When Digory, Polly and the small group with them first arrived in Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, there was nothing but void. Digory wondered if they had fallen into Charn in nightfall, but Jadis knew otherwise and moaned that it is a different type of darkness. That was when they hear the sound of a single solitary voice singing. As the voice sang, a vibrant yellow sun slowly begins to rise over a newly formed world. That was when they see that the voice of the singer is a Lion.
In the chronology of the Narnian stories, this is just one of the first hints at the power and majesty that Narnia’s true King, the great Lion by the name of Aslan possesses. Like any lion, He appears calm, regal and majestic. Even without seeing Him, His name alone, which is derived from the Turkish word for “Lion”, can inspire the heroes of Narnia.
Even before the four children meet him, we are told that upon hearing his name,
“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult scenes in the book for filmmakers whether it was the BBC versions or the 2005 versions to translate into film. A book can describe what someone feels in perfect detail and the readers can understand what some of those traits can be. In the films on the other hand tend to have the actors try their best to show the expression on their faces while the musical score plays in the background. This is a powerful, majestic movement, but it one that is deeply private inside each character’s heart.
So just who is this Aslan that he can sing a world into existence, and inspire so many different feelings in four young children who had never even met him at the very sound of his name? Lewis admitted in “It All Began With a Picture”,
“At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams about lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.”
Lewis treated Aslan with a special kind of reverence. In fact in his letters he detailed that at the time the books were written he would not approve of a film, as he was worried Aslan would look to silly, like He belonged in a Disney cartoon, or that He would look too much like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz movie. Joy Alexander notes in “The Whole Art and Joy of Words: Aslan’s Speech in the Chronicles of Narnia” from the literary journal Mythlore,
“As a writer he placed himself under extraordinary constraints in depicting such a character when inappropriate treatment would apparently be construed by him as blasphemy. It is interesting therefore to study Aslan’s appearances and speech in the Narnian Chronicles and to consider the special ways in which he is presented. ..Given his dominance in the reader’s memory of the tales, it may come as a surprise to realize that Aslan’s appearances are actually strictly limited….What is immediately evident is that Aslan is actually present in the stories relatively little–at most for one third of the novel, but more often for much less. Of course, for a number of these pages even though he is present, he may be taking little part in what is happening. On the other hand, during the substantial parts of the tales where he is not present, he is often referred to and spoken of, so that he is never forgotten about for long. However …Aslan’s appearances are, with one exception, reserved for the final stages of each story. The Chronicles have an essentially simple structure and Aslan is used right at the very end to sort things out and to bring closure, a deus ex excelsis rather than a deus ex machina.”
This leaves him continually shrouded in just enough mystery to only add to the sense of awe and wonder. Even the children ask the Beavers just who is Aslan. Even readers have asked the same. The simple Narnia 101 explanation is that he is the figure in the Narnia series that functions as the Messianic archetype. The Lion is a Biblical symbol long associated with Christ, as it says in the book of Revelation Chapter 5 vs. 5,
“Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
This is to say nothing of how he dies and rises again as an act of sacrifice for a sinner,and appears as a lamb in Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, another animal associated with Christ. In biblical times it was required for followers of the Jewish faith to offer up a pure, spotless lamb as a sacrifice for their sins. In Christian doctrine, Christ, who was the Lion of Judah was the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of all the world. St. Augustine elaborate on these animals and their nature as symbols of Christ in Sermon 375A.I. , which was reprinted in a commentary on the book of Revelation,
“Why a lamb in his passion? Because he underwent death without being guilty of any iniquity. Why a lion in his passion? Because in being slain, he slew death. Why a lamb in his resurrection? Because his innocence is everlasting. Why a lion in his resurrection? Because everlasting also is his might.”
So too is it with Aslan. He did not wrong and betrayed no one, yet he took Edmund’s punishment upon himself. Yet at the same time he also had great might and power. However, CS Lewis felt differently, stating in his letter simply addressed to “a lad” feeling that the Narnia stories were more of “let us suppose” stories”, stating,
“By an Allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial of literary) in which immaterial realities are represented as feigned physical objects; e.g.,…in Bunyan a giant represents Despair. If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents despair, 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?’ This is not allegory at all.”
So what is it that makes Aslan a distinct character and not just an abstract concept? As Louis A. Markos notes in the essay “Redeeming Postmodernism Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth and Religion in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia”, that examined such deeper literary analysis into Aslan as a character and as an allegorical symbol,
“…Though Aslan is an allegory for Christ, he is also a distinct character with his own history, his own motivations and his own “personality”. As such, Aslan and The Chronicles are like the events and characters in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which is technically an allegory (Dante called it so himself) but is also something far different. Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are both representations of spiritual (and psychological) states of being and very concrete places with a real geography that can be mapped out. More vitally, Virgil and Beatrice do not simply represent human reason and divine grace; they are also fully, historically real characters in their own right. The Comedy would have been a different thing altogether had Dante replaced Virgil and Beatrice with two nondescript, allegorical characters named Reason and Grace…”
So to would Narnia without Aslan. In fact as Colin Durize notes in the CS Lewis Encyclopedia,
“If a reader is unaware of this, he or she can still enjoy the stories on their own rightly; if he or she is aware, the meaning of Christian truths come strangely alive. For instance, many readers, who are so familiar with the gospel narratives as to be unmoved by the accounts of Christ’s death, are moved to tears at the death of Aslan.”
Along with inspiring awe, he also commands an instant sense of respect. Susan admits when she heard of Aslan that she though He was a man. This changes when she learns that He is a Lion that she would be very nervous about meeting a Lion, to which Mr. Beaver and Mrs. Beaver tell them in The Lon, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,
“Aslan a man!…Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion… That you will, dearie, and no mistake…if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly… Safe?…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.”
Jill Pole, the friend of the Pevensie’s cousin, Eusatce Scrubb, learns similar upon meeting Aslan. She meets him atop a great mountain in His Country and He bids her to come and drink from a nearby stream. While she is incredibly thirsty, she is afraid of Him, and asks Him to promise, she won’t harm her, something He will not do. Then she asks if He has ever eaten girls, to which the Great Lion tells her,
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”
“Not safe, but good”, sounds like a great contradiction, but it is something that makes Aslan as the savior of Narnia so palpable, and makes him one of the best Christ-figures in literature. After all, we tend to associate something as not being safe, or dangerous, as bad. Yet, almost everyone knows that water and fire are essential to our lives, and as such no one would ever described them as “bad”. Yet, if either force of nature is used the wrong way, like swimming in an area with a strong undertow, or playing with matches and lighter fluid, they can become dangerous.
Further, it means that Aslan cannot be controlled or manipulated into doing what the characters want. This is what sets Him apart from an impersonal deity, say, the Force in Star Wars. Characters in Narnia actually know Aslan, or as Edmund would put it to his cousin Eustace, “or rather he knows me.”
Aslan can come and go in the stories as he please and there are times in which He seems to be absent, but as Devin Brown notes in Inside Narnia,
“As far as Lewis records in the rest of the Chronicles, Aslan seems to make very infrequent visits to Narnia. However, perhaps not all his visits are included and maybe some of his appearances will be in the kind of dreams and visions which are seen in the later books. Additionally,…in later books we find the implication that Aslan is always present in Narnia even when he is not visible.”
Moreover, Aslan is the one in control as he calls the children into Narnia, and not the other way around. He even instructed Digory and Polly after their adventure into Narnia on the day the world was born to bury the rings and never use them again once they returned to England. In the Last Battle when a centaur is dubious about claims that Aslan has returned to Narnia stating there are no signs in the Heavens, to which the unicorn Jewel replies that Aslan as there master and not under their control.
Not even the children can use any means to get to Narnia. In The Silver Chair when Eustace tells his friend Jill about Narnia she asks if they can get there by drawing a circle on the ground and writing weird letters and reciting incantations,
“Well…I believe that was the sort of thing I was thinking of, though I never did it. But now that it comes to the point, I’ve an idea that all those circles and things are rather rot. I don’t think he’d like them. It would look as if we thought we could make him do things.”
Eustace comes to the conclusion that they can only ask him to do something. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as they over come in the Dark Island, it is Lucy who calls upon him, asking that if ever he loved them to come to them. That is when he comes as an albatross and speaks words of comfort to her heart and thereby helps guide them out.
However, Aslan also plays by the rules that are established, in particular by him. This includes words of prophecy, laws of Narnia, and through some use of magic. Lucy discovered this in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she used the spell to make the invisible visible in the Magicians book and he appeared to her. He tells her that he had been there the whole time, right beside her and she thinks he’s teasing her, two which he informs her that he always obeys his own rules.
But what is it that makes him so “good”. It all comes down to Aslan’s overwhelming compassion, not only for Narnia, but for the children brought into his world. Digory is the first to witness it in The Magician’s Nephew when the Great Lion is giving him the task to go and retrieve one of the apples to plant to protect Narnia. Digory, without thinking blurts out a request for Aslan to do something to help his mother, and that is when,
“Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.”
He also has a comforting presence about him. In Prince Caspian when Susan and Lucy happen upon a group of revelers that include Bacchus riding upon his donkey surrounded by nyads, Susan expresses concern and admits she would not feel safe unless Aslan were with them. The children know that as long as he is around they have nothing to fear as he has full power over everything. It is Aslan after all who bids the River God be freed, and can open a door in the air with his breath. Controlling the god of the drink is small potatoes for him.
This scene has been off putting too many more modern readers, especially Christians. After all, Bacchus was not only the Greek god of wine and celebration, but it is his name that we derive the word “debauchery”, or excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures. Why would Lewis, as a “Christian author” not only include such a figure, but have him among the good guys? As Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead note in A Readers Guide to Caspian: A Journey into Narnia,
“At his most respectable, Bacchus came to represent liberation, nature, enthusiasm and celebration. A close reading of his actions in the victory procession…will reveal that these are the values Lewis wished to embody in him. It is also possible that Lewis intended to assert by narrative means that Aslan can redeem even the wildest impulses.”
Despite his fierce continence, Aslan is more than willing to behave in a manner some would find surprising for not only a deity but a king of a country. Upon his resurrection he actually runs and plays with Lucy and Susan as though he were nothing but a big cat chasing a ball of string. In Prince Caspian, it is Aslan who leads the revelers through the land of Narnia as they proclaim liberty to all.
While Narnia is his main concern, he also cares very deeply about the children who he has summoned into his world, and not just because of what they can do for him. He cares about them as individuals and wants them to become better people and will teach those lessons on the way. It is part of the reason he won’t force them to do His will, but rather will gently try to coax them along the path so they can chose to do what is right.
More over when they make mistakes and own up to it, he won’t say what it is they did wrong but instead lets them come to their own conclusions. At the same time he doesn’t want them dwelling too much on the past or any regrets they may have, as in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when he tells the other three children upon restoring Edmund to them that there is no need to bring up what had happened in the past. He wants them to move forward on their journey, not backward.
This is best scene in the book Prince Caspian when he appears to Lucy and she goes to visit him in the night, her attempts to urge everyone to go the way Aslan wanted were a disaster, and she was feeling defeated. As she talks to Him he asks her why it is she didn’t come on her own. She asks Him if things would have gone better if she had separated from the group and followed Him on her own, but he doesn’t tell her, rather he tells her,
“To know what would have happened, child?… No. Nobody is ever told that…But anyone can find out what will happen…If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”
It is part of the reason why in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he is willing to offer himself up as a sacrifice for Edmund. The Witch evokes the law of Narnia known as the Deep Magic Before the Dawn of Time, stating that all traitors belong to her and unless she has his blood, then Narnia would be overturned. For the sake of Narnia and Edmund, he is willing to make a deal with the witch to renounce her claim.
He goes to her at the stone table in the dead of night, Susan and Lucy accompanying him close at hand. He bids the girls to stay a safe distance away to prevent them from coming to any harm. As Aslan approaches the stone table the hoard of unholy monsters that surrounds Jadis mock and jeer at him but he says and does nothing. Finally the witch orders him bound and muzzled and have him shaved.
The jeering continues until the moment when the witch has him drug to the table. Then upon declaring that she had won and she would kill the boy and all of Narnia would be hers, she plunged the knife into him, killing him. After the hoarded left the girls attended his body. Friendly mice ate at his bonds but it did no good.
The girls feeling cold walked a bit of the ways away. Then as the sun rose they heard a horrifying cracked and thought that the Witch and her minions were doing something worse to him. They found the table broken and the Lion gone. Upon asking if it was more magic the girls discovered that the Lion had risen . They were horrified and asked if he was a ghost to which he told them, and showed them that he was very much alive.
It was Susan, not Lucy the faithful one who asked Aslan what it all meant. Aslan told them both,
“It means…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 had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Then after leading them on a mad chase he let out a great roar, fulfilling the Narnian prophecy,
“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
This prophecy was so key to the Narnian books that in the 2005 film the words were even inscribed on Peter’s sword, a fact not discovered until the movie Prince Caspian. It is the hope that all Narnians hold to. Along with the coming of the children it signified the defeat of the Witch. And upon letting out that roar, Aslan would make way to the witch’s castle where he’d fee her captives, providing much needed reinforcements for Peter’s exhausted army. Then Aslan himself would finish off the witch. The 2005 movie even had Aslan uttering the last words of Christ upon his victory of Jadis saying, “It is finished.”
It seems strange that Aslan, this powerful ruler of this other world would care so much about these children from Earth to give his life for one them. Some may think it was just to fulfill his prophecy but it goes much deeper than that, as these children are not just mere tools for Aslan’s purpose. Edmund and Lucy learn this in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After being drawn into Narnia through a picture on a wall, they find themselves , and their cousin in the sea only to be rescued by their old friend, Caspian. Edmund asks if all is well in Narnia to which he says,
“You don’t suppose I’d have left my kingdom and put to sea unless all was well…It couldn’t be better. There’s no trouble at all now between Telmarines, Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, Fauns and the rest. And we gave those troublesome giants on the frontier such a good beating last summer that they pay us tribute now. And I had an excellent person to leave as Regent while I’m away—Trumpkin, the Dwarf.”
The children are usually always called into Narnia because there is some great trouble going on and they are needed to help. However, they learn from Aslan himself when they encounter him at the end of the world that there is another reason why he has called them into Narnia. As the children say goodbye to him, Edmund and Lucy are told they will never again return to Narnia as it is time for them to grow closer to their own world. They are heartbroken at the news for one important reason. Aslan. They can’t bear the thought of not meeting with him again.
This is when he tells the children, upon Edmund asking if he is in there world too,
“I am…But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Aslan’s whole intent was not just to teach them important life lessons about faith, trust, obedience, humility, selflessness, and forgiveness, and thereby help them become better people, but to grow deeper in their true faith in Him. It was what makes Aslan, and the enchanted world of Narnia and the characters from the books, resonate after half a century. Narnia is not an allegory but a reflection of what Lewis viewed as the great story, reimaged in the context of not a sermon or a cheap tract, but a fairy story.
As he said in his essay,“Sometimes Fairy Stories Say It Best”,
“I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then, of course, the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
And who better to guide the children, and the readers past those watchful dragons then a wise, compassionate, powerful , and majestic lion? Sure, he can’t be controlled like a cosmic force, and he can come and go as he please, but that is what makes him the master of Narnia and not the other way around. There would be no real sense of magic, wonder, or for that matter, danger, if Aslan could do whatever the kids wanted whenever they willed it and make things happen the same way twice. He’d just be a cheap parlor trick, not a character.
After all, it was Aslan who helped bring those images of Narnia together in the mind of CS Lewis in the first place, so he should be the one who calls the shots. As Mr. Beaver reminded the children at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe after he left after their coronation, in a statement, which in the 2005 film was given to Lucy’s first friend in Narnia, Mr. Tumnus the faun,
“He’ll be coming and going…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.”
FILM: Adamson, Andrew (Dir.)The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, James MacAvoy, Tilda Swinton, Ray Winston, and Liam Neeson. Ann Peacock,Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2005. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
FILM: ” ” The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Eddie Izard, Peter Dinklage, Sergio Castellitto, and Liam Neeson. Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2008. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
Alexander, Joy “The Whole Art and Joy of Words: Aslan’s Speech in the Chronicles of Narnia.” Mythlore. Vol. 24, No. 1 Summer 2003
FILM: Apted, Michael ( Dir.) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg, Ben Barnes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, and Liam Neeson. Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2010. Walden Media/20th Century Fox.
Brown, Devin. Inside Narnia. Pgs. 241-242. 2005. Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI
Duriez, Colin. “Aslan” pg. 23. The CS Lewis Encyclopedia. 2000. Inspirational Press. New York, NY
Lewis, CS The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. pgs. 74, 85,86,178,200. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS Prince Caspian. Pg. 149. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS The Magician’s Nephew. Pg.168. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY
Lewis, CS The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair. Pgs. 7,21.1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.pgs. 20,270. 1978. Harper Collins. New York, NY.
Lewis, CS “It All Began With a Picture…”g. 53. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. 1982. Harvest Books. Orlando, Fl.
Lewis, CS “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say it Best” pg.47. On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature. 1982. Harvest Books. Orlando, Fl.
Lewis, CS “Letter to a Lady December 29, 1958.” The Letters of CS Lewis. Pg. 283. Warren Lewis, ed. 2003. Mariner Books. New York, NY
Markos, Louis A. ‘Redeeming Postmodernism” Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth And Religion in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, pgs. 235-236. Caughey, Shanna, Ed.
Revelation.NIV Study Bible. 1985. Zondervan .Grand Rapids, MI.
Ryken, Leland and Marjorie Lamp Mead. A Readers Guide to Caspian: A Journey into Narnia.pg. 79. 2008. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, Il.
Weinrich, William C. “His Death and Resurrection Christ is Lamb and Lion” Revelation.pg. 73. 2005.InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, Il.
2005 Walden Media/Walden Media.
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