Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Soft breathes the air

Mild, and meadowy,
as we mount further

Where rippled radiance
rolls about us

Moved with music –
measureless the waves’

Joy and jubilee.
It is Jove’s orbit,

Filled and festal,
faster turning

With arc ampler.
From the Isles of Tin

Tyrian traders,
in trouble steering

Came with his cargoes;
the Cornish treasure

That his ray ripens.
Of wrath ended

And woes mended,
of winter passed

And guilt forgiven,
and good fortune

Jove is master;
and of jocund revel,

Laughter of ladies.
The lion-hearted,

The myriad-minded,
men like the gods,

Helps and heroes,
helms of nations

Just and gentle,
are Jove’s children,

Work his wonders.
On his wide forehead

Calm and kingly,
no care darkens

Nor wrath wrinkles:
but righteous power

And leisure and largesse
their loose splendours

Have wrapped around him –
a rich mantle

Of ease and empire.

It is Jove’s Orbit

Introducing the poem from which that excerpt is taken, C. S. Lewis wrote
...the characters of the planets, as conceived by mediaeval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols... which is specially worth while in our own generation. Of Saturn we know more than enough, but who does not need to be reminded of Jove?
“The Alliterative Metre”, Selected Literary Essays p. 24
As you’ll remember from last time, that was in 1935. The Discarded Image was published in 1964, after his death, but it says much the same thing – except that, while Saturn is still a dominant influence, he expects his readers also to recognise Venus’s character at sight. I guess Lewis had time in the last year or two of his life to notice the beginnings of the Sexual Revolution. Saturn, meanwhile, is the gloom, the ennui, the angst of the half-century following the First World War, and the drab clothing, the ugly architecture, the formless art, and the usurpation of life by machinery that washed over the West during that time. Lewis says of Jove
The character he produces in men would now be very imperfectly expressed by the word “jovial”, and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous.
The Discarded Image pp. 105–106
When he sat down to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis had not yet settled on the plan of writing a book for each of the planets. At this point, his main objective was to fill the modern need “to be reminded of Jove”. So rather than take the seven in order and start with Luna (going up, as in the poem above) or Saturn (going down, as in The Discarded Image), he assembled a series of images into a story about Jovial good exorcizing Saturnine evil. If you still think Michael Ward’s planetary theory is far-fetched, by the way, have another look at that poem. Of wrath ended and woes mended, of winter passed and guilt forgiven, and good fortune Jove is master... The lion-hearted... are Jove’s children. Coincidence? Possibly; but far-fetched this is not.

Filled and Festal

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.
And we’re off! Ivy, Margaret and Betty are, in fact, never mentioned again. Without yet saying a word, Edmund is revealed to be the kind of person who sneers at authority. His personality, and Susan’s, begin to appear in their very first dialogue; but the opening line is Peter’s, and it highlights not Peter’s nature but the Professor’s.
“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”
Hospitality is a recurring theme in this book, usually (though not here) combined with good food. Most of the Narnia books describe meals in loving detail, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes a particular point of it. Lucy’s introduction to Narnia is Mr Tumnus’s high tea; Edmund’s is the White Witch’s Turkish Delight; and when they all get into the wardrobe together, this is the payoff for their trust in the Beaver and endurance in the snow:
Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr Beaver came in with the fish which Mr Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.” Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools (it was all three-legged stools in the Beavers’ house except for Mrs Beaver’s own special rocking-chair by the fire) and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought – and I agree with them – that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle on to the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.
Good food and hospitality are Jovial in character, and serve to set the Jovial mood of the book. Later they will make way for weightier Jovial matters – at one point Aslan calls for a feast to be prepared, but it never happens. Another minor Jovial motif is the colour red. Tumnus wears “a red woollen muffler round his neck and his skin was rather reddish too”, lives in a “little, dry, clean cave of reddish stone”, and has tales to tell “about feasting and treasure-seeking with the wild Red Dwarfs in deep mines and caverns far beneath the forest floor”. We shall meet the Red Dwarfs again in Prince Caspian. The robin which leads the children to Mr Beaver has “such a red breast”, Lucy remarks, and the narrator confirms that “You couldn’t have found a robin with a redder chest or a brighter eye.’ The lion on Peter’s shield is “as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment you pick it”, and so too are the lion flags at Aslan’s camp. Red is seldom associated with evil (and interestingly when it is), and in a book which doesn’t hesitate to point out that trees are green, snow is white, and the sky is blue, Lewis never uses the word red to describe blood or wounds.

Of Winter Passed

Easily the best writing in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe concerns the passing of winter. With all its faults, and we’ll see plenty of those later, this is why we love Narnia.
And now the snow was really melting in earnest and patches of green grass were beginning to appear in every direction. Unless you have looked at a world of snow for as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white. Then the sledge stopped again...
Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow. Soon, wherever you looked, instead of white shapes you saw the dark green of firs or the black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold and presently cleared away altogether. Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops.
Soon there were more wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers – celandines. The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing...
...Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree – gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks...
There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travellers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.
That was the first of three major scenes in this book where Saturn is ousted by Jove. The second, Aslan’s resurrection, I deal with below. The third is this:
“What an extraordinary place!” cried Lucy. “All those stone animals – and people too! It’s – it’s like a museum.”
“Hush,” said Susan. “Aslan’s doing something.”
He was indeed. He had bounded up to the stone lion and breathed on him. Then without waiting a moment he whisked round – almost as if he had been a cat chasing its tail – and breathed also on the stone dwarf, which (as you remember) was standing a few feet from the lion with his back to it. Then he pounced on a tall stone dryad which had stood beyond the dwarf, turned rapidly aside to deal with a stone rabbit on his right, and rushed on to two centaurs. But at that moment Lucy said,
“Oh, Susan! Look! Look at the lion.”
I expect you’ve seen someone put a lighted match to a bit of newspaper which is propped up in a grate against an unlit fire. And for a second nothing seems to have happened; and then you notice a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper. It was like that now. For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back – then it spread – then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper – then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. He lifted one of them and scratched himself. Then, having caught sight of Aslan, he went bounding after him and frisking round him whimpering with delight and jumping up to lick his face.
Of course the children's eyes turned to follow the lion; but the sight they saw was so wonderful that they soon forgot about him. Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colours; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow. And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.
One particular character in English folklore is indissolubly associated with good food and cheer, with the turning of winter, and with the colour red. Absent Ward’s planetary theory, the following scene has struck many readers as jarring:
And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn...
“And now” – here he suddenly looked less grave – “here is something for the moment for you all!” and he brought out (I suppose from the big bag at his back, but nobody quite saw him do it) a large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream, and a great big teapot all sizzling and piping hot. Then he cried out “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.
Plot-wise, Father Christmas is here to show that the Witch’s spell (“Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”) is breaking, and as a rather obvious clue to the identity of Aslan – can you think of any other King who came into the world to save it at Christmas time? More subtly, since it is Father Christmas who gives the children their weapons and magic items, he underscores Lewis’s understanding that our abilities and advantages are ours by gift of God, not by right or by dint of effort. But most of all, Father Christmas is there to bring in the festival atmosphere of Jove.

Wrath Ended and Woes Mended

The White Witch presents an informative contrast to all this. The first we hear of her is from Tumnus:
“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter... And if she is extra and specially angry she’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue of a Faun in her horrible house until the four thrones at Cair Paravel are filled...”
Next, Edmund makes his way into Narnia and meets her in person:
The reindeer were about the size of Shetland ponies and their hair was so white that even the snow hardly looked white compared with them; their branching horns were gilded and shone like something on fire when the sunrise caught them. Their harness was of scarlet leather and covered with bells. On the sledge, driving the reindeer, sat a fat dwarf who would have been about three feet high if he had been standing. He was dressed in polar bear’s fur and on his head he wore a red hood with a long gold tassel hanging down from its point; his huge beard covered his knees and served him instead of a rug. But behind him, on a much higher seat in the middle of the sledge sat a very different person – a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white – not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.
“Stop!” said the Lady, and the dwarf pulled the reindeer up so sharp that they almost sat down. Then they recovered themselves and stood champing their bits and blowing. In the frosty air the breath coming out of their nostrils looked like smoke.
“And what, pray, are you?” said the Lady, looking hard at Edmund.
If it’d been me, I’d have ended the chapter there; the impact is instead a little dissipated by a dialogue in which the Witch introduces herself as “the Queen of Narnia”. The encounter develops in the next chapter.
“I see you are an idiot, whatever else you may be,” said the Queen. “Answer me, once and for all, or I shall lose my patience. Are you human?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” said Edmund.
“And how, pray, did you come to enter my dominions?”
“Please, your Majesty, I came in through a wardrobe.”
“A wardrobe? What do you mean?”
“I – I opened a door and just found myself here, your Majesty,” said Edmund.
“Ha!” said the Queen, speaking more to herself than to him. “A door. A door from the world of men! I have heard of such things. This may wreck all. But he is only one, and he is easily dealt with.” As she spoke these words she rose from her seat and looked Edmund full in the face, her eyes flaming; at the same moment she raised her wand. Edmund felt sure that she was going to do something dreadful but he seemed unable to move. Then, just as he gave himself up for lost, she appeared to change her mind.
“My poor child,” she said in quite a different voice, “how cold you look! Come and sit with me here on the sledge and I will put my mantle round you and we will talk.”...
“Perhaps something hot to drink?” said the Queen. “Should you like that?”
“Yes please, your Majesty,” said Edmund, whose teeth were chattering.
The Queen took from somewhere among her wrappings a very small bottle which looked as if it were made of copper. Then, holding out her arm, she let one drop fall from it on the snow beside the sledge. Edmund saw the drop for a second in mid-air, shining like a diamond. But the moment it touched the snow there was a hissing sound and there stood a jewelled cup full of something that steamed... Edmund felt much better as he began to sip the hot drink. It was something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.
“It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating,” said the Queen presently. “What would you like to eat?”
“Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty,” said Edmund.
The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable...
“It is a lovely place, my house,” said the Queen. “I am sure you would like it. There are whole rooms full of Turkish Delight, and what’s more, I have no children of my own. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I am gone. While he was Prince he would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long; and you are much the cleverest and handsomest young man I’ve ever met. I think I would like to make you the Prince – some day, when you bring the others to visit me.”
First, let’s take the description of the Witch in reverse. In her own persona she is colourless (a Saturnine attribute) – except for her red mouth, which we’ll get to shortly. She wears white, but it is white fur, associated in this book with warmth and wealth; it is Lucy’s love of fur that first draws her into the wardrobe, the children wear fur coats that “looked more like royal robes” due to their size, and once the winter has gone the narrative repeatedly draws our attention to Aslan’s fur. The Witch also wears gold. Gold is Sol’s metal, but here is mainly intended to suggest royalty, a central theme of the book and a major aspect of Jove (who is “calm and kingly”). The dwarf wears fur and gold too, and also red, and both red (“scarlet”) and gold adorn the reindeer. Saturnine in herself, the Witch has appropriated the trappings of Joviality to maintain the fiction that she is a Queen.
In the remainder of the book, the Witch will conduct herself in an entirely Saturnine fashion. Later she will castigate, and then petrify, a party of Narnians for “this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence”, and their fate will move Edmund to compassion for the first time:
It seemed so pitiful to think of those little stone figures sitting there all the silent days and all the dark nights, year after year, till the moss grew on them and at last even their faces crumbled away.
Silent days and dark nights, into the depth of time and decay – here Lewis vividly and economically conjures up the spirit of Saturn. Rather too vividly, in fact, because he forgot to reverse this particular spell and had to explain to a young reader that are also right about the party turned into stone in the woods. I thought people would take it for granted that Aslan would put it all right. But I see now that I should have said so.
Letter (September 1953) to “Phyllida”, Letters to Children p. 33
The Witch’s power of turning people to stone, her colourless coldness, and her contempt for self-indulgence and folly (she addresses many other characters as “fool”) mark her as Saturnine to the core. But when she wishes to allure, to tempt, she must adopt other colours. The bottle from which she summons the magic drink and the Turkish Delight “looked as if it were made of copper”. Why? I don’t think Lewis intends us to read planetary symbolism into every mention of a metal. Gold in this book stands for royalty far more than for Sol, and there is nothing Martial about the iron plate and bowl in which Edmund is later served bread and water in the Witch’s house. But when these familiar associations are absent, we may tentatively invoke their astrological significance, just to see if it makes sense. Here, it does. Copper is Venus’s metal, and the Witch is here performing a Venereal action – a seduction.
Which is where we come back to that red mouth of hers. Lewis’s first work of prose fiction was The Pilgrim’s Regress, and unlike the Narnia books it really was an allegory. At one point the protagonist, John, is tempted by a dark, beautiful witch with a dark red mouth, who ensnares passers-by with a potion that makes them all the thirstier when they have drunk it. John refers to her as “Lilith”, and various clues show us that she personifies lust and that the potion stands for masturbation (which Lewis believed to be sinful). Lilith is in fact the infernal counterpart of Venus. Returning to Edmund and the Witch,
Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. But she did not offer him any more.
Later Mr Beaver will tell us that the Witch is a descendant of Lilith. Later still, she will appear in The Magician’s Nephew, the Narnia book devoted to Venus. But despite all this, I don’t think we should conclude that the Witch is tempting Edmund sexually. Lewis disavowed any such cryptic meaning in Lucy’s encounter with Tumnus:
In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, “Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, ‘That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.’” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.
“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, On Stories p. 31
The Witch’s methods may be Venereal, but she does not appeal to Venereal desires. She holds out two kinds of bait to Edmund: rich food, and a royal throne. Significantly, both really are available to him if he follows Aslan instead of her; he does not want wrongful things, he merely wants them at the wrong time and without paying his dues. We will see this again in other Narnia books. And, of course, both good food and kingship are fundamentally Jovial in nature.
Actually, I had a slightly crazier idea about the Witch’s red mouth. One other evil character is also described as having a red mouth: Maugrim the Wolf, while acting as doorward when Edmund arrives at the Witch’s house. Maugrim is the wolf who attacks Susan, only to be killed by Peter. Do the red mouths signify that the Witch and the Wolf have devoured all that is Jovial in their Saturnine conquest of Narnia? Lewis does draw our attention to the Witch’s mouth at just the point when she first turns people to stone on-page:
Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. “Oh don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures (one with its stone fork fixed forever half-way to its stone mouth) seated round a stone table on which there were stone plates and a stone plum pudding.

A Rich Mantle of Ease and Empire

Now let’s turn to kingship, another central theme of the book. Here Lewis’s hierarchical political-ethical philosophy comes to the fore, along with his theological ideas about God’s relation to humanity. The kingship theme is foreshadowed in the Witch’s temptation of Edmund, but comes to fruition in this passage:
The next thing they saw was a pavilion pitched on one side of the open space. A wonderful pavilion it was – and especially now when the light of the setting sun fell upon it – with sides of what looked like yellow silk and cords of crimson and tent-pegs of ivory; and high above it on a pole a banner which bore a red rampant lion fluttering in the breeze which was blowing in their faces from the far-off sea. While they were looking at this they heard a sound of music on their right; and turning in that direction they saw what they had come to see.
Aslan stood in the centre of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree-Women there and Well-Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments; it was they who had made the music. There were four great centaurs. The horse part of them was like huge English farm horses, and the man part was like stern but beautiful giants. There was also a unicorn, and a bull with the head of a man, and a pelican, and an eagle, and a great Dog. And next to Aslan stood two leopards of whom one carried his crown and the other his standard.
But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. 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. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they caught just a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.
The scene is not particularly clearly described, perhaps because Lewis does not want us to focus on Aslan’s accoutrements, but this is something of a fault, I think. A chapter or two later we’ll see Aslan “half rising from his throne”, a throne never mentioned before or after, to roar at the Witch for doubting his word. He does have a crown and a standard, each carried by a leopard – how? In their paws? Later Aslan, as befitting a King, will bestow a knighthood upon Peter by striking him with the flat of his sword – again, holding it how? Lewis will notice that sort of thing in later books, but here his “presentational realism” is not fully developed. You’ll remember from last time that he once said
Hamlet is not faced with a ghost in order that his reactions may tell us more about his nature and therefore about human nature in general; he is shown reacting naturally in order that we may accept the ghost.
An Experiment in Criticism p. 66
I presume, therefore, that Lewis employs presentational realism so that we may accept the magic, and the fact that he pays his most intense attention to detail at the magical moments – the coming of Spring, the resurrection of Aslan, and the revivification of the statues – confirms this hypothesis. When it would get in the way of symbolic meanings, such as the knighting of Peter, he skips over it, at least in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a result the book is somewhat patchy; the vivid scenes invite you to imagine the story in rich detail, an exercise interrupted by the sketchier ones.
This first appearance of Aslan, by the way, should disabuse any attentive reader of the notion that Aslan is simply an allegory for Christ. The great royal lion, with pavilion, crown, standard, throne, and courtiers, is the polar opposite of the Nazarene carpenter, the poor preacher who had no place to lay his head. If that’s what you’re looking for, you need to turn to J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings – to Gandalf, the godlike being who took a human body, died and rose again; to Frodo, who carried the weight of the world’s evil on his shoulders to the mountain where it was destroyed; to Aragorn, the king and healer who wandered the wilds in humble garb.
Is there some kind of cryptic significance to Aslan’s list of courtiers? I haven’t been able to find one. I wondered if they were apostles, but if so the symbolism is too obscure for me. I have two guesses at what the bull with the man’s head may be. First, he may be a shedu, a creature from ancient Babylonian myth and statuary; a variant was the lammasu, which had a lion’s body instead of a bull’s. They were guardian spirits, and tended to be sculpted in pairs at doorways in Babylonian palaces. They seem to be broadly associated with Marduk (Jupiter), but I can’t claim to know that they weren’t associated with other Babylonian planetary gods as well. Second, he may be meant to be a Minotaur in reverse. Minotaurs will appear in this book (and in this book only) as evil servants of the Witch, who attend Aslan’s death. In mythology, of course, the Minotaur was found in Crete; and there is one story that Crete was the burial place of Zeus, whom both Greeks and Romans identified as Jupiter. But neither of these feels particularly right.
While we’re on this scene, notice that the Dryads and Naiads are neither named nor numbered. This will be a constant throughout the series: whereas there are plenty of named Dwarfs, Centaurs, and Fauns, all male, the female human-like creatures seem to have no individual identity. Only one ever speaks – the Dryad who comes to warn King Tirian in The Last Battle. This will become sadly relevant when we get up to The Silver Chair.
Aslan sustains the theme of royalty for two chapters, after which we get a reprise (briefer, but more intense) of the arc of the early parts of the story: domination by Saturn, followed by Jovial renewal. Royalty returns at the end:
But the next day was more solemn. For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel – that wonderful hall with the ivory roof and the west wall hung with peacock’s feathers and the eastern door which looks towards the sea, in the presence of all their friends and to the sound of trumpets, Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them to the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, “Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!”
“Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve!” said Aslan.
Again, is he supposed to have crowned them with his paws? One oddly hurried sentence is all we get to know, in this book, about what Cair Paravel is like on the inside. Next, look carefully at the attributes Lewis emphasizes according to gender:
And Peter became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior, and he was called King Peter the Magnificent. And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Susan the Gentle. Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgement. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden-haired, and all princes in those parts desired her to be their Queen, and her own people called her Queen Lucy the Valiant.
Edmund is the only one whose moral character gets a mention, perhaps because he’s the one whose moral growth most needed remarking upon. But both he and Peter are noted for their competence, whereas Lucy and Susan are noted for their attractiveness. It is strongly implied that they turned all those suitors down. Like Arthur, they leave no successors. This doesn’t seem to bother Lewis even slightly, at least here; the realities of ruling a kingdom are to him a distraction. He wants the mediaeval ideal, the (Jovial) pomp and pageantry of kings without any (Saturnine) taint of politics. And mediaeval writers admire capability in men, but only beauty – the less competent the better – in women. The unreality of the result is painfully obvious when they open their mouths:
Then said King Peter (for they talked in quite a different style now, having been Kings and Queens for so long), “Fair Consorts, let us now alight from our horses and follow this beast into the thicket; for in all my days I never hunted a nobler quarry.”
“Sir,” said the others, “even so let us do.”...
“And more,” said Queen Lucy, “for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change of our fortunes.”
“Madam,” said King Edmund, “the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also.”
“And in mine, fair brother,” said King Peter.
“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further.”
“Madam,” said King Peter, “therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved.”
“Sister,” said Queen Lucy, “my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase.”
“And so say I,” said King Edmund. “And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my good will turn back for the richest jewel in Narnia and all the islands.”
“Then in the name of Aslan,” said Queen Susan, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”
I can’t suspend my disbelief that four twentieth-century people would start talking so archaically, when no-one else around them does, just because they happen to wear crowns. But the archaism is not the problem here, or Edmund and Susan would sound equally stilted in The Horse and His Boy – where, though archaic, their speech is pithy and immediate. Here they pile phrase on flowery phrase to no particular purpose, except to sound Olde-Worldee.

No Care Darkens

It’s Susan hanging back in this scene, did you catch that? It’s much more subtle in this book than in Prince Caspian, but Susan is always the weak one, the fearful one, the one who lacks faith. Here she is at Aslan’s resurrection.
“What’s that?” said Lucy, clutching Susan’s arm.
“I – I feel afraid to turn round,” said Susan; “something awful is happening.”
“They’re doing something worse to Him,” said Lucy. “Come on!” And she turned, pulling Susan round with her...
“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.
“Not now,” said Aslan.
“You’re not – not a—?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.
“Do I look it?” he said.
(Susan is quite right that something “awful” is happening; Lewis elsewhere regrets the demotion of the word awful, full of awe, to mean merely “bad”. Presumably he would be equally disappointed at the more recent demotion of awesome to mean merely “good”. But Susan is not conscious of this deeper meaning of her words, and it is not to her credit.)
It is Susan who suggests working against God’s Law (the “Deep Magic”) to save Edmund.
“Oh, Aslan!” whispered Susan in the Lion’s ear, “can’t we – I mean, you won’t, will you? Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”
“Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody made that suggestion to him ever again.
Susan is not strong in the face of danger.
Then he realized it was a wolf – a wolf standing on its hind legs, with its front paws against the tree-trunk, snapping and snarling. All the hair on its back stood up on end. Susan had not been able to get higher than the second big branch. One of her legs hung down so that her foot was only an inch or two above the snapping teeth. Peter wondered why she did not get higher or at least take a better grip; then he realized that she was just going to faint and that if she fainted she would fall off.
From the beginning, it is Susan who tries to sound more adult than she is, which (Lewis will eventually tell us in The Last Battle) is ultimately her downfall. Here she is in the very first dialogue, which also captures Edmund’s spite before his redemption:
“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.
“Oh, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”
“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”
“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”
“Hadn’t we all better go to bed?” said Lucy. “There’s sure to be a row if we’re heard talking here.”
And the contrast between her and Peter, when they both disbelieve Lucy, is carefully drawn.
Lucy ran out of the empty room into the passage and found the other three.
“It’s all right,” she repeated, “I’ve come back.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Lucy?” asked Susan.
“Why?” said Lucy in amazement, “haven’t you all been wondering where I was?”
“So you’ve been hiding, have you?“ said Peter. “Poor old Lu, hiding and nobody noticed! You’ll have to hide longer than that if you want people to start looking for you.”
“But I’ve been away for hours and hours,” said Lucy.
The others all stared at one another.
“Batty!” said Edmund, tapping his head. “Quite batty.”
“What do you mean, Lu?” asked Peter.
“What I said,” answered Lucy. “It was just after breakfast when I went into the wardrobe, and I’ve been away for hours and hours, and had tea, and all sorts of things have happened.”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy,” said Susan. “We’ve only just come out of that room a moment ago, and you were there then.”
“She’s not being silly at all,” said Peter, “she’s just making up a story for fun, aren’t you, Lu? And why shouldn’t she?”
Susan is intolerant (though, as yet, only mildly); Peter is magnanimous. Magnanimity is another major aspect of the Jovial character, and Aslan displays it in spades, even to the Witch at their parley.
“The Queen of Narnia and Empress of the Lone Islands desires a safe conduct to come and speak with you,” said the dwarf, “on a matter which is as much to your advantage as to hers.”
“Queen of Narnia, indeed!” said Mr Beaver. “Of all the cheek—”
“Peace, Beaver,” said Aslan. “All names will soon be returned to their proper owners. In the meantime we will not dispute about them. Tell your mistress, Son of Earth, that I grant her safe conduct on condition that she leaves her wand behind her at that great oak.”...
“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch...
“Well,” said Aslan. “His offence was not against you.”
“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.
“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
However, Aslan’s magnanimity does not extend to having his word questioned:
The Witch was just turning away with a look of fierce joy on her face when she stopped and said,
“But how do I know this promise will be kept?”
“Haa-a-arrh!” roared Aslan, half rising from his throne; and his great mouth opened wider and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life.

Guilt Forgiven

Michael Ward gives good evidence that Peter’s royal title of “the Magnificent” is intended to signify “the Magnanimous”. What magnanimous people do is forgive those who have done wrong, and so, having examined kingship and the passing of winter, we now turn to the last of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s three major themes: redemption.
Edmund’s act of treason and his restoration to grace drives the plot of the book, but he is not the first sinner. That would be Tumnus.
“Oh – oh – oh!” sobbed Mr Tumnus. “I’m crying because I’m such a bad Faun.”
“I don’t think you’re a bad Faun at all,” said Lucy. “I think you are a very good Faun. You are the nicest Faun I’ve ever met.”
“Oh – oh – you wouldn’t say that if you knew,” replied Mr Tumnus between his sobs. “No, I’m a bad Faun. I don’t suppose there ever was a worse Faun since the beginning of the world.”
“But what have you done?” asked Lucy...
“Taken service under the White Witch. That’s what I am. I’m in the pay of the White Witch... I’m a kidnapper for her, that’s what I am. Look at me, Daughter of Eve. Would you believe that I’m the sort of Faun to meet a poor innocent child in the wood, one that had never done me any harm, and pretend to be friendly with it, and invite it home to my cave, all for the sake of lulling it to sleep and then handing it over to the White Witch?”
“No,” said Lucy. “I’m sure you wouldn’t do anything of the sort.”
“But I have,” said the Faun.
“Well,” said Lucy rather slowly (for she wanted to be truthful and yet not be too hard on him), “well, that was pretty bad. But you’re so sorry for it that I’m sure you will never do it again.”
“Daughter of Eve, don’t you understand?” said the Faun. “It isn’t something I have done. I’m doing it now, this very moment.”
“What do you mean?” cried Lucy, turning very white.
“You are the child,” said Tumnus. “I had orders from the White Witch that if ever I saw a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve in the wood, I was to catch them and hand them over to her. And you are the first I ever met. And I’ve pretended to be your friend and asked you to tea, and all the time I’ve been meaning to wait till you were asleep and then go and tell Her.”
“Oh, but you won’t, Mr Tumnus,” said Lucy. “You won’t, will you? Indeed, indeed you really mustn’t.”...
Tumnus repents of his sin without committing it, and Lucy forgives him, and so Lewis gives us a foretaste of the chief matter of the story. Here Lewis’s disregard for background consistency becomes evident even without any previous Narnia books to be inconsistent with. Supposedly there has not been a Human in Narnia for years. Tumnus has never met one before. His service under the White Witch to this point cannot have been either busy or lucrative. Andrew Adamson’s film changes this detail: all Narnians are required by the Witch’s law to report Humans and bring them in if possible. But this dilutes Tumnus’s guilt (as his wrongdoing is now undertaken under duress rather than for gain), and turns his act of repentance into one of covert rebellion. That wouldn’t have fit Lewis’s theme.
The overture being now all played, the stage is set for Edmund. He teases Lucy spitefully; he shuts the wardrobe door on himself, the folly of which Lewis insists upon, apparently worried that some small child might lock her or himself in a cupboard after reading the book. He “decided he did not much like this place” when he gets there. He agrees to bring his siblings to the “Queen”’s house, only to hear shortly afterwards, from Lucy, that she is in fact an evil witch. He has eaten magical food which makes him desire more of it at any cost, but Lewis has perhaps anticipated the criticism that said food absolves him of responsibility for his behaviour; his next act is not only unpleasant but directly counter-productive to the goal of getting Peter, Susan, and Lucy to the Witch.
And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.
“Tell us, Ed,” said Susan.
And Edmund gave a very superior look as if he were far older than Lucy (there was really only a year’s difference) and then a little snigger and said “Oh, yes, Lucy and I have been playing – pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true. Just for fun, of course. There’s nothing there really.”
Poor Lucy gave Edmund one look and rushed out of the room.
Edmund, who was becoming a nastier person every minute, thought that he had scored a great success, and went on at once to say, “There she goes again. What’s the matter with her? That’s the worst of young kids, they always—”
“Look here,” said Peter, turning on him savagely, “shut up! You’ve been perfectly beastly to Lu ever since she started this nonsense about the wardrobe, and now you go playing games with her about it and setting her off again. I believe you did it simply out of spite.”
“But it’s all nonsense,” said Edmund, very taken aback.
“Of course it’s all nonsense,” said Peter, “that’s just the point. Lu was perfectly all right when we left home, but since we’ve been down here she seems to be either going queer in the head or else turning into a most frightful liar. But whichever it is, what good do you think you’ll do by jeering and nagging at her one day and encouraging her the next?”
“I thought – I thought,” said Edmund; but he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You didn’t think anything at all,” said Peter; “it’s just spite. You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.”
On form, Lewis could be a shrewd observer of human nature. His writing in places deftly captures the psychology of self-deception, decades before it was recorded in psych labs. Edmund’s shifting of the blame to Peter and the others is very believable:
He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight – and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food. And he had heard the conversation, and hadn’t enjoyed it much either, because he kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it...
...he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed, that she wouldn’t do anything very bad to them, “Because,” he said to himself, “all these people who say nasty things about her are her enemies and probably half of it isn’t true. She was jolly nice to me, anyway, much nicer than they are. I expect she is the rightful Queen really. Anyway, she’ll be better than that awful Aslan!” At least, that was the excuse that he made in his own mind for what he was doing. It wasn’t a very good excuse, however, for deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel.
Lewis’s theory of self-deception, however, is problematic. The modern understanding is that, when one party wrongs another, both deceive themselves in opposite directions as to the weight and forgivability of the incident; Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature coins the term “the Moralization Gap” for the phenomenon. Lewis, however, believed that good and evil were objectively real, and in a far stronger sense than I would argue. According to him, all people instinctively recognise the good, but those with evil on their conscience resent it because it shows them up for what they are. We’ll meet this again, over and over, in the Narnia books.
Here the Beaver’s voice sank into silence and it gave one or two very mysterious nods. Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their facs were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper—
“They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.”
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Soon after follows one of the worst parts of the book.
“The reason there’s no use looking,” said Mr Beaver, “is that we know already where he’s gone!” Everyone stared in amazement. “Don’t you understand?” said Mr Beaver. “He’s gone to her, to the White Witch. He has betrayed us all.”
“Oh, surely – oh, really!” said Susan, “he can’t have done that.”
“Can’t he?” said Mr Beaver, looking very hard at the three children, and everything they wanted to say died on their lips, for each felt suddenly quite certain inside that this was exactly what Edmund had done.
“But will he know the way?” said Peter.
“Has he been in this country before?” asked Mr Beaver. “Has he ever been here alone?”
“Yes,” said Lucy, almost in a whisper. “I’m afraid he has.”
“And did he tell you what he’d done or who he’d met?”
“Well, no, he didn’t,” said Lucy.
“Then mark my words,” said Mr Beaver, “he has already met the White Witch and joined her side, and been told where she lives. I didn’t like to mention it before (he being your brother and all) but the moment I set eyes on that brother of yours I said to myself ‘Treacherous’. He had the look of one who has been with the Witch and eaten her food. You can always tell them if you’ve lived long in Narnia; something about their eyes.”
Now if the change in Edmund’s eyes had been signalled before, if Peter or Lucy had noticed something odd about them, and if Mr Beaver could lay out the evidence that this was a symptom of having eaten enchanted food, it would be a different matter. That would be simply part of the magic. As it stands, it is both shoddy storytelling – like the Jo & Zette comic book I remember from childhood, in which you could always spot the baddies because they all had frowny eyes – and disastrous moralizing, straight out of the Inquisition.
But here we are dealing with actual events; and it has never yet been known that an innocent person has been punished on suspicion of witchcraft, and there is no doubt that God will never permit such a thing to happen.
Besides, He does not suffer the innocent who are under Angelic protection to be suspected of smaller crimes, such as robbery and such things; then all the more will He preserve those who are under that protection from suspicion of the crime of witchcraft.
Edmund’s sin is to tell the Witch where Peter, Susan and Lucy are, and where they will be meeting Aslan. This makes him a traitor in Narnia’s cosmic “Law”, the “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time”, which means that the Witch has the right to kill him. This is of course exactly what she has planned, as it means there will not be four Kings and Queens in Cair Paravel, the prophecy is averted, and she is not going to die after all.

Jove is Master

Aslan is a symbol (though, as we’ve seen, not quite an allegory) for Christ. Lewis was already a famous Christian apologist and broadcaster when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and one of his more famous pieces of apologetics was the argument that has since passed into the Evangelical arsenal with the catchily alliterative title of “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Mere Christianity p. 55
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion argues that there’s a fourth possibility – perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus could have been honestly mistaken. I’m afraid Lewis has already covered that; a man honestly mistaken in the belief that he is the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, that anyone who has seen him has seen God, and all the rest of it, would by definition be a lunatic. Elsewhere he argues against the idea that those passages were slipped into the Gospel of John by some later writer, and as this enters his own field of expertise, literary criticism, I don’t have space here for a detailed counter-argument. I bring this up because he chose to put the same argument in the mouth of a fictional character.
So they went and knocked at the study door, and the Professor said “Come in,” and got up and found chairs for them and said he was quite at their disposal. Then he sat listening to them with the tips of his fingers pressed together and never interrupting, till they had finished the whole story. After that he said nothing for quite a long time. Then he cleared his throat and said the last thing either of them expected:
“How do you know,” he said, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but—” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s just the funny thing about it, sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.”
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, I’d say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true – all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan; “we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”
“But then,” said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn’t know what to think.
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume she is telling the truth.”
Remember how, last time, I said I was going to be judging Lewis’s theological ideas based on how well they stand up as story elements? – “right in art is right in practice,” to quote Dorothy Sayers. We can start here. I think – I may be wrong – that my brother was about eight or nine when he announced that he was an alien from a planet called Fen, of which for some weeks he provided detailed descriptions at the slightest excuse (generally, Fenx conditions closely modelled Earth ones with a few superficial reversals). My twin sister and I, five years older, lost patience with this as siblings will, but we didn’t conclude that he was lying or going mad. We concluded that he was taking one of his games too far to annoy us.
But in fact we needn’t go further than Lewis’s own writings to debunk the idea. Once put a fictional proposition into the Trilemma (another Evangelical name for it), and he found it could not be sustained. When The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was finished he promptly began on the draft of a story in which the Professor had a much sounder reason for believing in Narnia. After several misstarts and abandonments he finally published it as The Magician’s Nephew, and this is what he told the American children to whom it is dedicated:
You must have often wondered how the old Professor in The Lion, W, W could have believed all the children told him about Narnia. The reason was that he had been there himself as a little boy. This book tells you how he went there, and (of course that was ages and ages ago by Narnian time) how he saw Aslan creating Narnia, and how the White Witch first got into that world and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of that forest.
Letter (March 1954) to the Kilmer family, Letters to Children p. 41
The Deep Magic is written on the Stone Table, which you may recall is intended to remind readers of Moses’ stone tablets of the Law. When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a small child, I got straight away that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus, I think with my parents’ help. I don’t think I paid all that much attention to the bits about the Deep Magic. I think it was a few years later that my Sunday School classes got up to the bit where the Law is God’s justice, under which we have all sinned and deserve to be punished, but fortunately Jesus came along and brought God’s mercy, so we don’t have to be punished after all. From here the theology dominates the story.
“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones of the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-Over-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”
“Oh,” said Mr Beaver. “So that’s how you came to imagine yourself a Queen – because you were the Emperor’s hangman. I see.”
“Peace, Beaver,” said Aslan, with a very low growl.
“And so,” continued the Witch, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.”
“Come and take it then,” said the Bull with the man’s head in a great bellowing voice.
“Fool,” said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, “do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”
“It is very true,” said Aslan, “I do not deny it.”
Any programmer knows that most of the work is preventing users from doing things they’re not supposed to, not to restrict what they can do with the program but to allow them to use it freely. If you asked a programmer to come up with the worst conceivable response to user error, “irreversibly destroy the entire system” would surely top the list. The Emperor-Over-Sea is a superlatively incompetent system designer.
And that’s only half the problem. The Deep Magic is supposed to be God’s “justice”, Edmund getting what he “deserves”. But Lewis goes out of his way to tell us that Edmund does not deserve to have his throat cut.
You mustn’t think that even now Edmund was quite so bad that he actually wanted his brother and sisters to be turned into stone. He did want Turkish Delight and to be a Prince (and later a King) and to pay Peter out for calling him a beast. As for what the Witch would do with the others, he didn’t want her to be particularly nice to them – certainly not to put them on the same level as himself; but he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed, that she wouldn’t do anything very bad to them...
So there you have it. The Christian doctrine of salvation by grace just plain doesn’t work as a story. To make it work, you have to change it so that God’s justice is in fact far worse than sinners deserve – so not “justice” in any meaningful sense, then. You have to make God an utterly inept creator, to allow a fault in his creation that he then couldn’t undo without killing himself painfully. Oh, you can build a decent story out of parts of it. You can have a story with a good, all-powerful God who will ultimately wipe away all evil, but then you can’t have him getting hurt, or he’s not all-powerful. Or you can have a story whose hero voluntarily undergoes pain and death to save others, but the thing he’s saving them from is then by definition bad.
Am I placing too heavy an exegetical burden on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Take another look at Mr Beaver’s off-hand remark in the passage above. To the extent that Aslan signifies Christ, the Witch represents Satan, who, in Christian belief, is the implacable enemy of God and source of all evil. But in the Hebrew Bible, Satan appears in many places to be one of God’s servants, sent to punish the wicked or test the faithful (although the word şaţan is translated “adversary” instead of “Satan” where this is most obvious, rather than cast doubt on Christian doctrine). Lewis knew this quite well:
The poet [of Psalm 109] prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy and that “Satan” may stand at his right hand. This probably does not mean what a Christian reader naturally supposes. The “Satan” is an accuser, perhaps an informer.
Reflections on the Psalms p. 17
If Lewis can slip a piece of theology that obscure into a children’s book, I think we can hold him to account for how well his theology works.
To appease the Deep Magic, Aslan volunteers to be killed in Edmund’s place. Leaving Peter in command, he wanders off alone to face the Witch. At this point, for the first time, Aslan begins to resemble the Christ of the Bible.
Very quietly the two girls groped their way among the other sleepers and crept out of the tent. The moonlight was bright and everything was quite still except for the noise of the river chattering over the stones. Then Susan suddenly caught Lucy’s arm and said, “Look!” On the far side of the camping ground, just where the trees began, they saw the Lion slowly walking away from them into the wood. Without a word they both followed him.
He led them up the steep slope out of the river valley and then slightly to the right – apparently by the very same route which they had used that afternoon in coming from the Hill of the Stone Table. On and on he led them, into dark shadows and out into pale moonlight, getting their feet wet with the heavy dew. 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.
Moonlight, dark shadows, pale light, chattering water, wet feet, heavy dew – this isn’t Jovial imagery; it’s Lunar. The Silver Chair will be all like this, when we get to it. And there we’ll fully discuss the significance of Luna in Lewis’s planetary schema. For the meantime, it’s enough to say that the Moon’s orbit marks the boundary between the Heavens and the Earth. It is at this point, and not at Christmas or the magical Spring, that Aslan descends to become Christ Incarnate. The humiliation of Aslan is not too far off the humiliation of Christ in the Gospels (though since lions don’t wear clothes, he is shaved rather than stripped):
Four Hags, grinning and leering, yet also (at first) hanging back and half afraid of what they had to do, had approached him. “Bind him, I say!” repeated the White Witch. The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others – evil dwarfs and apes – rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together... But he made no noise, even when the enemies, straining and tugging, pulled the cords so tight that they cut into his flesh. Then they began to drag him towards the Stone Table.
“Stop!” said the Witch. “Let him first be shaved.”
Another roar of mean laughter went up from her followers as an ogre with a pair of shears came forward and squatted down by Aslan’s head. Snip-snip-snip went the shears and masses of curling gold began to fall to the ground. Then the ogre stood back and the children, watching from their hiding-place, could see the face of Aslan looking all small and different without its mane. The enemies also saw the difference.
“Why, he’s only a great cat after all!” cried one.
“Is that what we were afraid of?” said another.
And they surged around Aslan, jeering at him, saying things like “Puss, Puss! Poor Pussy,” and “How many mice have you caught today, Cat?” and “Would you like a saucer of milk, Pussums?”...
“Muzzle him!” said the Witch. And even now, as they worked about his face putting on the muzzle, one bite from his jaws would have cost two or three of them their hands. But he never moved. And this seemed to enrage all that rabble. Everyone was at him now. Those who had been afraid to come near him even after he was bound began to find their courage, and for a few minutes the two girls could not even see him – so thickly was he surrounded by the whole crowd of creatures kicking him, hitting him, spitting on him, jeering at him.
The resemblance is still not close enough to call this an allegory. There is no Last Supper, no arrest, no Sanhedrin, no denial by Peter, no Pilate, no crucified thieves, no words from the Cross, no Joseph of Arimathaea, no tomb, no angels. There is a vague analogue of Gethsemane, but Aslan tells Lucy and Susan to leave him, not to pray with him. Nor does he prophesy his resurrection – he cannot promise Peter that he will be present for the battle. When he is dead, though the winter does not return, the imagery becomes thoroughly Saturnine once more:
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again. At any rate that was how it felt to these two. Hours and hours seemed to go by in this dead calm, and they hardly noticed that they were getting colder and colder.
At his resurrection, the Stone Table stands in for both the veil of the Temple that was rent from top to bottom and the stone that was rolled away. Jovial colours return to the world.
The country all looked dark grey, but beyond, at the very end of the world, the sea showed pale. The sky began to turn red. They walked to and fro more times than they could count between the dead Aslan and the eastern ridge, trying to keep warm; and oh, how tired their legs felt. Then at last, as they stood for a moment looking out towards the sea and Cair Paravel (which they could now just make out) the red turned to gold along the line where the sea and the sky met and very slowly up came the edge of the sun. At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise – a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate...
The rising of the sun had made everything look so different – all the colours and shadows were changed – that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan...
“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”
“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
And whereas the risen Christ told Mary Magdalene not to touch him, the risen Aslan, Jovial again, promptly starts a game of tag. For once in this book (unless you count an earlier reference to the newly melted river “thundering” in flood), Lewis alludes to the classical Thunderer as well as the mediaeval planetary King.
Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.

Righteous Power

Given all these reversals, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that there is no hint, afterwards, of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Except – except that that would surely have been more Jovial, wouldn’t it? Of course, the Witch and her army are the opposite of repentant; but one might say the same of the soldiers and the crowd at the Crucifixion. (Which is why that line always gave me theological difficulty when I was a Christian, seeing as we were taught in Sunday School that forgiveness was not possible without repentance.)
Then with a roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamp-post to the shores of the eastern sea the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch. Lucy saw her face lifted towards him for one second with an expression of terror and amazement. Then Lion and Witch had rolled over together but with the Witch underneath; and at the same moment all war-like creatures whom Aslan had led from the Witch’s house rushed madly on the enemy lines, dwarfs with their battle-axes, dogs with teeth, the Giant with his club (and his feet also crushed dozens of the foe), unicorns with their horns, centaurs with swords and hoofs.
This belligerence, then, can’t be attributed to either the Christian theme or the planetary one. It can only be explained by Lewis’s own aggressive ethic of courage, which we see at work elsewhere also.
“Our day’s work is not yet over,” he said, “and if the Witch is to be finally defeated before bed-time we must find the battle at once.”
“And join in, I hope, sir!” added the largest of the Centaurs.
“Of course,” said Aslan.
One aspect of the sacrifice scenes always puzzled me; even to a child, it seemed a little off.
Then others – evil dwarfs and apes – rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all...
...Then there was more tying and tightening of cords.
“The cowards! The cowards!” sobbed Susan. “Are they still afraid of him, even now?”
Why is that a “though”, in the first paragraph? Doesn’t his terrifying power mean it is brave of them to approach him? And why is Susan reproaching them as “cowards”? Isn’t their cruelty, their violence, their abusiveness more worth remarking upon? Would they have been somehow less morally culpable if they had attacked him when he was free? Is it virtuous to be willing to hurt another person at one’s own risk?
When the children become Kings and Queens their task, too, is violent – indeed genocidal:
At first much of their time was spent in seeking out the remnants of the White Witch’s army and destroying them, and indeed for a long time there would be news of evil things lurking in the wilder part of the forest – a haunting here and a killing there, a glimpse of a werewolf one month and a rumour of a hag the next. But in the end all that foul brood was stamped out.
Because of course “all that foul brood” are evil by nature, evil from birth. As is the Witch herself, according to another regrettable passage:
“...No, no, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch” [said Mr Beaver.]
“That’s why she’s bad all through, Mr Beaver,” said Mrs Beaver.
“True enough, Mrs Beaver,” replied he, “there may be two views about humans (meaning no offence to the present company). But there’s no two views about things that look like humans and aren’t.”
“I’ve known good Dwarfs,” said Mrs Beaver.
“So’ve I, now you come to speak of it,” said her husband, “but precious few, and they were the ones least like men. But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet. And that’s why the Witch is always on the lookout for any humans in Narnia. She’s been watching for you this many a year, and if she knew there were four of you she’d be more dangerous still.”
Within fairy-tales in general this is more or less true; quasi-human beings in mythology are pretty predictably dangerous to know, because they represent the breaking of a boundary between living humans and something else – sometimes animals (centaurs, werewolves, mermaids), sometimes dead humans (vampires, ghosts), sometimes supernatural realms (fairies, elves), or in more recent myths machinery (robots, cyborgs). But if that was the direction Lewis intended to take Narnia, he had forgotten it by the time he introduced the Dryads and Naiads four chapters later. There are evil creatures in the later books, but their human looks are not what makes them evil.
The real purpose of the Beavers’ prejudice is to highlight that the Witch is not the rightful, true-born, heir to the throne. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are, because they’re human and she’s not. Also, they’ve been prophesied.
“Down at Cair Paravel – that’s the castle on the sea coast down at the mouth of this river which ought to be the capital of this country if all was as it should be – down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers!”
In view of the beginning of Prince Caspian, we might wonder why Cair Paravel is still standing. The White Witch, as Queen of Narnia, claims among others the title of “Chatelaine of Cair Paravel”. Wouldn’t it have been quicker and surer to remove the thrones than to sit around waiting for humans to come along and fill them? But of course that would have left no castle for the children to live in, and then they wouldn’t have been properly Jovial Kings and Queens.
Prophecies fulfilled fit with the Christian theme, of course. But generally in fantasy when there’s a prophecy it means the author couldn’t think how to make their characters actually earn their place in the story. In this book, the four children do nothing whatsoever that Aslan couldn’t have done on his own, even if we pretend for the time being that he’s merely an exceptionally magical Talking Lion rather than an incarnation of God Himself. Without Edmund’s treachery, Aslan would not have had to die in his place, and he wouldn’t have needed Peter to lead the army while he was away. In The Horse and His Boy Lewis will use prophecy better; as in the standard Greek pattern (and as in Harry Potter), a villain’s attempt to avert the oracle will get the plot in motion, and the protagonist will learn about it only after he has fulfilled it. Here, however, prophecy is a sticking-plaster for a plot hole.
Lewis’s protagonists will never be quite so ineffectual again, and at least Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy don’t themselves draw attention to the fact that they’re not accomplishing much, as the Company of St Anne’s do in That Hideous Strength. However, their (and the other children’s) efforts in future books will undermine Aslan’s omnipotence, and Lewis’s firmly-held belief in monarchy by right of birth will come in for a pounding as well. We have finished with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but we have not finished with Narnia.

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