#progGOD: Incarnation and the problem with Aslan

#progGOD: Incarnation and the problem with Aslan December 6, 2012

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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  • I’ve read *The Dark Tower* and it is spooky, and worth pursuing for the persistent Lewis-iphile. Personally I wish someone would finish the story, my suggestion is Stephen King, who almost enjoys the squicky parts and has a *Dark Tower* of his own. 

  • Lliira

    Yes. Aslan is Utterly Perfect in Every Way. That is the rot at the heart of the Narnia books — rot not only in a Christian sense, but, more importantly, in a story sense. It makes the entire work something twisted and ugly.

  • Scottj82

     ^^^ This.  The whole story of Narnia is different from the story of “our world,” so to speak, and thus bringing in all these problems is nitpicking at the wrong stuff.  Not only was there no Fall in Narnia, but the only humans ever to come there came from our world.  Thus, Diggory is right; Narnia isn’t an allegory, strictly speaking.  Aslan is Jesus, but he’s not an allegory for Jesus as he exists in our world.  In a proper allegory, like say Pilgrim’s Progress, every character represents something real in the real world.  What Lewis did is often mistaken for allegory, but it isn’t.

  • Joshua

     And I forgot to mention: How is it problematic that Lewis makes Aslan a lion?  For goodness sake, the Bible refers to Jesus as the Lion of Judah!  And of course at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan appears as a lamb, too.

  • Andrew

    Yes. One way to understand what Lewis was up to is this: Narnia isn’t allegory, or Biblical fanfict – it’s real person fiction http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_person_fiction

  • Jenny Islander

    There’s a bit in the planetary trilogy in which  Ransom has a vision of the whole universe.  Wherever he looks, whatever or whoever he perceives–from himself to a speck of dust in outer space–says, “I am the center,” and they’re all right.

  • Kaleberg

    I was going to say something along these lines, but Sagrav has said it better than I. If you read the Chronicles, you’ll see that Lewis has created his magical beasts as creatures with souls and religious concerns. Given my non-Christian background, this was one of the weak points of the books. Christianity has always seemed a much more mystical religion than Judaism or Islam. Still, within the framework of the books, Aslan was a Jesus figure or a Green Man or Horus or whoever. If I remember correctly, he didn’t just save Edmund, but all of Narnia, if only indirectly.

  • Money quote being the last paragraph. It’s really hard to be precise in our theology, especially when we’re wobbly with our concepts or the words which we use to express them. I can go along with the idea that Lewis was writing Christian parables; he did not write Christian allegory.

  • The_L1985

    To be fair, Corin’s prone to making very bad judgement calls to begin with. Arguably, a lot of that is childhood lack of experience, but you really shouldn’t have to have that many lessons literally beaten into you. (Thinking back to Tashbaan.)

  • The_L1985

    I got it re-re-re-reading the books as a teenager, but certainly not initially. Kids aren’t very good at picking up on symbolism unless its very carefully explained to them how something is symbolic.

  • The_L1985

    Merlin was nice. The bear scenes were a bit odd, but well-written. The scenes with Mark in the NICE were rather tiresome.

  • The_L1985

    “We’ll just go now, and let you men talk about nouns.”

    “Not about nouns, with the use of nouns…”

  • The_L1985

    Or the women in question are just like my mother, who has a frustrating tendency to forget what every damn thing is called. She’s a monoglot, too, so this isn’t a case of “I only remember what it’s called in my native language.”

    Everything is either a “thing” or it’s “stuff.” With vague accompanying gestures, and occasionally colors of the thing that don’t match with the colors I’m seeing.

  • The_L1985

    I’m rather tempted, myself. TO THE INTERNET!!

  • Consumer Unit 5012


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

    That’s not an art student. That’s Cardinal Cesare Borgia, as commissioned by his dad Pope Alexander VI.

  • The point is, Jesus wouldn’t have looked pale-skinned with light brown hair in a Mediterranean climate. His hair would possibly have bleached from solar exposure and he’d be deeply tanned.

  • ShelW

    Firstly, I think some here may be over-thinking this a little too much! This was, after all, a series written for kids. 

    Secondly, whenever you are writing in this way (using imagery to infuse basic theological principals into a story) it is virtually impossible to be able to include every aspect of a subject (example, the subject of Christ), simply because these subjects are so vast. There is a lot to them, and to include it all would be to make your work of fiction too complicated and you lose the entertainment value of your story. I’ve struck this problem in some writing I’ve been working on.I think that the theological aspects of Christ that Lewis includes in the Narnia series are there as specific pictures of specific attributes of Christ, not trying to completely take everything that is Christ and put it into a fictional character. That would just be too big! It is simply a parable.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Aw, hell, where’s that article I was reading the other day. Women’s studies class. A bunch of the students weren’t really feeling it. Everybody was the age to have seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a kid, and one day the professor had them all watch it. After, the professor handed out worksheets they’d already seen, hallmarks of a domestic abuser, and the movie met a whole bunch of the criteria.

    At some point in the discussion, somebody said something like “Nobody’s taking this as a model for real relationships. It’s a kids’ movie.”
    Professor pointed at them and said, “EXACTLY.”

  • it is virtually impossible to be able to include every aspect of a
    subject [..] simply because these subjects
    are so vast

    Yes, that’s true. But as a writer, I don’t pull aspects to include and exclude at random. I bet you don’t, either.

    If I  choose to devote my limited narrative time to one aspect of the subject rather than another, my readers are entitled to conclude that I consider the aspects I included more important than the aspects I excluded, and to draw conclusions from that.

    I think some here may be over-thinking this a little too much! This was, after all, a series written for kids.

    Can you expand on what you’re trying to say, here?

    For my part, I endorse thinking carefully about what we expose our kids to.