Let me say right out of the gate that the White Witch is not like any of the other baddies we’ve tackled so far. As a children’s villain, she’s not bogged down by pesky things like realism or complexity. She can be as powerful, as outrageous, as pure eeeeevil as she likes. That makes her both larger than life and somewhat two-dimensional. Even so, it would be a mistake to underestimate her. Like all things Narnia, her simplicity belies a strong theological and mythological pedigree. And, like the oldest fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though nominally intended for children, the White Witch is bloody horrifying.
To get the full picture, you really have to go back to the beginning of the tale – which is also the end of the tale, as it happens. Like many fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia were not penned in chronological order (nor were they published in the order in which they were penned, just for that added layer of confusion). Book 1 in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, is where the White Witch makes her official debut. But it was also the last of the books to be written, which means Lewis had some extra time to mull over and flesh out the sketch of a villain we meet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s The Magician’s Nephew that gives us the bulk of the Witch’s backstory and insight into her character. It’s also where her theological significance is hammered home with Lewis’s trademark subtlety, but we’ll get to that later.
We first meet the Witch – or, to use her proper title, Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc. – in the ruined world of Charn. Magicked there by his unscrupulous uncle, young Digory quickly finds himself fascinated by this unfamiliar territory, an apocalyptic landscape un-coincidentally reminiscent of a world ravaged by nuclear war. Ignoring the advice of his friend and travelling companion, Polly, he strikes a bell and awakens Jadis from a millennium-plus of slumber. She rises from her throne, glances around, and demands to know who has broken the spell, only to discover that it’s just a pair of vermin children.
Jadis then does two things. First, she takes the kids on a quick tour of her palace. Quick, because the place is crashing down around their ears, but even so Jadis manages to cover the main points of interest: the dungeons, the torture chambers, certain massacres of historical significance. Then she blasts a huge set of doors off their hinges and bids the children remember it: “This is what happens to things, and to people, who stand in my way”. But wait, the tour is not quite over. Jadis leads the children to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the whole city – the great city, she calls it, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds.
It doesn’t look all that wonderful now, mind you, since it’s an apocalyptic wasteland. That’s because Jadis annihilated the entire planet in a single breath. “I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.”
Holy shit, you guys.
This is the thing about children’s stories. They can be so casual about the genuinely horrific. Wolves gobble up poor defenceless grannies and little kids are fattened up and shoved into ovens. Real-world villains like Hans Gruber and Stringer Bell seem positively bush league by comparison. Murdered a handful of plebeians, did we? Please. The White Witch annihilated an entire world – every man, woman, and child, every bird, every blade of grass – all to preserve her throne. And the children’s reaction to this unspeakable atrocity? “It was rather hard luck on them, all the same,” says Digory.
The most striking thing about this nonchalant slaughter is that it’s not even important to the plot; it’s offered up purely as backstory. Jadis never gets up to anything remotely so heinous in the books themselves. In fact, in both Magician and Lion, etc. she’s remarkably ineffective. In part, this is because she never regains the power she wielded in Charn. On Earth, the most she can do is wave a chunk of lamppost around and call people moderately insulting names. Even in Narnia, her spells are largely confined to Enchant Candy and Conjure Chai Latté, and even these rely on some mysterious vial of liquid that she could have obtained anywhere. Without her magic wand – which, again, she could have picked up in Diagon Alley at her local pawnbrokers for all we know – she’s pretty useless. She never offers a real challenge to the all-powerful Aslan. But then again, maybe that was never her purpose.
If Aslan is obviously a Christ-like figure, and the children are Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, Jadis’s analogue in Christian mythology is less clear-cut. In some ways, she’s similar to Satan: just as the Devil lays claim to fallen souls, every traitor in Narnia belongs to Jadis as her lawful prey, and for every treachery she has the right to a kill. At other times, she plays the role of the Serpent, tempting Digory with forbidden fruit in the garden and using enchanted candy to convince Edmund to betray his siblings. And yet it’s Jadis herself who eats the fruit in the garden, as Eve did, and we’re told that she comes from the stock of Lilith, who is either Adam’s first wife or of demon stock, depending on which mythology you’re drawing from (Lewis appears to have drawn from more than one well). In other words, Jadis is a one-woman embodiment of the Bible’s Greatest Evil Hits.
Which, in theory, should be pretty badass, but alas – and this is the main reason she’s so ineffective – Her Imperial Majesty, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., is none too bright. Which is why she’s taken out of play early and easily in both books, and were it not for the treachery of Edmund, she’d have been bumped off about fifty pages earlier, leaving even more time for thrones and tea and bizarrely stilted dialogue. And speaking of the Witch’s demise, may I say that it counts among the lamest deaths in the history of villainhood. We don’t even see it, properly speaking; one moment the Lion and the Witch are tumbling to the ground and the next we’re told that the battle is over and the Witch dead. Apparently we’re fine with a whole page recounting the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people, but a lion killing a woman is beyond the pale.
Children’s stories. Seriously.
And now, The Machine.
Strengths: Beauty, brawn, and brains. On second thought, scratch the brains. When it comes to evil ingenuity, Jadis scores slightly below your average house cat. At least she has beauty and brawn to get her through. She can snap a lamppost with her bare hands, turn her enemies to stone, and enchant them with candy. Claims she can read minds but I’m not convinced. I read hers. It looked like this:
Weaknesses: Did I mention she has tumbleweed for brains? When she finally does get an idea in her head, she pursues it with relentless single-mindedness. Which is a shame, because her ideas are really dumb. As a result, she is repeatedly outfoxed by children and small animals.
Best Quote: “Despair and die.”
Lair: A grim castle littered with the petrified bodies of her enemies. That’s… a pretty good lair, actually. 5 points.
Toys: A magic wand that turns everyone to stone. 8 points for awesome, -3 points for cliché.
Henchmen: An army of ogres, wolves, bull-headed men, cruels and hags and incubuses, wraiths, horrors, efreets, sprites, orknies, wooses, and ettins. Oh, and some of the trees. 8 points.
Intimidation factor: Depends. In Narnia, she’s seven feet tall and can turn you to stone with a flick of her wrist. The animals certainly seem frightened of her. On Earth, though, people mostly just laugh at her. I’m going to average that out at 3.
Schemes - Scope: Jadis wants to conquer all the worlds that ever were. No shortage of ambition there. 10 points.
Schemes - Complexity: Oh sure, she has vision, but plans? Jadis can’t seem to think more than one move ahead. It’s like watching your four year-old niece play checkers, only the toddler has a better temperament. -5 points.
Overall Badass Rating: 26
As always, if there’s a villain you’d like to see put through The Machine, let us know in the comments!
Next month: Al Swearengen