A Bridge Between Worlds

316573,xcitefun-lion-of-lucerne

The Lion of Lucerne, Switzerland

“It makes me, I think, more humble than proud to know Aslan has allowed me to be the means of making Him more real to you”[1]

In his essay, “Three Ways of Writing for Children” C. S. Lewis advised fellow writers that the material substance of a piece should arise out of “the habitual furniture of [their] minds.”[2] For Lewis, these mental furnishings contained a love for fairy tales and an appreciation for how they create longings that could point one towards Christ.  Lewis would incorporate these mental trappings, along with others like a lifelong fascination with cosmology, into his own fairy tale series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  One mental trapping would come “bounding” into his mind in the process of their composition, becoming the sun around which the entire series would revolve – a lion named Aslan, the king of the world of Narnia.  Lewis described Aslan as “insisting on behaving His own way”[3] and in the process he took on the form of what was arguably the most important influence on Lewis’s mind, the King of our own world. [4]  Aslan would then bound into the hearts of generations of readers, young and old, believers and unbelievers alike.  Given such widespread readership, it is important to consider how true to Christ’s character this lion king of Narnia is and whether or not the reader’s conscious recognition of any resemblance matters.

Before considering the resemblance, it is important to keep in mind that Lewis was sensitive to the Narniad being labeled as either allegorical or symbolic.  In 1954, he wrote a letter to a young class of students with this warning: “You are mistaken when you say that everything in the books ‘represent’ something in this world.”[5]  Elsewhere he’d write that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ,”[6] and that Aslan is an imaginative exploration of the question, “Let us suppose that there was a land like Narnia” filled with talking beasts and instead of becoming a man like He did in our world, Jesus became a lion.[7]  This supposition, or “supposal”[8] as Lewis would call it, is key to understanding the connection between Aslan and Christ

Lewis believed that “the world of fairy-tale, as the world of Christianity, makes the heart and imagination royalist” and he wanted his stories “to liberate – to free from inhibitions – a spontaneous impulse to serve and adore” [9] that has been suppressed by the modern idealization of absolute equality.  This can have an effect on one’s understanding of the royal relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and mankind as His image bearers and lesser rulers on earth.  Moved by the coronation of the young Queen Elisabeth, Lewis would write that “the pressing of the huge, heavy crown on that small head” reminded him that, “we all have been crowned and [our] coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendor.”[10]  And yet, the vast majority of earthly kings have been but poor representations of this heavenly institution.  We are often at a loss to know the characteristics of a true king.  Indeed, one could argue that this distorted knowledge is one of the primary reasons the nation of Israel rejected Jesus as their King.[11]

Lewis sought to answer that question by creating a picture of true kingship through Aslan.  Out of all the traits in which Aslan parallels Christ, it is his kingliness that most exemplifies our Lord and what, arguably, Lewis was most intent on conceptualizing.  This is evidenced by the fact that he chose the fairytale genre to explore the idea of a true king.  Also, Lewis scholar Michael Ward has convincingly shown that Lewis imbued the chronicles with what a medieval understanding of planetary influences.  Each book in the series comes under the guiding influence of one of the seven planets of medieval cosmology, creating an atmosphere in each in accordance with its prevailing spirit.  Importantly, this creates a connaître kind of knowing that is more implicit than explicit and is powerfully inescapable, as a result.  It is the influence of the planet Jupiter that most speaks to Aslan’s kingship, though Ward demonstrates that the lion unites all of the planetary influences not unlike how Christ “represents ‘the all-pervasive principle of concretion and cohesion whereby the universe holds together.”[12]  The imaginative embrace this ever present novitas creates in the reader is robust.

In his first chronicle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis immediately sets to work on portraying Aslan is the sovereign King over the animals, the children, and even all of Nature as evidenced by the arrival of spring.  Even the adversarial witch’s reign seems to be something within Aslan’s purview, given that ostensibly he allowed her reign to both begin and continue until a set time.  Aslan’s arrival is the pivot point for The Lion and it is not difficult to see how he “pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him.”[13]  Aslan is sovereign and central, not unlike our Lord with His arrival into our own world, an entrance that Lewis would refer to as the “missing chapter” whose “central position” brings out “new meanings” from the whole of human history.[14]

Not long after all four of the children enter the fairyland, they are introduced to the idea of Aslan through Mr. and Mrs. Beaver after learning about the evil White Witch and her wintery reign.  In reverent tones the furry couple tells them that they have glad tidings that “Aslan is on the move.”[15]  Influenced by the chronicle’s jovial spirit, “at the name of Aslan each of the children felt something jump inside.”[16] The children would learn that he is a lion and is King of Narnia, son of a “great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.”[17]  When Susan expresses reservations about meeting what is an untamed and powerful beast in their own world, asking if he was “quite safe,” Mrs. Beaver affirms her reservations.  Mr. Beaver adds that “’Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good, He’s the King, I tell you.”

The beavers are confident that the White Witch and her perpetual winter will end once Aslan makes himself known.  Although having never seen the great Lion themselves, they faithfully cling to an old rhyme: “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, / At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more, / When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, / And when he shakes his mane, we shall have / spring again.”[18] And the spring does comes bounding in, signaling that a power has arrived in Narnia that is greater than that of the White Witch.  This casting off of winter and rush of new birth encapsulates Lewis’s idea that Christ’s miracles revealed that “Nature was being invaded” not by a power that was alien to it, but by its King.”[19]

When a dwarf remarks that this end of winter is the work of Aslan, the White Witch demands his name not be spoken on pain of instant death.  The effects that Aslan’s name has on the children are equally as dramatic.  They seem to understand their calling to sit “at Cair Paravel in throne”[20] as the prophesied sons and daughters of man.  On the other hand, the rebellious Edmund is filled with “a sensation of mysterious horror.”[21]  Whatever the effects, Aslan is a controversial figure, not unlike our own Lord.  And, when the children finally meet him, in all his regalia of crimson splendor, he quietly commands their allegiance.  They instinctively know to both confess their wrong doings and obey his commands, however strange they may appear.  This humility, obedience, and strengthening in Aslan’s presence will be portrayed repeatedly throughout the Narniad and again, this is accomplished by Lewis’s infusion of planetary influences. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory is compelled to share that he was responsible for the White Witch’s presence in the pure, nascent world of Narnia.[22]  One is reminded of the following passage in the Gospel of Luke after Jesus had provided a particularly large catch of fish: “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”[23]  The crooked Uncle Andrew’s knees shake as he first hears Aslan’s voice in the act of creating Narnia not unlike how the demons were afraid while in the presence of Jesus.[24]  In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan chooses not to show himself to the simple Dufflepuds remarking that they’d be too frightened to see him.  This brings to mind how the spiritually young Israelites begged Moses to keep them from seeing or hearing God out of fear.[25]

It is important to note that Lewis created an unusual situation in Aslan’s rule over Narnia even by fairy tale standards.  The lion seems to be an absent king that visits his realm only sporadically, whose reign has spanned generations, and who is beholden to a greater authority in the Great Emperor, his father.  Indeed, though absent, Aslan seems to be on the minds and hearts of all the Narnians, a theme that will be repeated in the rest of the Narniad.  In The Lion, there is an eager expectation heard in the hushed discussions that he will come again given the children’s arrival.  In Dawn Treader, when Aslan first appears to Lucy, she misunderstands and thinks he has only just arrived on the scene.  “I have been here all the time,” Aslan corrects her.[26]  Later, when the Dawn Treader has entered a realm of complete darkness, Lucy is encouraged by his image in a beam of golden light.[27]  In The Silver Chair, even in the darkest depths of the earth, Aslan’s name brings light to the mind and courage to the hearts of Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum, enabling them to free the captive Prince Rilian and defeat the green witch.  One recalls the psalmist’s words, “Where can I go from your Spirit? / Where can I flee from your presence?”[28]  The risen Jesus would tell His disciples that even though He was going to the Father, He would be with them always.[29]  The apostle Paul would tell the philosophers of his day that Christ is not far from them, saying that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”[30]  From this it is not difficult to see that Lewis was using Aslan to point back to our world as a loose image of our own seemingly elusive King through whom all was made and who is everywhere, yet is unseen.

Most importantly, Aslan’s kingship is one of submission and servanthood through his willing obedience to his father, even to the point of death on the Stone Table.  The Emperor never appears in bodily form throughout the series, yet he is referred to on numerous occasions.  In chapter thirteen of The Lion we learn that it has been decreed by this Emperor that Edmund’s treachery requires a blood sacrifice or all of Narnia would perish.  “Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic?” Lucy would ask Aslan.  “’Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face.  And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.”[31]  Believers hear echoes of the painful exchange between Peter and Jesus when he tries to prevent Him from going to His likely death in Jerusalem.  Peter is told by our Lord, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”[32]

Like our Lord, Aslan faced a humiliating and painful death at the hands of his enemy.  The tenderness between Aslan and the girls as they accompany him to his death and then lovingly clean the blood from his lifeless body brings to mind Jesus’s last night in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples and the tender faithfulness the women portrayed by staying with Him until the end despite their sorrow and fear.  Though there are important differences in the Christian and Narnian theology of atonement, the latter’s being “a means to an end and not an end in itself,”[33]  the centerpiece is the sacrifice and suffering of an innocent king for his subjects.  It is the servanthood portrayed here that informs the children’s own subsequent rule at Cair Paravel and is what every believer is called to in our world as Jesus’s subordinate rulers.

These are just a handful of the many parallels between Aslan and Jesus that fill the seven chronicles.  If every one of them were written down, this essay would be much too long, indeed.  Now, the question of whether or not the resemblance loses its strength if unrecognized by the reader should be considered.  Arguably, it does not.

Lewis had a keen understanding of the power that fairy tales possess in creating a longing for something beyond this world.  They taught a child to be “happy in the very act of desiring” for unlike realistic fiction, “his mind has not been concentrated on himself”[34] in his own world and its mundane realities, therefore that happiness is less likely to disappoint. The genre allows more ability “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life preclude.”[35]  In other words, fairy tales have the ability to create a concentrated and selfless desiring that enables one to look beyond their own finite existence.  He’d also write the following in his essay “Fairy Stories”:  “I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood.  Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?  I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to.”[36]

Lewis’s coupling of a kingly figure such as Aslan, who fills our deepest “royalist” longings, with the fairytale genre is powerful indeed.  This is evidenced by the fact that individuals that first fell in love with The Chronicles before understanding their Christian roots, often feel confused when looking back as adults who have since rejected Jesus.  Given their disdain for Christianity as adults, nonbelievers such as literary critic, Laura Miller have had to either reconcile or reject their childhood love for Narnia.[37]

This reaction indicates that Lewis was successful in getting past the intellectual apprehension or “watchful dragons.”  Readers become acquainted with Christ “along the beam” by engaging “in a fuller, more life-like way” with His supposition in the lion king.[38] It is precisely this imaginative engagement that creates the frustration later on, especially for those that have subsequently rejected Christianity on other grounds.  This presents a risk in our time when certain tenets of Christian belief have fallen into disrepute culturally.  Non-Christians rightly detect something what George Macdonald said: “It is not the things we see most clearly that influence us the most powerfully.”[39] We should not be dismissive of these reactions for they reflect, however unconsciously, that even loosely portrayed as a lion, Christ kindles a primal Sehnsucht.

Lewis recognized that the “fairy way of writing … builds a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind.”[40]  In the last scene of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan himself would tell the children that he is the “great Bridge Builder” between their world and Narnia.[41] “We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?” cries Lucy after being told that this was her last visit to Narnia.[42]  Aslan assures them that he is there. “But I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.  This was the very reason why I brought you to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there,” he says.[43]  Lewis himself was acquainted with the kind of knowing of which Aslan speaks.  It was such knowing that eventually enabled him to overcome his own “watchful dragons” and accept our Lord and Savior.  May Aslan be the imaginative bridge over which many readers come to love the true King of heaven and earth.

confid-1

[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead, (New York:  Touchstone, 1995), 75.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories, (Orlando: Harvest, 1974), 34.

[3] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1996), 425.

[4] 1 Corinthians 2:16, ESV, “But we have the mind of Christ.”

[5] Lewis, Letters to Children, 45.

[6] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, 426.

[7] Ibid., 425.

[8] Ibid., 423.

[9] Ibid., 581.

[10] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, 581.

[11] John 6:14-15, NIV “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.”

[12] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 226.

[13] Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, 425.

[14] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 175.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 69.

[16] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 69.

[17] Ibid., 80.

[18] Ibid.

[19] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 215-216.

[20] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 82.

[21] Ibid., 69.

[22] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (New York: HarperCollins, 1983), 158.

[23] Luke 5:8, NIV.

[24] C.S. Lewis, Magician’s, 117.

[25] Exodus 20:18-19, NIV, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

[26] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (New York: Scholastic, 1995), 159.

[27] Ibid., 187.

[28] Psalm 139

[29] Matt. 28:20, NIV, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

[30] Acts 17:28, NIV.

[31] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 148.

[32] Matt. 16:23, ESV.

[33] Ward, Planet Narnia, 70.

[34] Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories, 29-30.

[35] Ibid., 10.

[36] Ibid., 37.

[37] Rebecca Traister,  “A spy in the house of Narnia: Salon’s Laura Miller on how the imaginative world of C.S. Lewis inspired her love of reading, as well as her career as a critic.”  Salon, December 6, 2008, accessed April 14, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2008/12/06/narnia_2/.

[38] Ward, Planet Narnia, 225.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ward, Planet Narnia, 225.

[41] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 247.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

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