In nostalgic conversations among friends over favorite childhood literary characters, I inevitably propose Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Much enthusiasm meets this choice. We all agree that as much as we admire the older Peter, Edmund is more interesting. The reason for this preference is not a modern obsession with the anti-hero, whereby a darker, moodier Edmund eclipses Peter’s nobility. C. S. Lewis’ liberal employment of the narrative voice in the first book of the Chronicles ensures that the reader understands that Edmund’s behavior, particularly his treatment of his younger sister, is nasty and not to be admired. Instead, what draws us in is the satisfaction of his redemption story, the arc of his fall and rise. Because I grew up in a Christian household, my parents made sure I explicitly understood Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund as a Christian allegory for the Paschal Mystery. But it wasn’t until I looked back and viewed the development of Edmund’s character as a fellow writer that I realized the simple master stokes of Lewis’ pen that crafted a character who embodies how we all succumb to temptation.
When the witch swoops down on Edmund in her white sledge and offers him the fateful taste of Turkish Delight, Edmund is no hapless victim. He is a bully and a liar and has “gone wrong” ever since he started school, perhaps an autobiographical reference to the hostile environment Lewis himself experienced at his boys’ boarding school. Not only does tasting Turkish Delight leave Edmund wanting more, the witch’s food is so enchanted that, if allowed, Edmund would eat it until it kills him. He is a slave to his appetites.
Lewis further explores this theme of appetite in the memorable episode with the yellow balloon fruit in Perelandra. Ransom’s taste of the yellow fruit is beyond any pleasure or delight he has ever experienced. About to pluck a second fruit, Ransom realizes that he has fully satisfied his hunger and thirst, and to repeat the experience would be to cheapen and overwhelm his senses. This act of restraint inevitably leaves the reader asking: would I have taken a second fruit? Our personal soul-searching aside, Edmund’s response is to take the second fruit, so to speak; his appetites overwhelm his will and intellect. His desire for Turkish Delight distracts and clouds his perception of the witch and the true state of things in Narnia.
The White Witch does not only target Edmund’s appetites, she also targets his intellectual pride, with promises of kingship and the consequential power over his siblings. Edmund’s clashes with Peter have led to a self-victimization of which the witch takes advantage by indulging his ego. During his snowbound walk to the witch’s castle, Edmund wrestles with his conscience. He almost turns back. But then he slips into a snow drift and declares: “When I am King of Narnia, the first thing I shall do will be to make some decent roads,” and so continues on his way. An act of chance that brings discomfort engenders the instinctual impulse towards self-pity. This all-too-common quirk of human nature is what makes Edmund so relatable.
At this point, Lewis’ jovial narrative voice interjects to clarify that Edmund isn’t so far gone that he actually wants his siblings turned to stone. Edmund has worked hard to convince himself that the White Witch really isn’t that bad, that all the terrible things said about her were said by her enemies, and probably half untrue. But the narrator also points out that deep down inside, Edmund knows that the Witch is evil and cruel. Here Lewis gives us a convincing psychological portrayal of the lies we tell ourselves to justify committing less than savory deeds. Edmund is so ensnared in his lies, both to others and to himself, that he is blind to the mortal consequences of his betrayal. Yet after this betrayal, Edmund suffers the repercussions of his actions. Instead of Turkish Delight, he receives stale bread; instead of becoming a king, he becomes a prisoner; instead of kind words, he receives blows.
Worst of all, the White Witch reveals her intention to kill each of the four children. When on the trail towards the Stone Table, the witch turns a party of feasting animals to stone. Edmund has tried to restrain her (his first brave act), and then feels pity for the petrified woodland creatures. The narrator comments that this is the first time in the story that Edmund has felt sorry for anyone other than himself. Here we find out what had been really wrong with Edmund: until now he has been trapped within the prison of the self. After his rescue, Peter, Susan, and Lucy observe Edmund speaking privately to Aslan. We don’t know what was said, but we can surmise that Edmund has come to an authentic vision of himself and his faults. We can conclude that Edmund is making some sort of “confession” to Aslan and now emerges from this conversation transformed. As an Anglican, C. S. Lewis did not see confession to a priest as necessary, though he found it profitable. Here Edmund is directly confessing to Aslan as a Christ-figure, the one that he had ultimately sinned against through betrayal. Now Edmund is able to apologise to his brother and sisters, for through the healing power of contrition he is now able to take responsibility for his own actions.
Not only has Edmund taken ownership of himself, but he has done this by keeping his gaze fixed on the other, who, in this case, is Aslan. This paradoxical movement of losing oneself in order to receive oneself, the necessary movement of all our souls if we wish to escape the enslavement of sin, is described perfectly by Lewis:
“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.
Because Edmund has received the necessary forgiveness that culminates on the Stone Table, Edmund also “forgets” his sin. Or at least forgets the self-consciousness of shame attached to ego. He knows and trusts that Aslan will make everything right and is no longer vulnerable to the witch’s enchantments. But Edmund’s time with the witch has not been wasted. He knows her ways. Because of what he has suffered, he is the only one with the prudence and foresight to destroy the witch’s wand during the final battle of the story. His “eucatastrophic” turn comes when he braves his body in a sacrificial act of heroism. In this way Peter’s army holds out long enough for the resurrected Aslan to return with reinforcements and slay the White Witch. Edmund’s subsequent healing from the wounds incurred in the battle is another act of mercy, and his royal epithet when he grows into his kingship is Edmund the Just. He can be just because he has first tasted Aslan’s mercy. His temptation, fall, and redemption escapes the trap of being merely a pedagogical lesson on virtue for children, since as a fully human character he reveals our own humanity, and the teetering line we walk between sin and redemption.
Anna Maria Mendell received her M.St. in Early Modern Literature from Oxford University. She is the author of the fairy tale novel The Golden Princess and the Moon (Angelico Press) and is managing editor for the Sophia Institute for Teachers.