Aslan Is Just All Right with Me


The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventure in Narnia, by Laura Miller – The author, a writer for Salon, takes a look back at some of her favorite books from her youth. At age thirteen, Miller felt betrayed when she found out about the Christian themes in the Chronicles of Narnia. To her, Christianity was part of the dull world from which Narnia offered an escape. While I believe I was always aware of the Christian themes in the series, I totally understand where she’s coming from. It does raise the question of whether these themes improved or ruined the books, or really didn’t have much effect at all. I would say that his emphasis on blind faith and his misogyny might have related to Lewis’ religious views, although there was also his British conservatism to deal with. Lewis had a tendency of lumping together things he didn’t like even when it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, as with Eustace Scrubb’s non-smoking, teetotal, non-fantasy-reading, feminist parents who wore special underwear. At one point, Miller notes how one of the many negative traits he gave to the Calormenes was that they ate garlic, kind of an odd thing to be against. Hey, I’m not keen on spicy food, and I still like garlic. Anyway, Lewis was allegedly won back to Christianity as an adult by the argument that Jesus’ resurrection was one case when myth became reality. That suggests to me that, despite his insistence that he was a reluctant convert, he always somewhat leaned that way. He might have thought Jupiter and Odin were cool, but I doubt he ever had any intention of praying to them. I do get how Christianity seems rather bland compared to the eccentric color and flavor of pagan mythology. There are occasional elements of Canaanite mythology that managed to sneak into the Bible, like the Leviathan, but that’s kind of the exception rather than the rule. And does it really make sense that how we think and live our lives should revolve around a guy who lived in a small desert territory 2000 years ago? There’s a certain fairy tale quality to a Galilean carpenter turning out to be the most important person in history, but why should nothing as significant as the crucifixion ever happen again, and why is our knowledge of the event attested to only in a handful of writings from decades later that can’t even agree on the details? For that matter, Aslan isn’t even an especially good Christ figure, as there’s nothing humble about a lion, and even his death seemed more to get Edmund out of trouble than to save the entire world from sin.

Miller interviewed some other writers about their thoughts on Narnia. Neil Gaiman summed up a large part of why both Miller and I enjoyed the books, that it was an “infinite number of stories waiting to happen.” Lewis hardly put the level of world-building into his fantasy as J.R.R. Tolkien did (not even remotely close), but I think it’s partially because of that that there’s a sense just about anything can happen. I get the same basic feeling from Oz, and it’s present in other fantasy worlds as well. I think that’s one reason I stuck with Xanth despite its rampant misogyny (albeit misogyny of a different sort than Lewis’; he was more the sort who feared any hint of female sexuality, while Piers Anthony’s women tended to be nothing BUT sex objects). And while it’s primarily intended as satire, I get much the same impression from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I say “just about anything can happen,” I don’t mean they’re pure nonsense, but rather that it’s easy to incorporate all kinds of things into these worlds. As Miller writes, “Lewis had poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he’d enjoyed as an adult. And there is more, too: treasures collected from Dante, from Spenser, from Malory, from Austen, from old romances and ballads and fairy tales and pagan epics. Everything that Lewis had ever read and loved went into Narnia, and because he was a great reader, these things were as deeply felt by him as actual experiences.” Obviously mixing all this together means things don’t always hold together that well, but there’s an appealing melting-pot quality. As such, it’s kind of paradoxical that Narnia can include talking animals and beings from just about every sort of European mythology, yet the humans there make a distinction between themselves and the dark-skinned Calormenes. Why would the Telmarine Narnians be fair-skinned when it’s implied their female ancestors were Polynesian, anyway? It sort of reminds me of J.L. Bell‘s article about the Tottenhots in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, how L. Frank Baum used racist stereotypes in describing them, yet made a case for tolerance and diversity throughout the Oz series.


Along much the same lines as the infinite adventure idea, Miller devotes some attention to the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, a sort of in-between place that she compares to the Tibetan Buddhist state of bardo (basically the limbo in between incarnations) and the hallway of doors in Alice’s Wonderland.

Picture by Allogagan
It’s kind of disappointing that only two alternate worlds are visited from this way-station. One thing it reminds me of, as well as a view of the passion of Jesus that I feel takes on the mythical significance Lewis presumably saw in it, is Salvador Dali’s painting of the railway station at Perpignan.

He apparently had a vision of what he called “cosmogonic ecstasy” while there, and he came to regard it as the center of the universe. As bizarre as Dali could be, that makes a certain amount of sense to me. Certainly train stations come across to me as much more magical than, say, airports, despite the fact that flying vehicles were the stuff of fantasy for ages.

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This entry was posted in Art, Authors, Book Reviews, Buddhism, C.S. Lewis, Christianity, Chronicles of Narnia, Douglas Adams, Fairy Tales, Greek Mythology, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Magic, Mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse, Oz, Oz Authors, Piers Anthony, Prejudice, Religion, Semitic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Aslan Is Just All Right with Me

  1. You wrote: “There are occasional elements of Canaanite mythology that managed to sneak into the Bible, like the Leviathan, but that’s kind of the exception rather than the rule.”

    I’ve yet to be convinced by academics who contend that Leviathan borrows from the Canaanite Lotan. If that’s the case, then they should argue that Lotan borrows from Temtum, and Temtum borrows from Tiamat, and Tiamat borrows from Basmu and Usumgallu, in which case they all borrow from the Sumerian accounts. Yet, given that Leviathan and most of these others are depicted as dragons (lit. coiled sea serpents), and that dragons are ubiquitous in the art and literature of ancient cultures around the world, my hypothesis is simply that dragons are now-extinct creatures that the ancient world was aware of. The Old Testament uses Leviathan in ways that are both clearly metaphoric (representing Egypt and Pharoah, for example) and literal (as in the detailed description in Job 41). Yet, unlike the Ugaritic and Near-Eastern accounts of dragon battles with the gods, which serve as metaphors for Chaos versus Order (the Titans versus the younger gods, Absu and Tiamat verses Marduk, Yamm and Lotan versus Hadad), and establish the divine right of warrior-kings to rule over the nations, the Old Testament does not utilize Leviathan as representing Chaos to be replaced cyclically by human warrior-kings. Leviathan is used in the opposite sense in the Bible, as a symbol of the corrupt and domineering power of government that God will one day destroy, which is why the dragon served as a good representation of both Egypt (human governing power) and later Satan (supernatural governing power, in the Book of Revelation).

    “And does it really make sense that how we think and live our lives should revolve around a guy who lived in a small desert territory 2000 years ago? There’s a certain fairy tale quality to a Galilean carpenter turning out to be the most important person in history, but why should nothing as significant as the crucifixion ever happen again, and why is our knowledge of the event attested to only in a handful of writings from decades later that can’t even agree on the details?”

    On this point, I’d argue that it makes sense if that guy was the Son of the God and his sacrifice was the key to restoring eternal life to mankind, but I’d also contend that even apart from the supernatural elements, it makes sense because his philosophy on how we should live, individually and collectively, is still the most psychologically significant, spiritually relevant and ethically valid one I’ve ever seen.

    • Nathan says:

      As far as dragons go, there are a lot of different mythical animals that modern terminology places under the label of “dragon.” There are similarities between the dragons of East and West, but the differences are such that I doubt they were both based on observation of the same animal. Besides, it’s not like anyone has found the remains of a dragon.

      • It’s speculation on my part, but I tend to think our knowledge of the distant past (and really of most things) is quite limited despite dogmatic assertions to the contrary. Could they have been living dinosaurs (which would explain their remains)?

      • Nathan says:

        Dragon legends might have been inspired by dinosaur bones, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there were creatures that actually looked like artistic depictions of Ladon, Tiamat, or Leviathan (to give just three examples). I don’t think any scholar would deny that there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge, but to say that this means we can trust religion or mythology more than the general consensus of scientists or historians seems kind of backwards. If anything, it means we can’t really trust anything at all, which is probably true to a certain extent. Maybe fire-breathing dragons were real, but why would that be any more likely than any other ancient stories? There are also multiple myths about fire being stolen from the gods, so does this mean humans most likely didn’t discover it themselves?

      • Myths and legends can often be traced back to historical events. What widens the pool for those of us who believe in a supernatural creator is the idea that the world is much larger than what the consensus of secular scientists/historians believe. In other words, if supernatural events had occurred in the ancient past–as I believe the evidence shows–then the possibility of those myths and legends having a basis in truth is even greater. For example, the idea of fire having been stolen from the gods corresponds well as a corrupted version of humans having learned how to produce fire from the angels, and if one takes into account things like the Book of Enoch, in which some of those angels had taken up the guise of gods, then a tapestry starts to emerge in which the ancient mythologies begin to make sense in the context of the Judeo-Christian “mythology,” which as Lewis noted, was “myth which is also a fact.”

      • Nathan says:

        So humans couldn’t have just rubbed sticks together and seen what happened on their own? The idea that they needed some kind of hyper-intelligent guide, be it an angel, a Titan, or an alien, seems kind of insulting to me.

      • Humans are great at many things, most of which involve killing ourselves and other living creatures. But when it comes to the more advanced things, historically we see ancient cultures had tremendous achievements that we are only now still figuring out. Did humans have guidance from above? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we did, be it from aliens, angels, demons or divine inspiration.

      • Nathan says:

        So more like spirit guides or actual physical beings coming down to say, “This is how you do it, moron”?

  2. Bryan T Babel says:

    One of the things I love about your posts is how packed they are. It often takes me a whole day or so to unpack and consider them.
    “It does raise the question of whether these [Christian] themes improved or ruined the books, or really didn’t have much effect at all.”
    This makes it sound as if the themes were added afterwards like icing on a cake, rather than being an essential ingredient to the recipe itself. Whether they can be edited out without drasticly altering the stories is an interesting question. It basically means taking out Aslan (or changing his nature radically). Narnia without Aslan?
    ” Lewis was allegedly won back to Christianity as an adult by the argument that Jesus’ resurrection was one case when myth became reality. That suggests to me that, despite his insistence that he was a reluctant convert, he always somewhat leaned that way. He might have thought Jupiter and Odin were cool, but I doubt he ever had any intention of praying to them.”
    He had no intention of praying to Jesus either, until he became convinced of the historical significance of the Incarnation. I’m sure he was culturally influenced by being in Western Civilization, the same way standing on a stool will help you reach the shelf. In his own words: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”
    ” There are occasional elements of Canaanite mythology that managed to sneak into the Bible, like the Leviathan”
    Stories can be a lot older than the first written versions of them. We tend to base our assumptions on earliest surviving texts or inscriptions. Might it be possible that the Leviathan snuck from Hebrew stories into the Canaanite, and went wild there?
    “[D]oes it really make sense that how we think and live our lives should revolve around a guy who lived in a small desert territory 2000 years ago?”
    Chronological and regional snobbery?
    “There’s a certain fairy tale quality to a Galilean carpenter turning out to be the most important person in history, but why should nothing as significant as the crucifixion ever happen again?”
    Well, here is Lewis explaining the Christian viewpoint: “the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.” According to this viewpoint, what could be more signicant to human history?
    “[W]hy is our knowledge of the event attested to only in a handful of writings from decades later that can’t even agree on the details?”
    The traditional answer is that the apostles and disciples were the witnesses to the Faith while they were alive; when they started to get old and pass away the Gospel stories were written down to preserve and promulgate them. They were written by different people with different points of view and for different target audiences, and so stress different details. There are reams and reams of writing reconciling the “contradictions.” And as for there only being a “handful” of documents, four “books” isn’t a bad record of documentation for any ancient personage.
    “Aslan isn’t even an especially good Christ figure, as there’s nothing humble about a lion, and even his death seemed more to get Edmund out of trouble than to save the entire world from sin.”
    There was nothing humble about Jesus either. You just have to read about his attitude to certain religious leaders and money-changers. But Aslan, like Christ, humbles himself to accepting death to save Edmund; in other words he does in particular for one human what Christ did for each human. Lewis specifically says (in one of his letters) that Aslan is not a one-to-one allegory; he is a “supposal” what the Son of God might be like in a world like Narnia.
    “he was more the sort who feared any hint of female sexuality”
    Misogyny is a rather hard word to apply to the early Lewis; “unfamiliarity” and “indifference” would better describe his attitude. He deliberately left out ANY hint of overt sexuality in the Chronicles; he did not think it appropriate to a children’s book. After his late marriage to Joy Gresham, his portrayals of female characters deepened; Jill in ‘The Last Battle’, or Orual in ‘Till We Have Faces’ would be examples. He is often given grief over his description of Susan as “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations”; critics seem to think it has something to do with her finding sex.
    “It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so….The problem cannot be that Susan found her identity or found her strength; it’s that she found it a long time ago—once a Queen of Narnia, always a Queen of Narnia. And then she forgot it—traded it for lesser things, frivolities of the world that would not last, nor compare to greater and eternal things. She forgot she was a Queen. She was not barred from Narnia, nor from her queenly identity. Rather, she chose not to have it. This is what Lewis mourns, not condemns, for Susan.”–Jane Drinkard.
    “the humans there make a distinction between themselves and the dark-skinned Calormenes”
    The distinction seems to be mainly about their beliefs, such as slavery and demon-worship. Lucy for a time considers marrying Rabadash; Emeth is not excluded from the presence of Aslan because of his skin. True, a batch of Dwarfs calls the Calormenes “darkies,” but they’re the bunch stuck in the stable; I don’t think they’re supposed to be emulated.
    “Miller devotes some attention to the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, a sort of in-between place that she compares to the Tibetan Buddhist state of bardo (basically the limbo in between incarnations) and the hallway of doors in Alice’s Wonderland.”
    Lewis uses this symbol of a hall with many doors at the beginning of his book “Mere Christianity,” where he compares the common grounds (mere Christianity) of all denominations to a hallway:
    “It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.”

    • Good defense of Lewis, Bryan. I’ve always found criticisms of him on the grounds of misogyny, as well as criticisms of his portrayal of Susan to be overwrought and misunderstood. Even as a kid, when I read those books I understood that Susan had let the transitory things of the world overshadow the reality of who she really was. But that was her choice, and it presented a realistic, nuanced character.

      • Nathan says:

        I don’t think Susan’s dismissal of Narnia comes down to sexuality, but it does seem bizarre that she would have just forgotten about such a significant part of her life. She presumably spent more time in Narnia than on Earth by that point, right? One possibility I’ve seen is that she purposely put Narnia out of her mind because she felt screwed over by Aslan telling her she couldn’t come back.

      • As to Susan, I think that’s certainly possible. She may have misunderstood the reason behind Aslan’s directive, or disliked it, lost faith and became enamored of mundane matters.

    • Nathan says:

      I have heard that Lewis didn’t start writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with Christian themes in mind, but every author is going to incorporate their own viewpoints, so it’s true that you really can’t separate Narnia from Christianity. I guess I’m looking at it more as what might be problematic in the books for someone who DOESN’T hold Christian beliefs.

      “[D]oes it really make sense that how we think and live our lives should revolve around a guy who lived in a small desert territory 2000 years ago?”
      Chronological and regional snobbery?

      Perhaps, but I think it’s more that, if Jesus is supposed to relevant to everybody’s life, why would he have more of a connection to people in one particular time and place than to any other? I don’t think this is limited to Christianity, mind you; most religions relate the spiritual to what was familiar to the chroniclers.

      And as for there only being a “handful” of documents, four “books” isn’t a bad record of documentation for any ancient personage.

      That’s true, but most other ancient personages aren’t being worshipped as divine. I wouldn’t expect more from a purely human historical record, but it seems like it would be fair to expect it from God.

  3. Bryan T Babel says:

    Being in “one particular time and place” speaks to the historicity of the Incarnation; that it takes place in the only living monotheistic nation is perhaps significant.

    What one might expect from a god would be a single Revelation, perhaps on a gold tablet. Instead, there are four human historical records, attesting to the same thing from different points of view, claiming to be the records of what people who had actually been there had witnessed.

    The fact that something was in one location is one more reason to think it was real, because if it was real it was limited to one time and place, as something that happened. It does not argue against its significance to all humanity.

    • Nathan says:

      But why believe this one miraculous story over any other? No, there was no specific date for the resurrection of Osiris or Dionysus, at least as far as I know, but there are plenty of other accounts of miracles associated with historical personages, or at least associated with a specific location and time period. And Dionysus’ birth was particularly associated with Thebes, so even if there isn’t as much actual history to compare it to, that’s still a limit in terms of place. The idea that myths take place in some alternate plane of existence was popular with the mystery cults that thrived in Rome around Jesus’ time, but many of these myths were regarded as historical back when they first came into circulation.

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