Or, the Triduum
Well, friends, here we are, in the sweet spot between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the night of vigils and multiple readings of Scripture. Lifelong literature student and irrevocable cultural Catholic that I am—and having spent much of the past week down with a flu that’s been going around—I’ve seized upon this time to revisit some reading both seasonal and perennial. That is, the Gospels as per usual, as well as C. S. Lewis’s 1950 classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which canonically appears second in (but, authorially speaking, began) The Chronicles of Narnia.
A quick aside: when I tell people my postgraduate studies culminated in an exploration of the work and influence of Lewis Carroll, they not infrequently hear ‘C. S. Lewis.’ As a writer of children’s magical/adventure fiction, old Clive was, believe it or not, influenced by Carroll; and I am sure I could spin a yarn to connect his body of material to my other subject John Lennon’s, though thematically that discussion would take quite a different turn (something about the comparative popularity of Jesus). And I don’t know that their work is in any sort of direct dialogue, as I have no idea if the young Lennon would have encountered Lewis’s writing, or in what context. Certainly the genres for which Lewis became best-known were not the genres Aunt Mimi was keeping in the house.
Anyway, the Narnia books figured prominently in my and my sister’s childhood, Wardrobe in particular. Even in a household that didn’t place a premium on fantasy, the story spoke to us. You can’t not love Tumnus the faun and Mr and Mrs Beaver. The White Witch, too, in all her sinister allure. (I vividly remember her origin story as Queen Jadis, last ruler of Charn, and often return to the chapter of The Magician’s Nephew that describes it.) And the better I understood the allegory subsequently, the more power the narrative held for me. Edmund encounters the Witch before any of his siblings, forming a very different first picture of the country than, say, Lucy; and he doesn’t mean any harm to them by trying to please her, but inadvertently turns traitor before he can fully understand what he’s gotten himself into.
If I were plied with Turkish Delight by a beautiful, intimidating stranger, I too would lose my sense of moral direction. And if you think you wouldn’t…you, my friend, have never tasted Turkish Delight.
I always found Edmund to be an incredibly sympathetic character. He is not a cruel person, but cruel impulses (his older brother Peter calls them “beastly”) sometimes overtake him for reasons he can’t explain, and he lashes out for want of control. This is what leads him, after his first meeting with the Witch, to deny Lucy’s claim that Narnia exists just at the moment she thinks her success is sealed: since Edmund too has visited, surely Peter and Susan will now believe the two of them instead of just her. But Edmund turns on her in a particularly nasty manner; and for this reason it’s some time more—including a consultation with Professor Digory Kirke, the titular Magician’s Nephew and a Narnia traveler himself—before all four Pevensie children are willing, and thus able, to go into the wardrobe. Who among us hasn’t abused this sort of petty power, even for a moment, simply because we can?
Edmund’s are the actions upon which the plot of this volume revolves. His betrayal of his siblings and the lion Aslan to the Witch is not malicious like his behavior toward Lucy in “our world”: it is unconscious, thoughtless, distracted. And it is this betrayal which prompts Aslan to offer himself up to the Witch so that the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time can be appeased. This trade is unbeknownst to the children and Aslan’s army; they think he has simply freed Edmund from the Witch’s clutches and don’t muse on the possible bargain that might have taken place. Besides, even with apparently civil talks between the leaders of opposing factions, there is a war on, and an army needs to prepare itself for battle. Here is where the aptly-named Peter begins to take a more active role, or rather has one thrust upon him, as Aslan tells him he will lead the army without Aslan being present to guide him. Peter doesn’t grasp the full implication of this, just as everything Jesus says in his last twenty-four hours goes over his disciples’ heads; but he manages to meet the challenge, and Aslan’s expectations.
And here is where I consult the source material. In my heart of hearts, I’ve never much cared for Simon Peter. He’s hotheaded, violent, and argumentative, and he manages to make almost every exchange with Jesus about himself. These feelings throw into relief my affection for Judas Iscariot, because, for as often as Judas is called a coward, Peter shows none of the courage that Judas shows. I accept it essentially as canon by now that Judas, “induced by the devil” though he may be, acts in what he believes is Jesus’s best interest; that he dislikes the idea of being paid for handing Jesus over, even if he could put the money to good use; and that it never enters his mind that the handoff could result in Jesus’s execution. But the act is bigger than Judas knows. Just as God chose Mary for the vessel through which Jesus entered the world in human form, God had to have chosen Judas to set the Passion in motion. God saw in Judas something worthy to give him a hand in this series of events. And Judas accepts his fate, taking Jesus’s cue to leave the Last Supper, even if he can’t comprehend everything he is about to become responsible for. Peter, meanwhile, does nothing so momentous and risky as take it upon himself to betray Jesus, but engages in the passive, self-preservational act of denial. And he even denies the possibility that he will deny Jesus when Jesus forewarns him of it at supper. Any schmoe could do that; no special selection necessary. You’ll have a hard time convincing me of the infallibility of an institution whose first face was this guy. I, for one, would aspire to follow Judas’s imperfect example over Peter’s any day of the week, and twice on Thursday nights.
Edmund, being the representation of Judas in the Narnia story, is still then one of the most dynamic and interesting characters; that said, Peter gets a more redemptive, glamorous arc than his namesake, as he does eventually lead Aslan’s army to victory against the Witch’s forces (we all remember his battle cry in the movie). First, though, the Witch must have her kill, as prescribed by the Deep Magic. In keeping with the Gospels, only the women—or girls, Susan and Lucy—bear witness to Aslan’s sacrifice. He goes to the Stone Table at night, is shaved and humiliated by the Witch’s court, then is bound and made to lie down on the table as the Witch whets her knife. It’s a heartbreaking speech she addresses to him, about having given up his life and not spared Edmund’s. The binding of Aslan, so that he resembles “a mass of cords,” is excessive and sordid: he goes ‘like a lamb to the slaughter,’ as Jesus does, in meek submission, but his leonine strength is so fearsome to the Witch’s retinue that they subject him to the ultimate physical subjugations before allowing him to submit to his actual killing. It also recalls the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), whom Abraham is also preparing to slaughter with a knife before an angel stays his hand and applauds his faithfulness to the will of God. (Can you imagine? Your reward for trusting in God is that you get to not kill your son? After three days of psychologically steeling yourself and presumably lying to said son about what the two of you will be offering up on that mountaintop in the distance? As Abe said, man, you must be putting me on.) Symbolically, while Jesus is often called the New Adam, having destroyed original sin by his suffering and death, he is by the same token the New Isaac, because the Father did not stop himself from killing his son the way he stopped Abraham.
Aslan’s death invokes the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time—a case of Christian law overriding Mosaic law—which states that innocent blood shed in a traitor’s stead will reverse the course of death itself. In case you hadn’t guessed, the Stone Table equals the stone tablets of Mosaic law: when it cracks in two, Aslan returns resurrected, and the scales of the living and dead are righted. He appears to the girls, in accordance with the Easter narrative; leads them to the ensuing fight, in which the Witch is vanquished; and crowns the four Pevensies Kings and Queens of Narnia at the castle Cair Paravel. Thus commences Narnia’s Golden Age, in which some of the five subsequent books are set; the Pevensies appear occasionally, as do their adjacent counterparts Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, who become more prominent in the last three books.
Last fall Netflix announced plans for a new adaptation of the series, which I receive with mixed apprehension and hope. I’ve been known to confess how moved I am every year by the story of the Passion, and I admire how Wardrobe imagines and interprets that story even as it stands on its own as a successful fantasy tale. But just as Scripture contains countless characters and storylines, this is only the surface of the world of Narnia, beloved to generations of readers; and I want the creators who undertake this project to do so with extra care. I’m not surprised they want to undertake it. It’s a series that helps some readers discover what others turn to religion itself to discover. It makes both kinds of readers feel welcome. That’s a tale worth being told again and again.
Image: first edition