Doodle: ‘He’s not Safe, but He’s Good’

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - LewisThe number of times I have heard that line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the pulpit defies reason. I say this namely because I cannot remember a single sermon where the respective preacher used it to shed any light. It has been, in my own experience, tantamount to invoking the term “social construct” in debates, as if that settled anything. But if that is not reason enough, then its sheer abuse should convince us that it might be time to lay Mr Beaver’s epithet to rest (see Sammy Rhodes’ article on retiring sermon clichés). Lewis’ dangerous but good Aslan is somewhat opaque and seriously overused. Every time I hear it I struggle not to conclude that the only time the preacher reads is when he is trying to put his children to sleep.

This is obviously a theme in Lewis’ magisterial Narnia; when the children first meet Aslan we are told, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, when Mr Beaver is warning the children against pressing Aslan or tying him to their kingdom he says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion” (p194). They are moving words for those familiar with Aslan, and inadvertently the God of Scripture, but used alone and apart from the context of Lewis’ work such sentiments are little more than mere sentimentalism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rich narrative that boasts compelling truth, evokes genuine feeling, and draws the reader into another world in a way few novels achieve. But we are fooling ourselves if we think a few quotes about Aslan’s indomitable but inviting nature do any justice to Lewis’ intention, or assist our own.

There is so much more to the novel (and all of Narnia) than these almost common quotes convey. Let me offer an example, which I would love to unpack further in a sermon or writing, touching on John’s Gospel. While the Witch gloats in Aslan’s death, to redeem Edmund and restore Narnia, some of Jesus’ last words before the cross come to mind, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). A little later the Lord says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:30-31). Before Susan and Lucy the supposed King of Narnia is shamefully shorn and cruelly slain on the Stone Table, and before Jesus’ disciples their supposed Messiah is mocked and executed; both events suggest the triumph of evil and the defeat of good. But hear Aslan’s words when the astonished sisters ask Aslan what (can only be described as) his resurrection means, “Though the Witch knew Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). In his surrender to the evil powers of the world, he overcomes them.

Lord of the Rings - TolkienFinally, if that brief and slightly shoddy unpacking has not excited you to revisit Narnia then, please, for the sake of your congregation, drop Lewis’ overdone words; I will even provide you with a sacrificial substitute, from The Lord of the Rings. After Gandalf retells how he saw, and was indeed spotted by Treebeard, in the forest, Gimli remarks, ‘You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless’.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: From Death to Life

C.S. Lewis NarniaThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the most widely read and publically praised of the Narnia series. That makes writing this post harder than the previous one. For many people are familiar with this canonical piece from C.S. Lewis. The axis on which the book turns is both impossible to miss yet ironically, or conveniently, frequently overlooked: the death and resurrection of Aslan. So in this post I am going to concentrate on that central event, while hopefully bringing its surroundings into focus.

Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas, barely resembles the young, vibrant and vivid creation we encounter in The Magician’s Nephew. Lucy’s first meeting with Mr Tumnus the faun is awash with reminiscing of summer, when the forests were alive. Narnia is awaiting restoration, an irruption of new life. Signs of this transformation are manifold as the narrative moves towards its climax at the Stone Table. From the appearance of Father Christmas to the early marks of spring, Aslan comes nearer and Narnia anticipates renewal. Even Edmund, travelling in the terrifying presence of the White Witch can sense the change: “All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing, and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over” (p164). The servile dwarf knows what they are seeing, “This is no thaw, this is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed” (p166).

C.S. Lewis NarniaBut we are getting ahead of ourselves. Another crucial aspect of Lewis’ tale is a theme he reproduced in much of his writing: the impotence of evil and the omnipotence of good. Leaving miserable Edmund with the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia for a while, we come to the other Pevensies, and another loveable Narnian, Mr Beaver. With the news that Aslan is on the move, the children find in themselves an overpoweringly strange feeling evoked by his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” (p146). When they ask about Aslan, they are told that he is the King who will make all things right and rescue those in the Witch’s captivity. Then Mr Beaver recalls an old Narnian rhyme:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bears bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again

Aslan Stone TableWhen asked if the Queen might turn Aslan into stone, as she does all her enemies, Mr Beaver laughs for no power can oppose the King of the wood, son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Though far from safe, Aslan is fully good. Another old rhyme is the reason the Queen is so interested in Edmund, along with all sons and daughters of Adam who might happen on Narnia: “When two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones [at Cair Paravel], then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life” (p148). Thus the danger is not in any way that the Queen might resist Aslan’s unchallengeable sovereignty; she must keep the Pevensies from him, that is her only chance of impeding the promised spring, new life wrought by Aslan himself.

This brings us to Aslan. When the Pevensies meet Aslan, for the first time, we read, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, we are told that Lucy could not figure out if playing with Aslan was more like playing with a thunderstorm or a kitten. Aslan is at the same time both frighteningly indomitable and invitingly friendly. The children cannot endure his “great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes” without trembling and averting theirs (p169). But Lucy boldly pleads for Aslan to save Edmund, his reply is heavy with anticipation of what is to come, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” And for the first time, Lucy notices sadness on Aslan’s face. As we skip ahead we can contrast this with the “look of fierce joy” on the face of the Witch, following her discussion of the Deep Magic with Aslan (p176). After issuing battle plans to Peter, Aslan sets off for the Stone Table, with Susan and Lucy following quietly behind, “He looked somehow different from the Aslan they knew. His tail and his head hung low and he walked slowly as if he were very, very tired” (p179). The glorious King heads up the hill towards the Stone Table, to his own death by cruel hands, greatly saddened and alone.

Importantly, the tension here is not between good and evil, for we have already noted that evil has no claim over good in Narnia; what we are invited to witness is how Aslan surrenders his life, better yet, lays it down, to save the one who betrayed him. This heart-breaking scene is not a defeat but the grandest demonstration of both his love and sovereign power. Ironically the Witch asks: “Now, who has won? Fool…you have given me Narnia for ever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die” (p181).

C.S. Lewis NarniaSusan and Lucy approach the dead lion feeling unbearable sadness and utter hopelessness. Aslan lies dead. But the story does not end with death, it heaves into the great newness of life promised by spring. For “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). Evil does not triumph over good; Aslan’s absolute love puts all wrongs right and brings all sorrows to an end.

 

The Magician’s Nephew: A Strange but Familiar God

My wife and I recently decided to workLewis - Narnia through C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Growing up functionally illiterate, in a non-Christian home, meant that I stumbled into Narnia as an adult. Yet the subsequent comings and goings between my world and Narnia have retained the wonder of childlike discovery, and I cannot imagine that familiarity will ever dull my enjoyment Lewis’ resplendent masterpiece. Aiming to reflect on one chronicle a month, I hope to offer short posts sharing the light shed by each rereading, starting here with The Magician’s Nephew, though I think the point picked here applies to the entire series.

Referring to the Lewis’ entire Narnia narrative, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argues in The Lion’s World that Lewis was not trying to simply translate or repackage Christian doctrine. Instead the stories evoke what it feels like to believe in the Christian faith. Thus Lewis offers his readers the opportunity of encountering what they think they know for the first time. This is no truer than Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan, the Christian God.

Lewis cleverly exhibits this in the character of the Cockney Cabby. Standing in the dark and unformed Narnia, Aslan begins to sing, “[What] was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it” (p61). Ironically, the Cabby exclaims, “Gawd,” as the Voice resonates with their souls and raises the new Narnian landscape. Then, alongside Digory and Polly, “[With] open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something” (p62). “The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.” It is God indeed who the Cabby sees in the fresh light of Narnia’s young sun. Though however magnificent the newly created world is, and long before Jadis’ evil has sunken deep roots there, the Singer rather than the song demands the audience’s attention.

After addressing the animals and before Aslan establishes the Cabby and his wife as the first king and queen of Narnia, he asks the Cabby (p81-82), “I have known you long. Do you know me?” The Cabby replies, a little perplexed, “Well, no, sir. Leastways, not in an ordinary manner of speaking. Yet I feel somehow, if I may make so free, as ’ow we’ve met before.” To which the Lion says, “You know better than you think you know, and you shall live to know me better yet.” The Cabby is then asked if he would like to stay in Narnia, where he would not only rule but also come to know Aslan, without the obstructions of the world he knew, back in London. Lewis does this for us, his readers, too. We are invited to encounter our Creator, who does not merely invest his creation with the marvellous richness of his own mind but installs us as his honourable rulers. This is the story that we think we know, even possessing some vague recollection of, yet choose to forget.

Lewis in 1950Aslan is at the same time both oddly familiar and unsettlingly strange. The Cabby knows this Lion. And so do we. For this is no mere literary character, he is the immense God that Lewis loved. This God lends great dignity to people. He searches them out, drawing them to himself. He steps across worlds in order that they might know him. As Rowan Williams writes, “In a word, what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace: the unplanned and uncontrolled incursion in our self-preoccupied lives of God’s joy in himself.” But, and it is apt that the last word comes from Aslan, full of regret and a heavy heart, when he describes Digory’s uncle the magician, “Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).