The religious symbolism behind the Chronicles of Narnia

Aslan Aslan is a literary Christ figure who plays a pivotal role in the story of Narnia, Professor McGrath says

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What's the best children's book of all time? A 2008 survey found most people believed it was C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This opening novel of the Chronicles of Narnia series is widely regarded as its highlight.

Lewis himself would have been surprised at his immense popularity today. Although he had been hugely popular in his lifetime, he was gloomy about his future prospects.

Towards the end of his life, he told friends he expected to be forgotten within a few years of his death. Yet Lewis's books - including the Chronicles of Narnia - sell more strongly today than at any point during his lifetime.

So how did a bachelor Oxford don without any children of his own come to write this classic work? What do people find so intriguing about the Chronicles of Narnia? And why does it retain such an appeal, 50 years after its author's death in November 1963?

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis
  • Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898
  • He was known to his family as 'Jack' as that was the name he chose for himself at the age of three - ignoring anyone who called him Clive
  • He gained three first-class degrees from Oxford
  • He was good friends with author J.R.R. Tolkien
  • In 2008 a survey found most people believed his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, from The Chronicles of Narnia, was the best children's book of all time

As a child, Lewis loved stories, but had little interest in Christianity. He later came to wonder how stories might have helped him to embrace a faith that he neither understood nor appreciated. What if stories could have opened up the wonder and joy of a faith that he had to wait two decades to discover?

Greatest literary creation

Lewis may well have written the books that he would have liked to read as a boy—both as something that excited his imagination and that helped him to offer what he later called an "imaginative welcome" to the Christian faith.

"I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood," he said.

Religious symbolism thus plays a major role in the Chronicles of Narnia.

One of the best examples of this symbolism is Aslan, the noble lion of Narnia. Just about everyone agrees that he's the stand-out character of the Chronicles of Narnia and probably Lewis's greatest literary creation.

Lewis seems to have begun to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without any clear idea of how its plot and characters would develop. Then Aslan came "bounding in" to Lewis's imagination, and the narrative took shape.

Aslan is a literary Christ figure who plays a pivotal role in the story of Narnia, just as Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith.

Lewis explained in a letter to Arthur Greeves in October 1931, that he set out his story of Aslan as a retelling of the "actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection."

Michael Aldridge as Professor Digory Kirke Professor Digory wakes the evil Queen Jadis in The Magician's Nephew

Lewis does not tell us what Jesus Christ is like; he shows us what Aslan is like, and allows us to take things from there by ourselves.

"Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia, and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen," he told a fifth grade class in Maryland in a letter in 1954.

For Lewis, one of Aslan's chief roles is to enable people to discover the truth about themselves.

Unleash evil

Aslan is such a commanding figure that he helps people who might otherwise remain locked in self-deception break free from this prison. He makes it possible for people to confront the awkward truth about themselves.

In The Magician's Nephew, things take a turn for the worse when someone wakes nasty Queen Jadis up from her enchanted sleep. But who would do such a stupid thing? Who would be mad enough to unleash her evil?

When questioned by Aslan, Digory admits that he was one who rang the bell. He offers some half-hearted defence of his action. But as Aslan stares at him, he breaks down and admits his failure.

Digory abandons his pathetic attempts at self-justification, and takes responsibility for his actions. The gaze of Aslan compels him to tell the truth, both to Aslan and to himself.

It is as if Aslan offers a mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are. Or a light which reveals what we are really like, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.

Lewis is trying to help us realize that the quest for virtue involves both breaking the power of sin and embracing the power of good. Both, for Lewis, require the grace of God.

Dawn Treader The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the third book in the series and was first published in 1952

This is clearly seen in the "undragoning" of Eustace Scrubb in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, widely agreed to be one of the most dramatic examples of religious symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Layer of scales

Eustace is portrayed as a thoroughly selfish child, who changes into a dragon as a result of his "greedy, dragonish thoughts."

Eustace frantically tries to scratch off his dragon's skin. Yet each layer he removes merely reveals yet another layer of scales underneath it. He realizes that he is trapped within a dragon's skin because he has become a dragon.

Then Aslan appears, and tears away at Eustace's dragon flesh with his claws. The lion's claws cut so deeply that Eustace is in real pain - "worse than anything I've ever felt."

When the scales are finally removed, Aslan plunges the raw and bleeding Eustace into a well from which he emerges purified and renewed.

The symbolism of Eustace's immersion in the water of the well reflects the New Testament's language about baptism as dying to self and rising to Christ.

Lewis's religious symbolism explores how we can be trapped by forces over which we have no control.

The dragon is a symbol of the power of sin to entrap, captivate, and imprison people. It can only be broken and mastered by the redeemer, Aslan, who heals and renews Eustace, restoring him to what he was intended to be.

Dragon Eustace Scrubb changes into a dragon as a result of his "greedy, dragonish thoughts"

As might be expected, the storyline and religious symbolism of the Chronicles of Narnia divide its readers.

Some see Narnia as childish nonsense. To others, it is utterly transformative.

For those, this evocative story, rich in symbolism, affirms that it is possible for the weak and foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe, and that this may be found, embraced and adored.

Whether Lewis is right or wrong, he has bequeathed us a children's story that opens up some of the deepest questions of life using powerful imagery. Its future seems assured.

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