LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION!
Movie Flick – The Chronicles of Narnia 2
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “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.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has some interesting biblical and theological themes. The most theological scene could probably be termed “the baptism of Eustace.” In the scene Aslan tells Eustace to undress, which Eustace takes to mean that he needs to remover his dragon skin. So he tries scratching himself out of his dragon skin and even describes it like peeling of “as if [he were] a banana” (Lewis, The Voyage 114). In total Eustace made three attempts to remove the dragon skin himself. Then:
The lion said … ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ … So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. (Lewis, The Voyage 115-116)
This idea of pain in removing the reptile is also seen in Lewis’ The Great Divorce when the Ghost who suffers from lust allows the lizard on his shoulder to be killed experiences pain (Lewis 110). After removing the dragon skin, Aslan throws Eustace into the water and he comes out a boy again. No one would describe crucifixion as a painless process and Romans 6:6 says: “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” Lewis could very well be alluding to this idea of crucifying the old man by have Aslan essentially destroy the dragon. Now the issue of the doctrine of baptism is beyond the scope of this paper, but Eustace’s coming out of his baptism changed is a fairly clear allusion to Romans 6:4 “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
Virtually every systematic theology textbook includes a section about the attributes of God. One of these attributes that is briefly seen of Aslan in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is omnipresence. Wayne Grudem defines God’s omnipresence as being “present at every point of space with his whole being, yet still acting differently in different places (173). In chapter ten Lucy must recite a spell in the magician’s book that makes hidden things visible, when she does Aslan appears. Lucy is excited that he is there but he responded: “I have been here all the time … but you have just made me visible” (Lewis, The Voyage 169-170). Proverbs 15:3 says “the eyes of the LORD are in every place, Keeping watch on the evil and the good,” which teaches that God is everywhere and sees everything – both good and bad. It seems to be the same with Aslan, who was there to witness Lucy and her temptations with the magician’s book.
In the final chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is a scene that, it could be argued, had the theological purpose of making giving the reader a blatant reason to associate Aslan with Christ. In the scene there is a Lamb that invites Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace to have a breakfast of fish that is being roasted on a fire (Lewis, The Voyage 267-268). This is a very clear allusion to John 20:9, 12a: “Then, as soon as they had come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid on it, and bread… Jesus said to them, ‘come and eat breakfast.’” And just to be sure that the reader knows that the Lamb is Aslan, the Lamb transforms into the Aslan the children recognize (Lewis, The Voyage269).
2. Please discuss the Good and Evil in Narnia?
“But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.”
The Last Battle — the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia — is dark and sad, especially for those who love Narnia and are reading the book for the first time. Beyond the hint in the title, the opening words of the book, “In the last days of Narnia,” are disconcerting. Not much later, Tirian is referred to as the last king of Narnia. The reader senses that something dreadful is going to happen. But what? The warlike Calormenes, who have formed an alliance with a traitorous ape named Shift, have secretly been entering Narnia and are bent on conquest. Surely the great Lion Aslan will send help, won’t he? And so he does send aid by way of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole. But it is not enough. The Calormenes are victorious, and Narnia comes to an end. The story, however, does not end. Evil exists, but as in Christianity, good will ultimately prevail.
It is not only in the final volume but also all the way through the Chronicles of Narnia that we see themes of good and evil displayed. Characters are presented with challenges and choices and must make a decision about how to act. What they decide to do has repercussions in their own lives and the lives of those with whom they are connected. All this sounds a lot like our own life stories, doesn’t it? Indeed, our daily ethical challenges, both great and small, are reflected in many ways in the pages of the Chronicles. Without forgetting that we are reading a made-up narrative, and certainly without losing a sense of the fun of it all, we can learn valuable lessons in morality from these seven classic tales.
In the chapters that follow, we will look at what are, for the most part, pairs of ethical opposites — virtues and vices — as reflected in the Chronicles of Narnia. These will help us wrangle with specific ethical issues that each of us must face in life. Before that, though, it will be helpful to gain an overall view of C. S. Lewis’s ethical beliefs, especially as they are reflected in the Chronicles. The first thing to note is that Lewis was by no means infected by the modern (or, more accurately, postmodern) hesitancy in calling wrong, wrong.
Most people would condemn such things as rape, child abuse, and terrorism. But why? (Or, more disturbingly, why not?) On what basis do we determine right and wrong? Do cultural conventions set the standards? Or could it be that a God exists and is the source of such standards for all people at all times? Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with right and wrong and, consequently, with how one should or should not live.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explained that as an atheist, he argued against God on the basis of evil and suffering in the world. He asked how he had gotten the idea of what is just and unjust, reasoning that in order to consider something as wrong, one must have a concept of right. But where does this standard come from? Following his conversion to Christianity, Lewis often made the case for objective moral truth. He was aware of fine ethical distinctions and moral ambiguities, but, more basically, he wanted to affirm the difference between good and evil. Paul Ford correctly observed in reference to morality in Narnia, “Lewis believed there was a clear distinction between right and wrong; between morality and immorality; and between good acts and bad acts.”
Lewis wrote before postmodernism had gained the popularity it did in the late twentieth century. His position on moral absolutes reflected the earlier, “modern” view that truth (meaning truth that is valid for all times and in all places) really exists and can really be known. Later thinkers in the postmodern vein were more likely to view truth and morality as relative to culture and to individual situations or tastes. Alan Jacobs elaborated, “Lewis wrote in a time when, among the educated British public if not among their professional philosophers, there was considerably more agreement than there is now about, for instance, what constitutes a valid and rational argument for a given case. . . . His apologetic works presuppose, and rarely make any argument for, the criteria for rationality themselves. Today those criteria simply cannot be assumed.”
These days, Lewis’s argument for objective moral law would have to be bolstered for those influenced by relativistic ethics. But it may be that the climate of our day is warming again to ideas of definite right and wrong. Lewis’s words still resonate with those who sense the danger of an ethic in which any type of behavior might be acceptable under the right circumstances. As old-fashioned as the ideas of virtue and vice in the Chronicles of Narnia might at first appear to be, they speak to an eternal need to know how to act when we are faced with a choice. Few books can inspire us so well with the courage to do what is right as can these simple tales. Maybe their underlying philosophy is not weak or outmoded after all.
Of course, Lewis did not develop his ethical ideas without the influence of past thinkers. While a thorough analysis of the philosophical influences on C. S. Lewis is beyond the scope of this chapter, it will be beneficial to gain at least a basic understanding of these influences.
Great Thinkers Who Influenced Lewis
Lewis was clearly moved by the likes of English journalist and writer G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and Scottish novelist George MacDonald (1824–1905). Some elements of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) are also reflected in Lewis’s ethical concepts. As Armand Nicholi has observed, “Lewis agrees with German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who pointed to the ‘moral law within’ as a powerful witness to the greatness of God.” But the greater philosophical influences on Lewis were classical philosophers. Gilbert Meilaender rightly explained, “Lewis’ views are best characterized not by reference to contemporary thinkers but . . . by reference to Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle.” So great were the influences of Plato and Aristotle on Lewis that he once wrote that losing the influence of these two philosophers would be like the amputation of a limb.
Plato believed in the unchanging world of Ideas or Forms. Because ethical standards are derived from this unchanging standard, Plato concluded that ethical standards are also unchanging. Similarly, Lewis believed there are transcendent, universal, and unchanging standards rooted in natural law. Moreover, like Plato, Lewis believed that the current world is not all there is—that a better, more real world awaits us. As Lewis has a character say in Till We Have Faces, “Nothing is yet in its true form.” Lewis also affirmed his affinity for Plato in The Last Battle. When Narnia is destroyed, it is revealed that Aslan’s country contains the real Narnia—bigger and more beautiful than the “copy” or “shadow” that was destroyed. The character Digory Kirke makes the connection obvious when he says of the discovery that he has entered the real Narnia that it is all explained in Plato.
Lewis also owed much to Plato’s pupil Aristotle. Aristotle believed that in the pursuit of ultimate good or happiness, ethical standards require a balance between extremes—a golden mean—of vice and virtue. According to Aristotle, developing moral character is more important than following strict rules of conduct. What matters is living a virtuous life based on reason.
Consequently, virtuous moral choices are desirable and, if habitually made, will shape our character for the better. Lewis, too, was more concerned with the virtuous life and the importance of our daily choices in given situations than he was with adherence to specific ethical commands.
Despite these influences by Aristotle and Plato, Meilaender considered Lewis’s overarching social and ethical views “as, quite simply, Augustinian,” referring to the African theologian Augustine. In The Four Loves, Lewis called Augustine a great thinker to whom he owed a tremendous debt. Lewis, like Augustine, viewed evil as a privation. Good exists, but when the good is missing, the result is evil. Lewis often referred to evil as parasitical on good or as a perversion of it, such as in a 1933 letter in which Lewis referred to evil as “good spoiled.” Ethically, Augustine believed in transcendent and unchanging standards that have their source in a personal, active God who has revealed Himself not only in general revelation (evidence of God in nature or human conscience) but also in special revelation (such as in the Bible and the Incarnation). Lewis would agree with these points as well as with Augustine’s position that happiness can be found only in God. Also, like Augustine, Lewis’s ethics were built upon a foundation of love. Lewis agreed that true longing and, hence, happiness can be found only in God. In commenting on the Golden Rule (“Do to others what you would have them do to you,” Matthew 7:12), Lewis acknowledged that repeating this phrase is meaningless unless one is able to love his or her neighbor — a task that cannot be carried out unless one first loves God. This is an Augustinian view requiring obedience as well as love.
In at least one area of his ethics, Lewis appears to have owed more to Scripture than to any philosopher or theologian. That area is what is known as “the problem of evil.” Given that the biblical God is all-loving as well as all-powerful, why does evil exist?
The Problem of Evil
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20)
Biblically, it is clear that good and evil exist, as do moral distinctions between them. The story of the Bible is the story of a struggle between good and evil, with good ultimately prevailing over evil as our world draws to a close. In an Augustinian sense, our world is not the best possible world, but it is the best way to the best possible world. Hence, evil exists, but it will finally be vanquished. While some have accused Christianity of promoting a sort of dualism between God and Satan, Christian theism does not truly promote such a dualism, because Satan is a created being and his power does not match that of God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present. But in that case, why does evil exist?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus phrased the problem of evil as follows: “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able he is both envious and feeble and therefore not God; if he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does he not remove them?” The basic problem is how to explain the presence of evil and suffering in light of the existence of an all-powerful and loving God.
Intellectually, Lewis addressed this topic in The Problem of Pain. Emotionally, he grappled with the matter in A Grief Observed. His beliefs were nicely nuanced, and he certainly did not minimize the complexity of the problem. He admitted that Christianity does not necessarily have a neat or complete explanation for the problem of evil, but he said that Christianity’s explanation is far better than others. He affirmed the biblical picture that, in the grand view, God is in the process of redeeming the good and establishing justice for all time. Through Christ’s suffering, a way has been made to rescue the repentant and punish the incorrigibly wicked.
This view of God’s sympathy for and activity on behalf of the suffering is implicitly addressed in the Chronicles. One example is Digory’s mother, Mabel, and her serious illness — something that grieves Aslan. The death of Caspian in The Silver Chair is another example. Caspian dies, but he arrives in Aslan’s country (heaven) submerged in water and is revived by the blood of the Lion — a distinctly Christian image no doubt inspired by the concept of being cleansed by the blood of Christ (see, for example, Hebrews 9:13-15). Aslan weeps for Mabel and Caspian, thus expressing God’s sympathy for the human predicament. (Recall that Jesus wept for Lazarus and, by extension, for the human condition, as told in John 11:1-44.)
History is a stage on which God is working out His final solution to the problem of evil. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Christ is represented by Aslan, while His opponent, Satan, is represented most nearly by the White Witch, Jadis.
The Lion and the Witch
In Aslan and the White Witch, we see the personification of the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. This is not an interplay of two abstract concepts but the interaction of two individual characters in Narnian history. Reflected in their relationship is the drama that God is writing in terrestrial history as He prepares for the final defeat of evil.
In each of the Chronicles, Aslan the Lion is the centerpiece of all that is good, holy, and just. Other characters may embody these traits, but not nearly to the same extent and not consistently. Aslan stands for virtue, condemns vice, and is clearly a Christ figure, though not in a strictly allegorical sense. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he willingly sacrifices his life to save the human child Edmund from death. In Prince Caspian, Aslan participates in the overthrow of the evil usurping King Miraz, while in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” he is present in many instances of good, for example, in a powerful encounter with Eustace and as the source of Reepicheep’s longing. In a scene in The Silver Chair reminiscent of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well described in John 4, Aslan speaks with Jill Pole on issues related to salvation and once again seeks, through those who serve him, to overcome evil with good, restoring Prince Rilian and, in the process, destroying the evil Witch of the Underworld. In The Horse and His Boy, the four principal characters — Shasta, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin — each learn ethical lessons from Aslan regarding humility and pride. When Shasta is alone with Aslan, the great Lion explains the role he has played in the boy’s life, always watching over him.
The White Witch (Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew) is not an opposite of Aslan in a dualistic sense. She is a created being from another world who enters Narnia at the time of its creation. There are some parallels to the Christian account of Satan, such as the Witch tempting Digory in the garden, but they should not be pressed to the point of actually equating the Witch with Satan, as there are simply too many differences. That the Witch is evil is clear. Aslan himself refers to her as evil in The Magician’s Nephew, and she exhibits a number of vices indicating her evil nature: unfairness, dishonesty, pride, cruelty, a warlike nature, and impenitence.
Those characters in the Chronicles who are allied with Aslan act more like him, while those who are the Witch’s helpers reflect her own evil propensities. So it is for us. There are good behaviors (virtues) and bad behaviors (vices). We can choose whom we follow and how we will act.
Vices and Virtues in Narnia
Lewis believed that everyday ethical decisions move one closer in character to good or evil. As a result, even the small ethical decisions made daily are, in the long run, incredibly important. These decisions for good or evil accrue in our character like a savings account earning compound interest, said Lewis, indicating that a series of decisions for the good, however small, may accumulate over time and result in a good ethical decision in the future. Or, conversely, a series of small evil decisions will build up, tarnishing one’s character and allowing entry for further (and likely increased) evil. Lewis elaborated on this matter in Mere Christianity, in which he wrote, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you . . . into something a little different from what it was before.” Over the course of a lifetime, we are turning this central part of ourselves into either a “heavenly creature” or a “hellish creature.”
In that same work, Lewis gave an illustration involving tennis. He noted that even a person who does not play tennis well may make a lucky shot now and then, but a good player has the training and experience that allows him or her to make numerous good shots and become someone whose tennis skill can be relied upon. Similarly, a person who regularly practices virtuous behavior will attain a godly quality of character. This quality and not specific actions, argued Lewis, is virtue.
In The Magician’s Nephew, because of the actions of a boy named Digory Kirke, evil has entered the new world of Narnia in the form of Jadis (the White Witch). Aslan the Lion asks Digory if he is prepared to undo the wrong he has caused. Digory tells Aslan that he is ready to do what he can. Then his thoughts turn to his mother, who lies dying a world away. With eyes full of tears, the twelve-year-old Digory asks Aslan to help his mother. Tears fill Aslan’s eyes, too, for he is acquainted with grief. But the Lion informs Digory that Narnia must be protected from evil, at least for a time, and that Digory must retrieve an apple from a tree in a distant garden so that a tree may be planted on earth for the protection of Narnia.
Riding upon the flying horse Fledge, Digory and his friend Polly begin an adventure that leads them to a beautiful valley. At the top of a hill, they come to a wall with golden gates. They realize that this is a private, perhaps even sacred, place. A message written on the gates warns that entrance to the garden is permitted only by the gates and that the fruit within must be taken only to help others.
Digory approaches the gates, which open as he places a hand on them, and enters the garden alone. He plucks a silver apple from a tree and is tempted by the fruit’s appearance and smell. Why not take another one? Maybe the words on the gate were meant more as advice and not as rules, he thinks. As he glances around, he sees a strange bird in a tree watching him lazily with one eye barely open. For some reason, that sight helps him decide to obey Aslan, despite his longing for the silver apple.
As he begins to leave the garden, he sees the Witch. Her mouth is stained with the juice of a silver apple, and she tosses away the core. Her skin has turned white. Digory runs away, but the Witch is after him. He stops and threatens to return to his world then and there by the use of magic. Jadis tries to convince him to eat an apple because it has the power of youth as well as of life. If he does, he can rule the world as king, with her as his queen. This offer fails to induce Digory to eat the apple.
Next, Jadis tries another tack in her temptation of the boy. She tries to convince Digory to take an apple back to his mother so that she might be healed. Digory gasps and puts a hand to his head, for he loves his mother dearly and so much wants her to be healed. He struggles with the choice, feeling the force of the terrible decision before him. In the end, though, despite his desire to help his mother, Digory makes the right choice. He has made a promise to Aslan and he will not break it, no matter what.
In a way, each of us stands in a garden with forbidden fruit before us, just like Digory and just like Adam and Eve. These are the crisis points where our character is formed. The silver apple for us might be a sexual misadventure outside of marriage, an offer of illegal drugs at a party, the chance to destroy an enemy’s character with a lie, or any of innumerable other options. Regardless of the nature of our temptations, if we make good choices, we become more ethical people. If we make the wrong choices, our character becomes worse and worse.
While not meant as tutorials in vice and virtue, the Chronicles of Narnia are filled with examples of both. In the chapters that follow, we will look at seven sets of characteristics as reflected in the Chronicles:
Although these are seemingly opposing traits, they are not always clearly a matter of virtue in opposition to vice. For example, Lewis would argue that engaging in warfare is not always wrong. Still, in most cases, the traits discussed in the following chapters are quite dissimilar. Hence, honesty not only is distinct from dishonesty but also is virtuous, while dishonesty is not.
What these chapters all have in common is the theme of good versus evil. In part, this is because of the nature of fantasy literature. And, in part, this is because of the nature of real life here on earth. Just as there eventually came a showdown between the Narnians and the Calormenes, and just as Digory was presented with temptation by the Witch, so all of us are engaged in the contest between right and wrong. We see it in small, personal decisions as well as in the great events of world history. May we learn from Peter and Reepicheep, Shasta and Jill, Digory and Polly, and other Narnian characters, especially Aslan, how to build a character for good.
REFLECTION AND RESPONSE QUESTIONS
3. Can you discuss the magical sound of Aslan’s voice?
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
Which would you rather be: ugly or invisible? I don’t mean homely or plain looking; I mean really ugly – so ugly that even people you don’t know would stop and stare at you. Most people, I bet, would choose to be invisible. The ugly are looked down upon in our society, but the invisible can see everything without being seen. To be invisible, as Plato and Tolkien remind us, is to have godlike powers. But wouldn’t it be tiresome not to be seen? If you were invisible, you wouldn’t be a part of human society. People wouldn’t be able to identify you or know how to react to you. As a result, you would lose your sense of self-identity. Yet we live in a culture that places such a high value on beauty that many people, I’m sure, would choose to be invisible rather than ugly.
These issues are posed for us by a curious group of creatures that Eustace, Lucy and their companions come upon during their great voyage on the Dawn Treader, namely, the Dufflepuds. These creatures choose invisibility over ugliness, or, to be more accurate, they choose to be invisible when their master, a great Magician, casts a spell that makes them (in their own eyes) unbearably ugly. Their choice isn’t very smart. Indeed, as Eustace of all people points out, the Dufflepuds are “certainly not very clever” (VDT, Ch. 9, p. 491). Even though they are invisible, for example, they are afraid of the dark. They also plant boiled potatoes to save time cooking them when they dig them up. They are such cowards that they force Lucy to sneak upstairs and into the Magician’s room in order to reverse the spell. Most of all, they babble on without ever saying anything important, all the while sounding like Rush Limbaugh dittoheads in enthusiastically declaring their agreement with everything their leader says (“Ah, there it is, Chief. There’s the point. No one’s got a clearer head than you. You couldn’t have made it plainer. . . . Keep it up, keep it up” (VDT, Ch. 11, p. 502).
We might be tempted to think our heroes’ encounter with these strange creatures is just a bit of comic relief during a treacherous journey to the end of the world. In fact, however, the story is much more than this, for it sheds light on the fascinating topic of C. S. Lewis’s approach to the senses. The Chronicles of Narnia are about a lot of things, but one of the topics Lewis explores in depth is the nature of the human senses. The Dufflepuds are disturbing because they can be heard but not seen. All through the Chronicles, Lewis is interested in how seeing and hearing operate and how those two senses are related to each other.
Several philosophical questions are pertinent. What are the qualities of sound and sight? Do we know the world differently through listening or seeing? If there are fundamental differences in the senses, what does that tell us about human nature? Are some senses better than others for giving us access to truth and reality?
Seen, Not Heard
Here is another seemingly dumb question: Would you rather be deaf or blind? Children love to ponder such questions, but they contain the seeds of serious philosophical puzzles. Lewis asks a variation of this question in the Dufflepuds episode when he has Eustace wish that “the Magician would make them inaudible instead of invisible” (VDT, Ch. 11, p. 504). In other words, if you were surrounded by both ugliness and noise, would you rather be deaf or blind? Eustace would rather see the Dufflepuds than hear them. He would rather be deaf than blind. I think most people would agree with his choice. Does that mean that there is something about sound that makes it more powerful than sight?
As anyone who’s been to a good concert knows, sound waves seem to penetrate us more intimately than light waves. Perhaps that is because we can always close our eyes, while our ears have no lids. Graphic sights can be disturbing, but loud sounds can be so jarring that military planners have researched ways to use them to deafen and disorient enemy troops. Even quiet sounds, like the soft plop of pigeon poop on our shoulders, can make us cringe. Sounds are especially menacing when we don’t know where they’re coming from. When Lucy climbs the stairs to the Magician’s study, for example, things are so quiet that every little sound stands out. She panics when she hears footsteps in the corridor, but is relieved when she finds Aslan at the door.
We are afraid of the dark partly because we can’t see the source of the sounds we hear. Indeed, right after the episode with the Dufflepuds, the Dawn Treader reaches the Dark Island, which is so pitch dark that it drives people mad. Such absolute blackness is hard to describe. Lewis compares it to a railway tunnel “either so long or so twisty that you cannot see the light at the far end” (VDT, Ch. 12, p. 506). In this darkness, the sailors hear a cry so terrible that they don’t know if it’s human. It is. It comes from an old man whose eyes “were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all, and stared as if in an agony of pure fear” (VDT, Ch. 12, p. 509). It turns out that in that absolute darkness, all one’s worst nightmares come true. As the ship floats through the darkness, the crew on board can’t help straining their ears for any recognizable sound. When you can’t see what you’re listening to, you end up being afraid of what you hear. Sure enough, “soon everyone was hearing things” (VDT, Ch. 12, p. 510). The lesson is clear: When deprived of sight, we strain to hear, but the darkness misleads our ears. Once again, only the familiar voice of Aslan saves them from doom.
There is a long tradition in Western philosophy of connecting vision with knowledge and darkness with terror. When we understand something, we say, “I see.” When we want to know more, we seek clarity and illumination. People who know what they’re talking about have a vision that others can follow. These observations are so common that we take the relationship between seeing and knowing for granted, but Lewis doesn’t. Remarkably, Lewis gives sound, not sight, the fundamental role to play in the construction of knowledge.
Fans of his stories might overlook the role of the senses in a first reading, but Lewis is very deliberate in how he describes Narnia. By portraying Narnia as the consummation of human hopes and fears, Lewis is able to probe the depths of human nature. Narnia is not only a place that tests the courage and integrity of the children who visit there; it is also a place where these visitors discover the innocence of human perception. They learn to trust what they hear and doubt what they see. In other words, Narnia educates their senses.
The Primacy of Sound
Narnia is both like and unlike planet earth. It is sufficiently similar to our world for the children to be at home as they take on new adventures, but it is sufficiently dissimilar for them to be challenged to re-imagine their lives back home. For Lewis, the modern world has destroyed the innocence of our imaginations. We no longer live in the great stories of myth and legend. The twentieth century made life brutal and cynical. Lewis wanted to teach his readers to stretch their imaginations. He didn’t think that logic alone could help us find meaning in life. He wanted a renewed appreciation for the senses in all of their innocence over cold, hard logic.
Lewis wrote the Chronicles at a time when logical positivism was all the rage in philosophical circles. The manifesto of the movement, A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936), was one of the most influential works of philosophy of the twentieth century. Ayer accepted as true statements only logical tautologies (statements that are true by definition) and empirically verifiable observations. Both metaphysics and theology are meaningless, according to Ayer, because they seek reality beyond the senses. Statements have meaning only if they are logical or factual.
Lewis rejects Ayer’s view by developing a completely different theory of truth. For Lewis, sound no less than logic is crucial to create meaning. Where Lewis most strikingly makes this point is, of course, in his vivid depiction of the voice of Aslan, the great Lion. Aslan’s voice is more than hot air. Aslan breathes the world into being in The Magician’s Nephew, and in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe his breath awakens the animals that the Witch had turned to stone (LWW, Ch. 16, p. 188). Even his growls are full of meaning. Aslan represents the essence of sound.
Lewis defends a vocative philosophy of sound. What does that mean? In brief, a vocative philosophy of sound argues that the meaning of words is most fundamentally found in the human voice. Historically, of course, writing is secondary to, and derivative of, vocalization. Cultures were oral long before they were literate and textual. There is a philosophical truth to be drawn from the historical priority of speaking over writing. In our culture today, it is tempting to think that meaning has to do with the silent and abstract properties of sentences. Truth is something we see on the written page. Lewis helps us understand that meaning is sonic before it is visual. Even when we read silently, we hear words in our heads. Moreover, speaking out loud, even in our visual culture, remains the most important way of saying who we are and calling others to account for themselves.
Voices, however, are fragile. We can literally lose our voices due to stress or sickness. We can also be afraid to speak for a variety of reasons. To be given a voice, then, is to be set free. Likewise, to be denied a voice is to be denied one’s humanity. This does not mean that all voices are good. We can try to force our views on others by shouting down other opinions. We can twist words into hateful and deceptive forms. Voices, however, can also be used for great good. Through speech we create the world we live in. This, in brief, is what Lewis argues in the world he creates called Narnia.
A Bedtime Story
Many people first encounter the Narnia stories by hearing them read out loud, which is good because the tales are so vividly written. The Chronicles is almost like a script that brings out the actor in every parent! Moreover, many episodes in the tales hinge on the consequences of loud sounds. Remember that the whole adventure begins when Digory tells Polly that he heard a yell as he was going past the foot of the attic-stairs on his way to bed (MN, Ch. 1, p. 12). What is Uncle Andrew up to? When the two children begin to explore the attic, they hear a faint, humming sound – almost, Lewis says, like a vacuum cleaner, if vacuum cleaners had been invented in those days. The humming has a musical tone. When they meet Uncle Andrew in the attic room, Polly thinks the humming is coming from the rings he shows them. Uncle Andrew laughs at this suggestion (he is always wrong about what he hears), but Polly is right. The rings hum, and it is their humming that transports the children to a new world where they will never hear things the same way again.
The new world, or worlds, the children enter are both like and unlike our own world. These worlds allow Lewis to speculate about what our sense perceptions mean by imagining what they might be like under totally different conditions. One of the senses he pays most attention to is the sense of hearing. The Chronicles are, among other things, a complex and daring exploration into the nature of sound. For example, the first world they experience, the Wood between the Worlds, is described most vividly in terms of its quietness. It is quiet in a way that is rich and vibrant. The trees seem alive. Digory says the woods are as rich as a plum cake (MN, Ch. 3, p. 25).
The quiet of the Wood is in stark contrast to the world they find in Chapter 3, “The Bell and the Hammer.” The silence of this new place is of a different order altogether. Here they find a ruined city where nothing is alive. A noise, Digory thinks, could bring what is left of the ruins down like an avalanche in the Alps (MN, Ch. 4, p. 33). Soon they stumble into a room where they find a pillar with a little golden bell on top and a golden hammer to the side. Cut into the stone of the pillar is a message that dares them to
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had. (MN, Ch. 4, p. 35)
Digory can’t resist the temptation and rings the bell. Lewis describes the resulting sound in graphic terms. It begins sweet, but soon becomes so loud that the children can’t hear each other. Then the sound turns horrible as it rattles the stone floor. It sounds like the roar of a distant train. This description isn’t farfetched, because sound waves can be felt as well as heard. In fact, at about twenty hertz, hearing and touch merge as the lower frequencies of sound become tactile vibrations.
Lewis also describes the bell as sounding “like the crash of a falling tree” (MN, Ch. 4, p. 36). This comparison is significant. It is this horrible sound that awakens the Queen, who is soon revealed as a wicked witch. All the trouble in Narnia thus begins with a sound. Why? Lewis is re-imaging in this passage the biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the fall of Adam and Eve. Evil enters into the Garden, after all, when the serpent speaks to Eve; it is the ear that is the first of the senses to yield to temptation. Furthermore, it is a tree that is the object of the act of disobedience, just as it is another tree, later in the biblical story, that reverses the fall and provides the opportunity for salvation. Sound, Lewis is saying, touches us deeply. Sound is a fascinating sense because it enters into us, traveling into the hollow cavity of the ear, and thus becomes part of us even as it is invisible and out of our control. Sound is powerful; it can create and destroy worlds. Just as the words of the serpent begin the exile from Eden, the sound of the bell unleashes an evil force that will threaten the very existence of Narnia. Likewise, the sound of Susan’s magical horn will reverse the effects of Digory’s hammer and call Aslan to the rescue.
4. Can you discuss The Wonderful, Awful Beauty of the Queen?
“Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
The Wonderful, Awful Beauty of the Queen
What, or whom, the horrible sound awakens is Jadis, the last Queen of Charn, later to be known as the White Witch. Years later, when he was an old man, Digory thought he had never seen a woman more beautiful. The eye, however, can be terribly misleading. Indeed, the Queen’s own eyes can see through anything, even to the point of being able to read other people’s minds. She is a creature of sight, not sound. She wants to see everything, but she pays the price of not knowing how to listen to voices that have more authority than her own. Her looks are striking, but her voice makes everyone quiver. This is in contrast to Aslan’s voice, which “was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them” (LWW, Ch. 12, p. 169).
In fact, it was her voice that had destroyed an entire world. With an astounding selfishness, she had killed every living thing in Charn by using the Deplorable Word. She used this terrible word when the last of her soldiers lay defeated by her sister. It only takes one word, Lewis seems to be saying, to bring a world to an end. Words indeed can do much greater damage than sticks and stones. Jadis, in fact, is so full of herself – so taken by her own way with words – that she doesn’t listen to others. Words are merely tools in her quest for power. She understands how powerful words are, but she has no true understanding of language. She is furious when she visits the children’s world (our world), where she can’t destroy her enemies with her speech. Her magic fails her on earth. Nevertheless, she is still able to cause havoc with her voice, as when she whispers into the horse’s ear to madden him (MN, Ch. 7, p. 55). When the children use their rings to transport themselves, the Cabby, and the Queen to another world, the Queen loses the power of her speech while the children and the Cabby sing a hymn to cheer themselves up.
What a Talking Lion Sounds Like
It is at this moment that the most remarkable event in the book occurs, an event that sheds further light on Lewis’s theory of sound. “A voice had begun to sing” (MN, Ch. 8, p. 61). With that simple sentence, Lewis introduces Aslan the Lion into the narrative. Notice, however, that the Lion is heard before he is seen. It is almost as if its voice is what makes the Lion the creature that he is. The form of the Lion is not as significant as his sound, or, better put, the voice of the Lion is able to create or inhabit any form. This is Lewis’s way of crediting voice with the property of creativity. When the children, the Cabby, Uncle Andrew, and the Queen first hear the voice, it sounds as if it were coming from all directions simultaneously. The voice, it is important to note, wasn’t speaking, or even carrying a tune. It was, however, beautiful beyond comparison. The lower notes of the voice, its deep register, sounded as if it arose from the earth itself, and it called forth other voices higher up the scales that seemed to come from the sky and the stars. The Queen understood the sound of the voice and feared it.
The contrast between the Lion’s voice and the Queen’s could not be more striking. Whereas hers was destructive, his was creative. As Aslan moved back and forth, coming nearer the group, life sprang into being. The various tones and overtones of his voice gave birth to grass, trees, and flowers. Then came the animals, who also were called forth by the sound of the Lion’s song. The Lion brought some of the animals into a circle, and finally he speaks. What he says is a command for Narnia to awaken and for the animals in the circle to speak. Life comes to know itself through the power of sound.
When one of the animals says something silly, Aslan doesn’t mind. “For jokes as well as justice,” he says, “come in with speech” (MN, Ch. 10, p. 72). This is really a remarkable statement. Indeed, justice and humor seem to be inextricably related. Justice is the harmony of society, but such harmony is impossible without humor. Aslan could have chastised the perky jackdaw who had spoken out of turn, but that would have instituted a hierarchy of law based on fear and mistrust. Only if we can laugh at each other without resorting to violence can we learn to get along as a community. The acceptance of a joke, then, is the beginning of justice, just as justice provides the condition without which it’s not possible to laugh freely. We should remember, for example, how humorless Russian communism was. A society that lacks justice is a society of fear. In such societies, jokes are no laughing matter.
Not everyone saw the humor in the situation. Lewis makes the argument, through the differing perspectives of the Witch and Uncle Andrew, that “what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are” (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75). This doesn’t mean that Lewis affirms a kind of cultural relativism. The Lion speaks the truth; indeed, truth is first and foremost a property of his character, not propositions, and it is through sound that his character is communicated. The Witch understood the Lion’s sound and rejected it. Uncle Andrew, on the other hand, heard a snarl every time Aslan spoke. This sounds less strange than it is. Think about the variety of human languages. If you are not French and have never heard French spoken, then French will sound like gibberish to you, especially if you have never heard any language spoken other than your own. Languages create community. There is a “soundscape” to our social lives every bit as important as the landscape we associate with home. Thus, when Uncle Andrew hears the animals speak, he can’t understand them because he doesn’t recognize them as belonging to the same community as his own. Animals, for him, don’t count as creatures of moral worth. There is no discourse between animals and him, so he can’t understand them, even when they are given the gift of human-like speech. Likewise, they can’t understand him. They can’t figure out what kind of creature he is, though they understand instinctively that he is evil (or, as the Elephant says, Neevil). Uncle Andrew has made himself the kind of person who doesn’t understand the sound of warranted authority. He is tone deaf to the sound of truth, just as some people are tone deaf to music.
When the children first hear the name “Aslan” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they feel an inexplicable shudder of awe. Likewise, when Polly first hears Aslan, she understands his voice as a call and feels certain that “anyone who heard that call would want to obey it” (MN, Ch. 11, p. 81). Sound, in fact, draws us out of ourselves. The first relationship we have with the world is through our grunts and gurgles. Parents coo to their children in order to reach them. When we are called out of ourselves, we are also called to take responsibility for ourselves. We learn who to trust and who not to, even when somebody speaks to us, as the Witch spoke to Digory “more sweetly than you would have thought anyone with so fierce a face could speak” (MN, Ch. 13, p. 94). Dogs recognize their masters by smell but also by the sound of their voice. Likewise, we learn to intuit the meaning of what others tell us in part by listening to the quality of their tones, seeking out sincerity and resisting deception.
The Mystery of SoundSound is naturally mysterious. Voices come deep from within other people and enter deeply into ourselves, all without a physical trace. What we see we can inspect, but when we listen to someone, we have to be patient and pay attention. Seeing can happen at a distance, but a conversation draws us close to each other, since, without microphones or telephones, we must be physically near the source of the sound. We can see an object all at once, but sound forces us to be patient, since we have to listen to words sequentially. Light speeds toward the eye, granting immediate information, but “sound travels so slowly” (LB, Ch. 14, p. 749). Most mysteriously of all, sound waves travel on invisible frequencies. We can hear a voice without seeing its source in a body. Sound is thus the perfect medium for the supernatural. No wonder in the Bible God is heard but not seen!
Sound is also the perfect medium for our own sense of self-identity. Parents make all sorts of sounds to their newborn babies, surrounding them with a security blanket of comforting baby talk. We learn who we are by listening to others, imitating their voices, and hearing them name us. Our parents anxiously await our first word. When we speak, we become who we were meant to be.
This is the meaning of Shasta’s encounter with the voice on his long ride from Calormen to Narnia. He hears a loud, large, and deep voice, but he sees nothing in the dark. Is it a giant, or a ghost? He knew he was being followed by lions, but now he discovers that it was only one lion, and what a lion at that! “Who are you?” Shasta asks. “Myself,” the voice answers (HHB, Ch. 11, p. 281). Sometimes when someone calls us, it is enough to hear his or her voice. Something responds, and we know that we are known. Voices carry meaning along their sound-waves, and they reveal who we are if we but listen to them.
Reading or Hearing?
If all of this talk of the supernatural sounds a bit farfetched, consider the following question. What is the act of reading? We think of reading as a silent affair, but people used to read out loud long before the practice of silent reading became widespread. Many people think of the imagination as a visual affair. Books paint pictures with words. A great novel thus portrays a rich landscape. Novels, however, can also give us soundscapes. When we read a great book, we listen for the author’s voice. We need a quiet space to read because books speak in such strong voices to us. Reading is as much a matter of hearing as it is of seeing.
At least reading the Chronicles of Narnia is that way. Lewis wants us to push our imaginations by trying to hear the sounds that make us who we are. He speaks about sound so much that many different passages could be selected to make this point, but think about this one: “Have you ever stood at the edge of a great wood on a high ridge when a wild southwester broke over it in full fury on an autumn evening? Imagine that sound” (PC, Ch. X, p. 406). This passage describes the great battle where the woods come alive and march on behalf of Peter’s army against the Telmarines. Lewis has put marks on a page in order to have us activate them with our own imaginations. He wants us to think about the ways in which sound is the very stuff of our existence. His Chronicles are a very noisy affair, no matter how quietly we read them to our children at bedtime. Perhaps we love to read them so much because we are searching for voices that comfort us and call us home.
5. Can you discuss Time in the Chronicles of Narnia?
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.”
In a deceptively simple way, Lewis weaves into the tales of Narnia many complex ideas that are widely discussed in the intellectual arena. One of these is the concept of time, which is a recurrent motif throughout the Chronicles. As we shall see, Lewis’s ideas about time lead us into philosophical reflection on extraordinary scientific findings, difficult metaphysical problems, and profound theological themes.
Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore!
Several of the Narnia books begin with the children conversing about time, trying to get their orientation to time – or perhaps we should say disorientation! Eustace calls it “the usual muddle about times” (LB, Ch. 5, p. 693). The problem arises when Lucy first returns from the wardrobe. She thinks she has been gone for hours, but Peter and Susan say that only moments have passed:
“What do you mean, Lu?” asked Peter.
“What I said,” answered Lucy. “It was just after breakfast when I went into the wardrobe, and I’ve been away for hours and hours, and had tea, and all sorts of things have happened.”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy,” said Susan. “We’ve only just come out of that room a moment ago, and you were there then.” (LWW, Ch. 2, p. 120)
Contemporary fiction, fantasy, and film are no strangers to concepts such as time travel or crossing over into another dimension. Who can forget when Dorothy woke up in her bed in Kansas claiming that she and her dog, Toto, had many adventures in the Land of Oz? But her family and friends assured her that she had just been unconscious from a bump on the head!
It’s not just that there are different times but that the “passage” or “flow” of time is different between this world and Narnia. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy became kings and queens in Narnia, aging, growing, and changing. We learn that Peter “became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior” (LWW, Ch. 17, p. 194). The most interesting change, though, is that Aslan appeared bigger as the children grew in Narnian time. Curious about this effect, Lucy asks Aslan if he really is bigger, and he replies: “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger” (PC, Ch. 10, p. 380).
Regardless of time spent in Narnia, when the children return to their normal world, they have not aged. Although they reigned “for years and years” in Narnia, when they came back through the door to England again, it all seemed to have taken “no time at all” (PC, Ch. 1, p. 317). When Edmund and Lucy meet Prince Caspian, we are told outright: “Narnian time flows differently from ours. If you spent a hundred years in Narnia, you would still come back to our world at the very same hour of the very same day on which you left. And then, if you went back to Narnia after spending a week here, you might find that a thousand Narnian years had passed, or only a day, or no time at all. You never know till you get there” (VDT, Ch. 1, p. 429; see also MN, Ch. 15, p. 103).
In addition, Narnian time flows at unpredictable rates.
“And that means,” continued Edmund, “that once you’re out of Narnia, you have no idea how Narnian time is going. Why shouldn’t hundreds of years have gone past in Narnia while only one year has passed for us in England?” (PC, Ch. 3, p. 330)
This unpredictability is behind Peter’s remark that returning to Narnia after 1303 Narnian years had passed was as if they were “Crusaders or Anglo-Saxons or Ancient Britons or someone coming back to modern England” (PC, Ch. 3, p. 330).
Discrepancies over time occur in several of the tales. When the children come back to Narnia after being away for a year at boarding school, Caspian says they have been absent “exactly three years” in Narnian time (VDT, Ch. 2, p. 432). And King Tirian tells Jill that what she perceived to be the passage of a week in her world was a “scarce ten minutes in his world.” He adds: “The time of your strange land is different from ours” (LB, Ch. 5, p. 693; compare to Ch. 16, p. 765). Interestingly, Lewis speculates that time in other worlds might have “thicknesses and thinnesses” in addition to linear directionality.
Philosophical problems arise concerning both the subjective perception and objective reality of time. Clearly, Lewis’s treatment of time in Narnia is completely appropriate to tales of fantasy, reflecting the child’s less settled, less reflective sense of time as well as all of the wonderment of passing between the normal world and an imaginary world. After all, when children are having fun, time seems to pass too quickly; but time drags when they’re bored. Similarly, Pink Floyd’s “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon comments on how adult perception of time is different from that of youth: “You are young and life is long . . . and then one day you find ten years have got behind you. . . . every year is getting shorter.” Although the subjective sense of time can vary between this world and Narnia, the Chronicles also claim that there is such a thing as objective time in each of the two realms, although it cannot be readily calibrated between them. And that claim deserves further discussion.
Does It Take an Einstein?
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) advanced the classical objectivist view of time: “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration.” Even today, this is probably the instinctive view of the ordinary person – that there is cosmic time, regular and measurable, although persons might differ for various reasons in their perception of it.
Our understanding of time was revolutionized, however, by Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) special theory of relativity. Contrary to the traditional assumption that time is absolute, Einstein showed that “every reference body (coordinate system) has its own particular time” Simply put, scientists have found that gravitational fields of massive bodies (such as the earth) and high speed motion (even approaching the speed of light), have amazing effects on time. Stephen Hawking (1942- ) considers the effects of motion by recounting the famous Twins Paradox. Suppose that
one of the twins went for a long trip in a spaceship at nearly the speed of light. When he returned, he would be much younger than his brother who stayed on Earth. . . . [T]here is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving.
The astronaut’s clocks – atomic and biological – have registered fewer hours and years than the clocks on earth have done. Amazingly, Einstein’s theory implies the possibility of time travel (forward, not backward) and rejects absolute simultaneity (because there is no absolute time governing different frames of reference). Although different observers moving relative to each other will assign different times to the same event, no particular observer’s measurement is more correct than any other’s.
So, relativity theory lends plausibility to the idea that weeks and years pass for the children in Narnia while only a very short time passes in their normal world. This is possible given different frames of reference. Relativity also implies that any observer can calculate precisely what time and position any other observer will assign to an event, provided she knows the other observer’s relative velocity. This makes rough sense of comparisons between times in Narnia and the ordinary world which Lewis provides in “An Outline of Narnian History.” In every recorded instance, Narnian time passes more quickly than time in England, although the flow of time in Narnia is not uniform (for example, 1303 Narnian years pass between the English years 1940 and 1941 but only a few Narnian years pass between 1941 and 1942). Based on relativity, we might even speculate that Narnian time flows at unpredictable rates because of erratic changes in velocity, but this strains even the bounds of children’s fantasy.
Contemporary science might even tempt us to compare the wardrobe as a magical passage between our world and Narnia to “worm holes” (time warps in astrophysics) that allow travel between time frames in distant parts of the universe. Digory makes a similar point about the Wood between the Worlds, comparing it to the tunnel between their houses back home: “Mightn’t this wood be the same? – a place that isn’t in any of the worlds, but once you’ve found that place you can get into them all” (MN, Ch. 3, p. 28).
Popular culture is no stranger to such ideas. Traveling across the “space-time continuum” is a key theme in the Michael J. Fox film Back to the Future. And The Santa Clause, with Tim Allen, has little Charlie referring to the “space-time continuum” to explain to his skeptical mother and her husband how Santa can visit all the houses in one night. These astounding facts about time reflect a new scientific vision of the universe as holistic, dynamic, and interconnected, a theme that Lewis uses to great advantage.
Aslan Just in Time?
Perhaps the most enigmatic reference to time is Aslan’s response to Lucy as he is leaving the children to visit Trumpkin the Dwarf. Aslan tells Lucy that they “shall meet soon again.”
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy, “what do you call soon?”
“I call all times soon,” said Aslan. (VDT, Ch. 11, p. 499)
All times soon? Incredible!
Relativity theory allows us say that Aslan inhabits a different frame of reference but doesn’t explain how “all times” from all frames of reference can be immediately present to any observer. This is because the transmission of information anywhere in the universe cannot be faster than the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). It takes billions of years, for example, for light to reach earth from remote galaxies.
For everyone except Aslan – the characters in the story and we ourselves – there is such a thing as time. There is the need to measure, and be measured by, time. So, what are we to make of Aslan’s claim that his relation to time is not like Lucy’s or anyone else’s? That for him all times – and therefore all events in all times – are immediately present? This claim is tantamount to the assertion that Aslan is not limited by any frame of reference or the speed of light, but that he can simultaneously encompass all other frames of reference. The very best in contemporary science has no categories to explain this!
Now our discussion of time has moved into the territory of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that addresses the big questions of ultimate reality that lie beyond the reach of empirical science. And we can’t take this discussion very far without factoring in Lewis’s metaphysical commitment to theism – the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being who is the eternal, personal creator and sustainer of the world. This makes it plausible to interpret Aslan’s statement – “I call all times soon” – as expressing the view that God is timeless.
Interestingly, the theistic tradition affirms God’s eternity, but theists disagree over whether God’s eternity is “timeless” or “everlasting.” The timelessness position asserts that God does not experience the world moment by moment as we finite persons do, but rather that he experiences the world’s history all at once. The medieval philosopher Boethius (A.D. 480-525) says that God possesses an endless life which has neither past, nor present, nor future, which he embraces as a “simultaneous whole” in an “eternal present.” Lewis sides with this position: “Almost certainly,” he writes in Mere Christianity, “God is not in Time.” Since our human life “comes to us moment by moment,” we instinctively assume that this is the way things are for God, except endlessly so. But Lewis says that every moment from the beginning of the world is “always the Present for Him.” Unlike us, God doesn’t have to wait billions of years to find out what’s going on in some remote part of the universe!
Some theists hold an alternative position: that God is everlasting through time and not outside of time. They argue that timelessness – as held by Lewis and many other theists – reflects ancient Greek thinking that God is static and unchangeable. At stake in the disagreement is whether we can coherently think of God as a personal agent. Conceptually, we take agents and their actions to be in time. The biblical description of God as one who plans, responds, and redeems entails that God changes, and a that these changes have beginnings and endings. So, surely, in some significant way, God is in time. In support of this point, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (1932- ) argues that “any being which changes is a being among whose states there is temporal succession.” Theists holding the everlastingness position believe that it appropriately preserves important characteristics of God: that God is still distinct from finite creatures in that he has no beginning and no ending, that his own existence is in himself, and that he is sovereign over his creation.
Although we cannot pursue this intriguing debate further, it’s clear that Lewis rejects everlastingness and proceeds as if timelessness is no obstacle to God’s being an agent. In The Horse and His Boy, the Large Voice of Aslan discloses that he was the hidden influence always working on Shasta’s behalf – as the cat who comforted him among the Tombs, as the lion who gave the Horses new strength, and so on (HHB, Ch. 11, p. 281). This account typifies Lewis’s understanding that God’s providence timelessly interacts with events in the temporal world, including free choices.
Lewis acknowledges that metaphysical theories about God’s relation to time are matters about which thoughtful people, including Christian believers, legitimately disagree. However, he also recognizes that the theory one holds must fit coherently with one’s other views. So, in his philosophical writings, he is careful to explain how his own theory of God’s timelessness fits with a number of key concepts, such as petitionary prayer and the incarnation of God in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. But Lewis is also concerned to explain how timelessness does not violate human free will.
Some philosophers think that God’s timeless knowledge negates free will – that is, the power to do otherwise than one in fact does. The Chronicles, however, confidently combine Aslan’s timelessness with portrayals of the characters’ free choices. Aslan says he can do nothing with Uncle Andrew, the Magician, for “he has made himself unable to hear my voice” (MN, Ch. 14, p. 98). When Lucy asks Aslan to save Edmund, Aslan replies, “All shall be done,” but it may be “harder than you think” (LWW, Ch. 12, p. 169). Aslan even warns Rabadash to put aside his pride and accept “mercy” so that he may avoid certain doom, but Rabadash freely chooses destruction (HB, Ch. 16, 306-7). So, truly free choices are not determined by Aslan’s timeless knowledge or by any other capacity of Aslan.
When Tirian and the Seven Kings and Queens meet inside the Stable and discover the Dwarfs huddling together, they soon perceive that they are not really in a stable but in a beautiful, open place. But the Dwarfs cannot perceive this, complain about the cramped conditions, and cannot even recognize Aslan when he appears. When Lucy asks Aslan to help them see, he answers: “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot do” (LB, Ch. 13, p. 747). First, Aslan growls, but the Dwarfs hear it as a gang in the Stable trying to intimidate them (compare to MN, Ch. 14, p. 98). Then Aslan makes a glorious feast appear, and even though they eat, they complain that it is distasteful stable food.
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (LB, Ch. 13, p. 748)
Not even Aslan can override the Dwarfs’ free will. In the same vein, The Great Divorce tells us that Hell is the creature shutting itself up “within the dungeon of its own mind.”
Mere Christianity contains an explicit argument for the compatibility of God’s timeless knowledge and free choice:
[I]f God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. . . . He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.
Gaining a complete understanding of how time is used in the Chronicles requires more than exploring the science of relativity and the metaphysics of timelessness. It requires an examination of the theological significance of Aslan’s timeless life and purposes. As Lewis says in Mere Christianity, our life is “dribbled out moment by moment”; but of God he says, “His life is Himself.” The Bible depicts God speaking to Moses from the burning bush: “I am that I am” – that is, I am the Ever-living One (Exodus 3:14 (KJV)).
Theologically, this means that the inhabitants of time – persons, animals, and objects – and indeed time itself are created things, not self-existent. Aslan, by contrast, is in complete control of time, the great framework of our finite, contingent existence. This is clear when Aslan culminates history in the great Battle at the Stable (LB, Chs. 9-12, pp. 718-41) and calls Time itself to an end (LB, Ch. 13, pp. 748-51). Since time bounds our existence, what we creatures do with the time we have takes on tremendous significance: the choices we make, the actions we perform, the things we love, the aims we pursue.
In other words, time is filled with opportunity that we either grasp and use to the fullest or let slip through our fingers. Edmund, who himself was in peril of turning against good, chose to resist the sinister White Witch, and succeeded in destroying her wand and turning the fortunes of a fierce battle (LWW, Ch. 17, p. 192). However, the Dwarfs chose not to know Aslan as he really is. The Great Divorce aptly describes those who refuse the ultimate opportunity: “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.”
Opportunity for curing their self-imposed blindness melts away as the Dwarfs persist in the darkness of their own perceptions. Aslan roars: “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME”. The Door flew open. (LB, Ch. 13, p. 748) Through the open doorway Tirian, the children, and the others see the great giant, Father Time, awaken from his sleep. Aslan says: “While he lay dreaming his name was Time. Now that he is awake he will have a new one” (LB, Ch. 14, p. 749).
The Last Battle conveys the theme that Time will be transcended, and only those creatures who have loved and followed Aslan in time can share in the transformation that is to come. Creaturely time – and opportunity in time – ends in Aslan’s judging the truth of hearts as all rational creatures great and small, one by one, come through the Door. The very sense of time is confused in the description of this event: “This part of the adventure . . . seemed rather like a dream . . . . Especially, one couldn’t say how long it had taken. Sometimes it seemed to have lasted only a few minutes, but at others it felt as if it might have gone on for years” (LB, Ch. 14, p. 751). Here Lewis won’t let anyone’s perception of time be normal. How could he, with all creaturely worlds and therefore all times coming to an end?
As the children observe the terrible apocalyptic spectacle through the doorway, they see Dragons and Giant Lizards destroying Narnia, only themselves to die and whither, swept away by the perishing of time itself. Then Aslan says to Father Time, “Now make an end.” The giant quenches the sun and all is darkness. Aslan then instructs Peter to close the Door, which he locks with a golden key (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). Time is no more. But this ending is also a beginning. The children realize that they are in a beautiful country with blue sky and flowers and towering green mountains in the distance. They see laughter in Aslan’s eyes as he turns and shoots away toward the mountains, saying, “Come further in! Come further up!”
Where Is Aslan’s Country?
This is Aslan’s country. But how is it related to Narnia and the children’s England? The children don’t have a geography – or a chronology – to grasp it. Following Aslan westward into the high mountains, Peter, Lucy, and the others discuss whether it’s wrong to mourn for Narnia (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). When they begin to recognize features of Narnia along the way, they are puzzled over how they previously could have witnessed its destruction. In temporal life, once things are destroyed, they do not return. Peter wonders aloud why Aslan told them they would never return to Narnia, because they obviously had returned. How should they think about this new place, Aslan’s country?
Digory explains that Aslan meant they could not return to the Narnia of their finite, temporalized understanding: “[T]hat was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end.” He continues, saying that the Narnia and England they knew were just faint copies or shadows of the real Narnia and the real England (LB, Ch. 15, p. 759). Both time and what the children loved in time are contrasted to fuller, richer existence in Aslan’s country. “All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures,” have not perished but are more real than ever (LB, Ch. 15, p. 759). Even the flowers have “more color,” and every rock and blade of grass looks as if it “meant more” (LB, Ch. 15, pp. 759-61). Using similar images, The Great Divorce pictures both persons and things as more solid in Heaven.
Jewel the Unicorn cries out, “I have come home at last! This is my real country. I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this” (LB, Ch. 15, p. 760). Jewel here articulates the theological principle of the inherent value of temporal creaturely life, damaged but not destroyed by sin. So, it is entirely appropriate, as we spend the time of our lives, to love the truly good things and wish they would not end. Indeed, we find ourselves wishing with Jill that Narnia “might go on for ever” and not be subject to the inevitable destruction of time (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). As it dawns on Jewel that he is in exactly that place which he had always desired, he squeals to everyone with the sheer delight of total self-abandonment: “Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, further in!”
Aslan’s timeless country is thus the context in which persons find their ultimate fulfillment. “Great joy” characterizes those who love Aslan and pass through the Door. After the Door is shut, the children feel deep satisfaction and their “hearts leapt” as a “wild hope” arises within them that they might stay with Aslan forever (LB, Ch. 16, pp. 766-67). Their joy is increased when they find that their friends Roonwit the Centaur, Farsight the Eagle, and many others who had died are among “the happy creatures” filling Aslan’s timeless kingdom. When we are related to God, Lewis says, we become “more truly ourselves.”
Life with Aslan
Time in the Chronicles allows Lewis to say both what Aslan’s country is and what it is not. It is a condition of full reality that is not subject to decay, destruction, and death. Now if “timelessness” sets Aslan apart from all else, we may ask, What is the unique nature of Aslan such that there is an unsurpassable quality of experience in his country?
Subtle clues – the “laughter” in Aslan’s eyes (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753), Aslan’s gently touching Emeth’s forehead with his tongue (LB, Ch. 15, pp. 756-57) – suggest that joy, love, and peace characterize the life of Aslan. Joy, love, peace, and the personal beings that are created to experience them are meant to last forever, beyond the ravages of time. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. . . . Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
We should not be surprised, therefore, that when Tumnus the Faun surveys the new land with Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, he explains: “that country and this country – all the real countries – are only spurs jutting out from the great mountains of Aslan” (LB, Ch. 16, p. 766). Connectedness in the country of Aslan is a metaphor for our participation in the life of God.
And God is Love. “Christians believe,” Lewis writes, that “the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” The wonderful literary portrayal of this idea is that Narnia is created by Aslan singing, “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak” (MN, Ch. 9, pp. 64-70). God is not a static thing, Lewis explains, but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama or dance. Specifically, the God, who is above mere time, is essentially personal-social-relational life – or, as classical Christianity teaches, a Trinity, Three Persons in one Being. The Chronicles help us understand that we creatures of time must become related to what is beyond time. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.
The fascinating tales of Narnia – in which time, different times, and what is beyond time figure so prominently – captivate children, pushing all of their buttons with talking animals, evil witches, Father Christmas, Dragons, and a struggle to save a strange but charming land. No doubt the story appeals to the child in all of us. But it also touches the adult in all of us – the adult who has struggled with pain and disappointment, longed for enduring good, and who realizes deep down that the true meaning of it all, which we seek in time, cannot be a human creation and therefore must lie outside of time.
Interpreted theologically, the tales of Narnia are about the offer to finite creatures to allow a new world to be born in each of us and to let it come to full fruition in God’s kingdom. We could state Mr. Tumnus’s earlier point more precisely and say that the connectedness of everything to the mountains of Aslan is what makes them truly real! The imagery of connectedness suggests that God’s purpose is to bring about a great community or society or, indeed, a family. The Chronicles of Narnia paint an inviting picture of a relational universe whose whole destiny – sidetracked by doubt, struggle, and evil within the domain of creaturely time – is back on track toward its timeless source. No wonder, as we read it, as child or as adult, we seem to hear at our own level a voice beckoning to us: Come further in and further up!
6. Can you discuss some of the mythic symbolism that illustrated Narnia?
“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
Introduction The Narnia Chronicles has been hailed as a wonderful use of mythic symbol to illustrate the ultimate story of redemption in Jesus Christ, Yet with much popular attention given to Lewis’ use of symbolic myth, the influence of Platonic thought on the Narnian Chronicles is often ignored. This seems a curious response since some have said that to remove Plato from Narnia would be a form of amputation robbing the reader of the philosophic framework out of which the stories ari structured.r Perhaps this lack of attention can be traced to a disharmonious relationship between biblical truth and certain aspects of Platonic thought. In the apostolic proclamation of the rcnpuTps, Platonism has been seen as a stumbling block to the gospel’s acceptance. Paul’s gospel witness to Greek philosophers on the Areopagus received a mixed and largely negative reaction (Acts 17:22-34). The apostle’s proclamation of the intemrption of history, a final judgment, and the resurrection were all at cross-purposes with the most popular Greek philosophical ideas of the day. Platonic ideas of the separation of spirit and matter, the soul imprisoned in the body, the idea of reincamation, and the continuance of time without intemrption were widely held.2 If certain Platonic ideas are incompatible with the Christian eriory6l.rov, then why would Lewis still include other aspects of Platonism in the mythic retelling of the story of Christ? To answer that question, it will be the purpose of this paper to provide a brief overview of Lewis’ joumey of faith, his use of Platonism in Narnia, and his conception of heaven as seen in Aslan’s country