Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spring Foliage in Narnia

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (TLWW) is a fast-paced fantasy that usually ends each chapter with the reader wanting to know what happens next. One thing that moves the story along so quickly is that C.S. Lewis doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time describing the environment behind the action. When he does provide details, there is a good reason to do so. Probably the longest description of setting appears approximately two-thirds of the way into TLWW when Lewis paints a picture of spring’s arrival in Narnia.

As you read about Narnia’s spring, listen to the following musical selection entitled "Spring," from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (See note #1, below):

Narnia has known winter for a hundred years, during which time the evil White Witch has wielded great power. With the arrival of the four Pevensie children and the return of Aslan, the witch’s powers are diminishing. Evil is being replaced with good. Hopelessness is becoming hopefulness. Winter is turning into spring.

It’s interesting that we see spring being restored to Narnia while reading about the wintry witch and her dwarf (with Edmund in tow) racing a sledge across the frozen earth in an effort to overtake the humans before they reach the appointed meeting place with Aslan. The juxtaposition of cold and evil with warming and good is striking. Spring provides a thematic shift of power between the witch and Aslan. Lewis devotes nearly three pages to the description of this environmental transformation, which itself foreshadows other transformations.

I think perhaps Lewis intentionally took a few pages to describe spring’s arrival so we could adapt to the importance of the changes (although in Narnia, it only took “a few hours or so from January to May”). Edmund is the first to notice things are not as they were: “…as he looked at one tree he saw a great load of snow slide off it and for the first time since he had entered Narnia he saw the dark green of a fir tree.” Then “…patches of green grass were beginning to appear in all directions.” And “Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms.”

In TLWW, Lewis uses familiar backgrounds and props rather than creating alien items in his Narnian fantasy world. This familiarity especially helps children relate to the story. (In contrast, Lewis created entirely new geography, botany and biology for the characters in his science fiction book Perelandra.) I also believe Lewis carefully selected each tree and flower in Narnia because of its significance to winter turning into spring in England and most of the Northern Hemisphere. Following are the trees and flowers Lewis uses to usher in the Narnian spring, along with their meanings and significance to Narnia.

Fir—Hope and Joy
As quoted above, the first tree mentioned is fir. This is the tree most closely associated with winter and Christmas (Father Christmas had just presented his gifts to residents in Narnia). It seems significant that Edmund first sees snow falling off a fir tree, revealing its evergreen needles. The fir is itself a promise of continual renewal, hope and joy.

Oak—Strength and Endurance
The Oak tree is known for its strength and endurance so it only seems fitting that it should grow in Narnia. It can rise to great heights (up to 100 feet), have large canopies (85- to 130-foot spread), and live 200-300 years. The oak is mentioned in several mythologies, including Celtic where it is the “tree of doors,” believed to be a gateway between worlds, or a place where portals could be erected—fitting for a tale about worlds linked by wardrobe doors.

Boards of oak have been prized since the Middle Ages for use in interior paneling of prestigious buildings such as the debating chamber of the British House of Commons in London, and in the construction of fine furniture. Oak wood was used in Europe for the construction of ships, especially naval men of war, until the 19th Century, and was the principal timber used in the construction of European timber-framed buildings. Today oak wood is still commonly used for furniture making and flooring, timber frame buildings, and for veneer production. Barrels in which red wines, sherry, brandy and spirits, such as Scotch whiskey and Bourbon whiskey, are aged are made from European and American oak. The use of oak in wine can add many different dimensions to wine based on the type and style of the oak.

(Serendipity Sidebar: The oak is the national tree of England and the United States, as well as other Northern Hemisphere countries, states, and governmental agencies. In England, the Royal Oak is the name given to the oak tree within which King Charles II of England hid to escape the Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The original tree is recorded to have been destroyed during the 17th and 18th centuries by tourists who cut off branches and chunks as souvenirs. The present day tree is believed to be a 200-to-300-year-old descendant of the original and is thus known as “Son of Royal Oak.” In 2000, Son of Royal Oak was badly injured during a violent storm and lost many branches. Another oak sapling was planted near the site of the original Royal Oak in 2001 by Prince Charles; it was grown from one of the Son's acorns and is thus a grandson of the Royal Oak. The United States also has a famous oak tree, the "Charter Oak," which stems from a local legend in which a cavity within the tree was used in late 1687 as a hiding place for the Connecticut Constitution charter granted by King Charles II. The oak was blown down in a violent storm about 150 years later and made into a chair that is now displayed in the Hartford Capitol Building. The Charter Oak is the symbol selected by the state of Connecticut to appear on the reverse side of a 1999 U.S. quarter.)

Beech—Warmth and Light
The third tree mentioned in the description of Narnian spring is the light gray bark beech tree with “delicate, transparent leaves.” The beech is an ornamental tree native to Europe. The wood is tough but dimensionally unstable so it is used primarily for furniture or as plywood in household items like plates. It is also an excellent firewood, easily split and burned for many hours with bright but calm flames. This tree would have been very valuable in Narnia where it was always winter.

Pressing oil from the beechnut was in common use in Europe in times of abundant labor but scarce food sources, such as in Europe in the years immediately after World War II; because it was labor intensive, beechnut oil production dwindled when other oil sources became available. (The beechnut could have provided oil in Narnian lamps.) Today, beech is widely planted for hedging and in deciduous woodlands. Mature, regenerating stands occur throughout mainland Britain.

Elm—Community and History
The next tree mentioned in Narnia’s transformation to spring is the elm. From the 18th Century to the early 20th Century, elms were among the most widely planted ornamental tree in both Europe and North America. They were particularly popular as a street tree in avenue plantings in towns and cities, creating high-tunneled effects. Because elms have been closely associated with gathering places, many hold historical significance:

  • In England’s fabled Sherwood Forest, the "Langton Elm" was a large tree that was for a long time so remarkable as to have a special keeper.
  • "Joe Pullen's Tree" was planted in about 1700 by the Rev. Josiah Pullen, vice president of Magdalen Hall, Oxford (C.S. Lewis’ college). Several scholars and essayists were said to have studied beneath its boughs. The tree, which became diseased, was slated for removal when it was burned to the ground in 1909. Only a commemorative sign remains.
  • The “Treaty Elm” in Pennsylvania was made famous by artist Benjamin West who commemorated the signing of a treaty between Pennsylvania founder William Penn and the local Indians. The tree was blown down by a great storm in 1810 and the wood was made into furniture, canes, walking sticks and various trinkets that Philadelphians kept as relics.
  • The Liberty Tree, an elm tree on Boston Common, was a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of England over the American colonies.
  • George Washington is said to have taken command of the American Continental Army under the “Washington Elm" in Cambridge on July 3, 1775. The tree survived until the 1920s and was thought to be a survivor of the primeval forest. In 1872, a large branch fell from it and was used to construct a pulpit for a nearby church.
The elm’s inclusion in Narnia’s spring, which occurs as all the creatures head to the Stone Table to meet Aslan, contributes to the significance and the historic nature of the event.

Silver Birch—Renewal, Adaptability, Stability, and Utility
In Celtic mythology and lore, the birch tree deals with growth, renewal, stability, initiation, and adaptability—all characteristics of Narnia’s historic transformation from winter to spring. The birch is highly adaptive and able to sustain harsh conditions, and it is often used to repopulate areas damaged by forest fires or clearcutting. Paradoxically, while the birch is a symbol of renewal, it is also symbolic of stability and structure. It is also said that the druids carried birch bark with them as kindling because it will start to burn even when damp, which made it a prized fire starter over most other wood types. (This characteristic would have been prized in Narnia as well!)

Historically, the pale colored, satin-sheened, ripple finished bark was used as paper or used in making paper, footwear, and furniture. It is suitable for veneer, and birch ply is among the strongest and most dimensionally-stable plywoods, although it is not suitable for exterior use. Extracts of birch have been used for medicinal purposes (diuretic tea), flavoring, and in cosmetics such as soap or shampoo. In the past, commercial oil of wintergreen, glue, and waterproof tar were made of birch bark. The Native American Indians valued canoes made of the lightweight, waterproof birch bark.

Larches are deciduous trees that are valued for the wood’s tough, waterproof and durable characteristics. The top quality knot-free timber is in great demand for building yachts and other small boats, for exterior cladding of buildings, and interior paneling. The timber is resistant to rot when in contact with the ground, and is suitable for use as posts and in fencing. Larch seems an ideal tree for use in Narnia, especially during its years of winter.

I found the inclusion of Laburnum trees in Narnia curious because all parts of the plant are poisonous and can be lethal if consumed in excess. However, the yellow spring flowers are striking and have led to the tree being called a golden chain tree. Also, the heart-wood of a laburnum is very hard, and is sometimes used as a substitute for Ebony or Rosewood. This duality of beauty and poison in one plant supports a theme of TLWW that things are combinations of both good and bad, so I suppose for this reason the Laburnum belongs in the forests of Narnia.

Narnian Flowers—Harbingers of Spring

All the flowers Lewis mentions in his description of spring in Narnia are also the traditional messengers of spring in Europe and North America.

Celandine. The first flower mentioned in Narnia’s spring is the yellow celandine, native to most of Europe and western Asia. The low-growing perennial has dark green, heart-shaped leaves. In England, the plant is so invasive that it is often considered a weed. According to Gilbert White, a diarist writing around 1800 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, the plants came out on February 21st, but it is more commonly reported to flower from March until May, and is sometimes called the "spring messenger," which it certainly was in Narnia.

Snowdrop. Celebrated as a sign of spring, the white perennial snowdrop can form impressive carpets of white in areas where they are native or have been naturalized. In England and Ireland, these displays attract large numbers of sightseers, and several gardens open specially in February for visitors to admire the flowers.

Crocus. Cheery crocuses are synonymous with spring and they are tough plants, often blooming in the snow. Flowering in an assortment of bright spring colors, these early perennials—often popping through the snow—brighten the mood of winter-weary gardeners. The “gold and purple and white” crocuses in Narnia definitely brightened the moods of Narnians and humans alike.

The showy five-lobed primrose is a woodland plant, native to Europe, and has abundant pale yellow flowers in spring. Over the years, perennial primroses have been hybridized to include several bold colors, including yellows, reds, pinks and blues. The flower stalks of primroses shoot up from low, ground-hugging rosettes of thick green leaves, staying in bloom for weeks. Primroses have become an American favorite as well, and are planted as ornamental spots of color in spring gardens.

Note #1: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Composed in 1723, the set is Vivaldi's best-known work, and is among the most popular pieces of Baroque music. The texture of each concerto is varied, each resembling its respective season. Each concerto is in three movements, with a slow movement between two faster ones.

Vivaldi wrote individual Sonnets to accompany each movement of The Four Seasons. What's amazing is how accurately he musically portrays each Sonnet without losing the overall quality and balance of the work. Following is the text of the sonnet to "Spring":

La Primavera (Spring) – Concerto in E Major

1. Allegro
Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

2. Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.

3. Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Notes: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), nicknamed "The Red Priest", was a Venetian priest and Baroque music composer, as well as a famous virtuoso violinist; he was born and raised in the Republic of Venice.

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons especially appealed to the French. King Louis XV took a liking to “Spring” and ordered it to be performed at the most unexpected moments.

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