Jadis, the White Witch - a Character in CS Lewis's Narnia Stories Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jadis, the White Witch - a Character in CS Lewis's Narnia Stories

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CS Lewis wrote seven books for children about the land of Narnia. Narnia is in a separate world from ours, inhabited by talking animals and only reachable by magic. In later years these books have been published as a set with the title 'The Chronicles of Narnia', although this name was not used when the books were originally published.

The first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, introduces us to the land of Narnia, which is ruled by an evil White Witch. She keeps the land in a permanent state of winter and calls herself the Queen of Narnia. Anyone who disobeys her laws is punished by being turned into a stone statue1. Throughout the book, the witch is never given any name or title other than 'the White Witch'. She is killed at the end of the book and Narnia is freed from her tyranny.

The other book in which she is a character is the sixth in the series2, The Magician's Nephew. This is a prequel story intended to explain how the witch came to be in Narnia in the first place. The witch is given a name: Jadis. She is from a completely different world, the world of Charn3, which is neither our world nor that of Narnia.

Description

Jadis is a striking woman:

a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white — not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.
– from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There's no reference to her hair in the text but the illustrations show it to be long, straight and black. This combination of white skin, black hair and red lips is often used in traditional fairy tales for both the evil Fairy Queen and innocent Snow White.

Jadis's description in The Magician's Nephew when we first meet her is much the same except that her skin is not white as snow. Near the end of the book, she acquires that skin colour as a side effect of eating a magic apple to achieve immortality.

Physically, Jadis is very tall. Digory, the protagonist of The Magician's Nephew, describes her as seven feet tall (2.13m) and she is 'taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen'.

Jadis is repeatedly described as very beautiful, but it must be noted that she only appeared beautiful to males. Both Edmund and Digory thought she was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen and Digory's Uncle Andrew described her as a 'dem fine woman'. On the other hand, Digory's friend Polly did not think she was particularly beautiful and his Aunt Lettie was not impressed with her. It is possible that Jadis used a 'glamour', a magic spell to make herself seem attractive to the opposite sex.

Jadis is immensely strong. She picks up Aunt Lettie and tosses her across the room like a doll. She casually reaches up and pulls the iron crossbar off a London lamppost4. She then knocks out a policeman by striking him with it on the helmet.

Self-Centred

Jadis's character is totally self-centred. By her own account, she organised a war against her sister so that she could become Queen of Charn. Her people died in their thousands attempting to put her on the throne, but this was right and proper because their only purpose in life was to serve her. She has no sympathy whatsoever for the people she ruled.

Eventually, she demonstrated this in the ultimate way, using a magic spell which killed all life in her world except herself. In this way, by being the only one left alive, she achieved her aim of being Queen of Charn, although she had no one left to rule.

When rescued from Charn by Digory and Polly, she has nothing but contempt for them and for Uncle Andrew, the magician who has found the way of travelling between worlds (something she herself is not able to do). As Queen of Narnia, she imposes a tyrannical rule on the inhabitants, introducing a perpetual winter and punishing dissenters with an effective death sentence by turning them into stone.

Biography

Jadis in Charn

Jadis was born in the country of Charn, in a different world from our own. This world was an old one - the sun was much bigger and redder than our own and looked as if it was nearing the end of its life. Jadis said that it had been like this for 'hundreds of thousands of years'5.

Jadis was born into the royal family and in Charn this meant that she had magic in her blood. She and all her family were powerful enchanters. For example, she knew a spell, which she called 'blasting', that would turn an object to dust, and she wasn't afraid to use it on people - she had no concern for the feeling of others and would kill people if it suited her own purposes or even if she was just angry, which she appears to have been most of the time.

Jadis's family knew of the existence of the ultimate spell, which they named the 'Deplorable Word'. The spell would kill all life on the planet except the person who uttered it. They all agreed never to try and find out the words of this spell. Jadis, on the other hand, decided that this could be used as the ultimate weapon, so she subjected herself to many hardships and eventually found it.

Jadis's sister became Queen of Charn. Jadis challenged her and there was civil war. Jadis's armies were defeated by those of her sister and eventually only Jadis was left, standing to face her sister in defeat. She turned the defeat to a triumph in her own eyes by using the Deplorable Word, killing everybody else, including all animal and plant life, leaving her as the sole occupant and ruler of the world.

Since Jadis could not travel between worlds and there was nothing left for her to do in Charn, she placed a stasis spell on herself so that she would sit unmoving and unchanged in her palace while the world crumbled around her until someone came to wake her6. The spell also preserved the palace to some extent. A long time passed - we don't know how long, but it is implied that it was thousands of years.

Eventually a boy and a girl from our world, Digory and Polly, arrived by chance using magic rings. In an act of stubborn bravado, Digory activated the spell to release the Queen from her stasis.

Jadis in Our World

Jadis insisted on being brought by Digory and Polly to our world. Arriving in London in the 1890s, she found that she was not respected as a queen but was assumed to be a circus performer and ridiculed. She found herself unable to do magic, but set out to take over the world anyway. She caused mayhem on the streets of London and would undoubtedly have killed many people, but Digory was able to trap her with his magic ring and transport her away from our world. This section of the book is heavily influenced by E Nesbit's 1906children's book The Story of the Amulet (in one chapter, the Queen of Babylon is brought from the past into modern London, causing multiple deaths).

Jadis in Narnia

Digory tried to return Jadis to Charn, but accidentally took her to the world of Narnia instead, along with a few people from London and a horse. They arrived just after the world had been created, but before the creation of the sun, stars or any form of life, so the travellers got to witness most of the creation of Narnia by the lion-god Aslan.

Jadis's first act was to try to kill Aslan by throwing the lamppost crossbar at him. It struck him on the head but had no effect. She then fled into the west. Here she discovered a magical tree whose fruit granted the gift of immortality. She ate an apple from the tree and became immortal, but the side effects of this were that all pleasure in life was taken away from her, and her skin turned deathly white.

With Aslan's help, Digory planted a fruit from the same tree in Narnia that quickly grew into a second tree. Due to her condition, Jadis could not stand to be anywhere near this Silver Tree, so it kept her away from Narnia for many centuries.

Some unspecified time later (given in Lewis's notes as 900 years), the tree died and Jadis invaded Narnia, taking it over and styling herself as Queen of Narnia. She used her magic to establish a permanent winter - 'Always Winter but never Christmas'. This remained until the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when her reign came to an end and she was killed in battle by Aslan himself.

Jadis the Executioner

While this biography is fully consistent with The Magician's Nephew, there's one short section in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that seems to contradict it. In a confrontation between Jadis and Aslan, she says to Aslan:

Have you forgotten the Deep Magic? [...] You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.

In an aside to a heckler:

Fool, do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.

This paints a different picture of Jadis - she is not just a renegade at loose in Narnia, she is some sort of an employee of the gods that control the world, with a task to do. It's hard to reconcile this view with the story as told in The Magician's Nephew. It's possible that Jadis made some sort of agreement with Aslan or his father the Emperor soon after the events of the book, soon enough to still be considered 'the very beginning'. It seems more likely, however, that Lewis just forgot this section in the four years between writing the two books.

Jadis's Name

Jadis's name is intended to be pronounced 'Jay-diss'. Lewis does not present any meaning for the name, but he was undoubtedly influenced by the Turkish language. Aslan is the god-like lion who created Narnia, and 'Aslan' means 'lion' in Turkish. The Turkish for 'witch' is 'cadı', pronounced 'jadduh'. The -is ending may have been intended to suggest an association with Atlantis or with Egyptian names such as Serapis and Amenophis, all of which would have been familiar to both Lewis and his readers7.

There is a word 'jadis' in French. It is pronounced 'zhah-dee' and means 'long ago'. This is probably just coincidence, although Lewis would no doubt have been aware of the French word.

Daughter of Lilith

The animals of Narnia believe that only a 'Son of Adam' or a 'Daughter of Eve' could legitimately rule Narnia. They mean humans, male and female. But Mr Beaver says that Jadis is not a 'Daughter of Eve' as she is descended from Adam's first wife, Lilith who was a Jinn8.

It will come as a surprise to many of us that Adam, the first man, should have two wives. This stems from Jewish tradition. The Bible mentions two separate creation acts by God: on the sixth day, he made male and female humans out of dust. These were equal and created together. Later the man, Adam, became lonely, so God created him a companion called Eve out of one of his ribs. To make these two apparently contradictory accounts9 consistent, Jewish scholars decided that the woman created on the sixth day was not Eve but a different woman. So Adam had this woman as his first wife and then Eve as his second.

Although the Bible doesn't name the first woman, the name Lilith became attached to her. But this tradition then became confused and Lilith began to be considered a demon, whereas the first woman in the Bible is clearly human. In Lewis's books, it seems to be the tradition that Adam's first wife was a demon called Lilith.

Of course, Mr Beaver is not a reliable witness - he doesn't think there has ever been a human in Narnia before, but doesn't seem to be aware that Narnia was ruled by humans in the past, or that there are humans living in Archenland just a few hundred miles to the south. Most commentators dismiss Mr Beaver's theories, particularly since they appear to contradict what we're told in The Magician's Nephew. Since Jadis comes from Charn in an entirely different world, neither Narnia nor our world, it seems impossible that she could be a daughter of Lilith. But could this in fact be true?

Jadis's race have lived on Charn for thousands of years. Other than being extremely strong and very tall, she appears to be a normal human. All the humans in Narnia appear to have originally come from our world - is it possible that the people of Charn also originally came from our world?

Digory's Uncle Andrew created the rings used to move between worlds with some magic dust that originally came from Atlantis. So it is possible that the people of Atlantis knew about travel between worlds and originally colonised Charn. This would have happened about 10,000 years ago, Earth time, so there is plenty of time for an advanced civilisation to rise and fall on Charn and still a few millennia left over for Jadis to sit in status waiting for someone to waken her10.

So there is a possibility that Jadis's ancestors were human, and also that they are descended from Lilith.

Other Witches

Jadis appears to have been in her prime when she destroyed all life on Charn - she is described as being very good looking, although never actually described as young. She put a holding spell on herself so that she would not age until someone came to rescue her. Once Jadis arrived in Narnia, she ate the Forbidden Fruit and became immortal.

The day after Narnia was created, the Silver Tree was planted and it kept Jadis out of the country of Narnia. She fled into the North, where giants lived. After 900 years, she came back to Narnia and took over. It's an interesting question as to what she did in those nine centuries. One possibility is that she had children - she appears to have been of child-bearing age. It is possible that the Lady of the Green Kirtle, featured in The Silver Chair, was a descendant of Jadis. She also was a witch and had a plan to become Queen of Narnia.

In Prince Caspian, set about a thousand years after the death of the White Witch, some of the Old Narnians believe that they can summon her back from the dead. A hag says, 'Who ever heard of a witch that really died?'. They call her the White Lady and feel she was more powerful than Aslan, having dominated Narnia against Aslan's wishes for 100 years. They are interrupted before starting the summoning rite, so we don't know whether they would have succeeded. It does raise the point, though, that the hag is talking about witches in general, so there must be other witches in the world of Narnia.

Jadis's Magic

Jadis was a powerful magician. Her abilities changed depending on which world she was in, suggesting that the magic is a property of the world she taps into.

In Charn, ability to do magic was an inherited trait. We know of three pieces of magic she did in that world - one was witnessed by Polly and Digory, while the others were by her own account:

  • She cast a spell at a pair of enormous doors, a process she called 'blasting', which turned them into dust.
  • She used a spell known as the Deplorable Word, which killed off all life on the planet other than Jadis herself.
  • She cast a spell on herself which put her into a sort of suspended animation allowing her to remain unchanged until a special bell was struck to revive her.

On Earth, Jadis retained her phenomenal physical strength but did not seem to be able to use any magic.

In Narnia, Jadis did not initially demonstrate any magic. When she returned from her 900-year stay in the North, she had made or acquired a magic wand and was able to do a number of spells:

  • She cast a spell on the weather, initiating a 100-year-long Winter. This spell, or another cast at the same time, also prevented Father Christmas arriving in Narnia, so it was never Christmas.
  • She could turn people or animals to stone with her wand. She did this fairly regularly, mainly in the courtyard of her castle.
  • She could summon delicious, magical and addictive food. She made some Turkish Delight for Edmund, which made him betray his own family to get some more of it.
  • She was able to disguise herself and others - in one scene she disguised herself as a tree and her dwarf servant as a boulder.

Portrayals of Jadis in Television and Film

There have been a number of television and film adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of these were made long ago and there appear to be no copies of them available.

  • 1963 - Story Box (TV). The White Witch was played by Faith Kent (1925-2008)
  • 1967 - 10-episode TV series in black and white (ABC Weekend Television). The White Witch was played by Elizabeth Wallace.
  • 1979 - Animated Film. The White Witch was voiced by Sheila Hancock in the UK edition and Beth Porter in the US edition.
  • 1988 - BBC TV Series, 6 episodes, colour. The White Witch was played by Barbara Kellerman.
  • 2005 - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (film). In this, the Witch was played by Tilda Swinton.
  • Tilda Swinton also played the White Witch in two cameo appearances in the sequel movies The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader despite the witch not appearing in the corresponding books.

There have been no television or film adaptations of The Magician's Nephew as yet (2019).

1This being a children's story, the statues are turned back to life at the end of the book.2For rather tedious reasons, the publishers insist on calling this the first book and 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' the second.3It's not clear, but Charn appears to be the name of a city or country rather than the world itself.4In the 19th Century, street lamps were powered by gas and needed to be lit manually each evening by a lamplighter. The iron crossbar was for the lamplighter to lean his ladder against while he lit the lamp.5Lewis's idea that old stars turn red before they die has some basis in fact. Very old stars do enter a new phase of their life in which they turn red, but they generally swell up into enormous 'giant stars' as well, engulfing and burning up any planets near them in the process.6The place she chose to sit was the room of ancestors, where waxwork-like images of all the rulers sat on chairs in a long line. This scene was inspired by the 'Place of Death' in H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. This had actual bodies of former rulers preserved by calcification and displayed in a line.7Egyptology was all the rage from about 1920 onwards due to the finding of the tomb of Tut-ankh-amen in 1919.8A demon.9The Bible is full of little contradictions like this, such as the two different versions of the Ten Commandments, or the two irreconcilable genealogies of Jesus's step-father Joseph.10This is even ignoring the fact that time might pass faster on Charn than on Earth. A feature of the Chronicles of Narnia is that time does not pass at the same rate in different worlds.

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