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Mr. Tumnus and His Umbrella

The Genesis of a Story

Written by Emilie Griffin

Narnian landscape with lamppostHow was it that C.S. Lewis came to be a writer of children’s stories? He mentions that at one point he and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien decided they should write more books of the kind they themselves had loved. What sorts of books? They liked tales of adventure, with exotic locales (books by the likes of H. Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells), or mythological stories such as those of the Norseland or Greek and Roman tales.

There is no doubt that Lewis had a strong visual imagination. It caused him trouble now and then—like the time when he definitely saw a small gnomelike fellow in his father’s garden or when he tried to manage Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises and found them too intense. Lewis thought he had enough imagination already. He didn’t need spiritual exercises to heighten it!

Lewis tells us that his Narnia books began with a picture, one that had long remained in his mind, and which eventually impelled him to write, not one book, but seven.

The picture was this: a faun with an umbrella, parcels, a lamppost, a snow-covered kingdom. This odd collection shows the distinctive Lewis approach: a combination of classical mythology and things of ordinary life.

Lewis named the faun “Mr. Tumnus.”

What is a faun, anyway? A faun is a woodland deity, rather like the Greek woodland god known as a satyr. The chief among these was Pan, a god who was also part goat and had hooves and horns. Fauns and satyrs are not part of today’s fantasy lives, but Lewis was drenched in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Satyrs have a sexual dimension, but Lewis didn’t focus on that. When Mr. Tumnus asks Lucy, one of the four children in this story, to his house for tea, there is no suggestion of a sexual predator at work. That leads me to wonder whether Lewis used the term “faun” instead of “satyr” because “faun” has less of a direct sexual connotation in contemporary speech.

Fauns are fun-loving creatures who frolic in the woods and are good at making merry. You will notice that Narnia also has nymphs, naiads (well-women) and dryads (tree-women). Edith Hamilton says of the dryads that they were women whose lives were bound up with the trees they inhabited. In other words, they were part woman, part tree. Later in the book you will find centaurs (half man/half horse) and a bull with the upper body or head of a man.

Getting back to fauns, Mr. Tumnus is not a regular sort. He has a very domesticated life, a home of his own—a cave, but well-furnished—to which he invites Lucy. What they had for tea was simple English fare that probably wouldn’t please American children at all: lightly boiled brown egg, sardines on toast, buttered toast with honey, and sugar-topped cake.

Domesticity meant a lot to Lewis. In fact, he mentions in his more philosophical writings that the chief purpose of governments is to keep people happy at home. And Mr. Tumnus has a fine home library in his cave, which Lewis enjoys cataloguing. His book titles are: The Life and Letters of Silenus, Nymphs and Their Ways, Men, Monks and Gamekeepers: A Study in Popular Legend, and Is Man a Myth? The joke here is rather like the one Lewis plays in The Screwtape Letters: looking at the world from a reverse angle, in Tumnus’s case from the viewpoint of fauns who wonder whether human beings actually exist.

Mr. Tumnus also resembles Pan in that he plays the flute and tells stories of his life in the forest. He describes midnight dances, mentioning the nymphs who lived in wells and dryads who lived in trees and came out to dance with the Fauns. He recalls summer times when the woods were green, when old Silenus would arrive on his fat donkey, sometimes along with Bacchus himself, the god of wine. During these golden days, the streams ran with wine. There was jollification for weeks on end.

Mr. Tumnus also remembers long hunting parties chasing after the milk-white stag, who could grant you wishes if you caught him. Here’s another case where Lewis has mixed his mythologies. The White Stag of middle European folklore figures prominently in the national story of the Hungarian and Magyar people. Mr. Tumnus also tells about feasting and treasure-seeking with wild red dwarfs in deep mines and caverns far beneath the forest floor. Such was Narnia before the White Witch cast her spell.

Lewis’s “beginning image” is evocative.If any of us were asked to describe Narnia, we would probably mention all the elements in this original vision: the faun with an umbrella, the parcels, the lamppost, the snow-covered kingdom. The parcels remind us of Christmas shopping. And Christmas is an important part of the story. Narnia, being under the spell of the White Witch, is a place where it is always winter and never Christmas.

Yet the lamppost indicates that Narnia is not entirely wilderness. Some vestiges of civilization remain in this Arctic clime.

And what about Mr. Tumnus himself? What sort of creature is he, anyhow?

Though he is not entirely good, he is not completely evil. Mr. Tumnus appears to be a fallen creature, with elements of good and evil at war within his nature. In African mythology, the umbrella is a symbol of kingship, but I’m fairly sure Lewis didn’t know that. In fact, I think Lewis meant to use the umbrella to suggest a prim bachelor-uncle prissiness as one aspect of Mr. Tumnus’s personality. Mr. Tumnus lacks character; he means to lead Lucy and the other children astray, but he is not really wicked enough to do so. Though he is in the employ of the White Witch, he can’t follow through on her commands. Later on, Mr. Tumnus has to pay for that disloyalty.

Lewis is emphatic in saying that he did not begin with the intent to write Christian messages or allegories disguised as stories. Lewis insists he could not have written in that way. “It all began with images: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord.”

In short, this single picture—one of those that first inspired Lewis—is part of the “big bang” of Narnia. This small load carries a number of elements that soon expand to fill out a full creative universe where good and evil are at war. It is so characteristic of Lewis to make little of the Christian influence in his stories, and to put the story first and foremost. For him, the truth of faith came home in story. He wanted to be a story-teller, foremost. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he surely is.

Copyright ©2005 Emilie Griffin

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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