"Narnia:" Inside C. S. Lewis's Mythological Mashup

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"So when Lewis brought in fauns and centaurs … and even Father Christmas, it just set Tolkien's teeth on edge," said Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.

Lewis defended his use of different mythologies.

"He called [them] 'good dreams' that God sent humankind to prepare them for the 'true myth,' which, for Lewis, was the incarnation," said Bruce Edwards, an English professor and Lewis expert at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "He believed myths were not legends but alternate histories that echoed our mysterious past."

Lewis especially loved Norse and Icelandic myths, which he fell in love with as a child through the Longfellow adaptations of Norse tales and through Richard Wagner's operas.

He also had a very deep knowledge of ancient Greek literature. As a teenager he translated whole Greek tragedies, and that mythology shaped him more and more as he got older.

Inspired Designs

For Taylor, the creature designer, who also worked on the Lord of the Rings movies, Tolkien's and Lewis's divergent uses of mythology shaped his design work.

"Tolkien documented with a fantastical spin a very, very strict historical reality on the world of a medieval past, primarily from Nordic influences," Taylor said. "What that created was a sort of bible for us. We could literally turn to the written word of Tolkien when we got stuck."

Lewis, in contrast, didn't use such historical references. His world was created to resemble a childhood dream state.

"Therefore, many of the rules that would dictate that world were in some way let go, because a childhood dream state is one of immense flexibility and creativity," said Taylor. For the movie, his team designed 68 mythological creatures compared to the 10 cultures they developed for Lord of the Rings.

At first, Taylor's team broke away from the historical representation of Narnia's mythological creatures to try to come up with their own designs. After six months, they realized that approach wasn't working.

"What Lewis had done [was to draw] … on a very strict back history of art that he had seen in his own past," Taylor said. "So … we tried to find the same source material that had inspired him, and draw directly from that."

The design of the movie's centaurs—creatures with the head, arms, and trunk of a man and the body and legs of a horse—became an amalgam of all the different centaurs that had been sculpted or illustrated through primarily the Grecian period.

The team's favorite centaur representation turned out to be a bronze statue belonging to stop animator Ray Harryhausen, who keeps a large collection of Grecian bronzes in his London home.

Taylor, who grew up on a beef cattle farm in New Zealand, says his favorite creatures are the minotaurs, bulls that stand upright like a man. In Narnia, Otmin is the minotaur general of the evil witch's army and a formidable warrior, much like his counterpart in Greek mythology.

"They actually have the most beautiful armor of any culture in the whole of Narnia," Taylor said.

To create the textural motifs seen in the armor, his team used an Italian Renaissance technique known as repuso in which chisels and bars are used to beat the steel armor out from behind to create elaborate sculptural shapes.

Classic Fairy Tales

In an essay called It All Started with a Picture, C. S. Lewis said his vision of Narnia began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood, an image that had been in his head since he was 17 years old.

The faun, a goat-man hybrid, is celebrated in almost every mythology stretching back more than 2,000 years. In the beginning of Narnia, a faun named Mr. Tumnus befriends the young girl who first steps into the magical world.

The character presented Taylor with a dilemma.

"We visualized him as the keeper of innocence and the giver of friendship. But a faun by its very nature also has strong satyr overtones," Taylor said, referring to a Greek mythological demon figure with pointy ears and devilish eyes.

"He can't be seen as the naked-chested male leading the little girl down the forest path to his home," he said. "His character must transform any form of overtone toward male predatory feel and become so childlike that you accept him as a savior in the world of Narnia."

Some of the creatures are drawn from classic fairy tales of witches, goblins, and ghouls. Nymphs and dryads (nature and tree spirits) are found in Shakespeare's writings.

"For fantasy purists like Tolkien, the eclecticism of the Narnian world is a serious hindrance," said Peter Schakel, an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who has studied the life and works of C. S. Lewis. "But for general readers, Lewis's eclecticism and inclusiveness become one of the primary attractions of the series."

"The sense of strangeness and wonder such readers experience as they read the Chronicles derives precisely from the magical reality they experience as they find in that world figures they know to be only mythical in our world" Schakel added. "That magical effect is heightened, not diminished, by the mixing of figures from different traditions."

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