a word about Aslan
commentary by Emilie Griffin
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.
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.
was a problem that has plagued many who feel disaffected
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
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.
the beautiful is dead, is dead
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.
first he was confused by resemblances to the Christ story in pagan
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
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
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
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.
Lewis reveals his own back story of Narnia, and Aslan comes bounding
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.
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
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?
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.”
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.
Surprised by Joy Lewis explains how the Norse story deeply
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
mane is shorn; his ordinary cat-ness is revealed. Crowds mock and
jeer at Aslan.
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.
is killed, and the children remain with his body.
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.
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.
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.
©2005 Emilie Griffin
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