Tumnus and His Umbrella:
the Genesis of a Story
commentary by Emilie Griffin
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.
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
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.
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.
named the faun “Mr. Tumnus.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
lamppost indicates that Narnia is not entirely wilderness.
Some vestiges of civilization remain in this Arctic clime.
what about Mr. Tumnus himself? What sort of creature is he, anyhow?
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.
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.”
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.
©2005 Emilie Griffin
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