I read C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books as a child, and have dim memories of enjoying them. Because of this, and because the trailers for the upcoming movie look gorgeous, I have been planning to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it comes out. As preparation I thought it would be a good idea to reread the series. To my great disappointment, I’ve discovered that they don’t hold up well under adult perception — in fact, that Lewis’s creation is morally and dramatically incoherent in a deep and damaging way.
The core of the problem is Aslan, the godlike lion who sang Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew (seventh book to be written but earliest in narrative time). The dramatic problem is that Aslan is a total deus ex machina, whisked onstage any time that Lewis wants to ratchet the plot past some obstacle or hammer home a moral, then whisked offstage before anybody has time to wonder why nothing ever seems to happen without Aslan in back of it. As a child I didn’t question this; as an adult, I grew quite fed up with the creature’s excessively convenient appearances and gnomic pronouncements by the middle of Book Three. He might as well have “Authorial Contrivance” stamped on his forehead in letters of fire.
But the problem with Aslan goes deeper than a mere dramatic flaw; or, if you like, the dramatic flaw is a symptom of a deeper incoherence in Lewis’s world. The deeper problem is that Aslan’s role in the Narniaverse fails to make either logical or mythical sense.
Logically, if Aslan is sufficiently powerful to sing Narnia into existence (as he does in the first book) he should have been able to create anything or anyone he needed to in order to cold-cock the White Witch (who is for certain not powerful enough to make worlds and hosts of sentient beings). Instead, all he does is mumble about a prophecy and rely on four children accidentally arrived from another universe to set things right.
OK, perhaps there is some constraint on Aslan’s power of which we are not aware. But Lewis never tells us that there is. By failing to do this, he reduces the Narniaverse to a travesty without any narrative integrity of its own, a mere puppet-show in which one is all too aware of the author pulling the strings. My suspension of disbelief was destroyed; the only entertainment left for me was to wait to see which string Lewis would pull next.
The closest to a clue we get to a rationale is a reference to the law of the “Deep Magic”, which the Lion and the Witch refer to when she claims the right to kill Edmund for his treachery. Aslan does not dispute this. Instead, he offers himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place. But Aslan’s sacrifice is a fraud.
Consider what happens objectively. The Witch “kills” Aslan with a stone knife — but within minutes he is back and better than ever, it being by his representation a law of the Deep Magic that when one innocent of treachery is sacrificed on the Table the magic turns back on itself.
But I see no actual sacrifice here. It’s a sham, a put-up job. Aslan suffers no harm at all other than some transient pain and the indignity of having been trussed up like a Christmas goose. To a being that can sing worlds into existence this is surely no worse than a hangnail. We are only fooled into thinking otherwise, if we are, because Lewis abuses the word “death” to refer to a condition that is completely reversible, and is in fact reversed.
In retrospect, Aslan’s vaunted sadness on the way to the Stone Table is evidence of either (a) extreme cowardice, because he’s boo-hooing even though he knows he’s got a get-out-of-death-free card, or (b) an indication that he doesn’t know in advance he’ll survive. But (b) is ridiculous — he’s certainly quick enough to explain his resurrection to the children afterwards, and does so in terms which pretty much exclude the possibility that he wasn’t expecting it.
This is, at the very least, absurd sloppiness on Lewis’s part. He could have put some words in Aslan’s mouth that told us he was surprised to be alive; in that case Aslan’s bravery and sacrifice would have been real. In that case, the whole scenario would have at least made some sense on a mythic and moral level, even if it remained logically incoherent. But, as it is, Lewis misses no opportunity to miss an opportunity; he screws up on every level.
A comparison with Tolkien is apposite here. I read the Rings trilogy a few years before I read the Narnia books. In rereading Lewis, I discover that his prose construction is better than J.R.R Tolkien’s, his descriptions more evocative, his characters more fully drawn. Lewis is in almost all ways a more able writer than Tolkien; and yet, it is the Rings trilogy that stuck with me and the Narnia books I nearly forgot.
The difference, I think, is that Tolkien cared about the causal depth and autonomy of his secondary world in a way the Lewis did not. By “causal depth” I mean the degree to which events in the secondary universe are made to seem a natural unfolding of its laws and nature, rather than being products of divine or authorial whim. By “autonomy” I mean the degree to which we are convinced that the secondary universe has an existence of its own, separate from our primary reality.
Tolkien famously insisted that fantasy, when properly done, is the creation of a secondary world with both causal depth and autonomy. I have written elsewhere about flaws in Tolkien’s biology; but, as I observed there,
Tolkien was very careful about logical consistency in areas where he
was equipped by temperament and training to appreciate it; he invented
a cosmology, thousand of years of history, multiple languages; he drew
maps. He lectured on the importance of a having convincing and
consistent secondary world in fantasy.
And, indeed, Tolkien practised what he preached. The Ring trilogy is largely (though not entirely) internally coherent; you have to dig for edge cases like the sexual biology of elf/human matings before the seams really show. His detailed world-building addresses logical consistency. And because Tolkien’s Eru/Iluvatar creates Middle-Earth but then withdraws from it in order to let the Speaking Peoples work out their destiny, the choices they make have moral heft.
Lewis, by contrast, cheats his readers. His secondary world lacks causal depth — one way or another Aslan is at the back of everything. It lacks autonomy; Father Christmas shows up as a minor character. In these and other ways, Lewis’s contrivances are crude and obvious; he fails, on both the logical and moral levels, to create a secondary world with an integrity of its own. Or rather, he begins promisingly. Then he squanders that promise in order to prosecute a ham-handed allegory that fails to hang together even on its own terms. Thus, even if one doesn’t parse the various logical and moral flaws in detail, the whole edifice has a rickety and inauthentic feel to it.
(I discovered after I was well into writing this essay that Tolkien appears to have disliked the Narnia books, and even quarrelled with Lewis about them, for exactly these reasons.)
I think the problem has to be located in Lewis’s Christianity somewhere, if only because Aslan (the locus of the most serious structural flaws) is such an obvious Christ-figure. It’s as though Lewis gets so caught up in retailing his own odd spin on the Crucifixion that he forgets to make any logical or moral sense out of his version.
One thing that fantasy can do is re-imagine the familiar in a way that makes it possible for us to see it fresh, without our normal preconceptions. Lewis achieves this in the story of Aslan’s encounter with the Stone Table, but the effect is the opposite of what Lewis probably intended — because it’s only a short step from noticing that Aslan’s self-sacrifice was a fraud to noticing that Jesus’s purported self-sacrifice has to have been a fraud too, and for precisely the same reasons.
If we are to believe Christian myth, Jesus didn’t die and exists in eternity. A few hours or days on a cross should be meaningless to a being that knows it will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, especially when (being omniscient) it can foresee the entire “ordeal” in advance.
So the end result of Lewis’s attempt to write a veiled Christian apologia is to expose the vacuity of the Crucifixion myth. Nice going, Clive!
P.S.: I wrote this, then I thought about what J.K. Rowling has done with the moral-didactic children’s fantasy in the Harry Potter sequence. The comparison is devastating to Lewis.