Seventy years ago, in October 1950, a book bearing a curious title was published: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The first of CS Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia, it soon established itself as a classic of children’s fiction and has now sold untold millions around the world in more than 40 languages. In surveys of British readers’ favourite books, it still regularly features in the Top Ten, sometimes claiming the number one spot.
The book’s success is remarkable by any standards and all the more so, in these secular days, when one recalls it is a retelling of the Gospel. Lewis intended it to provide “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?’”
Narnia’s Christ-figure is a lion named Aslan (the Turkish word for lion) who dies sacrificially for a treacherous schoolboy and then returns to life, bringing about the destruction of tyranny and ushering in a Golden Age.
Summarised like that, the story might appear to be nothing more than a trite allegory suited only to immature minds. Yet as countless readers can attest – adults as well as children – there is something irresistibly engaging about it. It succeeds both as a fairy tale and as a spiritual fable.
Artist Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the first edition, read the proofs and found herself moved to tears by the death and resurrection of Aslan. Only when she began to draft her pictures did the Gospel parallels break over her like a wave.
The theologian John Hick notes how “many today have had the scope of their theological imaginations enlarged by … the numinous figure of Aslan.” A case in point is the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who, in his study of Narnia, The Lion’s World, confesses to being “repeatedly humbled and converted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers … over more than half a century”.
Lewis was an Oxford don who knew more about Western literature and the workings of the imagination than almost anyone. Perhaps his nearest rival in the field was his friend, JRR Tolkien. It was largely through a conversation with Tolkien about pagan myths of dying and rising gods that Lewis became an adult convert to Christianity.
About 20 years after that conversion, when he was at the height of his powers, Lewis felt he must produce a fairy tale “or burst”. The Lion was the result, the book he was born to write.
He said he had been having both dreams and nightmares of lions as he began work on the story, which may account for why Aslan is “good and terrible at the same time”. Unlike TS Eliot’s “Christ the tiger” (in his poem “Gerontion”), who signifies only imminent judgment, Aslan’s leonine nature allows Lewis to symbolise both the power of divine transcendence and the joy of divine presence. Aslan has claws and a roar strong enough to bend the trees; he is definitely “not a tame lion”. But he is also golden, furry, feline. The children can dance and romp with him, though they can hardly say “whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten”.
Rowan Williams explains that Lewis “wants his readers to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually mean it.” He achieves this by “making up a world in which these things can be met without preconceptions, a world in which the strangeness of the Christian story is encountered for what it is, not as part of a familiar eccentricity of behaviour called religion.”
The defamiliarisation is supremely successful: Aslan is undeniably a great literary achievement. One possible deficiency, however, theologically speaking, is that he has no mother. He has a divine father (“the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea”), but there is no Mary figure, and Aslan’s incarnation into the Narnian world happens not through his “taking flesh” of a lioness, but more in the manner of a docking sailor. “Aslan has landed” is how his arrival is described.
Though this divergence from the biblical record might be lamented doctrinally, it is understandable dramatically. A Mary figure would need a backstory and her own narrative arc; a Narnian version of the Annunciation would be required. Lewis solves this Marian problem by simply ignoring it out of existence. It’s a bold move, even heretical, one might argue, but then, well, it’s heresy to say Jesus was a cat. A fairy tale can only achieve so much.
Still, Lewis communicates solidarity between the Narnians and their king in another, ingenious way. Aslan’s leonine nature reflects not only the lion of Judah, but also the lion of Jupiter, that kingly archetype by which Lewis set so much imaginative store. Jupiter was foremost among those “spiritual symbols of permanent value” that he studied as a medieval scholar. Aslan personifies a Jovial quality subtly woven into the structure and atmosphere of the book as a whole.
Like all masterpieces, it works on several levels at once, as a fairy tale, an allegory, and (in the words of critic Alan Jacobs) “an askesis, a spiritual exercise … a kind of training in how to long, and what and whom to long for.”
The novelist Francis Spufford, in his memoir The Child That Books Built, bears out Jacobs’s point. He relates how, as a child, “I had the poster-map of Narnia by Pauline Baynes up on the wall on the upstairs landing at home. In the top right-hand corner, she’d painted Aslan’s golden face in a rosette of mane. Once, when no one was around, I crept onto the landing and kissed Aslan’s nose in experimental adoration – and then fled, quivering with excited shame, because I had brought something into the real world from the story’s realm of infinite deniability.”
Fr Michael Ward is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis (Oxford University Press)