One of the strangest twists in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the appearance of Santa Claus. Narnia has been in the grip of the White Witch, which means that it’s “always winter and never Christmas.” Things are changing, however. Showing up with weapons, a sewing machine, and a tea tray, Santa explains, “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”
In one way, the symbolism works. A frozen landscape is a wasteland image pointing to a world in which faith is dead. If Aslan is Christ arriving—and being crucified—in order to save the world, then I guess one could say that Santa Claus is appropriate. But Santa Claus is a late addition to the Christmas story and, as described by Lewis, has some associations with the European Green Man tradition:
[O]n the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly-berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.
According to Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventure in Narnia, Lewis’s good friend J. R. R. Tolkien hated the way that Lewis inserted, seemingly at random, different mythological traditions into his fiction. Tolkien was a purist who felt that a fantasy world should invoke only a single mythic tradition to be convincing, and Lord of the Rings draws on the myths of Northern Europe. Lewis, by contrast, has no problem mixing into his fiction Santa Claus, Bacchus and his maenads, pagan wood nymphs, the vaguely Islamic Calormene god Tash, and a host of other religious traditions.
Miller points out that Christian schools that use Narnia to teach Christian principles ignore this dimension of Lewis, even as they decry pagan elements in Harry Potter.
Miller defends Lewis from Tolkien on the grounds that he has so much fun inserting all the fruits of his fictional and religious reading into Narnia that it’s hard to fault him. In a way, Lewis does what religions often do—he borrows a little from everywhere, and that’s fine as long as they all serve a compelling narrative. It comes down to what we, the readers want. As a kid I enjoyed the eclecticism of Lewis but in the end Tolkien seemed to be deeper. So I guess I preferred purity.
Think of Lewis and Tolkien functioning as a Rorschach test: which you prefer may indicate whether you are playful or earnest.
A note on the artist: Jonathan Barry’s Narnia art can be found at www.narniafans.com/fansection/fanart/jonathanbarry.php.