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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wordbook

Curious Words from the Chronicles of Narnia

By Jeremy Marshall

Many dictionaries and guides are careful to warn readers about the difference between a faun and a fawn. However, anyone familiar with the tales of C. S. Lewis is unlikely to confuse these two shy inhabitants of woodland glades, since the goat-footed, part-human faun of classical Roman mythology is the first strange creature we encounter when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Those who know the film/movie version will be flocking back to the theaters this month to see more fantastical creatures in Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Many legendary creatures from ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle East, and Northern Europe inhabit Lewis’s Narnia. From the classical world come the beautiful maidens called nymphs, including the dryads, spirits of trees, and naiads, spirits of streams and springs. (Lewis also calls the naiads ‘well-women’, which now reads rather oddly to anyone who has heard of ‘well woman’ health clinics.) Also familiar to most readers are the centaur—half horse, half human—and the more sinister minotaur, or bull-headed man. The classical cast is completed by the god Bacchus, with Silenus and the satyrs—similar to the fauns, but linked more to drunken revels than pastoral idylls—and by the monopods, a one-legged race featured in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, whose history can be traced back to ‘tall tales’ of the wonders of India, written down by credulous (or unscrupulous) ancient Greek writers and repeated by the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder.

Mismatched myths
Alongside these—in a mythological mix which is said to have irritated Lewis’s friend Tolkien—we find the dwarf of Germanic legend and the ogre of old French tales, as well as the merman, the werewolf, the bogle (Lewis uses the old northern spelling boggle), and the wraith. Among the retinue of the White Witch are three entirely unfamiliar types of creature, the orknies, ettins, and wooses. These are not simply inventions, as we might suppose, but adaptations of ancient Old English words. Orknies (Old English orcneas) and ettins (Old English eotenas, a kind of giant) appear in the poem Beowulf, and the wooses or wood-woses (Old English wudewasan) are also of Anglo-Saxon origin. All have linguistic parallels in Tolkien’s world: the orcs, ents, and woses of Middle-earth.

In the opposite direction from the Northlands lies the home of the ghoul, the afreet (or efreet), and the jinn. These come from legends of the Middle East, introduced to English-speaking readers mainly by the tales of the Arabian Nights. The word jinn is strictly a plural form, the singular being jinnee. This was often translated by the similar-sounding French word genie (from Latin genius, local spirit), which now tends to evoke a rather inappropriate image of a pantomime genie in a bottle, rather than the malevolent and powerful spiritual beings of Islamic demonology.

Reach for the dictionary
The names of creatures contribute an obvious element to the Narnian tales, but another feature of Lewis’s writing emerges throughout the series: his use of surprisingly obscure words. Many readers must simply pass over these without fully understanding them, unless they have a dictionary to hand. But Lewis was, after all, a professor of English literature, and having a rather bracingly old-fashioned approach to education, he thought nothing of throwing a word such as malapert, victualed, or frowsty into a children’s book. The nautical setting of The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ allows him to make play with such terms as poop, forecastle, jury-mast (a mast which is jury-rigged), and dromond.

In The Horse and His Boy we find a whole treasury of words in the flowery speech of many characters: loquacity, indigence, maleficence, scapegrace, sapient, and prognostics. I am sure I didn’t know these when I first read the book. Some of them would need a pretty large dictionary to decode, and Lewis was surely delighted to revive the Shakespearean insult pajock (a vain or conceited person) and the medieval word gentilesse (the quality of courtesy displayed by a true gentleman). As Michael Ward notes in Planet Narnia (Oxford University Press, 2008), language itself becomes a theme of the book.

In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ Lewis allows himself a little linguistic joke. Among a magician’s instruments we spy the astrolabe, the orrery, and the chronoscope—well-known tools of the Renaissance astronomer or scientist—but next comes the poesimeter. This must be an imaginary instrument for measuring poetry (with a pun on ‘poetic meter’). Then comes the choriambus, a term actually borrowed from poetic meter (it is a four-syllable foot: “dum-diddy-dum”). Last is the theodolind, whose name, reminiscent of theodolite (a genuine surveying instrument), appears to have been borrowed from Queen Theodolind of the sixth-century Lombards.

As a lexicographer, one can only hope that Lewis’s enthusiasm for English words continues to encourage a similar passion among his readers.
Jeremy Marshall is a researcher and editor for the Oxford English Dictionary. He was a co-author of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. This post originally appeared on Oxford Dictionaries online.

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  2. […] Finally, one more Narnia-related thing you can check out is this article from Oxford University Press about the unusual words used in the series. […]

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