War in Narnia: Corpses? What Corpses?
Posted by Brian
Change of plans this week, so we have more Narnia after all. Erik needed a day off yesterday, so we’re back on track for the second to last of the War in Narnia series.
Also, I need to start on a new series soon, so if you have any requests for other Lewisian topics you’d like for us to cover, please let me know in the comments. If they’re big enough, I might even be able to convince Don Williams (who has lectured on Lewis at Oxford) to tag team with me!
Taking last week’s question of the wounded a step farther another connection emerges in Lewis’s attitude towards the dead and their complete absence from Narnia (Aslan on the Stone Table notwithstanding–since He comes back to life, I’m not sure He counts anyway). Narnia is essentially a corpse-free world and might even be best illustrated by the average first person shooter video game: When someone or something dies, it apparently fades away into nothingness. We certainly see no messy clean up afterward.
Lewis developed a visceral abhorrence for corpses at an early age, when he saw his mother’s body laid out on a bed. As was custom, he had been forced to go into the room and pay his respects. This left a mark on him, which his later experiences only worsened. The dead were the World War I soldier’s constant companion. At the front and in no man’s land, they could be encountered anywhere, in every imaginable position and state of decay. As mentioned before, Lewis saw them lying prone, sitting where they died, and standing up, caught in mud or propped against a tree. Recalling Lewis’s description of war, Douglas Gresham observed that “He learned to eat whatever food was put before him, often within both the sight and smell of dead men, both friend and foe. He learned how to tell the nationality of a dead soldier by the smell of the body as it began to rot” (Gresham 43). Lewis noted that “both […] the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother” (Surprised By Joy, 195-196).
While the previous examples examined thus far have been mostly positive, in the sense that Lewis’s experience inserted something into
Narnia, this revulsion for the dead is negative, meaning that it likely led him to exclude something from his creation. Despite the fact that the battles in Narnia are at times quite large, Lewis never mentions any corpses whatsoever. It is not that he chose to explain them away through some omnipotent literary device, like Lucy’s cordial. They simply never make an appearance after battle, anywhere. Once someone falls dead he or she simply vanishes. Lewis never once mentions the harsh reality of burying the dead, friend or foe. At some points, he seems to imply that this nasty business is actually being taken care of “off screen”, so to speak, but in general he seems to forget about the issue altogether. The most obvious of these moments comes at the end of the Battle of Anvard in The Horse and His Boy when somewhere between twenty-four and thirty six hours after the fight they hold a party “on the lawn before the castle with dozens of lanterns to help the moonlight” (213). This is presumably the very same lawn that had been strewn with carcasses the day before. This includes men, horses, and at least one giant (who would have been quite difficult to dispose of by default). A similar situation presents itself earlier in Narnian history when, after having defeated and slaughtered Jadis and her dark retainers, Peter’s army sits “where they were” and enjoys a “fine high tea” on the grass. They then sleep on the battlefield itself, something not likely to happen if the area really were strewn with contorted, maimed bodies (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 178). In Prince Caspian, the celebration actually begins before the battle itself ends, and no practical time is allowed for any burial parties, though perhaps it might be argued that Bacchus took care of this oversight with his handy ivy (204-207).
In Of Other Worlds, Lewis remarked that in his stories “I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties” (22). It is clear that Lewis did not enjoy reading about mortal remains at any age.
The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010. A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.
Gresham, Douglas. Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. New York: Collier, 1970.
________. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Scholastic, 1987.
________. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. San Diego: Harvest, 1994.
________. Prince Caspian. New York: Collier, 1972.
________. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Orlando, FL: Harvest Books, 1955.
Posts in the War in Narnia Series:
- C. S. Lewis the Soldier
- World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
- Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
- Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
- The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
- The First Experience of Battle
- Wounds and the Wounded
- Corpses? What Corpses?