By Gary D. Robinson
One night, in a large house in Northern Ireland, a young boy lay awake. He was crying with headache and toothache, anxious for his mother to come and comfort him.
She never came. His formerly happy home had become strange, sinister; a place “of voices and comings and goings all over the house and doors shutting and opening.” His mother, whom he adored, was dying of cancer.
Her death had a profound effect on young Clive Staples Lewis. In his “spiritual autobiography,” Surprised By Joy (Collins, 2012), he writes of the effects of the loss. For one, his father’s volatile grief distanced him from his two sons. For another, Lewis’s prayers—first for his mother’s healing, then her resurrection—proved to be of no value.
As Lewis puts it, at this time in his life he regarded God as a kind of magician: “And when he had done what was required of him I supposed he would simply—well, go away. It never crossed my mind that the tremendous contact which I solicited should have any consequences beyond restoring the status quo.”
Throughout his youth and young manhood, C.S. Lewis would wrestle with this “magician,” discovering that, though one might push him off the stage, he simply refused to stay away. At age 33, therefore, Lewis embraced Jesus Christ. He went on to become the premier Christian apologist of the 20th century.
Though he came to terms with the loss of his mother, Lewis never forgot it. Years later, he would write a children’s tale in which a young boy has a chance to heal his dying mother. That book, The Magician’s Nephew (1955), one of the seven stories of Narnia, reveals a child’s tender heart and an adult’s mature faith in the face of death.
Death and resurrection. Lewis would visit these themes again and again in these chronicles. Ostensibly for children, the Narnia tales have bolstered the Christian faith of young and old alike, especially those walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Death of a Lion
In the first of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis shows us the death of the great lion, Aslan. Bound on the Stone Table, surrounded by the White Witch’s minions, the lion hears her cruel whisper: “And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead, what will prevent me from killing him as well? . . . In that knowledge, despair and die.”
Having missed these marvelous tales as a child, by God’s grace I discovered them as a graduate student. I remember my first time reading the humiliation of Aslan, shorn of his golden mane, tied and tied again until he seemed a mass of cords. I paused a moment to wipe away tears. “Where have I read this before?” I murmured.
The motif of the sacrificial victim, the rescuer who dies to save, runs like a scarlet thread throughout history and literature. Pop culture is packed with such characters. We’ve seen Babette of Babette’s Feast, John Coffey of The Green Mile, Frodo, even Robocop, to name just a few.
Often the Christ-connections are obscure, but to anyone with basic Bible knowledge, the identity of Aslan rings out clear as a bell. He is the ruler of creation, the savior of prophecy, and the suffering servant. He dies a pitiful victim in a sinner’s stead, only to rise again in power:
“They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.”
As the risen Jesus assured his disciples, Aslan assures Lucy and Susan that he is not a ghost. He goes on to explain that, before time began, a “deeper magic” had been put into effect, namely, that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, death itself would start working backwards.
In a few pages of clear, imaginative prose, Lewis preaches the gospel to young and old. He leads us to the pond in which a child can splash, the pool into which an adult can sink.
His Final Triumph
Granted, the analogy is imperfect. Jesus died for the sins of the world (see Matthew 20:28; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 15:3), not just one person. Yet, by the last of the chronicles, Aslan has become interchangeable with Christ. For example, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), just before the children return from Narnia to our world, they’re told, “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.”
Thus, by the time we reach The Last Battle (1956), the final book in the series, we’re not surprised; we’re thrilled to find Aslan revealing his true identity: “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning. And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion.”
The Last Battle sounds the most triumphant eschatological notes of the series, as Lewis melds the lion of Narnia with the Lion of Judah, the children’s hope with ours. “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had been only the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
That last paragraph has thrilled many with the hope of Heaven as nothing they’d ever heard or read. It brings the Narnian story—indeed, the Human story—to its great culmination.
Death and Obedience
Yet, I find Lewis’s earlier book, The Magician’s Nephew, a bit more interesting. Perhaps that’s because, in it, Lewis revisits the great loss of his childhood.
The story is a prequel to the Narnia tales. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, a boy named Digory discovers a magical means of transporting himself to another world. Here, he and his companion, Polly, find an evil queen and, eventually, witness the creation of a new world—Narnia—by the lion Aslan.
Like the serpent in the garden, the evil queen Jadis threatens to corrupt Narnia. But, far to the west, stands a tree upon which grows fruit by which Aslan will protect this realm. He asks Digory to go pick an apple from the tree and bring it back.
Digory’s first thought is to bargain with Aslan for his dying mother’s life: “I’ll help you if you’ll help my mother!” But he realizes that Aslan is not the sort of person one can bargain with. He is no magician. Aslan is moved by Digory’s plight, but, at that moment, gives him no hope of mercy. He simply empowers him for the task, which Digory accepts.
Note the maturity of faith taught here. Though the sky is dark, the future uncertain, Digory obeys. The God of Narnia is no fetish, no talisman against harm, any more than the Lord Jesus. As Skye Jethani has said, “God doesn’t exist to be useful.” One may ask him to be healed, spared, rescued from all sorts of things—but Christ is he who is, and we must accept and trust him as he is. We must believe that his will is best.
At the western tree, Digory finds both the apple and temptation. Jadis has already arrived and taken a bite. She tempts him to take the fruit and heal his mother; no one need ever know. When he remains faithful to Aslan, she taunts him: “Think of me, Boy, when you lie old and weak and dying, and remember how you threw away the chance of endless youth!”
Aslan later explains to Digory that, for those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way, they loathe it ever after. Having yielded to the will of the lion, Digory now realizes there might be things more terrible than losing someone you love to death. His understanding is joyfully rewarded.
Death awaits us all. But, praise God, his Son tasted that bitter fruit with and for us. He who prayed, “Not my will but yours be done,” suffered death on the cross. But he came out of the tomb alive. On account of that obedience, he now wears the crown of Firstborn from the Dead. Through obedient faith in him, though we die, yet shall we live! This is the teaching of Scripture, a teaching C.S. Lewis joyfully believed and effectively impressed onto so many minds through The Chronicles of Narnia.
Truly, the Lion has triumphed over the Shadow-Lands!
Gary Robinson is a minister and freelance writer in Xenia, Ohio.
Wisdom from C.S. Lewis
Lewis spoke and wrote on a variety of topics that are relevant to the modern world, and you can find a sampling of his work and life on YouTube, of all places.
• “Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, read by John Cleese” The last letter from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his young apprentice, Wormwood.
• “Spirits In Bondage—Death In Battle” by C.S. Lewis
• “Lewis’s Anger with God over Joy’s Death” Kevin Radaker as C. S. Lewis