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The Lion Messiah

A Word about Aslan

Written by Emilie Griffin

Lion in winterC.S. Lewis believed that certain kinds of religious decorum could get in the way of genuine religious experience. That was a problem that plagued him much of his life. Lewis wrote:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm.

Lewis thought the whole subject of religion had been spoilt for him early in life by an exaggerated requirement to speak in lowered voices. “Almost as if it were something medical,” he added, reflecting the Victorian prudishness of his kind of upbringing.

His was a problem that has plagued many who feel disaffected by religious expectations. Devotion can’t be demanded of us as a socially appropriate kind of behavior. It needs to be spontaneous and freely offered. A real love relationship must develop between God and us, unforced and unfeigned, not just a show of piety to satisfy someone else’s convictions.

Gradually, over many years, Lewis worked his way through this problem. Partly it was through his encounter with Norse mythology, what he and his friend Arthur Greeves called “Northern-ness.” As boys they had been carried up into exalted realms by the beauty of Norse tales such as that about Balder.

Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead

In reading the story of Balder, the young Lewis had been deeply moved. Later on he came to realize that the story of Balder is a clear parallel to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

At first he was confused by resemblances to the Christ story in pagan mythologies. But under the influence of some very literary friends, he came to think of Christianity as the one true myth, the one that other myths were hinting at and pointing to.

J.R.R. Tolkien had worked through many of these issues already. He helped Lewis through his labyrinth of difficulties. Other believing friends in the Oxford crowd helped Lewis, too. Even a hard-boiled atheist gave him a clue by saying he thought there was something to the Jesus story.

Lewis later resolved to write stories that would do for others what the story of Balder had done for him: strip away false and mandatory piety and leave the story of God’s sacrificial love in a wild and persuasive new guise, galloping with real momentum through fields of imagination.

But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

So Lewis reveals his own back story of Narnia, and Aslan comes bounding in.
Many people who read the Narnia stories never suspect that Aslan is Christ incarnated as a talking lion. Yet they are moved by Aslan: his goodness, his power, his compassion, his sacrificial love.

And though Tolkien felt that Lewis’s Narnia was lacking in theological subtlety, many readers would contradict him. They can’t follow the Christian motifs in the Narnia stories until these are explained to them. (Frankly, I think Lewis would not be concerned about the readers who don’t get the Christian message. His whole thrust in writing the stories is toward myth-making rather than towards direct Christian teaching. To argue the Christian message—as in Mere Christianity— Lewis took a very different tack.)

Let’s return for a moment to Balder, who seems to be the clue that will unlock Lewis’s creative approach to Aslan’s character. Why had this story—and other stories of the Norse gods—been so moving to Lewis?

Edith Hamilton, in her classic work Mythology, points out that the Norse gods are different from the Gods of Olympus because they suffer and experience sadness. Also, they suffer for others, for the sake of humanity. Hamilton says: “Balder was the most beloved of the gods, on earth as in heaven. His death was the first of the disasters that fell upon the gods. One night he was troubled with dreams which seemed to foretell some great danger to him.”

His mother, Frigga, the wife of Odin, attempted to prevent the disaster by going through the world and securing promises from all creatures that nothing would or could harm her son. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe. She also made the mistake of telling Loki, a wicked character who hated Balder, that Balder was vulnerable to the mistletoe. Loki managed to arrange for the mistletoe to be hurled at Balder; it pierced Balder’s heart. Attempts were made to redeem Balder from death...but without success.

In Surprised by Joy Lewis explains how the Norse story deeply affected him: “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.”

However, he doesn’t fully explain why Balder moved him. Was it because the death of Balder was the first disaster that fell upon the gods? I think it is more likely that Lewis was moved by the Balder story because it was primitive, and because his emotions were free; he wasn’t expected to care about Balder in the way he was expected to care about Jesus.

This wild character—and the freedom to enjoy the story—is what he wants to create for others when he writes about Aslan. No doubt he likely believes that most who are moved by the Aslan story will make the connection to Jesus in due course. Most probably will, not only because Aslan is put to death but also because he returns to life, and resurrects others as well.

Does Aslan move us as deeply as Balder moved the young Lewis? Undoubtedly some of us will be moved by Aslan’s fate: he is royal, he is sinless, he is longsuffering.

In publicity for the new film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is referred to as a Lion Messiah. Lewis himself does not use this designation. But Lewis’s Aslan does go through a “Passion Story.”

Foreseeing ominous events to come, Aslan becomes sad, and the children (his disciples) ask if they can come with him or prevent what is to happen. Aslan may be powerful, but still he is subject to the Law governing Narnia. The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea (no doubt Lewis means God the Father) has set up the rules and Aslan will follow them to the death.

Aslan’s mane is shorn; his ordinary cat-ness is revealed. Crowds mock and jeer at Aslan.

The Stone Table is where the sacrifice will occur. Grouped around the Stone Table in a half-moon shape are centaurs, a unicorn, a bull with the head of a man, a pelican, an eagle, a great dog, and two leopards. Lewis is creating a parallel mythology with a pagan feel.

Aslan is killed, and the children remain with his body.

The Stone Table is struck in two. But Aslan is then brought back to life, through what Lewis calls “a Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.” This Deep Magic is the redemptive power that the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning.

After his own resurrection, Aslan revives the Witch’s collection of stone figures. He brings them all back to life, including a Giant, another Lion, and Mr. Tumnus. Aslan exercises his kingship in a marvelous and compassionate way.

From this brief story outline, it is hard to see how Aslan’s story may awaken religious awe in readers (and film viewers) who have failed to see Christ in conventional ways. Story outlines rarely have the same impact as stories themselves. The love of story—and story as a means of revelation—is part of what had fully engaged Lewis and inspired him to write.

I am reminded of the biblical words that say, “There are many other things that Jesus did; if one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25, NRSV)

Lewis tells the story of Christ in a way that touches us. Millions have already been moved by it. Perhaps, as captured on film, Aslan’s story will touch millions more.


Copyright ©2005 Emilie Griffin

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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