Symbolism and the Identity of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia
There can be no denying that C. S. Lewis’ stories The Chronicles of Narnia contain explicit Christian imagery. However, the author claims that Aslan the Lion is not Jesus Christ. This raises the question of the identity of Aslan. The purpose of this article will be to determine who Aslan is and what Lewis’ intent was in portraying him in such a way.
Hypothesis: Aslan Is an Incarnation in Another World
In his books The Problem of Pain and Miracles, Lewis postulates that if sentient creatures exist in the universe other than on earth, they probably would not experience God in the same way as creatures on this planet do. God has dealt with humans in a specific way to redeem them from the consequences of the Fall that occurred early in human history. Regardless of whether other worlds have fallen like earth has, God is not likely to reveal himself to them, redeem them, or interact with them in the exact manner as he has with humans (Miracles 201-2; The Problem of Pain 80-1).
The Chronicles are Lewis’ attempt to illustrate just this concept. They concern what such other worlds might be like. In The Magician’s Nephew, there is a forest full of entrances to other worlds. One of these entrances leads to Narnia, a world populated with sentient creatures, both animal and human. These creatures are completely different from those found on this world. Plus, the history of Narnia is not the same as Earth’s history. Thus, God must relate to them to in a way fundamentally different than he does with earth humans (The Magician’s Nephew 31-43, 103-26).
Lewis was adamant that Aslan was not simply Jesus in Narnia and that everything in that world was not meant to symbolize things on earth as they actually are. Rather, Lewis is making a supposal about what Christ might be like in another world. In one of his letters he discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the Chronicles:
I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Alexander 37. Quoted in this article from Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide)
Aslan is an incarnation in another world. He is the shape through which God has chosen to reveal himself to the Narnians (Alexander 37; Durie 23; Johnston 263).
Correlations with Christ
Aslan is a non-allegorical character in the sense that he is not intended to be a direct representation of Christ. However, Christian symbolism is definitely present in the books (“C. S. Lewis” Religion Facts). This should be expected because, though Aslan is not the same as Jesus the man, he is what Jesus would be like if he lived in another world. God may deal with other worlds in a different manner, but Aslan still represents the same God that controls the universe. The setting and plot of the play are changed, not the director. Therefore, the universal laws of God should still be in effect despite the fact that they are operating in a different location because the nature of God does not change.
Since Aslan is what Jesus would be like in Narnia, there are obvious allusions to Jesus in many of the things that Aslan says and does. The least veiled reference is in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Aslan tells the children that he is also in their world, but he goes by a different name (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 247; Stroud, “Aslan of Narnia”). When a young boy could not figure out what Aslan’s name was in this world, Lewis wrote in response:
I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas (2) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor (3) Gave himself up for someone else's fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people (4) Came to life again (5) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb... Don't you really know His name in this world? (Stroud, “Chronicles of Narnia”)
Other parallels between Aslan and Jesus abound. One such similarity is that the resurrection of each was first discovered by the female followers (Luke 24:1-6). Also, both broke open the gates of the enemy’s house where prisoners were held captive. Jesus holds the keys to hell, the home of Satan, and is able to bring people held captive there back to life (Revelation 1:18). After Aslan returned to life, he went to the White Witch’s house and breathed life back into the creatures she had turned to stone. Then he caused the gates of her castle to be torn down so that no one should ever have to remain entrapped there (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 162, 66-72; “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Wikipedia; Worsley 152)
The blood of both Jesus and Aslan can bring the dead to life. A drop of blood from Aslan’s pierced paw not only revives the dead Prince Caspian but also rejuvenates him to a younger version of himself (The Silver Chair 238-9). Christ’s shed blood will have the power to resurrect believers into a new life (Hebrews 9:14-5). In the New Testament, Christ is depicted as a lamb (John 1:29), a shape Aslan takes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Also, the Lamb is roasting fish over a fire and invites the children to “Come and have breakfast” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 245) just as the resurrected Jesus did when he appeared to the disciples in John 21:9-13. Aslan often breathes on people and kisses their foreheads in order to strengthen them. This is similar to the New Testament (John 20:22) when Jesus breathed on the disciples in order to give them the Holy Ghost (Alexander 43; Lewis, Prince Caspian 219; The Horse and his Boy 166; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 167-71;The Magician’s Nephew 154; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 248; The Silver Chair 236-41).
The talking horse Bree in The Horse and his Boy doubts that Aslan is a real lion. Aslan arrives and bids him “Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers” (The Horse and his Boy 199-201). This is like what Christ tells Thomas in John 20:27. In this same book, Aslan tells both Aravis and Shasta, “No one is told any story but their own” (The Horse and his Boy 165, 202). This is reminiscent of Jesus telling Peter that what shall pass with another man it is no concern of his (John 21:22-3).
These are but a few comparisons between Christ and Aslan. It is obvious from reading the text that when Aslan speaks, it is “indirect echoes of the words of Jesus” (Alexander 43). In this other world, Aslan, as what Christ would be there, shares certain aspects with the Christ of this world. Each enters his world to serve the same redemptive purposes, making it natural that Aslan is portrayed as analogous to Jesus. Revelation 5:5 describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.” It should come as no surprise that in another world, the son would take the shape of an actual lion (Alexander 46; Hourihan; Purtill 50-1).
In addition to the plenitude of Christ imagery in the Chronicles of Narnia, imagery of biblical themes, in general, can also be found. The similarities are not to be interpreted as allegory. Instead, they are similar because, as previously mentioned, the same God is operating in both worlds.
The reader is immediately reminded of God in Genesis 1 when Aslan sings Narnia into existence. Both God and Aslan use only their voices to create (Genesis 1:1-26). Aslan makes creatures and gives them a commission of stewardship similar to that given to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:29-30). Aslan tells the creatures, “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers…The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also” (The Magician’s Nephew 128). Like on earth, evil enters the creation near the beginning. Problems arise in both worlds because of fruit from magical trees. Eve and Adam were tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This is what causes the Fall of the human race (Genesis 3:1-7). In Narnia, the Witch eats of the tree of life, which makes her immortal. As a result of this, she is able to gain strength and take over the country and oppress its inhabitants many years later. Allusions to the serpent in the Garden of Eden can also be seen in The Silver Chair. A witch who can turn herself into a serpent holds Prince Rilian captive (The Magician’s Nephew 174-5; Johnston 255; The Silver Chair 182-5).
Aslan is represented as a divine figure and is treated in a similar fashion to God in the Old Testament. In the Narnian Chronicles, Aslan “is the one who defines reality…issu[ing] commands, usually in a natural, matter-of-fact tone rather than in a peremptory or imperative manner” (Alexander 41). Aslan informs “characters what their story has been and he also fulfills a prophetic function, foretelling what will happen or dispensing judgment” (Alexander 42). “All beings innately offer deference to him,” (Stroud, “Aslan of Narnia”) both friend and enemy alike. This all shows that Aslan “takes it for granted that the kingdom, the power, and the glory are his” (Alexander 44).
Aslan repeatedly uses sentences with the verb structure “to be,” hinting at the divine name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Aslan tells Aravis in The Horse and His Boy, “I am the only lion you met in all your journeyings” (The Horse and his Boy 201). Jill asks Aslan in The Silver Chair, “Then you are Somebody, Sir?” He answers her, “I am” (The Silver Chair 25). The reply God gave Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” is further suggested by Aslan’s reply when Shasta asked who he is. Aslan simply says, “Myself” (The Silver Chair 165).
When the characters first come into contact with Aslan, they react in much the same way as people in the Old Testament react when they have an encounter with God. They are overwhelmed by the numinous that is now face to face with them (Duriez 149; Bane). An example from the bible is in Judges 6:22, when Gideon realizes he is talking to an angel, he fears that he is going to die. Similarly, there is a common formula for these encounters with Aslan in the Narnia narratives. First, the character is afraid that the lion might devour them or hurt them. After he or she realizes that they are not going to be eaten, “a new a different sort of trembling came over him” (The Horse and his Boy 165; see also The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 106-7; The Silver Chair 22).
The imagery used in the Old Testament is used in the books also. God is described as “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13). In The Silver Chair, Jill is dying of thirst. Aslan tells her the only way for her to live is to drink from his stream. Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader must bathe in Aslan’s well in order to cleanse himself from the dragon form (The Silver Chair 23; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 107-9; Stoud, “Aslan of Narnia.”). Another example is Psalm 23:5, which says, “my cup runneth over.” Aslan leaves a paw print that filled with water, which “was full to the brim, and then overflowing” (The Horse and His Boy 167). Shasta was able to drink from this makeshift cup. The image of God’s holy dwelling is pictured as a mountain (Psalm 48:1-2). So also is Aslan’s country depicted as a mountain. A further parallel is that Aslan anoints kings to rule over his people just as Yahweh anointed kings to rule his people Israel. Like David (1 Samuel 16:12-3), Peter is the ideal king (Duriez 23-4; Purtil 128-9; The Last Battle 193; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 181-4; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 243; The Silver Chair 237).
The Horse and his Boy is a story that rings of providence. Because of this, it can be compared to the books of Ruth and Esther in which the role of God is less overt. Aslan functions in a similar manner throughout most of the book. It is only revealed at the end that Aslan was the one who had worked out the circumstances in the lives of the characters to bring them to where they needed to be. This story also demonstrates that Aslan is omnipresent as he still has control of events even though the characters are in a different land, Calormene. God is still in control even though Ruth and Esther are not in Israel. Both God and Aslan control even foreign rulers. Prince Rabadash’s transformation into a donkey is similar to Nebuchadnezzar's transformation in Daniel 4 that made him have the mind of an animal (The Horse and His Boy 164-5, 201-2, 217-20; “The Horse and His Boy,” Wikipedia).
There is a Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is reminiscent of the stone tablets on which the Law of Moses was written (Exodus 24:12). It was on the table that the Witch slew Aslan (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 153-5; “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Wikipedia; Worsley 152). But she did not know of magic even older than the stone table “that 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” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 163). This symbolizes the Old Covenant of Law that Christ broke when he took the penalty of the law himself (Galatians 3:13).
Finally, The Last Battle is a depiction of Revelation for the world of Narnia. It is an Armageddon type battle. A beast that has disguised himself as Aslan fools the people. This is like the Beast in Revelation 13:3-4. Aslan defeats his enemies and his faithful are drawn into a new Narnia, Aslan’s own country (Bane, “Myth Made Truth”; “C. S. Lewis,” Religion Facts; Johnston 256; The Last Battle 14-5, 46-7, 171-211; Stoud, “Aslan of Narnia”). This is like the new heaven and earth ushered in by Christ in the last days (Revelation 21:1).
Even if one ignorant of the Christian undertones in the story, “He or she can still enjoy the stories in their own right” (Duriez 23). Although the similarities between Narnia and Christianity are numerous, Aslan is not Jesus and Narnia is not the earth. One should not read the stories and notice only the Christian nuances. The stories should also be read for the unique ideas and perspectives they offer by their own merit as great works of fiction.
Besides a few brief mentions of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea and vague intimations to the Holy Spirit, Aslan is the only aspect seen of god in Narnia. He takes on the role of all three members of the triune. Aslan is also much more anthropomorphic than God is in the Bible. Aslan is more imminent. He is physically present in each of the seven books (Alexander 38; Stroud, “A Compendium of Information”; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 79).
Things that are metaphorical in the Old Testament become much more literal in Narnia. Aslan literarily fights in the battle for Narnia. He is really a lion and really a lamb. Other mythological figures are a reality in Narnia also. Father Time is real as are dwarfs, centaurs, giants, and satyrs (Duriez 70; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 167-72, 177).
Evil enters the world of Narnia differently than on this planet. This evil has a different form than evil on Earth. Therefore Narnia’s plan of salvation must be tailored for them. More often than not, the problems from which Narnia suffers are flesh and bone enemies whom Aslan must defeat (Worsley 152; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 174-7; The Magician’s Nephew 146-7; Prince Caspian 204; The Last Battle 130-42). The Chronicles of Narnia are stories about a world in which the presence of the divine has manifested itself in a completely different way than on Earth.
The Purpose of the Symbolism
Aslan is a supposition of what Christ might be like in another world. Consequently, Aslan is a symbolically loaded figure. Aslan is very much like Christ in all he does. But the two are also different. These different nuances inject new meaning into the biblical stories.
Why has Lewis sketched Aslan so? He uses a work of fiction to shed fresh light on stories very familiar to readers. He endeavored to reawaken a sense of awe and joy that can disappear when a subject becomes too common. “[B]y casting Christianity within an imaginary world, stripping it of its stained-glass and Sunday School associations” (Johnston 264). Lewis thought that the message of the bible would be rejuvenated and re-endowed with the power of the imagination (Johnston 259, 261, 4). There are many who have become so numb to the Bible “as to be unmoved by the accounts of Christ’s death, are moved to tears at the death of Aslan” (Duriez 23).
The Chronicles of Narnia “[couch] an old, familiar story in a new, vibrant setting in order to help us look at the story from a different angle” (Hourihan). The gospel is seen through a clean lens without the connotations it previously had. Readers can be surprised by the truth in the message because the way it was presented made it more approachable and understandable to modern sensibilities. Purtill postulates that the simplicity of Aslan’s message may make it easier for children to comprehend. The idea of redemption can be complex, but viewing Aslan as Edmund’s substitute can be more readily grasped (Purtill 50-1; Worsley 149-50). Thus, one reason to use religious symbolism in fiction is to rekindle the passion for Christianity.
Another purpose of symbolic fiction is to introduce people to gospel truth. Lewis says that, “Any amount of theology can be smuggled into people’s minds under the cover of romance without their knowing it” (Worsley 152). Fiction can be a vehicle to get across Christ’s message to young readers or others who have not heard it. It is a fun adventure story that children are drawn into little knowing that it is based on something real (Hourihan).
Readers are attracted to the story and “as a result of this experience their imaginations are baptized; they get the taste and smell of Christian truth” (Johnston 253). This encounter plants seeds that hopefully will germinate into true faith. Narnia and Aslan are only a copy, a mirror reflection of the real thing. The symbolism reminds readers that the real beauty of the Narnia stories is that it is true. Christ is every bit and more of what Aslan is, only not fictional. Aslan points to this truth in The Dawn Treader when he tells the children that he is in their world also:
But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 247)
This is true for the reader as well. Lewis introduced people to Narnia so that by knowing Aslan, they might come to know Christ a little better also.
A Real Narnia?
Do you think other worlds with sentient creatures exist?
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