson and Houtman, 75-87).
 Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X, 86-105).
 The three remaining are the giants, the dwarves and the Talking Animals.
 She is referring to Lewis’s quote: “The Lion all began with a picture of a faun” (“It all Began with a Picture” 121).
 Lewis’s description of Bacchus and his entourage corresponds exactly to what is reported about him in Greco-Roman mythology, except for all the references to debauchery, which have been taken out or at least transformed. See for example the “Dionysus” and the “Silenus” entries in Smith, or in Belfiore.
 Walking trees go back to Ovid but the idea of them taking part in a battle may come from Macbeth, although in Shakespeare’s play, they are just men disguised as trees (Macbeth 5, 5).
 “[Andrew Adamson] decided not to use the wild party that Bacchus throws in the book. Andrew rightly believed that it was not appropriate to show children drinking wine at a raucous feast.” (Baehr).
 One of his names is Liber (“the free one”) or Liber pater (“free father”).
 “The Chronicles presents an array of moving but simple thematic images depicting courage, loyalty, and obedience, faith in the midst of doubt and distress, mercy and forgiveness, purgative suffering and regeneration. But the most pervasive theme, I think, is spiritual emancipation and its concomitant joy. If so, the genius of the series may well be Dionysus the Liberator” (Stock 11).
 “Now I am choking and sweating, itching too, in thick dark stuff, throttled by an Eton collar, my feet already aching with unaccustomed boots. I am wearing knickerbockers that button at the knee. Every night for some forty weeks of every year and for many a year, I am to see the red, smarting imprint of those buttons in my flesh when I undress. Worst of all is the bowler-hat, apparently made of iron, which grasps my head” (24).
 “I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories” 119-20).
 This is the way it worked for Lewis himself. In the preface to George MacDonald, an Anthology, he writes about Phantastes: “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize … my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect, nor (at the time), to my conscience. Their turn came far later” (p. xxxviii). He also mentions this anecdote in Surprised by Joy (146).
 For more details on this topic, refer to Simmons.
 Rudolf Otto’s analysis of “religious awe” and its relation to the holy (or the “numinous”) in The Idea of the Holy (1923) greatly impressed Lewis. The way he describes Joy in The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy echoes—sometimes almost word for word—Otto’s account of numinous awe.