Friday, July 15, 2016

The Gospel according to C. S. Lewis: a theological review of The Chronicles of Narnia

Jewish date:  9 Tammuz 5776 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Bonaventure (Catholicism), Confuflux (Discordianism), Feast Day of St. Neil Gaiman (Church of the SubGenius).

The Gospel according to C. S. Lewis:  a theological review of The Chronicles of Narnia
by Aaron Solomon Adelman


NOTE:  The Chronicles of Narnia deals with many interrelated topics that do not readily lend themselves to a linear order.  As such, the order of the topics below is somewhat meandering.

Your humble blogger comes not to bash The Chronicles of Narnia (consisting of the 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).  First of all, the series qualifies as readable literature in its own right.  The author, C. S. Lewis, worked out a lot of the details of his fictional multiverse, bringing together talking animals with elements of English chivalry and ancient Greco-Roman religious stories.  Lewis populated his stories with actual personalities and furnished them with plots and character development.  A number of the characters screw up and turn themselves around, sometimes even switching sides—like people in the real world.  While these books do not suit everyone’s tastes, many—including your humble blogger—have found them enjoyable even without realizing that they are Christian fiction.

But what sort of Christianity are we talking about?  C. S. Lewis was a serious convert to Anglicanism, and he had his own bent on Christianity which he laid out in his book Mere Christianity.  All the familiar basics of Christianity are explained there, including the Trinity, Jesus as the Messiah, the crucifixion as atonement for humanity, and various virtues.  Mere Christianity especially emphasizes morality:  God has a universal moral law which humans know instinctively; practice of this moral law is common among the saintly, and the morality of the seriously religious of whatever religion converges on it.  God wants all humanity to follow it.  God also rewards and punishes all humans—regardless of their religion—for their actions with respect to how well they follow this universal moral law.  Being a just god, God is strict but fair.  As such, Christianity for Lewis is not an exercise in mere belief or showing up to church once a week; putting ideals into practice is required.  Furthermore, just as the moral law is binding upon all humanity, salvation through moral behavior is available to all, including non-Christians.

These beliefs are reflected in The Chronicles of Narnia.  The characters do not simply sit around believing or having faith, even though belief and faith are dealt with in the series.  They help each other, go on adventures, face moral challenges, and often end up improving themselves.  And the God of Narnia expects nothing less.

Aslan:  There are works of theological fiction which depict God as something other than all-powerful and invulnerable.  Forget anything like this in Narnia.  Aslan is a real-deal god.  Despite having the form of a lion (most of the time He is on-screen), Aslan is Jesus incarnate with His godhood evident.  He is the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea (= God the Father).  Whenever He appears, He is consistently described in glowing terms evoking awe.  He sings Narnia’s world into existence in The Magician’s Nephew, and He presides over its end in The Last Battle.

Anything resembling death or injury happens to Aslan only with His consent.  Most prominently, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in order to save Edmund Pevensie from Jadis the White Witch, He allows Himself to be sacrificed; since He is a god, He comes back to life afterwards, as a real god (at least in general Christian conception) is immortal and cannot actually be killed.  This directly reflects the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion, in which Jesus is killed so that humanity may gain forgiveness, only for Him to rise from the dead three days later.  A drop of blood from Aslan’s paw heralds Caspian X transitioning to the afterlife in The Silver Chair.  Being invulnerable, Aslan never shows the least bit of fear or worry.

Aslan is an involved god, playing a pivotal role in every book.  He cares about mortals.  He periodically appears to guide the inhabitants of Narnia’s world and visitors from our world and to reward and punish them.  In The Magician’s Nephew, He tasks Digory Kirke with planting an apple; He then makes a cab driver and his wife the first King and Queen of Narnia.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan charges the Pevensie children with their roles in the battle against the forces of Jadis the White Witch and makes them kings and queens of Narnia.  In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan repeatedly acts to help Bree, Shasta/Cor, Aravis, and Hwin out of Calormen and to prevent an invasion of Archenland, as well as punish Aravis and Rabadash, king of Calormen.  In Prince Caspian, Aslan guides the Pevensie children on their mission to save Narnia from King Miraz, establishes the reign of Caspian X, and gives the Telmarines, who were on the wrong side of the war, the option of going to Earth.  In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan repeatedly appears to guide Caspian X and his companions on their voyage to the edge of Narnia’s world.  In The Silver Chair, Aslan gives four commands to Jill Pole around which almost the entire plot is centered; he also grants an afterlife to Caspian X and gives Jill, her friend Eustace Scrubb, and Caspian X an opportunity to scare bullies.  And in The Last Battle, Aslan sends warning to Shift and Puzzle, lest they carry out Shift’s diabolical plan.  As Narnia comes to an end, Aslan sends the worthy to His own country (= Heaven) and the unworthy to darkness.

Noticeable is that Aslan is the only member of the Trinity to make an appearance in Narnia’s world.  While Aslan is the son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, God the Father Himself never appears in the story.  The Holy Spirit is never mentioned at all.  The Chronicles of Narnia may thus be viewed as a “what if” scenario in which Jesus alone creates and is involved with a world.  Without the Father, there is no Torah and nothing resembling Judaism.  The only law that matters is Lewis’s universal moral law.  While there is prayer to Aslan, His image takes the place of the cross, and there are a few prophetic traditions, Aslanism is not an organized religion.  There is no church, no mass, no baptism, no sacraments, no Bible, and no clergy.  If this is a form of Christianity, it truly is mere Christianity, stripped of most of its externals. 

Evil:  Also lacking is the Fall of Adam, so arguably there should be no original sin.  Thankfully for the plot, there is evil in Narnia.

At the very beginning of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew is Jadis, a half-giant, half-jinn descendant of Lilith.  Jadis had already destroyed her own world, Charn, and escapes through trickery.  In Narnia, she achieves immortality by eating an apple from a magic tree and essentially sets herself up as Aslan’s archenemy.  By The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she has become the White Witch, ruler of Narnia and cause of a century-long winter.  In both books, she acts as a temptress.  She is eventually killed by Aslan.

In The Silver Chair is another supernatural figure of evil, the Lady of the Green Kirtle.  Her form of evil is magically brain-washing others into submission.  Her species is unknown, but right before her death, she takes the form of a giant snake.  (Compare the snake in the Garden of ‘Edhen.)  It is never revealed whether or not she originated in Narnia’s world.

Other evil is performed by mortals.  In five out of the seven books, humans perform actions of evil.  (This is unsurprising, considering that humans perform rather a lot of evil in the real world, too.)  Nonhumans, such as dwarves and talking animals, side with the forces of evil or (in the case of the ape Shift) initiate it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle.  While humans, who originated on Earth, are subject to original sin, that nonhumans can be evil, too, suggests Lewis does not believe original sin is necessary to be evil.

Racism:  Your humble blogger was asked to discuss racism in The Chronicles of Narnia, and it is in the discussion of evil that this seems most appropriate.  Narnia’s great rival is Calormen, a country to the south whose inhabitants are not Aslanists.  They are polytheists, their chief god being the monstrous Tash.  Their rites include human sacrifice.  While the Narnians can fight quite well, the Calormenes are more given to war and conquest.  Calormenes keep slaves.  Calormenes have prominent roles as villains in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle.  And—relevant to the question of racism—they are dark-skinned, while the Narnians are light-skinned.

Given this situation, one may easily jump to the conclusion that Calormenes are inherently evil and thus The Chronicles of Narnia is racist.  But the situation is not so simple.  One obvious problem is that Narnian humans are not inherently good; their villains are prominent in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  The other problem is that despite the morally uninspiring environment they grow up in, Calormenes can still turn out to be good people.  In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is the central heroine.  And in The Last Battle, the noble Emeth seeks to get to the bottom of Shift’s fraud and is counted among the righteous.  Having dark skin does not make one evil.

There is a more solid claim of racism in The Chronicles of Narnia:  by order of Aslan, all kings and queens of Narnia have to be human (“sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”).  Talking animals and entities out of legend and Greco-Roman religion are not eligible.  No reason is ever given why humans are necessarily the best rulers; your humble blogger sees no reason for this either.  Strangely enough, no one ever objects to this, despite some dwarfs showing a lack of community spirit with other species.

Fractional Christians and potentially universal salvation: As noted previously, Lewis makes clear in Mere Christianity that he does not believe that non-Christians are necessarily evil or damned to Hell.  He thinks of them as being fractionally Christian, as they may agree with parts of Christian doctrine and practice parts of the universal moral law.  As such, they may also receive salvation.  This doctrine of Lewis unambiguously appears in The Last Battle, in which Narnia’s world comes to an end and all the mortal characters go to Lewis’s version of Heaven or into darkness.  The Calormenes Aravis and Emeth both go to Heaven, despite the latter being a devout Tashist and never meeting Aslan while he is still alive.  Aslan Himself explains that those who serve Tash with good intent and good action are accounted as if they served Aslan; those who serve Aslan with intention to do evil are accounted as if they served Tash.  Aslan is not so small a god as to condemn mortals simply for not knowing Him or justify mortals simply because they pay Him lip service.

Sexism:  One of the other issues your humble blogger was asked to discuss is sexism.  (This will get tied into the question of salvation.  Please be patient.)  Lewis was not a 21st-century feminist/egalitarian.  In Mere Christianity, he does hold that the husband is supposed to be in charge, not the wife.  Considering the era he lived in, this was probably not unusual.  E.g., The Chronicles of Narnia was published 1950-1956, while at practically the same time (1951-1957) was the original run of the famous and popular television show I Love LucyI Love Lucy is anything but feminist, with Ricky Ricardo dominating his wife Lucy and this being portrayed as normal and healthy in a loving relationship.

On the other hand, Lewis has enough respect for females to depict them in The Chronicles of Narnia as fully competent, unlike Lucy Ricardo.  In every single adventure, at least one girl is a central character, be she Polly Plummer, Lucy (Pevensie), Susan, Aravis, or Jill.  These characters do not stand around and look pretty.  Neither are they damsels in distress.  They take part in the decision-making and the action of their stories.  They handle and use weapons, including in battle.  They face their own trials and are proven worthy.  And just like the boys, they also screw up and develop as characters.  For that matter, there are two female villains, Jadis the White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle.  While Lewis may not be as forward-thinking as L. Frank Baum (author of the more feminist Oz books), he is not a chauvinist idiot.

If a serious charge of sexism—at least with respect to the standards of his time—is going to be laid on Lewis, then it might be on account of Susan Pevensie.  All the protagonists of all seven Narnia books go to Heaven—except for Susan.  By The Last Battle, Susan has grown up in such a way that she is mostly interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations.”  Unlike her siblings, Susan no longer believes that Narnia is a real place; she thinks it is a fictional world that she and her siblings imagined as when they were younger.  Some interpret that Susan does not go to Heaven, because she grew up, in thinking as well as in age.  But from the way the other Friends of Narnia describe her, they seem think she has become shallow and has abandoned the ideals of Narnia.  As such, she would not have gone on that last adventure even if she had known about it, and so she misses an opportunity to participate in events which would have resulted in her going to Heaven.  Is this a satisfying outcome for Susan?  No, it is not.  But it is a realistic one.  People who are good do not always remain good.  And it could have just as easily have been Peter or Edward who turned away from Narnia; at no point is it claimed that Susan went astray because she is female.

This also is not necessarily the end of Susan’s story.  While everyone who is in Narnia when it ends necessarily dies (and some of the characters arguably actually die in a train accident right before their final journey to Narnia), Susan is almost certainly alive at the end of the series.  And as long as she is alive, she may yet repent.  Aslan at no point claims that Susan is condemned to Hell.  Throughout the series, Aslan is forgiving even of characters who do worse than Susan, should they repent, e.g., Edward in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  As such, Susan may well join her siblings in Heaven.  (If someone in charge of the estate of C. S. Lewis should read this review, please commission someone to write this story!)

Other gods than Aslan:  Surprisingly, Aslan is not the only god to show up in Narnia’s world.  The least surprising is Tash, the bird-headed, four-armed god of Calormen, worshipped with unspeakable rites.  Tash shows up in The Last Battle, withering whatever ground he passes over—he floats rather than walks—and grabbing away doers of evil.  One may argue that Tash is not a real god, but actually a character straight out of standard Christianity:  Satan.  However, Tash, unlike Satan, shows no interest in tempting anyone to do evil, only in claiming those who have (metaphorically) already sold their souls to Satan.  Tash shows no sign of being on the same level as Aslan.

Harder to understand is the presence of characters out ancient Greek and Roman religion (fauns, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, the Maenads, etc.), including some of their gods:  river gods, Silenus, and Bacchus.  None of the Greco-Roman gods appears to be anywhere as powerful as Aslan.  They are also present in a fairly benign form.  The internal logic of these anomalous presences is never explained; so far as your humble blogger knows, Lewis did not believe they exist in the real world.  Their inclusion does reflect that Lewis was very interested in European religious stories (mythology), and he came to Christianity through it; to Lewis, Christianity was a myth which happened to be true.  A possible solution is that Lewis is continuing an earlier tradition of syncretizing Christianity with Greco-Roman religion, e.g., as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which identifies God with Phoebus and Satan with Hades.  While Milton may have been using poetic metaphor, Lewis does not make such an interpretation easy.

Faith and trust:  Faith and belief, as previously mentioned, also play a role in The Chronicles of Narnia.  Indeed, much of the plot of The Silver Chair depends on faith in Aslan.  The commands that Jill receives from Him and Eustace and Puddleglum have to deal with (e.g., having to release a possibly psychotic man who happens to invoke the name of Aslan) might be suicidal if followed otherwise.

But there are other sorts of trust than trust in a god.  One kind which plays a role in the plots is trust in other people who are worthy of trust, even if they make unusual claims.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie reports having traveled to another world via a wardrobe.  Though the claim seems ridiculous, Digory argues that since she has a history of honesty, she should be believed; it turns out she is right.  Lack of trust in Lucy’s claim of having seen Aslan makes things harder for the Pevensie children in their quest to help Caspian X in Prince Caspian; disregarding her claim leads them to practically walk into an enemy army.

Summary:  The Chronicles of Narnia is a reflection of C. S. Lewis’s Christian beliefs.  Jesus is included as a central character in the form of Aslan, depicting Him as a just, but loving, god.  Emphasis is placed on morality and action rather than ritual and law.  Despite the fantasy setting, characters face moral and theological challenges and respond credibly.  Salvation is depicted as attainable by anyone, even those who do not believe in Jesus.  Despite the anomalous appearance of entities out of Greco-Roman religion, this series is generally theologically sound and enjoyable literature.

Classification:  Enjoyable family-friendly Christian fantasy.

Theological rating:  A-.

See also: