The "Deep Magic" of Narnia and Christian Orthodoxy
Following the triumph of the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, a literary work that was described by its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” comes the release of the feature-film version of C.S. Lewis’ children's classic, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
It is appropriate that the release of the movie version of Lewis’ children's story should follow in the footsteps of the success of the film adaptation of Tolkien's timeless masterpiece. Tolkien and Lewis were great friends, and Tolkien, a life-long practicing Catholic, was a major influence on Lewis's conversion to Christianity.
Following his conversion, Lewis became one of the most indomitable Christian apologists of the 20th century. His many books remain very popular among Catholics and Protestants alike and none of them are more loved than his children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was the first of the series to be written. It is certainly as “fundamentally religious” as is The Lord of the Rings, and, if anything, the Christian dimension is even more obvious. Whereas Tolkien “buries” or “hides” the Christianity within the story, challenging his readers to discover the buried or hidden treasure, 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” that “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 White 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 titled “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 White 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 forever, 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 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 children's literature of the 20th century.
If the new movie version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe succeeds in emulating the success of the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, it will show once again how the Deep Magic can penetrate even to the darkened heart of Hollywood.
The heart remains dark, however, and the White Witch of this world is already plotting her next move. The film version of The Da Vinci Code will raise its ugly head in the spring and we can expect a barrage of anti-Christian nonsense to accompany its release. The war is not over. It will not be over until time itself is over. Until then the darkness will wallow in its own despair, dragging the treacherous into its self-centered orbit, and the light will shine forth the deeper magic from before the dawn of time and beyond the end of time.
“The issue is now quite clear,” said the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton on his deathbed. “It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” Chesterton chose his side, and C.S. Lewis chose the same side as Chesterton. Their choice was wise. Ultimately the side they chose is the winning side.
Joseph Pearce is author of C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church(Ignatius Press).
He is writer in residence at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and co-editor of the Saint Austin Review.
- December 4-10, 2005