Reviewed by Holly Ordway
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 117/118.]
In The Magician’s Nephew, the children Polly and Digory carefully mark the one pool in the Wood Beyond the World that leads back to home. If they had not done so, their exploration of the other pools could have become endless and aimless. The scene is a useful caution to scholars: it is all too easy to become distracted by the richness of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and lose sight of one’s intended destination.
Salwa Khoddam’s Mythopoeic Narnia is a book that gets lost, setting out to do too much and ending up distracted, unfocused, and ultimately unsuccessful. The subtitle “Memory, Metaphor, and Metamorphoses in The Chronicles of Narnia” hints at the ambitious scope of Khoddam’s analysis, and her thesis as articulated in the book itself is even broader. In the Preface, she notes that the Chronicles drew her “to literary and art works, to philosophy and mythology, to the Bible” and that she hopes “to share with readers these traditions that have enriched [her] imagination [...] to describe what they are, follow their development, and answer such questions regarding how Lewis uses these traditions in his own way to support his themes” (ii). In summing up, she says that her work is intended “to uncover some of the ‘learned’ sources and traditions of the images (iconographical at times) in the Chronicles and show how they enriched the theme of metamorphosis/theosis in each of the seven chronicles—what in mythical terms is termed metamorphosis and in Christian terms theosis” (218).
The Introduction and Chapter 1 attempt to address preliminary questions, defining mythopoeia and establishing memory, metaphor, and metamorphosis as elements of Lewis’s use of mythopoeia. Chapters 2-9 provide thematic analyses of various books in the Chronicles, and Chapter 10 attempts to tie together the various threads with the “universal theme of Metamorphoses [sic]” (202). The word “attempts” is key: Mythopoeic Narnia is a frustrating book that hints at a potential level of quality that is, alas, never achieved.
The strength of the book is found in Khoddam’s ideas about key themes and structures in the Chronicles. For instance, she provides an insightful, if limited, analysis of the role of memory in Prince Caspian in Chapter 3, garden imagery in The Horse and His Boy in Chapter 5, and the use of Cair Paravel as the City of God in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Chapter 6. Similarly, Khoddam’s idea of the significance of “pageants” in the Chronicles is one that is well worth taking up. However, she does not develop these or any of her ideas sufficiently.
The chapters are often unfocused, with overly broad statements that render the argument unconvincing; for instance, Khoddam broadens the term “metamorphosis” to include change in general, including “natural, or organic change” (30), the building of cities (30), magic and miracles taken broadly (33), and spiritual growth (145). As a result, the term becomes so diffuse as to be useless. Likewise, “pageant” is used so broadly as to be applicable to any scene described in detail, whether static or with action. Khoddam also frequently directs readers to earlier or later chapters for a fuller discussion of key points, while never delivering on the promise of a clear explanation of her points; this habit of cross-referencing without development has the effect of making the book seem more like a sketch of a future project than a complete argument.
However, the most serious problem with Mythopoeic Narnia is the ineffective and sometimes even careless use of sources. To begin with, the scholarship that Khoddam cites in support of her argument is uneven in both quality and relevance. For example, she makes extensive use of the work of non-Lewisian scholar Mircea Eliade, yet makes only a token reference to Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, although the latter has direct bearing on her thesis and could have been used to develop her analysis considerably. The idea of including illustrations to support the text is a good one, but the actual choices for inclusion seem almost random and are largely irrelevant to the argument.
More seriously, cited sources are too often used poorly. For instance, to support her argument that Lewis is interested in theosis Khoddam provides a brief quote from “The Weight of Glory”: “‘There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal’”(qtd. Khoddam 36). However, in the fuller context of Lewis’s essay it is clear that Lewis is not in fact addressing theosis, but rather the broader issue of the immortality of the soul: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours” (Lewis 46). Similarly, Khoddam makes extensive use of Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe, but oversimplifies the definition. It is not merely “the happy ending” (Khoddam 8), but more fully the “sudden joyous ‘turn’ [...] a sudden and miraculous grace [that] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure” (Tolkien 68).
Other references call into question Khoddam’s attention to her primary texts. In her discussion of memory in Prince Caspian, she writes that the children, coming to Cair Paravel, “spot apple trees—from the same tree that was planted in LWW, whose fruit, like the silver apples in MN, was and will prove to be an agent of healing and regeneration” (56). However, the reference to the planting of the apple trees does not appear in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at all; it is part of the backstory that is introduced for the first time in Prince Caspian.
The book is also afflicted with more basic errors. Spelling and typographical errors are frequent, including some in direct quotes. A footnote states that Tolkien “made his hobbits with large feet so they can travel by foot and appreciate the land” (15), which is factually incorrect, though it is not evident whether the mistake is in the cited source or is Khoddam’s own. Elsewhere, she refers to the “Emperor-Of-the-Sea” (86) rather than the “Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea” (LWW 138). No single error is damning in itself, but taken as whole, the result is that it is difficult to have confidence in the quality of the scholarship here.
Probably the best way to look at Mythopoeic Narnia is as the rough draft of a future book. The strengths of the book are genuine, but remain largely conceptual; the problems of the book are numerous and, in total, serious. The problems could be addressed in an overhaul of the book, but are more than sufficient to make it impossible to recommend the book as currently published.
- Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Collier, 1950.
- Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory.” In The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses. New York: HarperCollins, 1949. 25-46.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.