Not a tame lion
C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books are among the best-loved children’s books of all time. In a list of best-selling books, The chronicles of Narnia has sold more than 120 million copies, coming in behind other popular series like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.1
But, it is not just children who love Lewis’ fantasy stories. In 2003 the BBC carried out a ‘Big read’ poll, where readers of all ages were asked to vote for their favourite book ever. The lion, the witch and the wardrobe came in ninth, outranking such classics as Jane Eyre as well as more modern reads, for example Captain Corelli’s mandolin.2
So what makes the Narnia books so universally popular? There are many answers to this question, one of them being the central character of all seven books – Aslan. Lewis himself said that when Aslan the lion came ‘bounding in’ to the narrative he ‘pulled the whole story together’.3
Or, as Lucy herself puts it when she faces the prospect of never returning to Narnia, ‘It isn’t Narnia, you know. It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?’4
So what is it about Aslan that makes him so special? Throughout the seven books, we can see different facets of Aslan’s character. In The magician’s nephew, he is presented as the creator and protector of the land of Narnia. The lion, the witch and the wardrobe shows the king who offers himself as a sacrifice in another’s place.
The horse and his boy introduces us to Aslan as the director of his subjects’ lives, from before they even know he exists. In Prince Caspian, he is the almost-forgotten warrior who returns to free his kingdom. The voyage of the Dawn Treader portrays him as a person who dramatically changes lives. In The silver chair Aslan’s words must be heard and followed to successfully complete a quest.
Finally, in The last battle we see Aslan as the judge over all his people. Creator, king, redeemer, guide and judge – Aslan is all of these. And, above all, he is different to every other character in the books. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver, ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you’.5
There is something about Aslan that means he is under no one’s control; he follows no one’s bidding. As we are so often told, he is not a tame lion. So all of this adds up to a complicated and powerful character, but what is it about Aslan that makes him so compelling?
To go back to those other best-selling books, Dumbledore (Harry Potter) and Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) are both powerful wizards, but no one has written books advising on how to follow their example, whereas a search on Amazon reveals several books of this nature relating to Aslan.
This is because Aslan is more than just an interesting character in a children’s book – in his depiction of the lion, Lewis has portrayed his concept of Jesus.
When we read the Narnia books we are drawn to Aslan because we see in him something of our Lord and Maker. The various facets of Aslan’s character are aspects of Jesus’ divinity.
Lewis does not hide this similarity. In The voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells the children, ‘This was the very reason why you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there [i.e. in the “real” world]’ .6
After the Narnia books were published, Lewis received many letters from children informing him that they had discovered who Aslan is in our world. Just before he died, Lewis wrote to one of these children saying: ‘I’m so thankful that you realised the “hidden story” in the Narnia books. It is odd, children nearly always do; grownups hardly ever’.7
So what should a Christian’s response be to this? Speaking personally, when I did a month-long literacy unit on The lion, the witch and the wardrobe with my class of 5- and 6-year-olds, I also conducted religious education lessons about Jesus at the same time.
In the last week, I carried out an activity asking the children to list key facts about Jesus and Aslan. We noted that both were able to heal the sick, both were in control of their worlds, and both had died for someone else. I then asked the key question: What is the big difference between Aslan and Jesus?
I must confess that the first response was hardly promising: ‘Jesus has two legs and Aslan has four’. Once I had clarified my query by stating that, of course, Aslan was a lion and Jesus was a man, I repeated the question.
One child summed it up beautifully: ‘C. S. Lewis made Aslan up, but nobody made Jesus up’. She did not come from a Christian family, and probably had had no spiritual guidance beyond what I had been able to give her that year. But she had grasped the central truth of the great difference between Aslan and Jesus.
She understood that Aslan was just a picture and, more importantly, she understood that he was a picture of a real person. And I hope that, in some small way, reading and thinking about Aslan had deepened her understanding of Jesus.
Stories and images can help us understand more about spiritual realities. Jesus understood that, and was a master storyteller. In his small way, C. S. Lewis followed in the footsteps of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who depicted Jesus as a tender plant, a root and a sheep.8
And now, over 60 years later, the Narnia books are still an opportunity to present Jesus in a real and vivid way to children and adults alike. Fantasy is all the rage at the moment. Let us take the opportunity to entertain, and at the same time educate, our friends and family.
Maybe they have read the Narnia books before; perhaps their first experience will be watching The voyage of the Dawn Treader. But, if we apply ourselves to discern the spiritual truths hidden in these stories, we can, in turn, open the eyes of others to the deeper meaning of the books.
1 Wikipedia, November 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books
2 BBC, December 2003, www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/vote
3 Lewis, 1960, cited in Sibley, 1989, The land of Narnia.
4 Lewis, 1952, The voyage of the Dawn Treader.
5 Lewis, 1950, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.
6 Lewis, 1952, The voyage of the Dawn Treader.
7 Lewis, cited in Lindskoog, 1998, Journey into Narnia.
8 Isaiah 53:2, 7.