Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Narnian Robin, a Harbinger of Change

In my home, I have a collection of stuffed toys acquired over the years since I was a young child. They reside in a special game room that has been set aside for visits by my grand nephews and nieces. Many of the stuffed toys fill the nooks of a hutch I inherited from my grandmother. In a place of honor on top of the hutch are two birds: a yellow meadowlark that reminds me of the warbling songs I grew up with in Denver, and a cheery robin, a universal symbol spring and hope.

In literature, birds are often used as harbingers of change, the first hints that something special lies ahead. It is no surprise that C.S. Lewis chose a robin to guide the Pevensies in Narnia. The children had decided to stay in Narnia, but they were uncertain in which direction they should travel; they had lost sight of the lamppost that led to the wardrobe, and were perplexed on how to proceed. It was then they noticed a robin that “kept going from tree to tree, always a few yards ahead of them, but always so near that they could easily follow. In this way it led them on, slightly downhill.” Lucy even commented that it “almost looks as if it wanted to say something to us.”

The robin would have been fairly easy to follow because of its bright breast plumage. English robins are a light brown with a fairly wide band of white separating the brown and orange of the breast (as compared to the American robin, which is dark brown with a red breast). It was this spot of orange that would have stood out sharply against the snow of Narnia, the land where it is “always winter but never Christmas.”

As a harbinger of spring, robins are among the first birds to arrive after winter’s cold. Their lovely warbles often solo in the frigid weather. They foreshadow the start of thawing and warming, and the blossoming of trees and flowers. The robin in Narnia fulfills the same function as it does in England, America, and many other countries in announcing the coming of spring.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (TLWW), Lewis writes: “Wherever the Robin alighted a little shower of snow would fall off the branch. Presently the clouds parted overhead and the winter sun came out and the snow all around them grew dazzlingly bright.” The robin’s appearance is the first sign that spring was on its way, that the power of the White Witch to maintain year ‘round winter is weakening. It is the first indication to the inhabitants of Narnia that the witch’s spell was cracking, that they would be able to escape her clutches.

The robin heralds a great change coming to Narnia—the arrival of the two daughters of Eve and two sons of Adam who would sit on the royal thrones and rule wisely; the return of Aslan, Narnia’s Christ figure who would atone for Edmund’s wrongs, be slain, and return in glory; and the breaking of the power of the White Witch and her evil, wintry hold on the country.

Lewis and Robins

Several years before writing TLWW, Lewis wrote a poem about spring’s harbinger. Entitled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” it is about what a robin sang to him as he strolled down his favorite path at Oxford, Addison’s Walk:

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

This fanciful poem talks about the cycle of seasons (which did not occur in Narnia at the time of the Pevensie children’s first visit), and mentions escape and undoing a spell (which happened to the witch’s powers when the Pevensies and Aslan began to fulfill a prophecy [See note #1]). This reference to a robin is another instance of how Lewis reuses similar thoughts and images in different literary works.

Addison’s Walk

Addison's Walk (originally called Water Walk) is a picturesque footpath on an island in the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. It runs partly past the River Cherwell. The Walk is named after Joseph Addison (painting at left), a Fellow of the College from 1698 to 1711, who enjoyed walking there and later writing articles about landscaping for The Spectator magazine. The path most likely originally dates from the 16th Century although the name "Addison's Walk" has only been in use since the 19th Century.

Addison’s Walk was special to Lewis. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he mentions a significant experience that happened there just before 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, September 20, 1931. It was at this time that Lewis and two good friends and fellow Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, took a walk along the Cherwell. All the previous evening the men had been discussing their lifelong fascination with myths. It was sad, Lewis declared, to think that classic tales of courage, beauty, sacrifice and virtue are all untrue and ultimately worthless.

Tolkien stopped his skeptical friend cold by forcefully arguing: No! They are not lies! Myths contain great spiritual truths. Lewis recalled later in a letter to a friend that while walking "... we were interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath...." It was only short hours later that Lewis announced he had become a Christian.

A Bit of Serendipity

Famed guitarist Phil Keaggy wrote a tune entitled “Addison’s Walk.” When I heard it, I could imagine myself walking down a secluded pathway by a slow-moving river, a breeze occasionally ruffling the leaves of the large trees that form a canopy overhead. I could also picture the Pevensie children following a brightly colored robin as it flitted from one snow-covered branch to another.

“Addison’s Walk” has a light, happy, reflective melody. It only lasts about 90 seconds, and if you take the time to listen to it, I think you’ll catch the joy.

I couldn’t find any information about the inspiration for this tune, whether Keaggy visited Oxford or not, or is a fan of C.S. Lewis. “Addison’s Walk” appears on Keaggy’s album “Beyond Nature,” a Celtic-influenced album for which Keaggy won his second Dove Award (gospel music) in 1992, so there is potentially some connection between the song and the place. In the above video clip, there is a sign atop the old upright radio behind Keaggy that reads “31.” I initially wondered if this was in homage to C.S. Lewis’ fateful stroll along Addison’s Walk in 1931; in learning more about Keaggy, I ran across a couple of other songs that were filmed with the same backdrop, so I’m sure the “31” is just a fun coincidence.

For more information about this incredible guitarist, check out the following sites:

Another Serendipitous Tidbit

In April 2009, the gospel music Dove Award for best instrumental album went to “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Capian,” Harry Gregson-Williams, Walt Disney Records.

Note #1: The Pevensie children’s arrival in Narnia began the fulfillment of an old prophecy about the end of the evil White Witch’s reign and the return of the seasons—

When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne

The evil time will be over and done.

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