By Hannah Brockhaus
The magical realm of Narnia is the setting of C. S. Lewis’ beloved children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There, four children discover a land of talking animals, mythological creatures, the White Witch, and “the Great Lion:” Aslan.
This Narnia is fictional, but more than 2,000 years ago, when Romans ruled the civilized world, Narnia was a real-life city on the Italian peninsula – and it still exists today.
The ancient hill-town of Narnia, now called Narni, lies in the central Italian region of Umbria, about 50 miles north of Rome. In the city, you can see remnants of the town’s extensive history, from its pre-Roman identity as Nequinum, to antique and medieval Narnia, to the present Narni.
Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, never visited Narni, but he likely knew about the ancient Narnia from reading Roman history, where it is named by such famous writers as Tacitus, Livy, and Pliny the Elder.
In 2009, the town received confirmation of Lewis’ knowledge of the place when the Christian author’s biographer and former personal secretary, Walter Hooper, gifted Narni’s local historian, Giuseppe Fortunati, a copy of a Latin atlas owned by Lewis, on which the Belfast-born author had underlined the town named “Narnia.”
Hooper also relayed that Lewis had told him the name on the atlas had inspired him in the writing of his Chronicles. And while the two places aren’t the same – it very rarely snows in Narni, for example – there are connections between the imaginary realm and the real-life city that can still be seen today.
One of these connections is the presence of a large stone table, which recalls the stone table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, upon which the lion Aslan, a representation of Christ in the book, sacrifices himself to save Edmund, one of the four children in the story.
Found near the Via Flaminia, an ancient road which leads from Rome to the Adriatic Sea, and which also passes by Narni, stands an ancient stone table believed to date from pre-Roman times, and to have been a place of animal, and possibly even human, sacrifice.
The town was founded around 1,000 years before Christ by the Osco-Umbrian people as Nequinum. It was conquered by the Roman Republic in the 4th century BC, and its name was changed to Narnia, after the nearby Nar River.
“Nar,” Fortunati told EWTN, “means ‘water that flows,’” noting that this may also be a reason why Lewis chose the name for his imaginary land, since “water is the source of life.”
The Diocese of Narni was established in the 4th century; in the 20th, it was united with a nearby diocese, and is now part of the Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia.
Around 1930, during repair work on a road, workers discovered a statue of a lion dating from the Roman era, when it was common for the emperor always to have a statue of a lion “guarding” his tent at camp, Fortunati said.
The figure of a lion had also been adopted by the Jewish religion. The Lion of Judah became a symbol of the Hebrew tribe of Judah, the first association found in the Book of Genesis, chapter 49, where Jacob blesses his son Judah, calling him “a lion’s cub.”
In Christianity, the Lion of Judah represents Christ, as in the Book of Revelation it says, “Weep not; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered…”
Fortunati pointed out how it is difficult not to make the connection between the lion statue and other lion symbols found in Narni, and Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia.
Lewis himself confirmed the connection in a letter he wrote to a child reader in 1961. He said he was inspired to make the figure of Christ a lion in the stories for two reasons: because the lion is supposed to be the king of the beasts, and because Christ is called “the Lion of Judah” in the Bible.
Another link between the real and fictional towns can be found in the real-life Lucia of Narnia. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy Pevensie is the youngest child of four siblings, and she is the one who first sees the fantastical land and believes.
Bl. Lucy Brocadelli of Narni was a mystic who lived from the end of the 15th to the mid-16th century and who was born in the city. She was known as a very pious child, and from a young age is said to have seen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Child Jesus, and other saints, particularly St. Dominic.
Her first vision was at the age of 5, and at 12 years old she made a private vow of virginity, deciding to join the Dominicans. As a young teen she was married off by her uncle to a family friend, Pietro, the count of Milan, though they lived as brother and sister at her request.
She continued to experience visions throughout her life, and was particularly dedicated to the poor, including making them bread with the help of saints who visited her. By the age of 18 she had separated from her husband, then becoming a Dominican tertiary. Her husband eventually joined the Franciscans.
She became the prioress of a convent and is one of only a few female saints to have ever received the stigmata. Shunned and mistreated by other sisters for her strange experiences, she spent the last forty years of her life locked up in isolation by a successor prioress.
She died in 1544, and her body was discovered to be incorrupt a few years after that. She was beatified in 1710 by Clement XI. In 1935 her remains were returned to her home town of Narni and interred in the cathedral.
Today around 20,000 people live in Narni; if you visit you will find the town’s Romanesque cathedral, a late-medieval fortress called the Rocca, the old town square, and a plaque marking the “Center of Italy,” among other sites.
Also scattered around the city you’ll find images of lions and of Bl. Lucia of Narnia, reminders of its connection to the mythical land of C.S. Lewis’ imagination and his beloved stories.