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Ditches and Mirrors in Narnia

Simona's picture

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe swept me away with each read, immersing my childood imagination in enchanted lands full of talking creatures, magic, and a few kids just like me. I grew up engaging with this classic story, but I hadn’t realized just how important it may have been in cultivating curiosity about my very own ecological world. Narnia, while acting as a “ditch” for many readers like myself over the years, may have also been a “ditch” within the story itself for the four Pevensie children. The ecological thought presented in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is complex and crucial to the plot—the environment almost acts as a character that grows and changes throughout the story. Through an interpretive reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the role of the environment in this classic tale can be further unpacked.

The Chronicles of Narnia is a seven-book series of fantasy novels written by C.S. Lewis in the early 1950’s. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the second book in the series, but is often considered the most well known of the seven. The tale centers around four siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who are sent away from World War II London to the countryside where they live with an absent-minded professor. Here, they stumble into the magical world of Narnia through an old wardrobe. The novel chronicles their adventures in this kingdom, where they end up battling the White Witch and saving Narnia from a curse of eternal winter (“always winter but never Christmas”), eventually becoming the new kings and queens of the land. Years later, after they have grown up in Narnia, they accidentally stumble back into their countryside home in England where they become children once again. The always-present backdrop of the Narnian wilderness facilitates character and plot development in a very ecological way.

Sobel posits that to build ecological appreciation and connectedness, every child needs a “ditch” in which they can explore the environment via real sensory experiences, perhaps even via transcendent experiences (Sobel 10). Applying this concept to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Narnia appears to be a ditch built into the story itself for the four children. The story begins in wartime England, when the four children are sent away to the country to live with an old professor. Before they find Narnia, the beginning chapters focus on their interactions and relationships to each other as siblings while they adjust to this change. While they are all bonded closely as brothers and sisters, there is definite conflict between them, especially between Edmund (the younger boy) and Peter (the eldest) as seen in this scene:

Edmund, who was becoming a nastier person every minute, thought that he had scored a great success, and went on at once to say, “There she goes again. What’s the matter with her? That’s the worst of young kids, they always—”

“Look here,” said Peter, turning on him savagely, “shut up!” (Lewis 45).

Sibling conflicts like this continue throughout the first few chapters, and conflicts with Edmund continue even throughout much of Narnia. While harder to pinpoint, most conflict diminishes once they enter Narnia, as they become bonded in this new environment. In Narnia, they don’t have any context for what is safe because it is magical, so they come together to access risks and make decisions. This risk management is a skill presented as crucial to growth in Urban Wildscapes (Edensor et al). An example of this is when the four children unite to make a decision about whether they should follow a beaver:

“It wants us to go to it,” said Susan, “and it is warning us not to make a noise.”

“I know,” said Peter. “The question is, are we going to go to it or not? What do you think, Lu?”

“I think it is a nice beaver,” said Lucy.

“Yes, but how do we know?” said Edmund.

“Shan’t we have to risk it?” said Susan. “I mean, it’s no good just standing here and I feel I want some dinner.”

In this way, the environment (including the animals) forces the children to come together to weigh risks and benefits, which ultimately helps their relationships become stronger and encourages personal growth. There are many similar situations throughout the book where they are faced with a problem in the Narnian wilderness and have to unite to find a solution. By the end of the story they have significantly matured, culminating with each of them becoming the kings and queens of Narnia. As the children begin to experience this “ditch,” they start to grow and become more connected to their community and environment, in essence fulfilling the purpose of a ditch. 

Yet, while the environment prompts their growth, Narnia itself grows too and becomes more connected in unison with the children. While the children are stuck in wartime England, they experience personal conflicts. Their sibling wars are set against the mirror of the larger war happening in their environment.  When they first enter Narnia, the kingdom is cursed with the White Witch’s spell of eternal winter, which mimics the conflict the children are still grappling with. Yet, as they begin to unite and mend their relationships by engaging with their “ditch,” Narnia begins to warm, slowly becoming spring. Springtime is full fledged and verging on summer by the final chapters when the children take on the leadership roles of kings and queens. These environmental changes are spurred by how the children bring hope back to life in Narnia, and how this threatens the witch’s rule. Thus it appears that C.S. Lewis has used the environment as a stage to symbolize and reflect the children’s growth.

In this way, the children are impacted by the Narnian ditch, while the environment mirrors this growth. This could simply be a tool to illustrate character development, but by extending the metaphor of a “ditch” to the environment’s growth, Narnia seems to be its own ditch. The environment is both initiating growth and experiencing growth. Narnia could both be the ditch, and be influenced by itself as a ditch, because the environment is portrayed as alive. For instance, the trees listen and some are on the side of the White Witch, implying that trees have senses as well as decision-making capabilities. Since the ecosystem itself is alive, it can grow along with the children. But whether it acts as its own ditch, or if perhaps the children are the ecosystem’s ditch, is a little less clear. This prompts the questions: Can a person’s own growth spur more growth? That is, can a person be their own ditch? Must a ditch be tangible experiences, or can it be a less tangible system of growth? 

Daloz states “The circularity of life is a deeper truth than its linearity and, however necessary is may be for our own growth to leave home, the end of the journey—at least in a metaphorical and spiritual sense—must finally be to return home and, as T.S. Eliot said, ‘know the place for the first time’” (Daloz 35). The children’s experience in Narnia (and perhaps Narnia’s experience of the children) was a deep journey that prompted growth both within the children and within the ecosystem itself. The tale ends circularly after the children grow to become adults in Narnia, with them returning home in the very same way in which they left, through the wardrobe. Not only do they return home in a spatial sense, but they return home in a bodily and temporal sense too—they are transformed back into their childhood bodies, and transported back in time to the very hour they left. Ecologically, Daloz argues this return to “home” is crucial to fully understanding the journey and building a strong sense of place, so perhaps their return may have solidified their respect for the Narnian wilderness. In storytelling too a common technique is to mirror the beginning and the end of the story, creating a full circle. This technique may in fact serve a similar purpose, to guide the reader through a journey and then return them to the original place where the reader can best reflect on the journey.

With each reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe took me through an exciting, captivating, magical journey of adventure and growth. C.S. Lewis created a fluid imaginary world, through which we can examine human relationships with the environment. Perhaps the fantasy of Narnia reflects our real world today. Even as an adult, Narnia acts as one of my many ditches by reinforcing my desire to explore my own environment, with the hopes of finding thinking trees and talking animals all around me.



jccohen's picture

risk, interconnectedness, ditches


You do a nice job here of interweaving a strong sense of the book itself with our texts/themes re: ecology and education, and I think you can go further…


Early on in the essay, you say, “The ecological thought presented in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is complex and crucial to the plot—the environment almost acts as a character that grows and changes throughout the story,” and later you take this further by noting that the “environment is portrayed as alive.”  This idea is also played out in your commentary on the way that the environment promotes the children’s growth and also changes itself.  It seems to me that while you begin with the idea of the “ditch” as a key theme here, and indeed I can see that the Narnia experience is that kind of ecological touchstone for the children, that’s not really the central idea of your analysis.  Rather, I think you’re getting at the notion of profound interconnection, as discussed by Daloz and also evidenced in Morton’s “ecological thought,” both of which you reference.  It seems to me that this idea is deeply consonant with the way you describe the passage of the seasons, for example, and could (should?) be the overarching theme of the essay.


You also point out that “the environment (including the animals) forces the children to come together to weigh risks and benefits, which ultimately helps their relationships become stronger and encourages personal growth,” and in this sense you’re highlighting the thinking about childhood, risks, and the environment featured in the Urban Wildscapes chapter.  Most compelling to me is not just the element of risk but also the companion element of weighing and decision-making, qualities that many of our readings including our recent reading of Saylan and Blumstein highlight as important learnings from and in relation to the environment.


In this essay you offer a descriptive rendering and raise these insightful points – about ditches, risks, interconnectedness – toward a reading of the book through an ecology/environmental education lens.  A next step would be to consider what your overarching point or argument might be (interconnectedness, or maybe not), or to say it another way, what you want the reader to take away from your essay, and to revise in light of that…  (We can discuss further in conference.)