C.S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century, died 50 years ago today.
During his life, Lewis wrote more than 50 books, the most famous of which are probably The Chronicles of Narnia. Earlier this year, I read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to my four year old and was struck by how effectively Lewis communicates complex theological and philosophical ideas through children’s fantasy. It’s because of this that these books are so well loved.
Lewis isn’t without his critics, though, and there are several passages in The Chronicles of Narnia that have raised some eyebrows. Martyn Lloyd-Jones even questioned Lewis’ Christianity based on an expression of the atonement found in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.
But its hard to dismiss an intellect like Lewis’ without further investigation. So in honor of his life and work, let’s defend some of the things you might not want your kids to read in The Chronicles of Narnia.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The Ransom Theory
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe four siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, find a magical world inside of a wardrobe. This world, called Narnia, is full of fantastical creatures like fauns and talking animals. Narnia is ruled by an evil White Witch who has cast a spell that makes it so that it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
But Narnia has hope in a Lion named Aslan, the son of the great Emperor over the Sea, who legend has it is coming to defeat the white witch. The Pevensie children find themselves among the resistance to the White Witch.
Edmund keeps a secret from his siblings: he has met the White Witch and has even promised to bring his brother and sisters to her, all in hopes of getting some sweets. He betrays his brother and sisters as well as Aslan.
Eventually, Edmund returns to Aslan and seeks forgiveness. Aslan is willing to give it, but the White Witch is not. She comes to Aslan’s camp to speak with him.
“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch. Of course very one present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the thank he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.
“Well,” said Aslan. “His offense was not against you.”
“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.
“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that ever traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill . . .and so” continued the witch, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.”
Aslan and the Witch go for a walk and come to a secret agreement. Later Aslan meets the Witch at the stone table, where she ties him up, shaves him, and kills him in place of Edmund. She consideres it a great victory to have killed Aslan.
This story is a clear allegory. Lewis was even known to call Jesus “Aslan” in his prayers. When I read this section to Soren I worried that he would be really upset by it. At the end of the chapter I asked, “Are you sad?” and he said, “No, Aslan’s hair will grow back and he’ll come back to life.” We read the Easter story at least once a week, so the idea of Aslan being Jesus came very naturally to him (as it will most kids).
In this allegory, Edmund’s sin created a debt to the White Witch which was paid by Aslan. This is called the Ransom Theory, the idea that sin creates a debt to the devil and that Christ’s death pays that debt for us.
The theory is based off of Mark 10:45: The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
But who was the ransom paid to? Origen answered
But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.
Part of the idea of the Ransom Theory is that the devil did not know he was actually losing. Killing Aslan is a greater victory than killing Edmund. Killing God is a greater victory than killing man. But the White Witch and the devil were both tricked, and the one they killed came back to life.
Ransom was the prevailing theory of the atonement for nearly 1000 years, until Anselm argued against it. Since then it has almost completely fallen out of use with Western Christians. It was this old Catholic explanation of why Jesus died that that made Lloyd-Jones question Lewis’ orthodoxy. So why does Lewis use it here?
Lewis’ views on atonement are not all that simple. In Mere Christianity he writes
Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. The are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarreling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.
To Lewis theories about Christ’s death are “secondary” to the death itself. Even in the death of Aslan there are hints of every theory, his blood his shed in place of Edmunds (substition), the witch is owed a debt (ransom), his resurrection brings hope to his army (Christus Victor), and Aslan is continually presented as a character to emulate (moral influence).
When Aslan comes back to life, Susan and Lucy ask him what happened and he answers
When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.
This is a satisfactory answer for children, but theologians would ask, “How does that work? That doesn’t even answer anything. You’re just telling us what happened, we want to know why and what that means.
Lewis isn’t actually advocating the ransom theory. He is advocating a mystery around the atonement.
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly.
Within about 15 pages of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, readers are introduced to a faun named Mr. Tumnus who tells stories of the days before the witch when Bacchus and Silenus would come to Narnia. Bacchus is the Roman God of Wine.
In Prince Caspian Naiads and Dryads play a central role. These were Greek spirits of fountains and trees.
The Chronicles of Narnia are filled with references to paganism. So much so that some people won’t let their kids read them. There’s even some (hilarious) websites devoted to showing the satanism in The Chronicles of Narnia
To understand Lewis’ use of paganism, you have to understand Lewis’ own conversion. Lewis was obsessed with mythology and fairy tales. He loved them for their deep and mysterious understanding of humanity. While an atheist considered Christianity just another myth like the others he cherished. Until he realized that Christianity was, in his words,
“a true myth: a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.”
In Miracles, he explains that the cycle of the seasons as well as the dying of grain before it is planted to produce new plants are the inspiration for what he calls “grain god” myths, stories of gods who die and come back to life. He once considered Christianity similar to these, but eventually came to believe that Christianity was actually the inspiration for the seasons and the grain. In this way the other myths were “true” because they pointed to the deeper truth of the universe. Paganism and its myths helped prepare pre-Christian people to Christianity and Lewis hoped that exposure to its myths would help prepare post-Christian people for Christianity.
He wrote in Is Theism Important?
When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.
In using pagan gods Lewis is pointing us towards the deeper truths we inherently know are true, just as he is doing by retelling the story of Jesus through Aslan, so that we find they resonate with us and then Christ will have a greater importance to us. This is not much different than Paul at Mars Hill
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
God is a comforting illusion
There is a particularly troubling scene in The Silver Chair where The Lady of the Green Kirtle has kidnapped Eustace Scrubb (cousin to the Pevensies), his friend Jill Pole, Prince Rillian and marsh-wiggle (frog like humanoids of Narnia) Puddleglum and taken them to the Underworld (literally underground) where she is queen.
After casting a spell on them she begins to convince them that the Overworld (Narnia) is something they made up and that the Underworld is all there really is.
They tell her about the sun to try to prove there is more than the underworld and she asks, “What is the sun?”
Their thinking foggy from the spell, they tell her, “It is like a lamp, only bigger and in the sky.”
They tell her about Aslan by telling him he is like a cat, only bigger.
She tells them they have made up the sun by just taking something they knew and making it bigger and greater. The Lady of the Green Kirtle argument is a metaphor for naturalism, the idea that the material right in front of us is all there is and that anything beyond it is just imagination.
Puddleglum speaks up, telling her
All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things —trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kingly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives lookng for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
This exchange, when translated out of the metaphor, seems to say
So what if God isn’t real. I’m going to believe in him anyway because it comforts me.
But Lewis himself has said that Puddleglum has actually spoken the ontological argument, specifically, Descartes’ argument.
Descartes’ ontological argument goes like this (simplified)
- I have an idea of supremely perfect being, i.e. a being having all perfections.
- Necessary existence is a perfection.
- Therefore, a supremely perfect being exists.
In Descartes’ thinking something as perfect as God or as big as the infinite could not be created by something as small and finite as man. The idea must have come from outside of himself. For Puddleglum it could be said the very thought of Narnia proves that Narnia exists. How else would four babies making up a game think of something so perfect?
There also seems to be a hint of William James’ wager.
William James rejected Pascals wager that taught about the after life “If you believe in God and there is a God, then there is infinite gain. If you do not believe in God and there is a God, then there is infinite loss. If you believe in God and there is no God, there is neither gain nor loss.”
James believed this to be false because human beings are supposed to do two things 1)seek all knowledge and 2) avoid error. James believed these things to be separate, while Pascal lumps them together. Pascal’s wager seeks to minimize error as if that is a substitute for knowledge.
James said that trying to avoid error kept us from seeking some kinds of knowledge. Naturalists, like the Lady of the Green Kirtle, avoid religious knowledge for fear it might be wrong. Religion he says teaches us that
- The best things are those which are eternal.
- Belief in the first affirmation betters us now and forever
This belief is not dependent on avoiding error, but on knowledge of eternal things. James’ wager is simply that
Even if there is no God, belief in him is a form of knowledge and infinite gain.
That is almost exactly what Puddleglum believed. Not that it was comforting, but that it actually bettered him. Living like a Narnian meant to be honorable and to have integrity. Being on Aslan’s side meant caring for the weak. Even if there was no Aslan, those things were better.
All of that is pretty complex and builds on 1000s of years of philosophy. Lewis managed to introduce children to the thinking of Descartes’s and William James in half a page.
The Problem of Emeth
The problem of Emeth is the most well known of all of The Chronicles of Narnia’s controversial passages.
In The Last Battle Narnia is destroyed and all those who have been loyal to Aslan go “through the stable door” which is essentially the Narnian heaven.
Among the people though, is Emeth, a Calmorene who worshipped the false god Tash. Emeth himself is surprised to find himself among those who worshipped Aslan. When he sees Aslan he fears that he will be killed for having served Tash, but instead Aslan welcomes him.
Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.
This has led many to speculate that Lewis was a universalist or a relativist. If service done to Tash is actually service to Aslan, then we can say service done to Allah is service done to God. This means that there is no distinction and that all gods will work.
People who believe that need to learn how to read, because Lewis answers that in THE VERY NEXT SENTENCE.
Emeth asks, “Is it then true that thou and Tash are one?
Translation, “Is it true that all roads lead to you? That you’re represented in many ways and all are valid?”
The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sowrn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then thought he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost though understand, Child?
It is not true that Tash and Aslan are the same. It angers Aslan to even consider it. The truth is that all good things come from Aslan and so any good done is from Aslan.
Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity
There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.
This is called inclusivism. Its core idea is that judgement is up to God and that he may save whomever he pleases. Emeth was saved by Aslan because he served Aslan but called him Tash.
This may still bother you. But think of it this way
There was a 9 year old boy named Laurence Krieg who confided in his mother that he feared he loved Aslan more than he loved Jesus. His mother wrote to C.S. Lewis about this and received a letter telling her
[He] can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. … I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all)
And Lewis is right. Everyting Laurence loved about Aslan was really true of Jesus. So when he loved those things in Aslan he was actually loving Jesus. The same is true of Emeth. Everything he served in Tash was actually only true of Aslan. So when he served Tash he was actually loving Aslan.
And remember, in the end, Jesus wasn’t his real name anyway.
Your Kids Should Read The Chronicles of Narnia
C.S. Lewis manages to engage kids (and adults) in a fantasy story that is able to teach them about the atonement, to expose them to the concept of God being evident all around us, to the ontological argument, and to the idea of a huge and amazing grace.
If your kids (or you) begin to love Aslan and long for Narnia, it only means they love Jesus even more. Or as Lewis said “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”