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16 Facts About The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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In the 1940s, Oxford University professor C.S. Lewis struggled and fought to complete The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Little did he know that his novel would become a best seller, lead to six sequels, and still be widely read decades later. Here are some things you may not know about this long-lived children’s classic.

1. The story was inspired by an image of a faun.

From age 16 onward, Lewis often found himself imagining “a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” According to his short essay It All Began With A Picture [PDF], the image continued to come to him until, at age 40, he said to himself, “Let's try to make a story about it.”

2. The book was also inspired by three girls who lived with Lewis during World War II.

In 1939, three girls, Margaret, Mary, and Katherine, were evacuated from London because of anticipated bombings and sent to live with Lewis in the countryside for a short time. This situation seems to be the inspiration for the four children—Susan, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy—being sent to live with the old Professor in the book.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe took 10 years to write.

Lewis started in 1939 and finished in 1949. The novel was published in 1950.

4. The story was floundering until Lewis invented Aslan the lion.

Lewis wasn’t sure what to do with the book until “Aslan came bounding into it.” He’d been having dreams of lions, and found that putting Aslan in “pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.”

Incidentally, Aslan means "lion" in Turkish.

5. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were in a writing group called The Inklings.

While both writers were working on fantasy novels—Lewis on Narnia and Tolkien on The Lord of the Rings—they met every Monday morning to talk about writing. Others started to join them, and soon the group swelled to 19 men, so they started meeting on Thursday evenings to share and discuss their work. 

6. Lewis destroyed the first version of the book because his friends didn’t like it.

Before 1947, Lewis wrote a draft of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with four children named Ann, Martin, Rose, and Peter. The reaction of his friends to the story was discouraging, to say the least. He said in a letter, “It was, by the unanimous verdict of my friends, so bad that I destroyed it.”

7. Lucy is a real person.

Lucy is based on Lucy Barfield, Lewis’s goddaughter, and the daughter of Owen Barfield. She was 4 years old when he started the book and 14 when he finished it.

In the dedication to Lucy, he said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.”

8. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a “magical doorway” story.

As the term suggests, this is a story where a door or other opening allows a character to leave the real world and enter a magical world. Other magical doorways include the rabbit hole that Alice falls down in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series.

9. The book is also a Christian allegory—or is it?

The Christian themes in the story are overt. Aslan, as a stand-in for Christ, allows himself to be sacrificed by the evil White Witch and is then resurrected, which brings salvation to Narnia. This follows Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection three days later.

But in a 1962 letter, Lewis said the book was not an allegory so much as a “supposal,” as in: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?”

10. Lewis jumbled all kinds of mythology into the book.

Narnia draws on Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, Irish and British fairy tales, Germanic folklore, and Arthurian romance, just to name a few. Even Santa Claus makes an appearance.

11. The White Witch is based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.

Like the Snow Queen, the White Witch is a tall woman dressed in white who is capable of freezing people—the Snow Queen turns their hearts to ice and the White Witch turns people to stone. Both women bring a boy onto a sled and destroy him emotionally through evil magic.

12. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is chronologically the second book in the Narnia series. 

While The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written first, The Magician’s Nephew is chronologically where the story starts. Many people read The Magician’s Nephew first so they can go from the earliest to the latest point in the series.

13. Professor Kirke was based on Lewis’s high school tutor.

The Professor, whose name is Digory Kirke, is based on William T. Kirkpatrick, who tutored Lewis when he was a teenager. Along with appearing in the first book, the Professor is the protagonist of The Magician’s Nephew and also appears in The Last Battle.

14. Tolkien didn’t like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

In 1949, Lewis read a completed manuscript of the book to Tolkien and was surprised by his negative reaction. There’s much speculation as to why he disliked the book so much. Some say it’s because Tolkien didn’t like how Lewis mixed different mythologies together. Another theory is that Tolkien was threatened by the speed with which Lewis assembled his world, when Tolkien was so meticulous in his invention of Middle-earth.

The truth is, we may never know the details. Tolkien said in a letter: "It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.” Which tells us almost nothing.

15. It's one of the best-selling books of all time.

It’s difficult to rank all-time best-selling books, but when people try, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is usually on the list. For example, it’s number 6 on this list, number 9 on this list, and number 17 on this list.

In any case, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is ridiculously successful. It has been translated to 47 languages and adapted for TV, stage, radio, and the silver screen. In 2005, it was made into a big-budget movie starring Tilda Swinton and James McAvoy.

16. Turkish delight is real candy you can make yourself.

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The White Witch gives Edmund magical Turkish delight that he can’t stop eating. “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.” You can whip up a batch yourself (minus the magic, of course) with the recipe here.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

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      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
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