Anyone who adapts the works of C.S. Lewis for the screen will find they have a few odd things to contend with. We have never seen a screen version of Prince Caspian, for example, in which young children Susan and Lucy go around cavorting with Bacchus, the god of wine, and his wild Bacchants, for the very good reason that it comes across as seriously strange and more than a little disturbing.
But the oddest moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis’ first written The Chronicles of Narnia novel and the most often adapted, cannot be so easily lifted out. In that fantasy epic, the first major sign that the White Witch’s eternal winter is fading is the appearance of Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus), who has been kept out of Narnia ever since the Witch arrived.
Father Christmas gives three of the four child protagonists magical gifts that are both far more impressive and far more dangerous than most children expect to find waiting for them on Christmas morning, and these gifts play important roles in the story, not only in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but in its sequel Prince Caspian as well.
How Father Christmas Signals Springtime
Lewis’ friend J.R.R. Tolkien famously disliked the Narnia Chronicles, as he told David Kolb in a letter. Lewis’ biographer George Sayer and Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter both suggest that one of the reasons for this was the mixing of mythologies in the Chronicles. Carpenter particularly singles out the combination of Father Christmas—a mythologized Christian saint—with Greco-Roman fauns and nymphs, and talking animals, as one of Tolkien’s main issues with the stories. Too many different things all jumbled up together.
Other scholars have doubted whether this in particular was the cause of Tolkien’s dislike, but it’s easy to see why it seems a likely factor. Tolkien was a firm believer in the importance of believable, consistent secondary world creation, and the appearance of a Christian saint in a world dominated by characters from Greco-Roman and Norse pagan mythologies seems rather strange. Tolkien is far from the only reader to find the big bearded man’s sudden appearance odd—and his disappearance, never to be heard from again, for poor Edmund never even gets a single present from him despite living in Narnia and reigning as King for 15 years.
Lewis, however, was determined to keep Father Christmas in the story and not everyone finds his presence a problem. When Lucy Pevensie is first told that the White Witch has made it “always winter, but never Christmas,” she responds the same way any child would, crying “how awful!” The primary target audience of the Narnia stories is children, and the story is told in a way that’s meant to appeal to children.
Lewis clearly realized that a child’s response to an eternal winter would quite likely be “goody, it must be Christmas every day!” and that the lack of Christmas needs to be specified to show how awful the Witch’s winter is. Andrew Adamson’s film version from 2005 shows the same understanding. When young Lucy lays eyes on Father Christmas, she yells “Presents!” That’s what Christmas and Santa Claus means to young children, after all.
How have Narnians, living in a world where Jesus’ role is fulfilled by a talking lion, come to have an understanding of the Christian festival of Christmas? P.H. Brazier points out that, as Lewis later established in The Magician’s Nephew, (British) humans have been living in and ruling Narnia since it was created. So in story, it is not actually that strange that Narnia’s British-descended kings and queens introduced Christmas and the name of Father Christmas for the red-coated man who brings presents at that time of year into Narnia, even without bringing the story of Jesus along with it.
Additionally, the British name “Father Christmas,” like the French title of “Pere Noël,” (and unlike Americans’ use of “Santa Claus”), avoids any clear connection with the Christian “Saint Nicholas.” It also opens up the possibility of this being a mythological figure connected to the more secular side of Christmas.
Let’s face it, if we’re going to start getting really picky about these things, then what exactly are we going to do with the “holiday” lands in The Nightmare Before Christmas and other fantasy versions of Santa that are far removed from their Christian original story?
And Father Christmas has an important role to play in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His appearance is the very first sign that the Witch’s hold is weakening and the long winter is ending. Although the British Father Christmas has more or less become the American Santa Claus these days, his origins aren’t just in the story of Saint Nicholas. He is also a character in medieval Mummers’ Plays, which celebrated the annual death of vegetation, crops, and so on in autumn and winter, and their resurrection and re-birth in spring.
Father Christmas was a personification of Christmas, and so represents when the darkest time of year also brings light and joy before the turning of the seasons towards brighter days. The usefulness of this symbolic figure for the story of Narnia and how its endless winter becomes spring, alongside the death and resurrection of the Christ-figure Aslan, thus becomes inescapable.
Father Christmas/Santa Claus is also, of course, a Christian figure, and Disney and Walden Media’s marketing for their 2005 adaptation leaned heavily on its Christian themes, especially in certain parts of America. The previous year’s The Passion of the Christ had broken box office records and was for some time the biggest earning R-rated movie ever made (until Deadpool de-throned it in 2016). The Christian market was suddenly on movie studios’ radar, and an adaptation of Lewis’ famously Christian-themed books seemed perfect to cash in on this new discovery. It’s no wonder, then that there was no strong desire to edit out this most obviously Christian element of the story.
Why Christmas Means War in Narnia
There’s another important aspect of Father Christmas’ appearance in the story though, and one brought out especially effectively in Adamson’s film. That aspect is the wartime setting of the story, and the surprisingly violent nature of the gifts Father Christmas gives the three children he meets. (The third Pevensie sibling, Edmund, isn’t with the others when they meet him, because he has temporarily defected to join the White Witch—a choice he comes to regret pretty quickly!)
All three children are given weapons along with some advice about how to use them. Oldest sibling Peter is given a sword and shield and told that they are “tools, not toys”—Peter will soon be required to use these weapons in war and to become High King of Narnia afterward. The need for him to grow up almost immediately is clear. Susan is given a magical horn that will summon help, and a bow and arrow, which in Lewis’ original book, she is told to use “only at great need.”
Lucy, the youngest, is given magical healing cordial, and a small dagger, also to be used “to defend yourself at great need.” In the book, both Susan and Lucy are firmly told that they are not to fight “in the battle.” The girls are therefore put into traditional wartime roles for women as helpers and healers, and Peter is left to lead the fighting.
The violence of the story reflects the background violence of its setting. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was written in the late 1940s, a few years after after the end of World War II, and is set during that cataclysmic war. The year isn’t specified, but the children are evacuated from London, which suggests 1940 during the Blitz bombing of London and the Battle of Britain as a likely setting.
This date was later confirmed by Lewis himself when he put together a timeline of Narnian history some time after finishing the whole series. This is one reason why Edmund is so excited at the prospect of eating Turkish Delight—he is living in a country in which sugar is rationed and sweets are a rare treat. Which doesn’t excuse him for betraying his brother and sisters “for sweeties,” as the White Witch puts it in the film, but it does provide some context for how important Turkish Delight seems to be to him!
Adamson’s film emphasizes the wartime setting of the story far more than earlier adaptations, opening on an air raid over London and showing the children racing to escape the falling bombs. The children talk about the war and about their father being away fighting in it, and directly compare their Narnian experiences to their earthly ones far more often than in other versions or in the original novel, where their evacuation is largely an excuse to get them staying in Professor Kirk’s house, and is based on Lewis’ own memories of having evacuees stay with him.
A wartime Father Christmas giving weapons of war to wartime children also requires a serious-looking figure, someone who makes the children feel “solemn,” as Lewis describes it in the book. The appearance of Father Christmas/Santa Claus in modern pop culture became fixed when Coca-Cola started using him in their advertising campaigns, dressing him in their company colors of red and white. Before that, he was just as likely to wear brown, or green, like Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present (who is very similar to him).
Actor James Cosmo’s Father Christmas (who is not named on screen, to avoid confusing British audiences expecting “Father Christmas” and American audiences expecting “Santa Claus”) is not the Coke-drinking Santa. His robes are red, but they are a dark, maroon-red, fitting in better with the earthy tones of a snow-covered Narnia. Cosmo’s performance is carefully balanced to match. He laughs and is reasonably jolly, but he is also serious, bringing enough gravitas to the role to go with the very serious presents he’s giving.
Father Christmas’ gifts and advice are put to use at the climax of the story when Peter is required to lead an army into war without even Aslan’s presence to help him, Aslan having been inconveniently sacrificed at the altar of the Stone Table the night before. Of course the death of the Hero’s Mentor is a common trope in stories following Joseph Campbell’s template of the Hero’s Journey, allowing the Hero to prove their own worth independently before the end of the story. But expecting an untrained child to lead an army is a fairly extreme example.
Perhaps this was also part of Lewis’ ability to tap into young children’s games and fantasies, since plenty of children have played with toy swords in mock battles, but putting it on screen does have the potential to look rather strange.
In Adamson’s film, this problem is solved by changing the ages of the two older children. Whereas the four children in the BBC’s earlier adaptation all appeared to be very close in age to each other, Adamson’s Pevensies split neatly into two groups—a considerably older Peter and Susan (William Moseley was 18 by the time the film came out) and a much younger Edmund and Lucy. At the very beginning of the film, Peter glances uncomfortably at a solider barely older than himself, and during World War II many young men of Moseley’s age would have been fighting already (or serving in the Home Guard).
So Peter and Susan become characters who might more reasonably be expected to start taking on adult roles. The younger Edmund is initially kept further back from the battle with Mr. Beaver and the archers, while the older Peter actually leads the charge.
The sheer sexism of Father Christmas’ original advice in the book also presented a potential problem for a movie released in 2005, a time when women were still not allowed to fight on the front lines in the U.S. or UK armies (this changed in 2016 in both cases), but were serving in many other roles in armed forces around the world. When Lucy says that she is brave enough to fight in the battle too, she is told that “battles are ugly when women fight.” The implication seems to be that they are not ugly otherwise, which is very strange—and what is it that is so unnatural and ugly about women fighting, anyway?
Adamson’s film cleverly sidesteps this issue with a tweak to the dialogue. As we’ve seen, Peter and Susan are both far older in this version than they are implied to be in the books. Edmund is absent from the Father Christmas scene, so we see the much older teenagers given weapons to use, but he gives the much smaller child just a dagger for self-defence. When Lucy objects and says she thinks she could be brave enough to fight, Father Christmas says nothing about women, but just tells her that “battles are ugly affairs”—implying that it is her young age that he’s thinking of, not her gender.
When the much older Susan asks him “what happened to ‘battles are ugly affairs?’” on receiving her bow and arrow, he just laughs a little—in this version, there is no instruction for Susan to avoid the battle, and a brief moment is added in the eventual climax when she saves Edmund with a well-timed arrow before Lucy fulfils her job as a wartime nurse by healing him.
As Father Christmas drives away in the film, Lucy smugly tells her older sister, “I told you he was real.” It’s very funny and also fits rather nicely into some of the film’s overall themes, as Susan is always the sceptic, the Doubting Thomas; in Prince Caspian, she steadfastly refuses to believe Lucy has seen Aslan to the point it nearly gets them killed.
This is another aspect from the books played up in Adamson’s films, as Susan constantly doubts whether they can achieve anything in Narnia. When Peter first tries to use his new Christmas present, ‘sensible’ Susan screams at him, “just because some man in a red coat gives you a sword it doesn’t make you a hero!” as he tries to hold off a wolf attack on a frozen river, cheerfully ignoring the fact they still have a missing brother to find.
But just as young men and women had to become “heroes” in World War II, all four Pevensies eventually find their inner hero over the course of the story—in three cases, helped by the immensely practical, if violent, Christmas presents they’ve been given.