#progGOD: Incarnation and the problem with Aslan

In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, Aslan often refers to the Pevensie children — humans from England transported to a magical other world — as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.”

Aslan, a mighty and noble lion, is intended as the Christ figure of Lewis’ Christian allegories. Lewis makes this anviliciously obvious. Aslan sacrifices himself to save the sinner Edmund, and then rises again. Aslan’s faithful people — the talking beasts and magical creatures of Narnia — revere him as the Son of God.

But Aslan doesn’t really work as a Jesus figure. The Pevensies may be the children of Adam and Eve, but Aslan is not.

Narnia, in other words, is an allegory that lacks incarnation. And you can’t have a Christ figure without incarnation. That’s why the Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with those genealogies and with the Christmas narratives we recall this time of year. The Gospels cannot be good news unless God becomes a child of Adam — and a child of Abraham, and of David.

That is why the Gospel of John begins with his own more cosmic version of the Christmas story — “He was in the world … the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

Aslan is fleshy, but his flesh is not our flesh, and he does not dwell among us. He may sort of work as a Christ figure for the other talking lions of Narnia, but not for the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who visit that world. Nor for the humans of Archenland and Calormene (wherever they come from in that story), or for the dwarves of Narnia, or the fauns, dryads, beavers, mice, badgers, centaurs or other good folk of that world. (Lewis’ choice of a lion for Aslan also seems fraught with some Great Chain of Being baggage, which further undercuts the meaning of incarnation in his allegory.)

This is helpful, in a way. Lewis has inadvertently provided us with a kind of negative illustration of the importance of incarnation. By giving us an allegory centered on a pseudo-Jesus who is not a child of Adam, Lewis shows us how essentially important and pervasive the meaning of incarnation really is.

One place we see this in the Narnia stories is in the Stone Table sequence in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis attempts to illustrate his belief in a theory of penal substitutionary atonement, but winds up flailing a bit — deeper magic? — because all such theories of atonement only work if the person on the Stone Table or on the cross is one of us.

Or consider Aslan’s statement to the Pevensies in Prince Caspian:

“You come from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve”, said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth; be content.”

Here Lewis references the theology of creation and the fall, but the theology of redemption seems absent. It has to be, because redemption is bound up with incarnation.

Humans are good, Aslan says, because God created us as good. But that creation story is not the only story or the only way in which God affirms our goodness. We have other sources of “honour” that Aslan does not acknowledge.

God has shown that humans are worthy not just through creation, but through adoption, redemption and incarnation. God made us, God chose us, God redeems us, God became one of us.

This matters.

I need to re-read the Narnia series with this in mind, to further trace how Lewis’ non-incarnate Christ figure alters the theology of the allegory. I suspect much of this also traces back to C.S. Lewis’ fascination with Plato. When “the word became flesh” gets translated into “the ideal became shadows,” then things are bound to get a bit wobbly with regard to the meaning of incarnation.

And that’s a problem in the Narnia series. An allegory of Christ without an incarnation is like … well, it’s like a world in which it is always winter, but never Christmas.


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  • Makabit

    One of my college friends was raised Wiccan, read Lewis as a kid, loved Narnia, and didn’t pick up on the allegorical factors at all.

    Until she was about twenty. I had the dubious pleasure of being there when “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” ‘clicked’ on her.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I think I knew that, but the way Lewis says it reinforces the idea that Susan is doomed because of the nylons and lipstick unless she rejects the nylons and lipstick. These are stereotypical feminine things; she has to reject the feminine, like Lucy did, in order to be saved.

    And Queen Susan still held big parties at Cair Paravel at which she was dressed to impress, and she enjoyed it, and she did nothing wrong at any point in this process, and it is true but irrelevant that these were necessary diplomatic events, and Susan Pevensie still should not be condemned for going to parties in England while dressed to impress and enjoying every part of this.
    So I am going to pretend Lewis never said anything.

  • french engineer

     To be fair, at no point does Lewis ever write any part of his books from the PoV of Aslan, so it could be true and not shown. But I rather agree that excusing the author by saying he made storytelling mistakes is a weak argument.

  • french engineer

     I agrtee that the ending could just as well have been happy, but I don’t think it detracted from the rest of the story. It changes a little to not have everything line up perfectly in the end, I found it refreshing.

    As for the philosophical and theological mistakes, they did not shock me. I suppose this is the bias I was talking about in action.

  • The_L1985

     I liked both series a lot.  I didn’t think the ending of HDM was all that sad, but that’s because I saw the hope that Will and Lyra had, despite their sadness.

    (Spoiler alert)  It never says Will can’t travel to Lyra’s world anymore, just that he can’t do it with the knife, because using the knife to open portals will make Specters and destroy a lot of Dust.  The angels clearly and explicitly state that he will learn to do so, but that it will take years.  It doesn’t say how many years, either.

    The subtle knife was clearly meant to represent the Easy But Wrong Way that often seduces us away from doing the right thing.  It’s easier than the Right Way because it causes suffering, and the suffering is also what makes it Wrong.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m too Pagan for my own good–I’m enjoying Narnia and HDM over here. :P

  • The_L1985

    IIRC, that was added to the movie.

  • The_L1985

     I felt it was more a shallow version of “femininity” that was being represented.  In other words, a feeling that appearances were more important than actually being a good man or woman or whatever.

  • EllieMurasaki

    There’s a line somewhere–Prince Caspian?–in which somebody says Lucy’s as good as a man, or at least as good as a boy. I think Lewis is just straight up sexist.

  • Makabit

    I suppose I should try to read “His Dark Materials” again. I picked up the first book, expecting to be wowed, and found it…rather dull. And anyone who speaks that harshly against Lewis’s (admittedly racist as hell) racist portrayals of non-white peoples should be able to avoid the Jolly River Gypsies Taking In The Little Heroic White Settled Girl in his own work.

    Maybe I just didn’t get it. I don’t think I finished the book. Just bored me to tears.

  • Makabit

    The Horse and His Boy. I could argue that it’s said by Prince Corin, who is a bit of an idiot, or that he means her skills in battle rather than her actual worth, but there’s a lot of sexism in Lewis, no mistake.

  • Makabit

    I assume that Lewis’s highest goal for Susan is that she become a wife and mother. How is she supposed to achieve this goal without dressing up, and going to some parties, and meeting some boys?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Even if we assume it means her skills in battle, Corin’s assuming that boys are good at it and girls are not. Which he really should not assume. Is this before or after he nearly gets Shasta killed by talking Shasta into joining the battle with him?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Huh. I hadn’t gotten that impression at all. Lucy and Jill and Polly get treated more favorably than Susan, and none of them have the least interest in weddings or babies. Jill might not be old enough to think about such things when she dies–come to that, Lucy might not be either–but Lucy was older in Narnia and had suitors and never married or reproduced, and neither did Polly, who’s older than the others by far.

  • The_L1985

     He was writing in the 50’s.  Of course he was sexist.

  • EllieMurasaki



    This reminds me, you might enjoy the movie Ink. The Christian allegories are stunningly beautiful.

    YES. This. (Although, like the above posters, I’d say “parable” or “allusion,” not “allegory.”) Also, bring a box of tissues or several hankies. I waterfalled pretty much from the 3/4 mark onward.

    ROT13 for spoilers, but for those of y’all who have seen it: Qhevat gur ovg jurer Vax fryyf Yvri’f unve, vg uvg zr irel fgebatyl gung Yvri vf abg n Puevfg nyyhfvba, be abg jubyyl bar, ohg engure na Nfyna nyyhfvba.

  • When we read The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe back in school, I remember being told how it was a heavy christian allegory. It never seemed like an especially heavy-handed allegory to me. At the time I just assumed that I wasn’t sufficiently schooled in christian iconography to see it.

    But later, I questioned someone on it, and was met with surprise: How could I have missed it? Aslan *dies in place of Edmund* and then *comes back from the dead*.

    This just befuddled me. I mean, sure, yes,  that fits with Jesus, sure. But if that’s all it takes to be a “very obvious allegory for christianity”, then so are Star Trek 2 and Transformers The Movie.

  • Jesus incarnated as “the weakest of these”; Aslan incarnates as King of the Forest. It’s a big failing if you want an allegory.

    On the other hand, that’s not what Lewis was about, so dinging him for failing to make a good allegory is like dinging a roller derby skater for not making any touchdowns.

    On the third hand (mutant!), Lewis was about imagining a Christ figure in Narnia, and the answers he came up with absolutely betray certain inadequacies in how he imagined Christ. (I suppose the Being a Jerk to Reepicheep scene could be seen as the Narnian version of the parable where the woman has to beg and beg for a miracle, and Jesus is like, Why should I? and she keeps asking, and finally he says OK, because you have great faith. Jesus comes across as a bit of a jerk there, stringing her along so he can make an example of her persistence.)

  • Liralen

    Yep.  Ink is on Netflix

    Ironically, I got the tip for this movie at a gaming forum in a thread about movies that most resemble the game world (The Secret World) http://forums.thesecretworld.com/showthread.php?t=62131 .  No one mentioned (or seemed to care about) the Christian aspects of it.

    Also ironic is the fact that I never picked up on the Christian allegories in Narnia either, simply because I wasn’t raised Christian, whereas my fundamentalist-raised husband missed one of the best Christian allegories in Ink.  He did recognize it after I mentioned it, just as I did when a Christian friend claimed that C.S. Lewis was an author of Christian books.

  • JayemGriffin

    If you were a dense child, you were not uniquely so. I didn’t get the Aslan=Jesus thing for a long time, and I know several other people who didn’t either, but I read those books over and over and over again.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t think I got it till I’d read Voyage, myself. I think it’s Voyage. The one where Aslan appears as a Lamb, capital L and all, anyway.

  • Worthless Beast

    *Skims first few responses*   – I’m so glad I’m not alone.  I read what Fred said above and blinked.  I have gotten into stupid science fiction arguments about non-human characters / whether robots can have souls / whether a favorite character of mine is “anti-Christian” just because he’s a non-human genetic freak project (Turns out his creator was a Catholic so, upon finding that out I got to laugh at the atheists telling me I wasn’t *allowed* to like the work as a Christian)… anyway… 

    I have a broad definition of “us,” like many here.  I’ve heard televangelists screech that if aliens land, it disprooves God because “Jesus would have to have died as a starfish for them and his sacrifice is a once and for all thing.”  I’ve seen the same argument applied to “why humans will never create a concious AI” — and it’s just ARGH! If you’re a believer who happens to be a fantasy/sci-fi fan (and once found out, people try to throw you out of the fandom)!  My response is “Don’t tell me how to think!”  And I happen to have nothing wrong with a “human” soul being in ANY KIND OF BODY God would allow it to be in. 

    After all, Jesus incarnated as a Middle Eastern man, right?  Where does that leave me as a lilly-white, mostly Scandanavian descent American woman?  I’m pretty sure God’s incarnation had lots of different parts than what I have… does that mean I’m destined for Hell or oblivion because of this body or that my soul doesn’t matter?   I would think not.

    On that note, I don’t really see a problem with the Son of God incarnating as a Narnian for the sake of Narnians.  (It might be where he’s addressing Earthlings is where it gets a little wonky, then again, I remember him telling the children to “find him in another world”).  

  • Tricksterson

    That and because it couldn’t seem to make up it’s mind what philosophical point it wanted to make.  Is it atheistic?  Pantheistic?  Gnostic?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Jesus incarnated as a Middle Eastern man, right?

    LIES. Haven’t you seen the artwork? Jesus is a blond!

    (What do you mean there’s African and Asian and Hispanic depictions of Jesus? ALSO LIES.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    When did the Levant stop being Near East and start being Middle East, anyway? And if the Levant’s Middle East, what’s Near East? North Africa? Eastern Europe?

  • Tricksterson

    Doesn it matter since we’re going to slaughter them all anyway, except for the few we put to slave away in the iridium mines?

  • Madhabmatics

    everyone always talks about narnia, i wanna see some folks reactions to That Hideous Strength

  • Liralen

    Yeah.  We all love stories about self-sacrificial heroes, regardless of culture.

    My husband and I met while playing online games, so we use a lot of gaming references.  He once referred to my behavior as “paladin”, which took me aback.  I thought that aspect of my values stemmed from my (unknown to him at the time) Japanese mother’s attempt to instill Japanese values, like bushido, while raising us kids in the US.

  • EllieMurasaki

    My initial immediately-post-finishing-the-first-read reaction to the Space Trilogy, quoted in full: “Meh.”

    For some reason I’ve never gone back.

  • Liralen

    I’ve read the Perelandra/Out of the Silent Planet series, and it’s so-so.  I really liked how evil was portrayed in one of the books as that very petty, dull, plodding, corpse figure that followed the main character around, whose primary goal seemed to be to annoy and irritate.  Very intelligent evil should be like that to get under our guard, instead of trying to rouse us to action by by presenting a more overt, immediate threat.

  • arcseconds

     If we can’t convert them, we can’t pretend that not only are we slaughtering and enslaving them for their own good, but also because God wants us to!

  • Liralen

    There was also a scene in one of the books where someone was explaining that while both males and females share household chores equally in their community, they take turns and don’t mix genders. 

    The reason given was because females sometimes use phrases something like “please put this in the other one over there” while handing the woman a bowl and pointing in the general direction of a cupboard, which another woman has no problem understanding, but frustrates men which in turn frustrates the women giving instructions. 

    It made me laugh, because I recognized myself, and told my husband about it.  Now, if I say something like that, my husband will say “um, put this in the other one…” 

  • MaryKaye

    _Out of the Silent Planet_ has fun spots–it gave my household the very useful word _hnau_, too.  It gets preachy later on, though, as if he doesn’t know how to end it properly.

    I have liked _Perelandra_ every time I read it, especially the stuff about the banality of evil: the trail of dying frogs, and the voice that just keeps calling your name.  And it is visually beautiful.  I don’t know if I would like it as well now; I’ve become somewhat down on Lewis due to online discussions of his work.

    I was given _That Hideous Strength_ for Christmas when I was fairly young–probably around 11.  I couldn’t read through it.  I would pick it up and read a random chunk and put it back down.  It was, at the time, the only book I’d had that reaction to, and I was puzzled; also I was still at the point where I tried to like every genre book I could find.  So I kept reading parts of it, but not the whole thing, giving me a completely disjointed idea of the plot.  There were some strong images, but all of them nasty.  I didn’t like it.

    I finally did read it through, probably as an adult.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like how it thinks about women, or scientists, or atheists, or the Pendragon, or much of anything.  The severed head is kind of effective as horror, but that’s about it.

    There was going to be a fourth book; a chunk of it is preserved in a Lewis anthology.  There’s a sideways in time society ruled by sort-of male queen bees which sting their subjects and turn them into mind-controlled slaves, and Ransom finds himself inside the body of the queen-bee.  It’s…nasty, like Hideous Strength.  And from his notes Lewis himself got squicked by it and had to stop.

  • First response: I will admit I like it.

  • Makabit

    To quote my mother, “Jesus didn’t really look like an Italian art student.”

    Not to take anything away from the Renaissance artists, mind you.

  • Makabit

    Jesus incarnated as “the weakest of these”

    Well, an able-bodied man from a craftsman’s family. I’d say he was maybe medium-weak.

  •  I think the folks who lock in on this aspect of Fred’s argument have done some misinterpreting of what he was getting at. The point isn’t “One species of animal is not the same as another therefore Aslan incarnating as a lion is not The Incarnation for the beavers.”  It’s that if you’re going to say that Aslan is The Incarnation for Animals, you have to give up the bit about “Humans and only humans specifically are the Special Beings With Souls And Suchlike Who Were Made In The Image of God,” and Lewis *emphatically* doesn’t.  To have an Animal Incarnation, you need an Animal Adam and Eve, of whom Aslan is *also* a descendant. But you don’t — in fact, we specifically have the Pevensies being the sons and daughters of Adam, and by virtue of that being the Special Elect who by divine right should Rule.

  • Eldfluga

    The Pevensies aren’t from Narnia; Aslan is incarnated in the form of a Narnian, not a human. Lewis makes it clear in both The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle that his incarnation on Earth is different (and, of course, familiar to the Pevensies once they realize who he is in their world, not in Narnia.)

    You could possibly say that there’s still an issue in that Aslan, in his Narnian incarnation, “dies for Edmund,” but Aslan’s death is part of the process by which the White Witch is vanquished for all of Narnia, not just to save Edmund.

    Most crucially, though, as a Lion, Aslan is still a creature, the way humans are creatures. There is never any indication that the “Emperor Over Sea” is a Lion, or even anything corporeal at all, as he is never seen – if Lewis’s other works (I’m thinking specifically of Out of the Silent Planet here) shed any light on the situation, they remind us that Lewis didn’t think there was anything special about being human, but rather about being the kind of creation one was meant to be.

    Your point is interesting, but honestly I think it suffers from looking at the story too narrowly; it’s not about being a naked pink ape, it’s about being a created thing.

  • I always wanted to know the Nine Names of Aslan, especially as I knew there had to be some kind of allegory or comparison to the supposed multiple names for God in our world.

  • EllieMurasaki

    an Animal Adam and Eve

    Myllokunmingia? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertebrate#First_vertebrates Or are we including invertebrates?

  •  I did get a kick out of the part where the guy is trying to translate the villain’s big speech into the native language of the sinless martians, and the speech is all about manifest destiny and greater good and moral rights of pillage, and the best the protagonist can come up with is along the lines of “And therefore I want to kill all of you even though I am not mentally ill”

  • Loquat

    Wikipedia,predictably, has this speech in full, original lines side-by-side with translations.

    There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and we sometimes know how to stop it. […] And he says we can exchange many things among ourselves and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way. Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent [mentally ill] hnau if our people killed all your people.

  • Dorium’s Head

    The main reason that

  • Dorium’s Head

    The main reason that Aslan doesn’t work as an Incarnate Savior is that he was never born. He didn’t take on flesh at all, he just popped into existence, apparently. There is never mention of his mother, or his past, or even the notion of his having spent much time among the Narnian creatures at all.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    There’s a line somewhere–Prince Caspian?–in which somebody says Lucy’s as good as a man, or at least as good as a boy. I think Lewis is just straight up sexist.

    Hmm?  How old (physically) was Lucy at this point?  I seem to recall her being fairly young, in which case its a sensible comparison… (although perhaps an underestimation)

    When did the Levant stop being Near East and start being Middle East, anyway? And if the Levant’s Middle East, what’s Near East? North Africa? Eastern Europe?

    Traditionally, Arabia, Turkey/Levant were the Near East, with everything between Arabia and India being the ‘Middle East’.  The term ‘Near East’ stopped being commonly used with the fall of the Ottoman empire, and the ‘Middle East’ terminology sort of expanded to cover the entire area from around the ‘Stan’ region to the edge of Africa/Europe.

    The reason given was because females sometimes use phrases something like “please put this in the other one over there” while handing the woman a bowl and pointing in the general direction of a cupboard, which another woman has no problem understanding, but frustrates men which in turn frustrates the women giving instructions.

    It sounds like what Lewis(?) is thinking of is the scenario of a man who normally doesn’t help with chores deciding to help.  The women do it all the time, and have sort of developed a shorthand understanding of how things work, while the men… haven’t.

  • Demonhype

     Thank you, I thought maybe I was going mad!  I recall Aslan telling the Pevensies at one point that he (Aslan) exists in their world and that they must go back there and learn about him by that name–suggesting that he’s just an alternate dimensional version of the same being that was Jesus here.

    Wow.  I haven’t read those things in about twenty years, yet I remember so many little details like that!

  • How old (physically) was Lucy at this point?  I seem to recall her being
    fairly young, in which case its a sensible comparison… (although
    perhaps an underestimation)

    About 20. This is in Horse & His Boy, when the Pevensies are adults.

  • Theo Axner

     There was going to be a fourth book; a chunk of it is preserved in a
    Lewis anthology.  There’s a sideways in time society ruled by sort-of
    male queen bees which sting their subjects and turn them into
    mind-controlled slaves, and Ransom finds himself inside the body of the
    queen-bee.  It’s…nasty, like Hideous Strength.  And from his notes
    Lewis himself got squicked by it and had to stop.

    The Dark Tower was an abortive sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, the first space trilogy book. As you say Lewis abandoned it and then took the series in a wholly different direction with Perelandra.

    I agree that That Hideous Strength is  a very weird and creepy book, but I also think it has some great bits.

  • Rain

    Lewis denied Aslan was the Christ, just as Peter denied the Christ. Lewis will come around eventually when Lewis is incarnated as a rooster. Then he will crow three times: “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic”, in rooster talk.

  • Isabel C.

    And Thor, for that matter–actually a more direct one, in the “god in mortal form” way.

    The Sacrificial Messiah Figure, in one variant or another, is a pretty old and widespread concept. Christianity has some particular angles on it, but yeah, I didn’t get the Aslan=Jesus bit either until I was told.