The Chronicles of Narnia is a series written by C.S. Lewis between 1949 and 1954. The series revolves around the fantasy adventure of a group of children (primarily the Pevensie siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy), transported from this earth, to a magical world called Narnia. In Narnia, animals talk and mythical creatures such as fauns and centaurs abound. The land is ruled by a lion called Aslan and there is a constant struggle between good and evil as evil forces, such as witches, try to regain control of an otherwise peaceful land.
The Chronicles is composed of seven books: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; and The Last Battle.
A film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, called the The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was released in December 2005. The movie was produced by Walden Media and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures while directed by Andrew Adamson with the screenplay written by Ann Peacock.
As with the film version, many of the other books in the series culminate into a battle scene between invaders or evil rulers and the loyal citizens of Narnia, with the children acting as military and even spiritual leaders. What is uniform throughout the entire book series however is the presence of Aslan, the song of the “King over the sea.”
The series has many allusions to traditional Christian ideas, the most pervasive of which is the concept of a god who dies in sacrifice for his people, and is later resurrected. In the series, Aslan’s character and its experience is almost identical to that of Jesus Christ.
In The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, we see how Aslan offers up his life to the Witch to redeem Edmund Pevensie’s sins. Like Christ, there is a parallelism here in how Jesus Christ offers up his life to redeem the sins of mankind. It should be noted that the Pevensie children were regarded as the “Sons” and “Daughters of Adam.” In The Chronicles, we also see how the two Pevensie girls, Susan and Lucy, approach the broken Stone Table where Aslan lies bound. Susan and Lucy, like Mary Magdalene and Mary, cut Aslan loose and weep over him, while Aslan himself, like Jesus, tells them not to worry. And like Jesus, Aslan comes back to life, much to the fear of his enemies.
Lewis prefers to call the Christian aspects of his books as suppositional rather than allegory. He said that they are similar to what is known as “fictional parallel universes.” According to critics, the Narnia series it not an allegory since these have an overarching figurative level of meaning which are tied to the literal level (Wikipedia 2006).
On the other hand, in The Chronicles, there is simply a literal level of meaning without any figurative meaning attached, even though there are certain figurative elements involved (Wikipedia 2006).
The best example of course is Aslan who is but a literal interpretation of Jesus Christ, even though Aslan goes by a different name and form, what he symbolizes to the people in Narnia, as what Jesus symbolizes to world, is the role of a Divine Saviour. Thus, much of the religious experience shown in Narnia is a literal interpretation, not an allegory, of what we experience in the real world.
According the author, Lewis, himself to a letter to a Mrs. Hook in December of 1958:
“If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in the book The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he [Aslan] is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all… This… works out a supposition. Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan’s picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal [fictional] is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal; but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary” (Martindale & Root 1990).
The death and resurrection of Aslan, his encounter at the Stone Table with Susan and Lucy Pevensie, all bear the marks of the story of the Christian Saviour, whether or not Lewis intended this to be so or not (Trotter 2005).
Lewis does not shy away from using historic Christianity and myth hand in hand, and seems to hold on to the concept of Christianity as being partly myth. According to Lewis in his essay “Myth Became Fact” contained in God in the Dock:
“Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.
A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist – the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name – need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life…
Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded… that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block, if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God choose to be mythopoeic – and is not the sky itself a myth – shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact; claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the chilled, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher” (Trotter 2005).
And in The Chronicles, Lewis succeeds exactly in that – combining perfect myth and perfect fact. That the film abounds with myth can be seen from its imaginative landscape and character – river druids, talking beavers, fauns, centaurs, giants, and all sorts of magical beings. The story of a Creator-God’s death and resurrection is of course the most obviously religious experience in this film, but as mentioned, Lewis seems to tell us that Aslan merely represents Jesus Christ albeit in a different date and place, and also followed by definable historical consequences. The resurrection of Aslan lead to many more years of war and civil battles within Narnia, as known to those who followed the other books in the series.
The character of Aslan in fact is not just a literal interpretation of Jesus Christ himself but of God the Father. In the book The Magician’s Nephew, though not shown in the film version, we see how Aslan created the world of Narnia, literally breathing life into it during several days of creation.
By infusing the story with myth, Lewis avoids making the Narnia books overtly Christian. The fantasy world of Narnia, wherein gods and talking animals are worshipped, has even been criticized for having pagan undertones. And while watching the film, a child would get lost in the magic of it all, and in living out a fantasy of saving worlds and making friends with characters straight out of their fairy tale bedtime stories.
Even the character of Aslan is radical, for even though he clearly depicts the Christ-Saviour, Lewis chose the form of a lion. He chose a beast to exemplify the Saviour. Aslan himself communicates almost wordlessly with the Pevensie children, and they in turn find comfort in burying their hands in his man, or feel reproach only from looking at his eyes (Trotter 2005). As a religious symbol, Aslan thus is not blatantly a picture of the Saviour as we know it from Christianity, but is rather a symbol of a Saviour whom children can more easily relate to.
Edmund’s betrayal in the film may partly be rooted in his resentment and envy of his elder brother Peter’s role. We see how such negative feelings lead Edmund straight into the web of the Witch, but in the end of the movie we also see his repentance, as he pledges his staunch loyalty again to his brother, sisters, and Aslan himself. Edmund’s role may be symbol the Christian value of repentance.
In many ways, his character depicts that of a Prodigal Son, who eventually returns to his father’s home. In the film, Aslan himself expresses no doubt nor shows any admonition or anger at Edmund when the latter humbly returns. Repentance has been defined as “to turn from sin and turn unto God” (Mathew 1995). It involves a radical revolutionary change in one’s thinking, and results in a change of one’s understanding of reality, a change of values, a change of goals, a change of purpose, and a change of relationships (Mathew 1995).
In the film version of The Chronicles, we see how Edmund glowers darkly at everyone and everything he encounters in Narnia. He pretends that he hasn’t been there and that he never encountered his younger sister Lucy there initially, just to make the latter look like a fool. Many of the things in Narnia scared Edmund, and much of it he didn’t understand, but his resentment, particularly of Peter, draws him to the Witch, who senses this in Edmund and uses it to her advantage.
When Edmund sees the Witch for what she really is, he is jolted back into reality and “turns away from sin” – the Witch representing evil and thus all that is sinful in Narnia. He has a change of values, and a change of appreciation for his siblings and Aslan, and returns to their circle. In this sense, the Christian value of repentance is evident in Edmund’s actions, especially when he is seen fighting alongside his brother Peter.
Another example of such repentance is with Eustace, a cousin of the Pevensies who first makes an appearance in the series in the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (not shown in the film version). Eustace greedily tries on a bracelet which turns out to be magically (or cursed, depending on how you look at it), and finds himself turned into a dragon. In the book, Eustace’s experience as a dragon was described as such:
“It was very dreary being a dragon. He shuddered whenever he caught sight of his own reflection as he flew over a mountain lake. He hated the huge batlike wings, the saw-edged ridge on his back, and the cruel, curved claws. He was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with others. On the evenings when he was not being used as a hot water-bottle he would slink away from the camp and lie curled up like a snake between the wood and the water. On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away at from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head. … And poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still. And this ate into his mind, just as that bracelet ate into his foreleg” (Lewis, 1952, pp. 81-82).
In this part of the series, Eustace’s temporary state as a dragon made him rethink his past deeds – from being a sulky, deceitful, and difficult boy, who realizes he isn’t loved by the people around him, and he realizes that the people around him are all contributing good, noble work while he continues to be a nuisance. When Eustace eventually scratches off his dragon skin with the help of Aslan, he emerges repentant and from then on becomes a better person. As a dragon, Eustace felt lonely and even more isolated from his companion, and indicates how children basically feel when they know they have misbehaved. This form of punishment is an illustration of the emotions attendant to spiritual and moral failure (O’Rourke 2005), yet Lewis pulls it off without sounding being too preachy or explicitly instructive to his readers and/or viewers.
That Lewis did not consciously set out to include overtly Christian theological messages and undertones in the Narnia series is apparent not just from the stories themselves but from the author’s own discussion. In Of Other Worlds he wrote:
“Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
Lewis’ words are further supported by criticisms that in fact Narnia has a lot of pagan elements and influences. The depiction of Jesus Christ as a lion has been criticized as heretical. Lewis’ use of centaurs, fauns, satyrs, dwarves, werewolves, and giants, many of which are depicted in a positive light as allies fighting alongside the heroes of the story, have historically been regarded as distinctly pagan motifs (Chattaway 2005). In fact, not only was Lewis hesitant to refer to his Narnia series as Christian allegory, but the stories themselves have been said to borrow just as much from pagan mythology as they do from Christianity (Hurst 2005). Another criticism in depicting Jesus Christ as a lion is that such an animal depicts brute force and power. In religious studies, Jesus Christ was more similar to a lamb, representing the meek of the earth, the weak, the poor, the defeated (Toynbee 2005).
Yet it cannot be denied that Aslan, though dubbed “the Son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea” strongly symbolizes the literal interpretation of Creator-Saviour, the fact that his sacrifice in the film was on a huge stone table, and not a cross like Jesus Christ, and was done with a stone knife (Aztec-style) hints the concept may have been borrowed from any number of world religions, and not necessarily Christianity (Van Biema 2005). Furthermore, the passage of the Pevensie children through the magic wardrobe into the world of Narnia is not a particularly Christian or religious reference, nor does the concept of the cruel White Witch show any religious influences. The role of the talking beavers, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, is more fairy tale than religious thought or belief, and appeals more to a child’s imagination rather than religious evangelization.
Other symbols of religious belief however that can be gleaned from Narnia is the concept of “Deep Magic” which can be interpreted as God’s law or God’s love (Van Biema 2005). After Edmund betrays his siblings and Aslan, the Witch claims his blood in accordance to the laws of such “Deep Magic,” which Aslan concedes to and offers himself up in proxy, for he is, unlike Edmund, “sin-free” and thus of purer blood than Edmund (Van Biema 2005). In the film, Aslan, after he is resurrected, explains to the Pevensies: “The Witch knew the Deep Magic. But if could have looked a little further back… 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.”
In other words, Edmund’s treachery in Narnia corresponds to the sins of humanity, which the apostle Paul (in Letters of the apostle Paul), is inherently doomed to violate god’s law (or “Deep Magic” as depicted in Narnia). In Romans, the apostle Paul wrote that because of this violation, humans are literally owned by Satan (“slaves of the one whom you obey; and “the wages of sin id death”). Aslan, who is sinless, is the only one who can voluntarily pay for Edmund’s blood with this own. This represent the powerful Christian doctrine of blood atonement. And like Jesus Christ’s, Aslan’s resurrection was inevitable, and this is seen by all believers. In the movie, this resurrection was celebrated by Lucy Pevensie who plays a sort of game of tag with Aslan (Van Biema 2005).
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, has often claimed that he never set out to write a Christian allegory, and that his series should not be treated as such. Nevertheless, the religious undertones, specifically with regard to Christianity, in his books, and correspondingly, to the film, cannot be denied.
Aslan, as the ruler of Narnia, is the most direct symbol of Christianity in Narnia, and is in fact considered a literal interpretation of Jesus Christ by Lewis himself. Like Christ, Aslan is regarded as the saviour, who pays for the sins of mankind (Edmund, in the case of Narnia), by offering up his own life in exchange. Such self-sacrifice is rooted from the sin-less nature of the Jesus Christ/Aslan parallel, and as such, it also leads naturally to the resurrection of Aslan himself, to be greeted by Susan and Lucy Pevensie, similar to Mary Magdalene and Mary encountering Jesus Christ after he rose from the dead.
Edmund’s betrayal represents the sins of humanity. What he encounters during his betrayal – the devil or Satan as embodied by the White Witch – eventually leads to his own repentance, which are pursuant to the religious concepts of repentance as turning away from sin and changing one’s beliefs and values. In the movie, this is seen when Edmund returns to his siblings and Aslan, very much like the Prodigal Son coming home.
However, it should be pointed out that although there are strong Christian undertones in Narnia, many elements of the film are also rooted in a simple fantasy world woven to delight children. Indeed, children themselves, particularly non-Christian ones, may miss these religious teachings altogether, and simply just sit back and enjoy the world that C.S. Lewis created.
WORKS CITED LIST
Chattaway, Peter T. Narnia ‘baptizes’ – and defends – pagan mythology. Canadian Christianity, ISBN. 2005.
Hurst, Josh. Nine Minutes of Narnia. Christianity Today. 2005.
Martindale, Wayne, & Root, Jerry. The Quotable Lewis. 1990. Tyndale House.
Mathew, P.G. Repentance. Grace Valley Christian Center. 1995. 26 Nov. 2006. http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/~gvcc/radio_trans/repent.html
O’Rourke, Meghan. The Lion King: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia isn’t simply a Christian allegory. Slate Magazine. 9 Dec. 2005. 26 Nov. 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2131908/nav/tap1/
The Chronicles of Narnia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. 2006. 26 Nov. 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Narnia
Trotter, Drew. What Did C.S. Lewis Mean, and Does It Matter? A Preview of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Film). Lecture delivered at the University of Pennsylvania Veritas Forum. 11 Nov. 2005. 26 Nov. 2006. http://www.leaderu.com/popculture/meaningandlewis-lwwpreview.html
Van Biema, David. How to Tell if The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is a Christian Film. Time.com. 3 Oct. 2005. 26 Nov. 2006. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1113226,00.html