“White Witches and Warrior Beasts: Hierarchical Arrangements of Being and the Fantastical North in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Golden Compass” By Mabon Foo

White Witches and Warrior Beasts: Hierarchical Arrangements of Being and the Fantastical North in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Golden Compass

Essay by Mabon Foo

Art by Angie Dai

The fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass both feature British children exploring mysterious Northern landscapes and encountering non-human and supernatural beings whose cultures and authority challenge British and Christian hierarchical understandings of existence. Indeed, Pullman’s work has been widely read as a retelling of Narnia that destabilizes Lewis’s problematic beliefs, which Pullman himself summarizes as being that “boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people” (The Dark Side of Narnia). Nevertheless, by applying Victorian notions of the Great Chain of Being, this paper aims to demonstrate that such distinctions are not so clear-cut. While The Golden Compass inverts the struggle between masculine, human liberators and feminine, monstrous villainy that predominates in Lewis’s novel, it retains familiar orderings of gender, ethnicity and species. 

Prior to the rise of evolutionary theory in the late-Victorian era, the Great Chain of Being had since the beginnings of Western thought allowed for Christian hierarchical privileging of humans as being “elevated over nature” (Tedeschi 22). In this categorization, humans were “created to rule over animals, and men to rule over women”, with God at the top (Hatlen 84). However, according to Victoria Tedeschi, the boundary between human and non-human became contested through the rise of Darwinian natural selection, as the realization emerged that humans “had descended from godless brutes” (22). This sparked efforts to “defend humanity’s privileged position” (22) and reinstate these divides, the “fanciful, fantastical setting” of fairy tales supplying a useful “platform to respond to Darwinian anxieties” (27). These stories, which included Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” and the Grimms’ “The Frog Prince”, acted on the Victorian “fascination with growth and transformation” (21) by featuring humans cursed into animal forms. Here, the key to reversing these transformations was the suppression of animality and the reinstatement of “normative gender roles” (27), a figuring of humanity in “opposition to animality” by casting animal existence as Other (27). 

Despite this uneasiness, evolutionary theory provided a framework through which “animals, people, and societies” could be ordered from “the least primitive to the most civilized” (Lesko 16). A scientific Great Chain of Being was introduced that established “white European men and their societies, norms, and values” as the pinnacle of evolution (17) and “primitives, animals, women, [and] lower classes” as lesser. Key to maintaining these distinctions was the relationship between the maturation of a child into adulthood and the development of humankind from “primitive to savage group and finally to civilized society” (27). So-called ‘barbarous’ peoples, trapped in ‘pre-civilized’ states, had to be subjected, like children, to British “imperial policies of tutelage [and] discipline” (27), while on the other hand, the development of the “white boy towards civilization” capitulated the “progress of the white race” (27) and their ability to mature past this ostensible ‘pre-civilized’ adolescence. In an era where the supposed threat of atavistic “degeneration and the thwarting of progress” (22) loomed, it became essential for British boys “to perform masculinity, …to be read as masculine”, in order to maintain their superior positions. Stories of adventure and conflict with “racialized others” (27) therefore provided templates for cultivating this “strong, courageous, [and] loyal” (29) population of future “citizen[s] and soldier[s]” (40).

The depiction of the Arctic North as mysterious and othered provided an opportunity to prove “the excellence of the masculine British subject” (Franklin 47). In the Middle Ages, the North was positioned as “the entrance to hell” and “the home base of Satan” (46), and the Victorian era furthered a conception of the North as a “desolate region of marvels, mystery, magic, and even evil” despite the “rich culture” and heritage of its very real, actual inhabitants (46). This definition highlights what Edward Said, terms “imaginative geography”, a division of “what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘theirs’” (Hudson 4) defined by the separation between knowable, territory, and “unfamiliar, destabilizing” lands (Cudmore 221) whose mystique must be quelled through “the establishment of Western imperial dominance” (Hudson 4). Thus, the quest to master an inhospitable North served as an ideal masculine enterprise, the “ultimate testing ground of [a] nation” eager to reify its claim to the world (Franklin 47). Indeed, Victorian children’s literature “capitalized on this hunger for tales of modern exploration” (46), and in the 20th century, British “juvenile literature continue[d] to be fascinated with the imaginary North” (63), Lewis and Pullman’s works being two notable examples of this trend. 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe evokes the mysterious, magical North in a variety of ways. Not only is there the “dazzlingly bright” sun, “great glaring moon” and preternatural stillness (Lewis 67, 112, 31) of Narnia’s eternal winter, but also of great importance is its plethora of talking animals and mythological beings, ranging from “Dryads and Naiads” to pelicans, centaurs and eagles (138). Although the sentience of these animals disrupts the “essential connection between personhood and human-hood” (Hage 9), this claim to personhood hinges on the particularly British, gendered humanness these characters demonstrate. The Beavers are “more British than Narnian” (Towns 16); Mrs. Beaver is introduced “with a thread in her mouth working busily at her sewing machine” (Lewis 78) to indicate her domestic femininity, while Mr. Beaver demonstrates masculinity through his prowess at ice-fishing (75). They maintain British politeness and gesticulation, with Mr. Beaver maintaining that his dam is “merely a trifle” (76) and putting his “paw against [his] mouth” (68) as a signal to be quiet. The imposing and potentially frightening Giant is rendered amiable through British civility, as he “[touches] his cap repeatedly to Aslan” (187) and asks for a handkerchief (189). The faun Tumnus, initially viewed by Lucy as a “strange otherworldly male creature”, becomes a “stereotype of a British gentleman” (18), most notably through the afternoon tea of “buttered toast” and “a sugar-topped cake” he serves and the quaint furniture of his cave (Lewis 15-17). Finally, the White Witch encounters a picnic where “a squirrel and his wife with their children”, are sitting “on stools round a table” and eating with forks (125-26). These human modes of food consumption and affirmation of familial harmony stand in contrast to the White Witch’s monstrosity, her illusory Turkish delight that lures Edmund from his siblings. 

Aslan, the most notable animal character in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, also undermines “the natural distinction between man and animal” (Hage 9). Instead of choosing “a little boy or girl, or even a king or queen” as the God figure of the Narnia books, Aslan’s status as a lion enables an interpretation of Creation “outside of a humanist framework” (Hage 56) in which animals transcend “natural animal forms,” wield powers that “outperform humans,” and set moral standards that humans can aspire to (Proper 92). However, the lion also reaffirms existing hierarchies in that it was generally seen as the pinnacle of animal existence in the Great Chain of Being and “traditionally associated with Great Britain” as a national symbol of kingliness and valour (Chapman 7). As a result, Aslan, the “King of Beasts” (Lewis 86), can also be seen as integral to the British nation-building project. Throughout the novel Lewis makes distinctions between lesser and greater animals—the frozen lion believes himself equal with Aslan but is “steadied” after being saddled with “three dwarfs, one dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog” (Lewis 191), and it is notable that the animals liberated by Aslan lack speech, instead erupting in “happy roarings, brayings, [and] yelpings” reminiscent of a zoo (185). Indeed, a binary exists between animals “who possess language and those who do not” (Hage 63), with only the former wielding the “benefits of personhood” (66), and it is surprisingly those animals which speak and exhibit British values that possess names and assume the roles of guides, liberators and explorers. 

Furthermore, despite his miraculous powers, Aslan demonstrates “a restraint of divine, miraculous intervention” (Dalton 132) and deference to human exceptionalism, as it is humans, most notably boys, that must lead the charge against the White Witch and her anti-British totalitarian regime. In preparation for Peter’s future role as King, Aslan tasks him slaying Maugrim and saving Susan (Lewis 143-44), and  although Aslan’s arrival brings about spring (133), the White Witch’s reign can only end when “two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve” sit at Cair Paravel (89). Under this framework, humans take on a privileged position in which they are destined to establish dominion over Narnia and usher in British institutions. The mindset of Northward expansion is apparent early on when Lucy suggests pretending “[they] are Arctic explorers” (61), and Edmund, weighing the White Witch’s offer to make him King, contemplates “where the principle railways would run” (98). During their reign, the Pevensies “[make] good laws” (200), and in accordance with democratic freedom, they “[liberate] young dwarfs… from being sent to school, and… [encourage] ordinary people who wanted to live and let live” (Lewis 200-201). Aslan and the Pevensies take on the mantle of “savior nation” (Chapman 6) and their quest can be read as a metaphorical representation of the Cold War desire “to oppose the spread of communism” (3). Indeed, the Pevensies venture from the “wild woods of the west” (Lewis 12) towards a totalitarian East, the White Witch’s winter and rejection of Christmas conjuring a “stereotypical picture” of Siberia and the godless austerity of “life behind the Iron Curtain” (Chapman 4). 

The White Witch’s presence as architect of Narnia’s winter also provides a feminized Other through which divine, masculine and “natural authority” (McSporran 192) can triumph, and the overall struggle against her takes place along gendered lines. Her unearthly appearance, her face “white like snow or paper or icing-sugar”, (Lewis 34) reflects the characterization of the North as “either a deadly temptress or a bride to be conquered” (Cudmore 224). She is comparable to Circe and Lilith, mythological females that reject male authority and instead seduce men (Graham 39), as she tempts Edmund with the “oriental and romantic” allure of Turkish Delight (Towns 24). Her power is viewed as illegitimate and monstrous, Mr. Beaver railing against her audacity in claiming herself “Queen of Narnia” (Lewis 153), and her abject nature is further cemented by the legions of “Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors” (165) she commands. By contrast, Aslan hails from a species “whose gender is immediately obvious” (McSporran 193), and although he is shaved and therefore emasculated by the White Witch (Lewis 168), he reinstates male dominance by flinging himself atop the White Witch (194) and returning her to her place “underneath a male” (McSporran 195). In accordance with this paradigm of masculine forces emerging victorious, Lewis ensures that girls are exempted from the physical conflict and demonstrate traditional feminine traits. Father Christmas notes that “battles are ugly when women fight” (Lewis 119), and while Aslan shows Peter his future throne at Cair Paravel, he instructs Lucy and Susan to be taken “to the pavilion” (142) to be domestically attended to. Aslan also solely divulges his “plan of campaign” to Peter (160) while remaining saturnine with the girls (160-61), who later “display feminine characteristics” by weeping for his ostensible death (McBride 66). With all this in mind, it is clear that hermeneutic of masculine British conquest and ascendancy predominates. Girls cannot “perform in an active role to enact real change” (Rodriguez 194) as only boys can serve as “generative, restorative forces” (193) of order and civilization. 

At first glance, The Golden Compass seems to contest the gendered injunctions of Lewis’s work, yet it can also be seen that Pullman reiterates many of these distinctions. Firstly, Pullman appears to challenge established “gender hierarchies by giving women central roles” (Hatlen 79), with Lyra Bellaqua taking on the mantle of explorer. Living “outside the strict segregation of gender roles” in an alternate Victorian England (Gamble 190), she clambers over the “irregular Alps” (Pullman 43) of the Jordan College roofs, explores dusty crypts, and picks fights with boys belonging to rival colleges (32). She displays a capacity for deception, as like the White Witch, she influences “those around her through language” (Rodriguez 193). After weaving an alternate tale of how she arrived at Bolvangar for Mrs. Coulter (Pullman 246), she later convinces Iofur that she is a daemon (296), leading Iorek to champion her “Lyra Silvertongue” (305). Nevertheless, she remains complicit in the  “inherently discriminatory” system at Jordan College (Gamble 191), viewing the female scholars there as “animals dressed up and acting a play” (Pullman 59) rather than as agents of resistance against its “male-dominated environment” (Gamble 190). Enraptured by the “tantalizing hope of going north” (Pullman 75), she flees Mrs. Coulter’s feminine socialite world of “restaurants and ballrooms [and] soirees” (66) and follows in the footsteps of Lord Asriel, a clearly masculine character who is most at home engaging in “secret exploration” and “distant warfare” (5) within uncharted frontiers. The Gyptians, with whom she travels North, also remain a “society led by men” despite the presence of imposing women such as Ma Costa (Gamble 193). As the purpose of a Gyptian wife is to “cook for [her husband]” and “bear his children” (Pullman 276), the argument for including women on the quest surrounds the purely maternal concern of “[looking] after them kids” after they are rescued (121), which further privileges men as agents of exploration. 

Over the span of Lyra’s journey through the “bitter arctic cold and immense silence of the North” (183) however, the Gyptians are but one of a series of Othered populations whose agency destabilizes the centrality of white, male Arctic exploration. Firstly, it has been observed by scholars that the Gyptians bear resemblance to the real-life Romani people, or Gypsies, who were often perceived stereotypically by Victorians as “savage heathens and… a corrupting threat” due to their apparent rootlessness and rumoured propensity for child-stealing (Peters 102). Pullman, however, addresses these notions in ironic fashion by having the General Oblation Board serve instead as the “mysterious group of enchanters who [spirit] children away” (Pullman 40) and the Gyptians as the “child-losers”, therefore revealing the “humanity of [Gyptian] culture and its own civilization” (Peters 104). Nonetheless, they largely serve the “narrative purpose of furthering the goals” of the British protagonist (Sampson 31), as they figure little in the plot once Lyra reaches Bolvangar. Although Ma Costa maintains that Lyra “en’t gyptian” (Pullman 100), Lyra swiftly becomes “as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian” (98). This mirrors the “ascendancy of British character” over the Other often found in Victorian boy adventures, where British boys possess the ability to “[adapt] to any new environment” (Sampson 30) with little effort. Identifiable through her blonde hair as British, white, and therefore exceptional, she joins an exclusively adult male expedition through her ability to read the alethiometer (132), and like the Pevensies, she is privileged by prophecy, identified by Serafina Pekkala as the one “destined to bring about the end of destiny” (271).

Unlike Lewis’s non-human beings, both the bears and witches seem to acquire legitimacy due to their separation from, rather than conformity to, British humanness, yet this legitimacy is still marred by the primacy and ascendancy of British human subjects over them. Iofur Raknison’s aspirations of becoming a human, having a “palace built of imported marble” (24), making “alliances and treaties” (277) and cradling a doll dressed like Mrs. Coulter (295), are dismissed as “ludicrous aspirations” (24), and like the homes of Mr. Tumnus and the Beavers, his palace is decorated in human fashion. Yet rather than generating a homely atmosphere, these “preposterous decoration[s]” (294) lie unused and crumbling, the bears forced to exist as “semi-humans conscious only of a torturing inferiority” (311). It is only when Iorek returns that the “coldness, danger [and] brutal power” (157) of bear society is restored and “the polar bear kingdom ultimately reclaims itself from human influence” (Cudmore 225-26). Despite this, Iofur’s affectations also reveal the impossibility for Othered populations to assume positions “greater than what [their] nature would allow” (Sampson 36). Playing a custodial role as befitting a British explorer and stepping seamlessly into the role of white saviour, it is Lyra that liberates Iorek from alcoholism, “reminds him of his identity” (36) and quells Iofur’s perversion of “ethnic and racial [hierarchy]” (34) through sheer cleverness.   

Pullman’s witches, unlike Lewis’s monstrous tyrant, also resist Christian British hierarchies, being depicted as neither good nor evil despite their matriarchal organization and engaging in “causes of war quite beyond [human] understanding” (Pullman 94). Living for hundreds of years (275), they regard human life and ambition as immaterial, “creatures of a brief season” (275), and are “not interested in preserving value or making profits” (270). Along with this seclusion from Western civilization, their practices bear resemblance to the real cultural practices of the Sami people in Scandinavia, as they believe in Yambe Akka (275), an “actual figure from Sami Folklore” and practice a shamanic religion (Cudmore 221). The prominence of bears also references traditional Sami beliefs, who “regarded [bears]… with great respect” (Beveridge 173), and the witch’s bird-daemons symbolize the “fragile boundary between the real and spirit worlds” within this mythology (173). Nevertheless, even if the witches offer “a model of a social system centered around women,” (Gamble 193) Serafina must repress her love for Farder Coram, lest she be inscribed within a patriarchal system as a Gyptian wife and lose her authority as clan leader. Thus, witch society can be regarded as a marginal community of women “in mourning for the heterosexual relationship they cannot preserve” (193). 

Further establishing that humans are not “rigidly fixed and separate from animals and the supernatural” (Beveridge 171), yet still affirming hierarchical divisions, is the presence of daemons, extensions of a human’s corporeal existence that manifests as an animal of the opposite gender. One of Pullman’s most fascinating inventions, daemons are able to freely change shape between multiple animal forms when their human is still a child, but settle into a fixed shape upon reaching adulthood. Attached to their humans as an essential part of their physical and spiritual personhood, daemons therefore mandate fraternization and intimate connection across the human/animal, male/female divide. The Church, however, seeks to reinstitute these divides by engaging in the brutal process of intercision. Through intercision, a human and their daemon are separated into distinct beings, the latter rendered a mere “wonderful pet” (Pullman 248) to the former in a more palatable system of ownership. The animal symbolism of daemons, however, is used to reaffirm class and ethnic hierarchies, as upon close inspection, “the natural shape of servants is obvious, observable, through the dog shape of their daemons” (Hines 39). Ethnic Others are depicted as homogenous through their daemons, the Tartars possessing solely wolf-daemons (Pullman 252) and the witches birds. Unlike Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, who shifts from “a wolf, a bear, a polecat… [in] a succession of transformations too quick to register” (243), the daemons of Gyptian children possess “limited [imagination]” (49) in terms of their repertoire of transformations. Furthermore, Tony Makarios’s underclass “Irish and Skraeling and Lascar” heritage is reflected through the fixed shape of his “Ratter” (219). Conversely, nobles like Mrs. Coulter possess appropriately majestic daemons, the “deep and lustrous gold” fur (37) of her monkey comparable to Aslan’s “masses of curling gold” (Lewis 168). 

Lastly, although Mrs. Coulter can be interpreted as a “wicked witch in Bolvangar” (Hines 41) who, like the White Witch, pursues the heroes throughout the North and destabilizes existing hierarchies, she notably acts as a “charming” and “well-connected” front (Pullman 329) for the masculine authority of the Church. Her decision to portray Dust as “physical evidence of original sin” (325) despite its inherently unknowable status as a “mystical presence in which everything coexists” (Bird 190), reflects the pitfalls laden in the Western “desire to… segregate all that is ordered and rational from all that is chaotic or ‘other’” (191). The “severing of humans and daemons” into separate beings through intercision is “figured as monstrous” (Hines 41), and in their pursuit of this project, the adults of Bolvangar seize Pantalaimon in their “human hands”, a forbidden, entirely “wrong” (Pullman 241) action comparable to molestation. Ultimately, the “real evil and savagery lies within those identified as Europeans” (Peters 105), as the supposedly heroic Asriel separates Roger from his daemon (Pullman 341) in his quest to open additional worlds and destroy the “origin of all the Dust” (331). Instead, the “truly heroic characters” like Lyra and Iorek are those belonging to marginalized populations “outside the world of polite society” (Cardew 36), which directly contrasts the genteel humans and animals that save Narnia. 

In essence, The Golden Compass proves largely antithetical to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which presents a clearly feminine, monstrous North subdued by the restoring, liberating forces of male authority and the imposition of British modes of jurisdiction, where even the heroic animal characters are marked by the ideals and mannerisms of British existence. On the other hand, Pullman’s Church is identified as villainous and emphasis is placed on a North populated and traversed by the legitimate, distinct cultures of the Gyptians, armored bears and witches among others. Despite this, the narrative remains centered on children who are chosen by prophecy, master indigenous populations of the North, and vanquish dangerous institutions by demonstrating masculine traits and British exceptionalism.

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