white stag, in pursuit of the white stag, the transforming power of stories, deer, pudú deer, deer silhouette on a hill with moon, C.S. Lewis, Narnia, Pursuit of the Pudú, myths, legends, mystery, magic, Melissa Travis, desire, spiritual quest

In Pursuit of the White Stag

Legends of a White Stag turn up in many mythologies and folktales throughout the world. The stag or hart (male deer, buck) symbolizes a variety of themes. It shows up in my Pursuit of the Pudú and turns in a cameo appearance in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The connections—historical, literary, and spiritual—amaze me as I’ve recently meditated on motifs in my Seaglass Books and explored some of the legendary links.

What do these all have in common?

In many stories, rare species of deer such as the white stag and the tiny, chestnut-coated pudú serve as metaphors for our spiritual quest for God. This search is not an idle pastime like hunting but is considered the noble pursuit of a peerless object. “As the hart pants after the fountains of water, so my soul pants after thee, O God” (Ps. 42:1).

“If you’re bored with life—you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things—you don’t have enough goals.” –Lou Holtz

The Modern Pudú Deer

I often showcase unique flora and fauna in my books about Chile: dolphins, deer, flamingos, oysters and mussels, seahorses and swans, herbs and flowers. While writing Pursuit of the Pudú, I enjoyed learning more about this Chilean species of deer, which is supposed to be the smallest in the Americas (some say in the world). It averages about 40 cm in height and 10 kg in weight, around the size of a medium dog. The male has short, back-curving antlers similar to a mountain goat’s.

Although the pudú’s fur can range to a grayish yellow, its usual color is a dark reddish brown. It makes its home in the Valdivian temperate rainforests of south-central Chile, typically with a dense understory and rich vegetation, or sometimes in eucalyptus plantations. But only in the Chiloé Islands can pudúes be found in abundance, inhabiting thickets of bamboo or coihue. They live a solitary existence or keep to small family groups (not large herds).

This miniature deer tends to be timid and easily frightened. Its natural predator is the puma (Chilean mountain lion). However, indiscriminate hunting by humans and dogs has classified the pudú as “near threatened,” AKA at risk of extinction. Reproductive isolation in Chiloé increases the population’s vulnerability.

So while it’s not a legendary white stag, the pudú is rare and almost a miracle to glimpse in its natural habitat.

The Mystery

Non-magical white deer occur in nature not infrequently as albinos, animals born with a lack of the melatonin which gives them pigmentation. Leucism, another condition which lightens an animal’s coloring without the complications of true albinism, also produces pale individuals of the species.

However, these genetic anomalies occur only rarely in the wild. Thankfully, to be sure. Genuine white stags and other pale-colored deer appear more visible to predators, thus surviving with difficulty.

In ancient times, a white stag would have inspired awe and admiration. Hunters usually spared the mystical creature. Perhaps they allowed it roam freely, as an envoy of the gods, or they might try to capture it as a sacred prize. Many tribal peoples believed that such a magnificent animal might grant wishes or possess special powers.

The Myths

The myth of the White Stag pops up throughout countless cultural mythologies, from Celtic/Norse to Hungarian to even Native American. The stories highlight a broad spectrum of beliefs. Usually the noble stag represents a forest spirit or god come to earth. It’s considered a very good omen to see one and a very bad omen to kill one, even inadvertently.

The Chickasaw told of the Ghost of the White Deer. The Lenape, a branch of the Algonquins, had a legend about a pair of white deer that, when seen together, would signify the dawn of a new world of wisdom.

In the myths of northern Europe

…the white stag often incarnates a messenger from the Otherworld or a guide to the spiritual realm. A close correlation makes the white stag the northern equivalent of the unicorn in these cultures. The Romans believed in sacred animals, forest gods with antlers, and supernatural hunting parties. All these influences merge to create the archetype of a revered white deer.

Perhaps this pagan background informs the pious legend of St. Eustace, a Roman soldier who happened upon a deer with a white cross between its antlers while hunting in the woods. Eustace converted to Christianity on the spot. He experienced many tragedies and persecutions before being miraculously reunited with his suffering family.

“I have held many things in my hands and lost them all. But that which I placed in God’s hands, I still possess. What I gave, I have. What I kept, I lost.” –Martin Luther

In the legends of King Arthur, the white stag might be pursued but never caught. When one was sighted in Camelot, it signaled the knights to set out on a new quest for the Holy Grail. In Chrétien de Troyes’s medieval French romances, Arthur and his knights hunt the white stag for an Easter feast. The king promises that whoever catches it will win the right to kiss any noblewoman of the court.  But of course, this feat was notoriously next-to-impossible.

And then in The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis adapts most of his White Stag character from the Arthurian legends he was familiar with.

The Meaning

What is the symbolism behind a white deer? White stags, or harts as they are called in some European countries, are said to represent themes such as:

  • A journey for spiritual knowledge or glory. Their elusive nature gives them a mystical allure, embodying the quest for divine enlightenment and perception.
  • An awareness of other worlds and a sensitivity to prophecy.
  • Purity and cleansing. Their unusual white coat symbolizes unblemished innocence.
  • Nobility, freedom, movement, energy, and rejuvenation.

For Christians, the white stag came to symbolize Christ:

  • In His purity and His suffering (the stag was seen as a victim of persecution);
  • In His final victory, as He tramples and destroys the devil; and
  • In His care for the weak and weary (stags help each other in crossing a river).

The Magic

In Narnia, the White Stag is a singular magical creature that appears only in the first book of the Chronicles, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the beginning, when Lucy first stumbles through the wardrobe, the faun Tumnus recounts tales of “long hunting parties after the milk-white Stag who could give you wishes if you caught him.” The origin and whereabouts of this legendary deer are steeped in mystery.

At the end of the story, the White Stag becomes the object of the final quest of the Kings and Queens of Narnia. The Pevensie children, now adult royalty in a quasi-Arthurian court, hear of the White Stag and gallop to hunt the elusive creature who may grant their hearts’ desires. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy follow the stag into Lantern Waste and from there re-enter the magic wardrobe which takes them back to their home and time again.

Here C. S. Lewis drew from both Celtic folklore, where a white stag was hailed as a messenger from the Otherworld, and from Arthurian legend, where pursuit of the deer symbolized mankind’s spiritual quest.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis mainly depicts Christ as a Lion, Aslan. However, Aslan does change forms in the stories. He is shown as a lamb near the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis also recognized the White Stag as a symbol of Christ. (Isn’t it interesting that the character Eustace [in Dawn Treader] has the same name as the Roman soldier who converted after meeting a stag?)

So in a sense, it was Aslan himself in stag form who led the children to return home. Pursuing the stag helped the children to do Aslan’s will for them, which at that point was to cross over from the spiritual life they enjoyed in Narnia to a transformed life in their ordinary world.

At the end of the journey…

…did they receive their hearts’ desires and dearest wishes? It seems so! On the bottom line, our true heart’s desire is the deep longing for God in each of our souls. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (Ps. 42:1, NASB).

“I had to let him go, so he could let go of me. Of us. Sure, we could insist on our path to happily ever after, but only at the risk of missing out on God’s. We had to lay down our hearts’ desire and pursue something besides love, for now.” –Melissa Travis, Pursuit of the Pudú

The Pevensie children could only find God in His fullness back in England. As Aslan tells them: “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

And were Melissa and Nicolás granted their heart’s desire after their Pursuit of the Pudú? Only time will tell.

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