The Lion, the Witch and the Allegory: An Analysis of Selected Narnia Chronicles
Reprinted with permission of the author
The Narnia Chronicles are undoubtedly the most popular works of writer C.S. Lewis. And although they are recognized as children's fantasy novels, they are also popular with students and adults, including many Christian theologians. In the Narnia Chronicles, Lewis typifies the Biblical character of Jesus Christ as the character of Aslan the lion, retelling certain events in the life of Jesus to children in a this new context in a way that is easy for them to understand; most importantly, however, children can both relate to and enjoy the fantasy of Narnia. This essay will to analyze The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to demonstrate that the Narnia Chronicles are not so much didactic allegories, but rather are well-crafted children's fantasies that incorporate Biblical themes in a way that young readers can appreciate.
Although it was the sixth book to be written in the seven book series, the story of The Magician's Nephew takes place several decades before that of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It describes the creation of the land of Narnia, and how humans came to be associated with this other world. The narrative draws heavily from the creation story in Genesis, but Lewis' account of Narnian creation is clearly geared to appeal to a younger audience.
One of the the literary techniques Lewis uses to appeal to a younger audience is his use of children as the main characters; in The Magician's Nephew, for instance, Polly & Digory are present throughout the entire narrative. Lewis describes Aslan's creation of the world of Narnia as seen by these two children, immediately establishing a rapport between his young audience and the narrative. As they enter a lightless Narnia at the beginning of its creation, Lewis uses the children to describe their surroundings: "We do seem to be somewhere," said Digory. "At least I'm standing on something solid." (Lewis, 1988, p.91). Digory's first description of this new environment not only establishes a connection between the young readers and the narrative, but is also representative of a trend in Lewis' retelling of the creation story: Lewis draws on the Biblical creation story, but does not attempt to directly parallel the story of Genesis. In Genesis, after creating the heavens and earth, the first thing he does is to create light: "And God said, 'Let there be light.'" (Gen 2:4). It is not, in fact, until the second day that God creates dry land (Gen 1:9-10). The reader of The Magician's Nephew, however, learns from a child's description that even while the world of Narnia is still dark, the earth (or "something solid") has already been created. Obviously, Lewis' primary goal in writing the story of Narnia's creation was not to make an exact allegory to Genesis, but perhaps to draw from select Biblical creation images, and patterning a children's story from them.
Lewis continues to draw from Biblical creation images as he describes the introduction of light into Narnia. The singing stars are the first things to the children see in Narnia, and Lewis again uses the character of Digory to establish a connection between the text and a youthful reader: "If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing," (Lewis, 1988, p.93-94). Genesis, on the other hand, automatically appeals to adult sensibilities when describing the stars, relating them to such "grown-up" concerns as the calendar: "Let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and them be lights in the expanse of the sky..." (Gen 1:14-15). The singing stars image that Lewis draws from here is located in Job 38:7. Comparing these two passages, it is evident that Lewis chose to convey his creation story using the Biblical images that are not only easier for children to understand, but also easier for children to appreciate and enjoy.
Another device Lewis uses in the Narnia Chronicles is the personification of animals. Narnia is a land of talking animals, and as children usually find the concept of animals and magical creatures more interesting than that of a historical reality of long ago (i.e. the reality of Jerusalem 2000 years ago). Narnia proves to be the perfect vehicle for a captivating work of children's literature. Upon comparing the creation stories in The Magician's Nephew and the book of Genesis, Lewis' technique of making animals a central part of his narrative is readily noticeable. In Genesis, God creates animals that inhabit land on the fifth day: "God said, 'Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.' And it was so." (Gen 1:24-25). The interesting choice of words in this verse may well have been the inspiration for Lewis to write his creative description of the creation of animals in Narnia, where the animals are literally produced by the land, out of the ground: "In all directions it [the land] was swelling into humps. They were of very different sizes some no bigger than mole-hills, some as big as wheel-barrows, two the size of cottages. And the humps move and swelled until they burst, and the crumbled earth poured out of them, and from each hump there came out an animal." (Lewis, 1988, p.105) Lewis' emphasis on the animals in his creation story is especially apparent with his use of Aslan the lion as a God figure: "The Lion opened his mouth...he was breathing out a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees." (Lewis, 1988, p.108). This image of life-giving breath directly correlates to a passage in Genesis: "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." (Gen 2:7). Lewis equates the significance of the creation of man in Genesis with the creation of the animals in Narnia, and thereby appeals to a child's natural attraction to animals by making them the central part of the Narnian creation story.
Since animals have taken, at least to some extent, the role of man in the creation story, the human characters of Polly and Digory (and their team) must obviously assume a slightly different role in the creation. At this point, Lewis introduces the concept of evil entering Narnia, and the concept of the introduction of sin into a new world. "Before the new, clean world I gave you is seven hours old, a force of evil has already entered it; waked and brought hither by this son of Adam," says Aslan (Lewis, 1988, p.126). Lewis has cleverly associated Digory with the Biblical Adam in two ways. The obvious connection is that Digory is a male human being, and therefore a "son of Adam". But the the deeper connection that Lewis implies is that just as Adam first brought sin into the world in Genesis, Digory is charged with bringing the first evil into the new world of Narnia.
Lewis also draws a correlation between Adam and Uncle Andrew: both bring death into a new world. The apostle Paul describes Adam as one who brought death into the world: "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin," (Rom 5:12). Uncle Andrew, while he does not bring death into Narnia, does bring the concept of death with him. Upon seeing Aslan, his first reaction is to kill: "A most disagreeable place. If only I were a younger man and had a gun --" (Lewis, 1988, p.96). This image of a gun-wielding Uncle Andrew is seen again and again in the narrative: "The first thing is to get that brute shot." (Lewis, 1988, p.103). Lewis is able to affiliate humans not only with evil, but with the race of Adam: a people that brings death and sin. The way in which he achieves this is also very important: by using the image of the slaughter of animals, Lewis once again appeals to the sensibilities of a younger audience. Children are likely to be more upset at the death of an animal than that of a man who lived long ago; a man they never knew. In this way, children might sympathize more easily with the proposed death of a Christ-like lion than that of a historical Jesus (a theme explored later in this essay).
The analysis of evil entering Narnia would not be near complete, of course, without examining the character of Queen Jadis (known in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as the White Witch). Like Uncle Andrew, the Witch is antagonistic towards Aslan. She too wishes to destroy the lion, and attempts to kill him with an iron bar: "She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head." (Lewis, 1988, p.99). Later Aslan makes it clear that she is the evil that has entered Narnia: "The world is not five hours old an evil has already entered it" (Lewis, 1988, p.111), "There is an evil witch abroad in my new land of Narnia," (Lewis, 1988, p.125). The allegory of the Witch is still unclear, though. In the creation story in Genesis, two elements of evil can be found. The first is Adam and Eve's direct disobedience to God's commandment (Gen 2-3). The second element, however, is not of human origin, but is rather the character of the serpent (Gen 3). The Witch in The Magician's Nephew can be perhaps seen as an image of the introduction of sin (in the context of the Narnian creation story), but later in the novel Lewis also alludes to her relation with the character of the serpent.
This marks a move away from the theme of creation, and a step towards the theme of temptation in the Narnia Chronicles. The theme of temptation is present in both the Bible and the Narnia Chronicles, and Lewis often models his presentations of temptation after stories and characters from the Bible. A good example of this phenomenon is that of Chapter 13 (Lewis, 1988), which is a retelling of the story of the tree of knowledge. This chapter involves Digory retrieving a silver apple from a garden for Aslan; the similarities between this setting and the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (Gen 2-3) are obvious. The role of the Witch, however, evolves from being a symbol of evil to being compared with the serpent in Genesis 3. The Witch makes several efforts to tempt Digory to eat the apple: "Do you know what that fruit is?...It is the apple of youth...Eat it, Boy, eat it," (Lewis, 1988, p.150). This role of temptress is analogous to the role of the serpent when it speaks to Eve (Gen 3:1-5). Lewis has also put Digory in the role of Adam and Eve. Digory's connection to Adam is made explicit by Aslan referring to him as "Son of Adam" throughout the novel. In this retelling of the Garden of Eden story, however, Lewis has Digory make the righteous decision of not eating the apple, but returning to Aslan instead. By having the Witch eat the apple instead (Lewis, 1988, p.149), Lewis allows the roles of protagonist and antagonist to remain clear and distinct. By manipulating the story of the fall of man in this way, Lewis has simplified and contained the forces of good and evil into single characters, making the distinction easier for his children readers understand.
Digory is not the only character to be tempted in Narnia. Uncle Andrew is tempted throughout the narrative by his greed; his lust for money and power. He is forever scheming and dreaming of ways to capitalize on the discovery of Narnia: "The commercial possibilities of this are unbounded...I shall be a millionaire." (Lewis, 1988, p.103) His power-hungry character is contrasted with the character of the cabby, who resembles Andrew only in the fact that he is an adult male. The cabby, however, has a kind of reverent awe of Aslan and the land of Narnia, and voices his disgust in Andrew for not being able to appreciate the miracle of the creation of Narnia: "Oh, stow it Guv'nor, do stow it. Watchin' and listenin's the thing at present; not talking." (Lewis, 1988, p.98) Their relationship is reminiscent of the Biblical story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Just as Lazarus received the kingdom of heaven, the cabby becomes the first king of Narnia (Lewis, 1988, p.159), while Andrew is not repaid for succumbing to temptation. This is an example of Lewis' gift to subtly weave Christian teachings into his stories without sacrificing their readability for a young audience.
Perhaps the best example of surrendering to temptation can be found in the second book of the Narnia Chronicles (the first Chronicle, however, for Lewis to write): The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The character of Edmund struggles with temptation throughout his time in Narnia, and like Digory, his temptress is the White Witch. Unlike The Magician's Nephew, however, Lewis' use of the Biblical theme of temptation in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe uses New Testament readings as its primary source, drawing from the stories of temptation of both Jesus and Judas.
Keeping the former distinction in mind, an examination of New Testament teaching concerning temptation proves useful. James illustrates some key Christian teachings concerning trials and temptation: "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their position...He [God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." (James 1:9, 18). When writing about a good Christian facing temptation, James places emphasis on the righteousness of a man in humble position. He also places importance of the concept of the "word of truth" in humanity. The character of Edmund adheres to neither of these principles.
Edmund's first significant sin is to succumb to the temptation of gluttony (King, 1998). The White Witch offers him enchanted Turkish Delights. The description of his gluttonous and decadent behaviour is very clear: "At first Edmund tried to remember that it was rude to speak with one's mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat..." (Lewis, 1986, p.37) This scene not only the image of Eve succumbing to the temptation of eating the fruit of knowledge, but also to the New Testament theology of Paul: "...many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things." (Phil 3:18-19).
Edmund continues to fill his mind with earthly desires by also succumbing to the temptation of improving his humble position (see James 1:9 above) when the White Witch entices him with the prospect of princehood: "I think I would like to make you the Prince -- some day when you bring the others to visit me." (Lewis, 1986, p.39). This temptation of power is very like the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert. Satan, like the Witch, tempts Jesus with power in exchange for service: "The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you bow down and worship me." (Matt 4:8-9). In addition to succumbing to these various temptations, Edmund also agrees not to reveal his knowledge of the Witch to his siblings (Lewis, 1986, p.40), and consequentially ends up lying to his them about his discovery of Narnia: "Lucy and I have been playing -- pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true." (Lewis, 1986, p.44) By doing this, Edmund fulfills the antithesis of Paul's virtues of the good Christian in face of temptation (see James 1:18).
Lewis masterfully intertwines these Biblical themes of temptation into the character of Edmund. But Edmund's character is, in fact, most closely allegorized to the Biblical character of Judas; the betrayer (Matt 26). Edmund betrays his siblings and the Beavers by going to seek the White Witch in Chapter 8 (Lewis, 1986). All he could think about were his earthly desires and wants: "Turkish Delight and to be a prince" (Lewis, 1986, p.82). Comparing a mere child to Judas, however, is a very serious allegory for a children's novel. To deal with this, Lewis creates the idea of the Witch giving Edmund enchanted Turkish Delight: "She knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, to go on eating it till they killed themselves." (p.38). By making Edmund's cravings for Turkish Delight the fault of the Witch and not his own, Lewis alleviates some of the gravity of Edmund's offense; once again taking Biblical imagery and softening it to appeal to a young audience. And in the end, of course, Edmund is forgiven for his betrayal; an event which involves the most important allegorical theme in the Narnia Chronicles: Aslan's synonymy with Jesus Christ.
Before continuing, it should be said that many academics have gone too far in deconstructing the Chronicles of Narnia; theorizing about Lewis' intended "true" meaning for all of his symbolic Bible imagery; to analyze the books in this fashion is to miss Lewis' point in writing them (Schakel, 1979, p.xii). In 1954, Lewis was asked to explain the Aslan-Christ parallel to some fifth graders in Maryland. He replied: "I did not say to myself 'Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia'; I said 'Let us suppose that there were land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen". (Lewis, 1954, 1998) Bearing this in mind, it still proves fruitful to examine how Lewis relates Aslan to the character of the Biblical Jesus, because the analysis yields a better understanding of Lewis' craft: to use Biblical motifs to create a captivating story for children.
Edmund embodies many characteristics of Judas, including the characteristic of betrayal, and Aslan's similarity to Jesus is noticeable in the way he forgives Edmund. Lewis, however, has specifically evaded allegorizing Jesus not forgiving Judas (Mark 14:21), and instead turns to more general Christian teachings on forgiveness: "If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently...Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal 6:1-2). In this way, Lewis once again manages to dilute the Biblical narrative into guilt-free children's readability. Aslan forgiveness of Edmund is expressed by his rescue of Edmund from the White Witch (Lewis, 1986, p.124-125). The Witch, however, claims Edmund's life as hers to take: "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 kill." (Lewis, 1986, p.128). Aslan then offers his own life in exchange for Edmund's; this action is cataclysmic in its Biblical meaning, because not only is Aslan merely forgiving and dying for Edmund's sin, but the act is also symbolic of Christ dying for the sins of humanity. Edmund's sin of treachery becomes symbolic for all human sins, and Aslan pays for it with his life, as did Christ: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8).
These events set up the narrative of the execution of Aslan. The former account is incredibly similar in imagery to that of the death of Jesus in the Bible. Lucy and Susan, two of the four child protagonists in the novel, follow Aslan to his execution: "And both the girls cried bitterly (though they hardly knew why) and clung to the Lion..." (Lewis, 1986, p.136). Jesus too had followers not unlike the children: "A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him." (Luke 23:27) Once he is in the hands of the Witch, Aslan is subjected to humiliation and ridicule: "'Stop!' said the Witch. 'Let him first be shaved.'...they worked about his face putting on the muzzle...he [was] surrounded by the whole crowd of creatures kicking him, hitting him, spitting on him, jeering at him." (Lewis, 1986, p.139-140) This imagery is, once again, remarkably similar to that of the Gospels: "The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, 'Prophesy! Who hit you?' And they said many other insulting things to him." (Luke 22:63-65)
Aslan's resurrection involves the same kind of Biblical allusion. In the Gospel of Luke, the women who had followed Jesus went to his tomb: "Very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus." (Luke 24:1-3) in the same way, after Lucy and Susan take off Aslan's muzzle, they leave the Stone Table where he was executed. In the early morning they return to find the Stone Table broken in two and the resurrected Aslan standing before them (Lewis, 1986, p.142-147). The breaking of the Stone Table is obviously not so similar to the stone in Jesus' tomb as it is to the curtain of the temple being torn (Luke 23:45). The image is even more allusive to the breaking of the tablets containing the Commandments in the book of Exodus. These latter correlation, however, is probably not so much direct allegory as it is an example of Lewis' command of Biblical imagery as a literary device.
Lewis, then, has retold the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of Aslan and Narnia. He has used several devices, however, to transform this heavy content into material for a children's novel. The obvious difference in Lewis' retelling of the Biblical story is his use of Aslan the lion and the land of Narnia. There is, to an extent, use of lion imagery in the Bible: "You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son." (Gen 49:9), "A king's wrath is like the roar of a lion..." (Proverbs 20:2), "They will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion." (Hosea 11:10). Most important is the reference of lions in the Book of Revelation, referring (we assume) to Christ: "See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed." (Rev 5:5). Evidently, Lewis' choice of a lion to represent Christ is not completely original; there are, however, other reasons for Lewis to choose this animal to represent Jesus. For instance, perhaps he assumed that children might better sympathize with the death of an animal than the death of a historical figure. Lewis uses a similar technique in using "Deep Magic" to explain the miraculous events that take place, like the resurrection: "'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." (Lewis, 1986, p.147) The young audience for whom the Narnia Chronicles were mainly intended would have an easier time understanding the concept of magic, rather than the theological implications that arise in the Bible stories of the resurrection. Finally, Lewis uses children as the main characters of the Narnia Chronicles. Immediately this establishes a connection for young readers that the Bible rarely offers. Children are also more likely to relate to a Messiah figure that constantly treats children with respect and love; a figure like Aslan.
The Narnia Chronicles have already established themselves as timeless works of literature. They appeal to both the atheists and the God-fearing, to both the uneducated and to scholars; to children and adults. An understanding of the Biblical allegory in these books is not essential to their appreciation. A critical analysis of these works, however, does allow the reader to more fully appreciate Lewis' unique gift to simplify complex narratives and craft beautiful children's fantasies. This, in turn, allows the reader to gain both a deeper understanding of Lewis as a skilled creative writer, and a deeper satisfaction of his art. To be able to appreciate C.S. Lewis as such a craftsman can only add to one's enjoyment of his works.