Through the wardrobe door: #Narniathon21

For the next several months, I’m joining in a readalong of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, hosted by Chris of Calmgrove – starting with this month’s volume, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As I mentioned earlier, while the Narnia books have many weaknesses, they were incredibly formative for me as a reader and thinker, and I’m interested to explore why from my adult perspective.

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

Though the Narnia books are often seen, whether with dismay or adulation, as Christian propaganda, I would rather regard Narnia through a more general spiritual worldview, one that includes the Christian mythos but also takes into account other approaches to that vast and mysterious realm which lies beyond but also hidden within our consciousness. Going through a magical door into another world always indicates a journey of discovery in this realm, one that is by no means limited to the conventional notion of Christianity. Narnia is actually quite a spiritually eclectic place, which is no doubt one thing that attracted me to it.

The death and resurrection of Aslan is the central event of LWW, and you might think that that alone makes it a Christian polemic. But in the Gospels, Christ is not the only or even the first person to die and come back to life. There are further instances of death and resurrection in the Old Testament, and countless examples of dying and reviving gods in ancient mythology. Death and resurrection is a hallmark of the initiation ritual by which a candidate is prepared to “die” to his old life that was dependent only on sensory, material existence, and awaken in his spiritual nature, with renewed, eternal sources of life and creativity.

Aslan’s death in fact bears little resemblance to the passion of Christ, which was an initiation ritual performed openly upon the public stage — an unprecedented and even outrageous act, for previously such rituals were always protectively veiled by secrecy. In stark contrast to the public trial and execution of Jesus, Aslan intends to go to his death alone and unwitnessed by the other characters in the story. The catalyst for this deed, Edmund, also can’t be equated with the figure of Judas; though the White Witch labels Edmund a traitor, as if he’s taken sides in a war between her and Aslan, Edmund had never met Aslan and could hardly be expected to be loyal to him, unlike Judas, an intimate and highly schooled disciple of the higher being.

Edmund could perhaps be accused of betraying his brother and sisters, but in going over to the White Witch he doesn’t really want to hurt them, just to childishly assert his superiority and lord it over them; as the younger boy, he feels his inferior position keenly. And of course, he’s ingested the tainted food of the Witch, thus falling into the lure of an addiction from which he has no power to free himself. He is weak and vulnerable to evil, but not evil in his own right.

So if there is to be a comparison between Aslan and Christ, it would have to be a more cosmic Christ who addresses not the treachery of Judas, but the sin of Adam — that is, of an immature being who has been attacked and overwhelmed by the forces of evil in a moment of weakness. This sin is rooted in an addictive dependence on things that do not truly satisfy, a sickness that can only be healed by loving relationship, by a return to that which alone truly nourishes human beings. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, God responded to the primal human being’s turning away from him not with an equal measure of indifference, but by gradually connecting himself ever more deeply with earthly humanity, up to and beyond the Incarnation.

Likewise, Aslan does not punish Edmund for his weakness and folly, but invites him to a relationship, to a conversation. This conversation lifts the curse of his addiction and gives him back his place in the community. Lewis does not tell us much about what caused Edmund’s soul-sickness, except to say that he had begun to go wrong in his first term at a “horrid school.” And after Edmund goes through his own near-death experience in battle with the Witch, using his courage and intelligence to save his comrades at the risk of his own life, he is fully restored to himself.

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

The idea of substitution that Lewis uses to describe Aslan’s deed, “a willing victim who had committed no treachery [being] killed in a traitor’s stead,” is a theological formulation that I personally find misleading. It encourages us to imagine that the Lord of the Universe is as commercial and transaction-oriented as we are ourselves, demanding payment where he has been cheated of some due that he himself arbitrarily demanded. This is clearly unfair, and causes many to turn away from a God who is so portrayed — with good reason, in my opinion.

Rather, I would put it this way: I think it is the nature of love to flow in wherever there is a gap, a wound, or a broken place, as water flows to fill whatever lies below it. Where we are weak and broken, love wants to fill us, strengthen us, and reconnnect us to the whole. It is only our stubborn, self-willed resistance that can prevent this restoration, and when we have been very inflexible and resistant, sometimes it takes a mighty shake-up to put things to rights. The power of divine love is willing to go through that painful process in our stead, at moments when we are too fragile to bear it, but only in order to give us a chance to develop that strength in ourselves.

That is how I see the sacrifice of Aslan, which pictures the kind of love whose strength is not defined by hardness and impermeability, but by its ability to become weak and vulnerable in the service of life, and emerge transformed, with renewed, outstreaming vitality. This is a universal truth that is known to all true religious and ethical paths of experience. It’s “Christian” in the sense that Christ acted out this process on the world stage, and invited us to become a part of it by following him. But it doesn’t matter what words you use to describe the process, so long as you recognize it and take it up.

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

A little passage struck me as I read LWW this time around, one that I hadn’t consciously noticed before but that encapsulated the meaning of Narnia for me. It’s just after Peter has rescued Susan from the attack of the Wolf: “She and Peter felt pretty shaky when they met and I won’t say there wasn’t kissing and crying on both sides. But in Narnia no one thinks any the worse of you for that.”

Narnia is the place where you can be who you really are. It’s where you are allowed to have feelings, to be moved, to be vulnerable and authentic. You’re permitted to express emotions rather than hiding and covering them up, not only to weep in relief or horror, but also to take joy in simple pleasures and find delight in beauty. No doubt in this regard it is the opposite of that “horrid school” that sent Edmund down the wrong path, and of all horrid schoolings that teach us to deny our feelings and conceal our true selves behind icy masks of power and control. We all are in danger of falling prey to the chilling lure of self-absorbed power, and we all have the potential to re-consecrate ourselves to the service of the world through loving sacrifice.

My childhood sojourn in Narnia helped me to know which of those paths I wanted to be on. Following it into adult life has been another matter, with added layers of confusion and self-deception to work through; but after several decades, my aspiration is the same. I still want to be a good Narnian, and I still have hopes that I, too, may one day sit on a throne in Cair Paravel That is the birthright of every one of us, we who are the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, when we become humble enough to take it up..

What about you? Have you been through the wardrobe door, and what did you find there?

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11 thoughts on “Through the wardrobe door: #Narniathon21

  1. Oh, I do like this overview (and thanks for linking to #Narniathon21) as my own reread of LWW has also modified my previous discomfort over what initially felt like blatant Christian allegorising, not to forget what I first took for patronising avuncularism.* There are still aspects I feel a teensy bit uncomfortable about but on the whole this has stood up a lot better than when I first read it aloud as a bedtime story to our eldest child in the 70s. Hoping to do my review after I’ve put up this month’s Narniathon post, but thanks for your very considered insights!

    1. Thank you for the opportunity. This was a joy for me to do. And I do think the patronising avuncularism is there, sadly … I didn’t want to focus on it this time, but maybe in some future posts. However, for me it never overshadowed the good parts, and it still doesn’t, on the whole.

  2. I was surprised on my re-read not to find the Christian message at all heavy handed. As for the avuncularism, I didn’t find anything that bothered me there. I loved his chatty, authorial voice and was drawn in from the start!

  3. I love what you say about the “horrid schoolings that teach us to deny our feelings and conceal our true selves behind icy masks of power and control.” I hadn’t thought of it that way in a while, although I think children are always reading it that way, caught up as they are in the control of various adults.

    1. Children are in a struggle to preserve what is genuine and alive in them against the dulling forces of the adult world. I find that is represented over and over in Narnia, so we’ll no doubt visit this theme again.

  4. Oh Lory, you are always so eloquent! I am lost in admiration. I seem to recall that Lewis absolutely hated school, and it was a torment to him. I bet he was remembering its effects on him and the other boys when he wrote about Edmund’s misery and spite, and his relief at being freed from their effects.

    1. Aw, thanks, Jean (blushes). I’m so happy to be sharing this adventure with you.

      I just reread Surprised by Joy to remind myself what Lewis said about his early life. His school was indeed hellish to say the least. This no doubt was a strong subtext for him when writing the character of Edmund. And it makes me think again that LWW is really about the death and resurrection of Edmund (and young Jack Lewis as well?). Boys were hard put to maintain some inner moral light in the face of such cruelty. The dawning of such a light must really have seemed like a rebirth.

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