The Importance of Aslan
Going through some kind of doorway into another world was just the beginning of the journey for the Pevensies in Narnia, as it is for the reader. Carefully chosen familiar objects, places or mechanisms for making the transition to a Dantean universe were important, as they presented the case that the world in which we live, the so-called ‘ordinary’ world, was not ordinary at all: that common objects, places or devices contained unexpected surprises. But the surprise, though wonderful in itself, could not of itself sustain the profound spiritual effect which was Lewis’s main aim. He needed something else, or Someone Else, to drive the point home fully.
In the mediaeval Dantean world, it was of course God who existed at the centre of all things. This was an established fact in Dante’s time, both theologically and in the minds of his audience; God was part of the woof and warp of the society in which the poet lived. By Lewis’s time, as he was well aware, this was no longer the case: God had effectively disappeared from the cultural scene. By the mid-Twentieth Century, literature had taken a distinctly modern turn: nihilism and spiritual emptiness were the key themes; humanity had turned in upon itself and had become far more orientated to the material world than Dante would have believed. To prise the attention away from that perception of reality and place it on a higher plane, a spiritual plane which the culture was in the process of rejecting utterly, gave Lewis his particular challenge.
Essentially, this is one reason for Aslan: Lewis needed to introduce a God-like figure within the context of the new world he had created without triggering off the cultural bias against the Christian God which had grown up around him. He needed a figure who had supreme control of events and of nature itself, someone whose importance was both to do with power and with meaning, but without using traditional imagery. In effect, Lewis had to ‘re-invent God’ for Twentieth Century children.
That is why the first couple of mentions of Aslan in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, are so important: having shifted his protagonists into the new world-framework through the familiar object of a wardrobe which turns out to be a gateway to Narnia, Lewis must begin to subtly point to the thing which will bring about the full transformation he is after. The Pevensie children, lost in the snowy woods, encounter a talking beaver who adopts a conspiratorial tone with them:
Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper -
"They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed."
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning - either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
Notice how quickly Lewis jumps out of the narrative to address the child reader directly - ‘None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do - then presents a series of experiences in the hope that that reader will be able to at least partly personally identify with one or more of them: a dream containing ‘some enormous meaning’, terrifying or ‘too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again’; a sensation of mysterious horror; a feeling of being brave and adventurous; a delicious smell or some delightful strain of music. Lucy, the chief protagonist of the story, is left with the most common and recognisable childhood experience of this list: ‘the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer’. Lewis is working hard to make sure that he connects the idea of Aslan to something meaningful and positive in the reader.
Aslan is not mentioned again for a few pages, and then, when discussing what to do next with the Beavers, it is noteworthy that Peter goes first to his experience of tales with which he would have been familiar from his own reading:
"Couldn't we have some stratagem?" said Peter. "I mean couldn't we dress up as something, or pretend to be - oh, pedlars or anything - or watch till she was gone out - or- oh, hang it all, there must be some way. This Faun saved my sister at his own risk, Mr Beaver. We can't just leave him to be - to be - to have that done to him."
"It's no good, Son of Adam," said Mr Beaver, "no good your trying, of all people. But now that Aslan is on the move-"
"Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!" said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling - like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.
Lewis is at pains to position Aslan correctly from the outset, notably as an ultimate solution to any problem, but also as a welcome and splendid figure. But he cannot afford to overstate the case without losing the sympathy of his ‘modern’ child audience. In explaining who Aslan is, Mr. Beaver uses pointedly non-religious language while retaining the sense of power that Lewis needs to stress:
"Who is Aslan?" asked Susan.
"Aslan?" said Mr Beaver. "Why, don't you know? He's the King. He's the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father's time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He'll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr Tumnus."
Aslan is not a commonplace presence in Narnia, just as God is not in the world from which the children are supposed to have emerged. Had Lewis gone all out to create a reality clearly in orbit around a Godhead of some kind he would have risked losing the precious communion with the reader which is the only hope of effecting any transformation by any writer. Narnia is somewhat lacking in godliness too, in the first half of the book. Instead, Lewis begins to introduce an element of prophecy in a childlike form:
"She won't turn him into stone too?" said Edmund.
"Lord love you, Son of Adam, what a simple thing to say!" answered Mr Beaver with a great laugh. "Turn him into stone? If she can stand on her two feet and look him in the face it'll be the most she can do and more than I expect of her. No, no. He'll put all to rights as it says in an old rhyme in these parts:
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
You'll understand when you see him."
That last line - ‘You'll understand when you see him’ - bounces the topic back to the reader. Lewis hopes that he has conveyed just enough of a flavour of ‘God’ that the child reader will go along with it and comprehend what Lewis means by ‘understanding when you see him’.
For the bulk of the next section of plot, the story is driven by the simple mechanism of a chase sequence, as the Witch, informed by the traitor Edmund that the other children have entered Narnia, sets out to capture and kill them. Lewis’s next attempt to point out that this new world is significantly different to our own comes when the children, hiding from what they believe is the Witch’s sleigh, receive a very pleasant surprise, the first major ‘eucatastrophic’ moment in the story after the mention of Aslan. They emerge from hiding to find that what they have heard approaching is not the Witch’s sleigh at all:
"Didn't I tell you," answered Mr Beaver, "that she'd made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn't I tell you? Well, just come and see!"
And then they were all at the top and did see.
It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch's reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man. in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard, that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest.
Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world - the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn't find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.
Lewis is walking a fine line at this point by overtly discussing Christmas, a Christian festival. In Father Christmas, Lewis is personifying the spirit of Jove, the joyous King, the image of which was very important to Lewis and which exemplified the kind of transformation he was trying to bring about. Father Christmas is ‘so big, and so glad, and so real,’ but also ‘solemn’. This is not a combination familiar to children brought up in an Ironic age, in which Father Christmas has been reduced to a figure of fun.
But Lewis avoids overtly mentioning Christ even here. Instead, he talks directly to the child reader again and states plainly the difference between our world and the world into which he has brought the reader through the Pevensies. The astute reader will also note the use of a commonplace image from our world, Father Christmas, slightly tweaked to stress its ‘solemnity’. Lewis could have invented an entirely different character at this point in the story but chooses to use one with which his readers will have a warm familiarity but which is open to some minor modifications.
The gift-giving normally associated with Christmas in our world is in Narnia a more serious affair, resonant with deeper meaning. Rather than toys, the children are given weapons, symbolic of a maturation and also in one sense not symbols at all: these are items meant to be used, not just thought about ‘ ‘they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand,’ Father Christmas says to Peter. ‘Bear them well.’
An interlude follows in which we are shown Edmund’s ‘disappointing time’ with the Witch, which culminates in him almost being sacrificed by her. This sets us up for Aslan’s entrance, something which lewis stage manages carefully, placing the Lion in a grand context before speaking of him directly:
Aslan stood in the centre of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree- Women there and Well- Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments; it was they who had made the music. There were four great centaurs. The horse part of them was like huge English farm horses, and the man part was like stern but beautiful giants. There was also a unicorn, and a bull with the head of a man, and a pelican, and an eagle, and a great Dog. And next to Aslan stood two leopards of whom one carried his crown and the other his standard.
But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn't know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn't look at him and went all trembly.
The juxtaposition of ‘good’ and ‘terrible’ is precisely something which an Ironic culture, in which the poles of Good and Evil have melted away into a grey, chaotic mix, cannot perceive: Lewis makes it clear that in the world he has created, on the other side of the wardrobe, this is not so. Narnia is an Epic world, a world in which Dantean poetic and religious truths are active and real. In Narnia, both the Good and the Terrible exist and can be placed side by side; Evil exists too and must be dealt with. Aslan’s sacrifice of himself to save Edmund is both necessary to the narrative and to Lewis’s underlying point - in a non-Ironic world, real love and real hatred co-exist and have not been blended together into purely subjective psychological states. In the Narnia universe, there is a Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time but also a Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time - a tangible coexistence which an Irony could not conceive.
While Aslan is obviously Lewis's Christ figure, an allegory who offers the children the experience of ‘salvation’, he is also a newly-imagined creation who engenders new belief in a new way of thinking and living. Edmund, for instance, confers with Aslan after betraying his brother and sisters and after being rescued by Aslan's forces. Of their conversation ‘there is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot’. Edmund becomes a new person with Aslan confirming ‘there is no need to talk to him about what is past.’
With the return of Aslan from death, and the overturning of the Hundred Years’ Winter, Lewis has played out his game of acquiring the child reader’s sympathy and using it to bring about a much more profound transformation, effectively disguising the whole process by re-inventing the Dantean world almost entirely anew.
Whether or not that artistic vision could be sustained shall be seen when we examine the rest of the Narnia books.