I’m not sure why, but for some reason whenever it starts getting cold out, I start thinking about reading C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia again, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Published seventy years ago, the book remains popular today among Christians and non-Christians alike. Back in 2018, Netflix announced their plans to adapt the book series to the screen sometime in the near future.
I remember with fondness the first time that I read the books for myself. I was completely caught up in Lewis’s masterful storytelling. But even today I find them compelling, not only because they are great stories, but also because they provide timeless wisdom. Lewis once said that a certain kind of book was like “mouthwash for the imagination.” What he meant was that a good story can help rinse out bad ideas or soiled thoughts from our mind.1 And I think that Narnia does just that.
One idea that has become a bit soiled for a lot of people is our idea of God. If we have been raised in church, we know that God is love. We also know that God is just. But in reality, we tend to opt for one or the other—either God is “loving” and ok with whatever we do, or he is primarily an angry judge. It’s difficult to believe in a God who is both perfectly loving and perfectly just, because we don’t really know anyone who can hold those two qualities together perfectly . . . Unless, of course, you’ve met the lion, Aslan.
Aslan is, as Walter Hooper once described him, a being both intolerably severe and irresistibly tender.2 Aslan is the rightful king and ruler of Narnia and he is not to be trifled with. When the Pevensie children first hear about Aslan, they are unsure what to think. Should they be afraid?
“Is he—quite safe?” I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” – Susan
“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” – Mrs. Beaver
“Then he isn’t safe?” – Lucy
“Safe? . . . Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” – Mr. Beaver3
Aslan is not a tame lion, he is not safe. All throughout the Narnia Chronicles we encounter a being who is wild and on the loose. He is not to be tied down, he cannot be controlled, manipulated, or bullied. He commands reverence and obedience. When the children encounter Aslan for the first time, they are overwhelmed:
“People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”
Furthermore, to the wicked, Aslan is dangerous. The White Witch cannot look in his eyes. She threatens death to those who mention Aslan’s name, because she herself cannot endure it. Nor can any of the evil creatures get at Aslan until he voluntarily gives himself up to them. When Aslan’s name is spoken, the other children have wonderful feelings, but Edmund experiences “a sensation of mysterious horror.”
Later, when Edmund encounters a stone lion in the White Witch’s palace, he is initially afraid, but upon finding it is only a statue, he says: “Pooh! Who’s afraid of Aslan?” But we know that Edmund is a fool, and his arrogance is only a mask for his fear. Aslan is dangerous.
However, Mr. Beaver’s answer to Lucy’s question (“Is he safe?”) reveals that there is more to Aslan than this:
“Safe? . . . Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
Aslan is good. He reveals himself as utterly compassionate: first forgiving and then dying for the wayward Edmund. As Aslan walks to the Stone Table, where he will sacrifice himself, Lucy and Susan walk alongside him, comforting and weeping with him in his loneliness. Aslan understands suffering, he can sympathize with our weakness.
When Aslan rises from the dead, he commences a wild party, first by playing with the children: “Whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.” When Aslan frees the creatures that the White Witch has turned to stone, there is chaotic rejoicing—the courtyard looks like a zoo.
If we expand our view to include the rest of the Narnia Chronicles, we see that the Aslan who thunders on his enemies is the same Aslan who weeps with Digory at the end of The Magician’s Nephew, comforts the lonely Shasta (“tell me your sorrows”) in The Horse and His Boy, forgives the repentant children in Prince Caspian, and works tirelessly to protect and preserve Narnia—no matter the cost. Aslan is good and his commitment to Narnia knows no bounds. This is why Aslan’s love sometimes seems severe, because he will stop at nothing to show that love.
Not a Tame Lion
If we have paid careful attention, Aslan will perhaps remind us of someone else that we know. Jesus. Jesus is not a tame God. He turns over tables; he castigates the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and unbelief; he is severe and inspires terror in those who do evil; he does not bend to our whims or erase the consequences of our actions, and yet he is good. He is patient with the disciples; he is compassionate to sinners, children, the downtrodden and oppressed; he forgives the adulteress women and the disciples’ continual failure to believe. And like Aslan, his commitment to his creation knows no bounds. Lewis once said of Jesus:
“The great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.”4
The truth about Jesus is not that he is most fundamentally an angry God who sets an impossible standard and then punishes us when we fail to live up to it; nor is Jesus willing to ignore evil in our own lives as if it were really no big deal. The truth is not even that Jesus is both equally loving and equally just. The truth is that God is love. And because God is love, he will be just. He will punish sin but he will stop at nothing to save us from those sins.
We should, of course, be careful not to equate Aslan with Jesus. Lewis himself was insistent that he was not trying to write an allegory. Instead, as Rowan Williams described it, Lewis “is trying to evoke what it feels like to believe in the God of Christian revelation.”5 Perhaps reading the Narnia Chronicles, we can catch a glimpse of what our God is really like and what it feels like to believe in Him again.
At the end of the book, Mr. Beaver nicely sums up:
“He’ll be coming and going . . . One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down . . . He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!