“When a willing victim who has committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead ... Death itself would start working backwards.”
J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were great friends, and Tolkien, a life-long practicing Catholic, was instrumental to Lewis’s conversion to Christianity in 1931. Following his conversion C.S. Lewis became one of the most indomitable Christian apologists of the 20th century. His many books continue to sell by the million but none of them are more loved than his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the first of which to be written being The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. This work is certainly as “fundamentally religious” as is The Lord of the Rings, and, indeed, the Christian dimension is even more obvious. Whereas Tolkien subtly subsumes the Christianity within the story, Lewis allows it to float on the surface, making it unmistakable and unavoidable.
In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and throughout the other six titles in the The Chronicles of Narnia, the Lion, Aslan, is quite clearly a figure of Christ. He is unmistakably and indubitably so. This becomes particularly evident in Aslan’s offering of himself to be sacrificed in the place of Edmund, who had betrayed his family and friends to the White Witch. The Witch reminds Aslan of the “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time” which “the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning.” Aslan, as the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea (God, the Father), knows the Deep Magic but allows the Witch to tell him, no doubt so that others can hear: “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Here the Witch reveals herself as a Satan figure, the primeval traitor to whom all treachery owes its ultimate allegiance. “And so,” she continues, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.” The Witch knows that she can’t be robbed of her rights by mere force. The Deep Magic must be obeyed. Primeval Justice must be done. The sinner belongs to her. He stands condemned. With “a savage smile that was almost a snarl” she gives the doom-laden ultimatum: “unless I have blood as the Law says, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”
“It is very true,” says Aslan. “I do not deny it.”
Aslan knows that the Deep Magic cannot be denied and that Justice must be done. He offers himself to be sacrificed in the place of the sinner, Edmund.
In the chapter entitled “The Triumph of the Witch” we see the Passion of Aslan. He has his Agony in the Garden; he is scourged; beaten; kicked; ridiculed; taunted. Finally he is bound and dragged to the Stone Table on which is written the Deep Magic. He is then laid on the Table, the altar of sacrifice, and the Witch raises the knife. Before striking the fatal blow she cannot resist the temptation to gloat:
And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? … Understand that you have given me Narnia for ever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.
The irony resides in the fact that the Witch (Satan) only has knowledge of despair and death; hope and life are beyond her ken.
“But what does it all mean?” asks Susan following Aslan’s resurrection.
“It means,” replies Aslan, “that 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 there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who has committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Aslan, the sinless victim, saves the life of Edmund and, with him, the Life of every other “traitor” (sinner). The Death and Resurrection of Aslan has Redeemed the world!
Although the Passion and Resurrection of Aslan is the centerpiece of the Christian dimension in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it is by no means the only example of profound Christian symbolism. To offer but one example, the chapter in which Aslan breathes life into the statues of the living creatures who had been turned to stone in the Witch’s castle reminds us of Christ’s harrowing of Hell and his release of the souls from Limbo.
The Deep Magic would re-emerge in the other books of The Chronicles of Narnia. From Aslan’s creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew to the Apocalypse of The Last Battle in the final book of the series, C.S. Lewis presents us with perhaps the finest Christian children’s literature of the 20th century.