Finding Turkey in Narnia
- September 11, 2023
- Hannah Lucinda Smith
- Themes: Culture
Re-reading CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia after a gap of thirty years reveals the author’s interest in the culture and history of the Turkic peoples.
The first clue was a word: Aslan, in large text, printed over a picture of a lion in my Turkish beginners textbook. Synapses sparked. Memories rushed up. Aslan. The Lion. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
It couldn’t be a coincidence. CS Lewis chose aslan, the Turkish word for lion, as the name of the central character in his most famous works, the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was a devout Christian and Aslan, a talking lion, represents both Jesus and God in Narnia, his fantasy world that four children enter through an old wardrobe. Aslan is Narnia’s creator, its martyr who sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of men, and its saviour, resurrected to lead the final battle.
I was oblivious to Narnia’s religious symbolism when I first read the Chronicles, aged around seven. For me, Lewis’ world was all about its landscapes and characters, places, people, talking animals and fantastical beasts, which he describes so bewitchingly they danced in my mind. I devoured the stories again and again in dog-eared paperbacks, on audio versions on cassettes that I played until they unspooled, and in the BBC dramatisation that played on Sunday evenings in the early 1990s. I never really got into fantasy novels beyond Narnia, and by the time I was around ten I had moved onto other genres. But Lewis’ stories stayed with me – and when I moved to Turkey a decade ago I started seeing Narnia everywhere. Some references were overt, like Aslan, or the Turkish delight whichtreacherous Edmund craves. Others were more cryptic, or woven in with my own mental landscape of Turkey. Over the years, as I crisscrossed the vast Turkish landscape as a newspaper reporter, I was often slapped by a strange deja vu. Flying over the velvety-green cone-shaped hills on the Black Sea around Istanbul conjured up blurry memories of Fledge, the winged horse, soaring over verdant Narnia. From a train window in December the endless snowy Anatolian plain looked like the White Witch’s winter-locked wasteland. In a holy shrine close to the cave cities of Cappadocia I saw the sumptuous fur-trimmed costumes and hunting horns of the Bektashi, an Islamic mystic order – exactly how Lewis described Narnia’s regalia.
Lewis wrote the Chronicles in the gloom of postwar England, in a pact with JRR Tolkien. Both men had been conscripted to the trenches in the First World War, suffered deep trauma, and then witnessed a new generation being subjected to the horrors of the Second World War. They vowed to each write a children’s book to explain what Europe had lived through, and warn against it happening again. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings, and Lewis wrote the Chronicles. He is not known to have ever visited Turkey, nor studied the Turkish language, although he was a noted linguist. Critics have only skimmed the surface of the Turkic references in Narnia, mostly dismissing them as something that he must have picked at random because he liked the sound of the language. Others have suggested that Tolkien, who also used Turkic words and references in his writing, may have been an influence.
I couldn’t shake the thought that there was something more: a deliberate effort by Lewis to bring Turkey, its culture and recent history into his representation of a war-shattered Europe. Narnia is a new-born world at the start of the Chronicles, but it is already poisoned by the invasion of a dark magic that has escaped from an old, deceased world. Turkey, too, was new-born in Lewis’s lifetime, forged in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which had been obliterated in the swell of European nationalism that culminated in the First World War. It was one of the few continental powers to stay out of the Second World War and, by the late 1940s, it was accelerating into a period of intense modernisation and growth. Yet it was also a nation struggling to define its idea of itself, haunted by the echoes of its disappeared past.
Disney’s 2005 film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe introduced Turks to Narnia, and on internet forums Turkish superfans began discussing what the references might mean. Now and then, I pored through the threads, read papers or spoke with academics, but I never found satisfactory answers. So, I decided to reread the Chronicles in their entirety for the first time in 30 years, to search for my own traces of Turkey in Narnia.
Books, like many things from childhood, are far smaller when you revisit them. In my memory each Chronicle was a labyrinthine blockbuster, and Lewis’ imaginary world so rich that I was sure the stories ran to hundreds of pages. I would sit for hours in my childhood bedroom drawing out coloured maps of imaginary lands that were filled with Narnia’s topography: the sea to the east, mountainous borders, dark woods and winding rivers. I was sure the adventures that unfolded in Narnia were years-long epics in which characters grew from children to elderly adults, with detailed accounts of their whole lives unfolding. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was the first book that Lewis wrote in the series. He later wrote a prequel, which most publishers now choose as the first in the order; but since Lewis started there, so did I.
I finished the book in an hour, whisked away with its four protagonists, the children Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, from blitzed London to the professor’s house in the country, and then to the wardrobe and the lamppost, and the whole sweep of Narnia beyond. With pictures at the start of each chapter the book spans fewer than 200 pages. But Lewis spins a world that is so expansive and all-encompassing that, even when you read it as an adult, you have to focus on each word. Decades can pass in sentences: in the closing pages the children grow into adults who feast and hunt, and go on great voyages and adventures as they rule wisely over Narnia, almost forgetting their own world until they are suddenly drawn back into it and find that no time has passed at all.
Yet Narnia is a place that fills your senses and stays with you almost as a real memory. Its details pop: crunching snow beneath the children’s feet, the cosy smell of cooking trout in the beavers’ cave, and the dank fear and evil inside the White Witch’s house. Straight after I finished The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe I went back to the start of the Chronicles, to its prequel The Magician’s Nephew, in which Lewis explains how Aslan created Narnia, and then worked my way through the whole series. I marked every reference I found, no matter how oblique or minor. There is Lewis’s Tarkaan dynasty of Calormen, who worship the satanic deity Tash and try to invade Narnia; Tarkan is Turkic honorific and the name of a Turkish folk hero, while taş is the Turkish word for rock. There are Lewis’s viziers, the advisors to the Tarkaan rulers; viziers also held high political seats in the Ottoman Empire. The Tarkaan soldiers of Calormen carry curved swords, as the Ottomans did, and their viziers wear the same turbans and wooden clogs. The true king of Narnia takes shelter from his usurper uncle in a cave city, like those of Cappadocia in Anatolia, where for centuries Christian communities took refuge from wars and pogroms.
The books had a comfortable familiarity, as if I had reopened them at the page I marked thirty years ago. I could still remember the most evocative passages by heart as I read them in bed each night. But with Turkey around me and filling my thoughts it was like I was reading it with a new appendix.
As I started the fifth book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I was offered a rare place on a government press trip to Azerbaijan, a secretive and dictatorial Turkic republic in the Caucasus. Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, sits on a peninsula jutting into the Caspian Sea, the biggest inland lake in the world. It is the namesake for Prince Caspian, the titular protagonist of the fourth book in the series and a major character in the fifth and sixth. Lewis’s choice of the word Caspian stands out from his other Turkic references: the sea is known as Hazar in both Turkish and Azerbaijani, which are near-identical languages. When Lewis decided to make Caspian the name of one of his main characters, he was not simply picking a word from a translation dictionary but directly referencing a place.
In fact, it is in the regions on Turkey’s fringes that I’ve most often found Narnia’s heaviest aesthetic echoes. The Balkans to the west and the Caucasus to the east are mountainous hinterlands, where emerald-green rivers are spanned by ancient white limestone bridges and religious monuments scatter the hilltops. Turkey’s influence rings through both. The Ottoman empire extended to the gates of Vienna in the seventeenth century, and in its wake it has left nebulous Muslim communities scattered through the Balkans. There are Turkish-speaking communities in nearly every Balkan country, and in Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina and Prizren you will find old mosques and covered markets like miniatures of their muses in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the Caucasus and central Asia were part of the Soviet Union in the modern era, but it is from these lands that the Turkish language, culture and Islamic religion originally came, carried by the Turkic nomads who swept into Anatolia from the eleventh century. The Turkic countries and groups in central Asia speak forms of Turkish, although heavily accented and, in the case of the Uyghur in China, written in Arabic script. Narnia’s violent tribalism is mirrored here, too. The Balkans and Caucasus are populated by patchworks of ethnic and religious groups that are ill-served by their modern borders. There are places in both regions that are still fought over, as Lewis’s Calormene and Telmarine tribes grapple for pieces of Narnia.
I had been invited to visit Nagorno Karabakh, a mountainous and once multi-ethnic region that both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim as their own. In 1992 they fought a war over it and for nearly thirty years it was controlled by an Armenian-backed separatist government. The region’s Azeris fled as refugees, their abandoned towns crumbling to dust. In 2020 Azerbaijan, by now a wealthy state pumped up by its gas reserves under the Caspian Sea and armed with Turkish-made drones, launched a new war and seized back most of Nagorno Karabakh, sending a new refugee exodus to Armenia. Now it was moving its own people back into the region. For nearly nine months Azerbaijani soldiers had blockaded the last Armenian-populated enclave and a whole city was starved into submission, but Azerbaijan’s government denied it was carrying out any campaign against civilians – and it was bringing international journalists into the area to try to prove it. But as I prepared to set off from Baku to the Karabakh mountains, my permission to enter the area was cancelled and the trip called off. The Armenians had been firing into Azerbaijan’s territory, officials said, and they could not ensure my safety. Instead, for three days I was introduced to various bureaucrats and analysts, all of them connected to the government and all of them telling me the same thing to varyingly degrees of credibility and desk-thumping outrage: Nagorno Karabakh was Azerbaijan, and would remain so to the end.
I tried to see as much of Baku as I could: the eternal flame just outside the city that is worshipped by pilgrims of Zoroastrian, Hindu and Sikh faiths, the winding alleys of its walled old city, and its sweeping shoreline on the Caspian Sea. Baku is arranged in a natural basin, so you see the water from wherever you are as you walk downhill towards its centre. The Caspian was once filled with abundant stocks of beluga sturgeon, but today it is an industrial sea, bordered by five countries and economically exploited by all. It sits atop one of the planet’s largest gas fields, and spooky silhouettes of the drill platforms dot the horizon. The Baku shoreline is studded with port cranes, and cradled by glimmering skyscrapers in unlikely, curvaceous forms – the trinkets of petrodollars. Now the Caspian is shrinking and the sturgeon are endangered. In a few decades, it may have dried up altogether.
Environmental pillage runs through Lewis’s Narnian fables. Uncle Andrew, the bungling evil magician who brings the first children from the world of men into newborn Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, dreams of using its resources for his own enrichment. In The Last Battle, the Calormenes begin their conquest of Narnia by cutting down its forests to sell the wood. I walked through Baku, down the gleaming oil-money towers towards the stricken sea, past patriotic posters echoing the apparatchiks’ line – Karabakh is Azerbaijan! Narnia felt closer than ever.
As I neared the end of the Chronicles I realised that the Turkic references were stuttering out. Luscious Turkic names were being replaced with stout Anglo-Saxon: Shift the conniving ape, Puzzle the unintelligent donkey, Puddleglum the marshwiggle. I realised, too, that my preferences among the Chronicles had not changed in thirty years. The books that feature the most Turkic references are still my favourites: The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian. They are the first four books according to Narnia’s chronology, but not the first four as Lewis wrote them. Prince Caspian was published a year after The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, in 1951, followed by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, the two further books in which Caspian appears.
In his final three books Lewis went back to fill the gaps: The Horse and His Boy explains the backstory of the tribes that wage wars on Narnia, while The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle tell how Narnia begins and ends. By the end, his symbolism is overtly religious. The Narnians lose their war against the Calormenes, and line up before Aslan for the final judgement as their world ends. Those who have remained faithful are permitted into Aslan’s kingdom, the true Narnia, where they are reunited with friends who had died in the battles and adventures waged throughout the Chronicles. The human children are also permitted to stay in Aslan’s eternal paradise, as they have died in a train crash back in the real world.
I am still unsure whether I have been clutching for mirages of Turkey in Narnia, or Lewis was planting a deliberate meaning in his references. He clearly studied parts of Turkey’s language and geography, and used snippets of its history and political systems. But these symbols are often at odds with others. In a letter written in the 1950s, Lewis confirms that he has used the Turkish word for lion (and that he intends it to be pronounced ass-lan, as it is in Turkish). Yet he also writes that the lion is a direct reference to the Lion of Judah, one of the forms Jesus takes in the scriptures.
Maybe Lewis was cherry-picking, and I am mistaking coincidence for causation. But part of the enjoyment of rereading childhood favourites is searching for the meanings you missed first time around. Lewis knew it: in the front of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I found the dedication that he wrote to his god daughter, Lucy:
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.