Last week, I began the process of scoring and ranking C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia.
I am scoring each book using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.
In the first post, I ranked The Magician’s Nephew, and explained that I would be following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or LWW).
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen
This is the book that started it all, introducing us to the world of Narnia and the Pevensie children. Despite this, the book doesn’t get bogged down in introductory material—Lucy is already in Narnia before the end of the first chapter, and the character of the White Witch and the menace she represents has already been revealed in chapter two.
It then takes a few chapters to get the rest of the Pevensie children into Narnia (including Edmund’s misadventure where he meets the Witch and becomes her ally), where they soon meet Mr. Beaver, who tells them:
They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed. (74)
This simple statement represents a key plot device in LWW: the building anticipation of the arrival of Aslan, who will not actually appear for several more chapters. In the meantime, several signs begin to indicate that the Witch’s icy hold on Narnia is weakening.
Once Aslan does arrive, things move quickly: in a retelling of the biblical story, Aslan willingly gives himself to the Witch in order to redeem the treacherous Edmund. His mane is cut off in shameful fashion, and then he is killed by the Witch, who assumes that she has been victorious. But…Aslan returns to life. I will reflect on this further in the theology section below, but for me, this is a phenomenal retelling of the gospel story. I didn’t read the Narnia books as a child, so I am not sure what my reaction would have been there, but as a college student, this series of events brought me to tears and, then, to praise.
Following his resurrection, Aslan the Pevensie children, and the Narnians loyal to him quickly overwhelm the Witch and her forces. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are enthroned as kings and queens of Narnia, and “live happily ever after” for many years before returning home to England.
The main characters of LWW are the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and despite the fact that they frequently have to share the stage with one another, each is well developed. Peter is the big brother, a natural leader who is courageous and looks out for his siblings, but can be stubborn at times. Susan is practical, motherly, and gentle, but tends to boss around her siblings. Edmund comes across as churlish and selfish, while ultimately manifesting great potential for growth and change. Lucy, the youngest of all, is most faithful in her devotion to Aslan and possesses great bravery herself, but is also somewhat naive.
The Professor (Digory Kirke from The Magician’s Nephew) plays a minor but important role in LWW, as it is his house where the Pevensies are staying when they encounter the wardrobe that serves as a portal to Narnia, and his encouragement that opens the older Pevensie children to the possibility of other worlds.
Upon entering Narnia, Lucy encounters Mr. Tumnus the Faun, with whom she establishes a quick and deep bond. Tumnus features in the story mainly to introduce us to the White Witch and the power she has exerted over Narnia. The fear and sense of dread that this produces increases when the children return and find Mr. Tumnus missing and his home destroyed.
Mr. and Mrs. Beaver serve to guide the four children in Narnia, to keep them safe from the White Witch, and, ultimately, lead them to Aslan. It is they who provide some of the most famous dialogue about Aslan:
“Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (86)
The White Witch, Jadis, Queen of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, is the villainess of Narnia. When we meet her in LWW, she has held Narnia in a 100-year reign of terror, characterized by a never-ending winter. Compared to her appearance in MN, the White Witch is significantly more frightening in LWW: she is cruel, manipulative, and powerful, and no longer is she on her own—now in control of Narnia, she has amassed her own wicked army to support her. When, in exchange for Edmund’s freedom, she captures and kills Aslan, it seems that all hope is lost.
As mentioned previously, much of the plot of LWW revolves around the anticipation of the appearance of Aslan, which is forecasted fairly early on by Mr. Beaver, but does not come to fruition until many chapters later. His portrayal here is even better than in MN. He is mysterious, powerful, forgiving, severe, and wise. He is not safe, but he is good. Lewis repeatedly insisted that LWW was not an allegory, but Aslan is clearly a Christ-figure, and, from my perspective, the Aslanic depiction of Jesus in LWW is as good as any interpretation I have seen outside of the gospels themselves.
In MN, we are given a picture of Narnia at its inception, but that picture is fleshed out more fully in LWW. When Lucy first enters Narnia, it is covered in snow, frozen in the curse of the Witch’s 100-year winter. This unending winter is the dominant feature of Narnia in LWW, and is a powerful metaphor for the Witch herself: while Aslan, full of creative vitality, sings worlds into existence and causes the onset of spring with His presence, the Witch is capable of none of this creative potential. All she can do is spread a cold lifelessness: we see this in the world of Charn in MN, the never-ending winter in LWW, and her preferred punishment of turning her enemies into frozen, lifeless statues. Her castle is cold, austere, and lifeless, and is a reflection of herself.
Edmund, the traitor who falls under the Witch’s influence, feels the cold keenly. He freezes while riding around with the Witch, and when he slinks away from the Beavers’ residence to report to her, it is an interminable, freezing journey.
For the other children, the cold is less of an ordeal. They seek refuge in the warm company of friends: Lucy with Mr. Tumnus, and then all the children (other than Edmund) enjoy their time in the Beavers’ home atop the dam. When they realize that Edmund has betrayed them, they begin their journey to meet Aslan at the Stone Table, but their journey is more pleasant than Edmund’s, as winter thaws all around them and spring emerges.
We are briefly introduced to the castle at Cair Pairavel and other aspects of the Narnian realm in the “happily ever after” portion of the narrative, but this is more of a footnote to the Narnia that comprises the majority of the tale.
LWW is an enjoyable book, but it is in this category that it truly shines. Of course, it is set up to do so, since its theological focus is on the crucifixion and resurrection, but there are so many good theological elements throughout.
I already mentioned above the famous quotation about Aslan being good but not safe, which is a powerful reminder to Christians about the God that we serve. We live in a moment in history where safety and protection are valued so highly that I think it is important to remember that Scripture consistently reflects a God who is not “safe” and who calls us to follow Him regardless of what risks may come. This is part of the cost of discipleship.
A related idea occurs near the end of the book, and is also stated by Mr. Beaver (Mr. Beaver proves to be an excellent theologian):
But amid all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, “He’ll be coming and going,” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” (200)
God often shows up in unexpected and unpredictable ways. At times we seek to domesticate Him and clearly delineate what He will and will not do, and the ways He will and will not act, but His ways are higher than our ways. And that is a very good thing: a domesticated God would not be worth serving.
The character of Edmund and his interaction with the Witch and with Aslan offers profound theological insight. Initially, Edmund sides with the evil Witch and disaster is the result. He craves the Witch’s Turkish Delight and enjoys eating it while he has it, but as soon as it is gone, he is unsatisfied. He is left feeling sticky and sick, but still wanting more. What a true picture of sin! Ultimately, Edmund is enslaved to the Witch, which is another very real picture of what sin does to us: it enslaves.
When Edmund comes to know Aslan for himself, it changes everything (including the way he views himself), and we have a powerful picture of God’s grace:
As soon as they had breakfasted they all went out, and there they saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass, apart from the rest of the court. 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. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him.
“Here is your brother,” he said, “and—there is no need to talk to him about what is past.” (152-153)
“You have a traitor there, Aslan” said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said. (p. 155)
Once we are in Christ, it no longer matters what accusations the Evil One hurls against us.
In his depiction of Aslan’s “crucifixion,” Lewis employs a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement, where Jesus brings about God’s victory of Satan and the forces of evil. The cross is, in a sense, a sort of trap, where it appears that Jesus has been defeated, only to reveal His ultimate victory when He is raised from the dead. Aslan explains it like this:
“…though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read a different incantation. She would have known 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 backwards.” (178-79)
Other echoes of the gospel story are powerfully re-cast, from Susan and Lucy staying near to Aslan in a Gethsemane-like scene, to the shame Aslan endures as his mane is shaved, or the Stone Table being split open.
After Aslan’s resurrection, he reanimates a host of Narnians who had been turned to stone by the Witch, and then they join in the battle between the Witch’s army and the forces led by Peter. When Aslan enters the fray and confronts the Witch, he immediately overwhelms her. It’s not even close. This gives us another powerful reminder of a core belief of Christianity. God, through Jesus, overwhelmingly conquers Satan, sin, and death. Christianity is not a dualistic religion, where equally-weighted forces of good and evil are locked in a never-ending struggle. Satan is powerful, but God is all-powerful. It is not a close thing. This reality is foreshadowed earlier by a conversation between the Pevensie children and Mr. Beaver:
“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.”
“She won’t turn him into stone too?” said Edmund.
“What a simple thing to say!” answered Mr. Beaver with a great laugh. “Turn him to stone? If she can stand on her two feet and look him in the face it’ll be the most she had do and more than I expect of her.” (85)
A 37/40 is really high praise from me; if I were rating this book on somewhere like Amazon where I had to give 1 to 5 stars and could only choose whole numbers, it would unquestionably merit a 5-star rating. And, with a 10/10 in the Theology category, LWW earned one of only two Perfect 10’s that I awarded to any of the books.
Check out the full series of posts:
The way that Aslan is introduced and then anticipated in LWW is one of several reasons why it should be read first, rather than The Magician’s Nephew (MN). It makes no sense to introduce Aslan to readers in this way if they have already read MN, and the introduction he receives in MN is inadequate if you don’t already know who he is.
In Lewis’s own words: “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’”
Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.
For an excellent read on atonement theories (including Christus Victor) in LWW, see Matt Mikalotos, “Why Did Aslan Have to Die? Theories of Atonement in Narnia.”