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Sarah Lindsay

The White Witch and Oliver Cromwell

White Witch
Tilda Swinton as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2005 | image via WikiNarnia

So, I have this theory about the White Witch in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

She’s inspired by Oliver Cromwell.

I can hear your shocked gasps over the internet. Oliver Cromwell? The seventeenth-century English general who led the Parliamentary forces that defeated the royal army? The Oliver Cromwell who was one of the signers of Charles I’s death warrant? The Oliver Cromwell who ruled England as Lord Protector (more or less a military dictator) from 1653-58? The Oliver Cromwell who played a major role in one of the most audacious political experiments in Europe?

Yep, that Oliver Cromwell.

portrait of Oliver Cromwell
Peter Lely, Oliver Cromwell, c. 1660 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Hear me out. What’s the White Witch known for? Ruling Narnia with an icy fist, locking the country in a 100-year winter and never allowing Father Christmas to enter. Always winter and never Christmas, which is about the bleakest existence I can imagine (and imagine it I do, every February when Christmas is a distant memory and spring a distant dream).

(If I may be permitted a digression: I never once though of this until I started writing this blog post, but how in the world is anyone still alive in Narnia after 100 years of winter? How is anyone finding food to eat? The plants must all be dead, and I can’t imagine the animals survived for more than a year or two without food.

Some dwarves are on the White Witch’s side, and although Lewis never explains Narnia’s economics, it’s reasonable to suppose that they have an arrangement in which the Witch and the dwarves can profit from whatever they export from their mines. Thus the dwarves and White Witch may have money to import food, and the Witch can feed her police and her informants, but pretty soon there wouldn’t be anyone left to police or inform upon.

Plus which, if I were a Narnian, I think after about two years of dictatorship, never-ending winter, scurvy, and no Christmas, I’d be like: screw this, we’re moving to Calormen.

Of course, 100 years could be enough time for some evolutionary adaptation, so maybe just enough grows to sustain a tiny population — like the Beavers, and the fish Mr. Beaver catches for the young human children.

Am I overthinking this? Yes, yes I am. But now you can overthink it, too!)

Anyway. Back to my theory: the White Witch as Oliver Cromwell. Despite the recent decision to re-order new editions of the series, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first Narnia book written, and all we know about the White Witch in that book beyond her sorcerous powers is that she deposed the true monarch of Narnia, took power herself, locked Narnia in endless winter, and prevented the celebration of Christmas.

Now, the historical Cromwell was certainly not a sorcerer, and he did not change the English weather patterns. But he was one of the key players in the political upheaval that led to the trial and execution of the English king (Charles I) and the establishment of a Republic. This political experiment was short-lived; after four years of struggle by Parliament to establish a coherent government, Cromwell himself took power and ruled England as Lord Protector, and at his death was succeeded by his son.

The shocking and revolutionary political experiment then collapsed, and the English monarchy was restored in 1660 when Parliament invited Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, to return to England as king.

History has, as one might imagine, viewed Cromwell in a variety of ways; for me today, at a distance of 350 years and living in a democratic republic, it’s pretty easy to sympathize with Cromwell and the other English republicans who had grown distrustful of monarchy as a system of government.

But for a royalist, Cromwell is nothing short of a traitor, willing to kill a king anointed by God in order to seize power himself. Lewis seems to fall into this category: his White Witch, or King Miraz in Prince Caspian, show the dangers of monarchial power — yet the remedy is not a different form of government, but the restoration of the true monarch.

So far, so good: the White Witch and Cromwell both depose rightful monarchs, bringing chaos into their realms; Lewis has reason to pattern his king-killing despot after a figure in his own cultural history. But of course, Cromwell is far from the only person to ever depose a ruler, so this is not conclusive evidence.

What seals the comparison? Forbidding Christmas.

Now, Narnia is magical; there, Father Christmas is real, although prevented from entering by the White Witch’s magic. Cromwell had no magic, and no real Father Christmas to keep out of England. But he, along with many other Puritan leaders, were appalled at the feasting, games and high spirits of the season; additionally, the Puritans were deeply of suspicious of holidays they viewed as “popish,” or originating in Catholicism rather than scripture.

So in 1645, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas: there were to be no carols, no plays (like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, meant to cap the twelve days of revelry from December 25 to January 6), no decorations, no time off for members of Parliament. According to the Puritans, Christmas celebrations were neither moral nor religiously significant, and thus the laws prohibited the citizens of England from observing Christmas either socially or spiritually.

(For more on this ban on Christmas, including the Christmas riots of 1647, I recommend this short article.)

To be fair to Cromwell, he did not personally order the ban on Christmas. But it’s also quite clear that he supported and encouraged the ban; during his years as Lord Protector, he continued to enforce the prohibitions against celebrating Christmas. Only when Charles II was restored to the throne could English citizens once again legally celebrate Christmas.

So to recap, Oliver Cromwell deposed a rightful monarch, took power himself, and forbade the celebration of Christmas. And order was only restored to England when the rightful monarch returned to the throne. It’s not much of a stretch to see Cromwell as an inspiration for the White Witch.

Now, I freely admit that my theory doesn’t change how I read and enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But every time I see something about the so-called “war on Christmas,” I think about Cromwell and the White Witch. Christmas can be a point of contention, a flashpoint for questions about morality and religion — even if today we question the morality of consumerism and the place of Christmas in a pluralistic society.

Let us not be Cromwells or Jadises, squelching the joy of the holiday for others. Let us instead be Father Christmases, celebrating with ringing sleigh bells and generous gifts and feasting and hope as we point to the one who makes Christmas possible.