Based on a Facebook status.
There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Jadis (the Witch) explains to Aslan and three of the Pevensies why, according to ancient, mysterious laws laid down by Aslan’s father, she’s entitled to murder their ten-year-old brother Edmund, as well as anyone in Narnia who commits an act of betrayal. ‘Tell us of this Deep Magic’, Aslan says.
‘Tell you?’ Jadis replies. ‘Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’
‘You were the Emperor’s hangman’ responds Mr Beaver, one of the talking animals, which goes entirely uncontradicted.
Twelve-year-old Susan, the older Pevensie girl who by later books is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ because she’s ‘interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations’, asks Aslan, quite reasonably and especially so under the circumstances, ‘Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ Here, from the book, is what happens next.
‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.
I haven’t seen much discussion of this scene in criticism of the Narnia books, but allegory aside, several things it shows about Aslan strike me as disturbing.
The Magician’s Nephew is a later-published prequel about Aslan’s creation of Narnia and Jadis’ corrupting influence after arriving there from her own world. In the whole novel, no mention is made of the Deep Magic or how it’s arranged for the Witch to be Narnia’s executioner. We’re never shown the Stone Table’s construction and there’s no reference to the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea – in the whole series, actually, we only have Aslan’s word that he exists – so presumably it’s been decreed before Jadis turns up that putting traitors to drawn-out violent death, ten year olds included, will be her job in Aslan’s Narnia.
There are seven Chronicles of Narnia. The scene above is the one time in any of them that this is discussed, and save for Mr Beaver’s comment it goes unremarked on. Jadis, by this point, has been in Narnia around a thousand years, presumably executing every traitor as the Magic stipulates. (‘All Narnia’, Aslan accepts, will otherwise ‘be overturned and perish in fire and water.’) When it comes out in negotiations that Aslan’s father established this system, designing it as essential for Narnia’s survival, only Beaver and Susan have anything to say about it. Aslan tells him to pipe down ‘with a very low growl’, intimidating Lucy and everyone else into silence, and perhaps this is why no one else speaks out to start with about the Witch being his and the Emperor’s agent.
The reveal does explain why in TMN, Aslan doesn’t banish Jadis to a different world, imprison her or simply kill her – as ultimately he does anyway – when she arrives in and threatens Narnia, trying to bludgeon him to death and take it for herself. Instead Aslan lets her flee, after which she consumes fruit that makes her ‘stronger than ever’ and gives her everlasting life. ‘The Witch . . . will come back to Narnia again’, he says, foreshadowing her seizure of power, and he does nothing to prevent this, only delaying it – giving Jadis centuries to subjugate and murder, ‘growing stronger in dark Magic’ – by planting a tree whose smell she finds abhorrent. (I’m not making this up.)
It’s the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea’s plan that the Witch brutally kill Narnia’s traitors, among them young children whom she enchants, deceives, manipulates and threatens into divulging secrets. It’s Aslan’s plan not to stop her from doing so: he sees to it that she lives forever and gains terrible powers, knowing she’ll subdue Narnia when the Tree of Protection dies, rather than treating her as anyone with sense would treat a psychopath who exterminated all life in her own universe. He and his father are as responsible as she is for her atrocities in the Narnia books, casting Deep Magic which requires mass murder of her and leaving her free to commit it knowing what will result.
Yes, in the end Aslan counteracts the Deep Magic, splitting the Stone Table in two and slaying the redundant Jadis – but he doesn’t do so immediately (say, the first time she planned to execute somebody else). He waits hundreds of years while she gathers strength and a further century during her winter reign, acting only after small children have been traumatised, thousands of people (soldiers and civilians) killed and a whole nation terrorised. Even then, what exactly was the point of the Deep Magic in the first place? If Aslan and the Emperor are really so wise, why put in a place a vicious system, upholding it at great cost only so as to overhaul it once irreparable damage has been done? Why not simply be more compassionate in the first place – and why bully a terrified twelve year old girl into silence when she questions this plan?
Going on Mr Beaver’s reaction and most characters’ apparent ignorance of Narnia’s laws, Aslan seems to have kept the fact from his followers that the Witch acts on his father’s behalf, doing the Emperor’s bidding. It’s as if like a corrupt politician, he’s conspired to allow atrocities, exploiting them for his own public image – certainly, waiting a hundred years for Aslan to return and depose Jadis only seems to have inspired Narnians to love him more, though in fact it was his choice in TMN not to prevent her coup. Perhaps there is dissent within the ranks, but fear has stifled it as it did Beaver’s and Susan’s.
The Lion is no better than the Witch – in a sense in fact, Aslan is worse than Jadis, using her infamy to paint himself as the epitome of good. Aslan isn’t good: he’s pious, illogical, a narcissist, a tyrant and a bully.
11 thoughts on “Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully”
I think that’s clear. Given that Aslan is basically Jesus, I wonder if Lewis saw it that way, or if he thought that the “The emperor (god) made the rules, who are you to question it” answer was valid
While I agree with your overall point, I think it’s a bit unfair to judge the events in LWW in the light of TMN. The Magician’s Nephew was written many years later and was not even conceived of when Lewis wrote the first book; it’s really an officially retconned origin story for the Narnia saga.
That said, the events in LWW are horrifying even when considered on their own merits.
I was introduced to the Narnia books as a tween, and TMN was the first one I read (and loved). It wasn’t until much later that I finally read LWW, and I thought it was awful — almost as bad as The Last Battle (Lewis’ take on the Christian End Times – blecch).
My objection to LWW was (and is) that it was a much too transparent allegory for the Christian passion story, but other than a vague uneasiness with the unfairness of it all, I missed the more brutal side that you point out here.
I still love several of the Narnia books, like The Horse and His Boy and Voyage Of the Dawn Treader, which focus more on what it means to be a good person and less on hammering home the Gospel message.
The Witch seemed, like Satan, to be Lewis stab at taking on “The Problem of Evil” — how a supposedly loving god permits so much suffering in the world.
It fails, of course, but mainly for the same reason that all such attempts fail. It seemed to me that Lewis was just re-covering territory that had been thoroughly mapped by other theologians. See Milton:
“So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.”
It’s been years since I read The Chronicles of Narnia (all seven books, in numerical order), and I’ve had little desire to reread the series just because there were so many details and elements that were disconcerting.
I always wondered about that. Even Christians should be able to see the naked appeal to ineffability, and even Lewis, the Kenny G of religious philosophy, should have been able to come up with something better. In fact, I wonder why he even had a character address the question.
It’s this christian idea of “god has a plan”. All the evil in the world, the suffering, the cruelty, it will all be good because god has a plan. People are treated as permanent children (how apt that in Narnia they are actual children) who get a vaccine jab: This is good for you, this is necessary, you don’t understand yet but you will later.
The idea I always got was that this Deep Magic was something used to *stop* the Witch taking over the world directly, or destroying it.
Part of that Deep Magic was that if Aslan let *himself* get killed by her, he would be able to break the spell but also destroy the Witch. The reason it took so long was because the situation had to be just right. But even then this ends up as a kind of silly bait-and-switch trick for a God-Emperor and his feline demiurge.
A bit like this whole Jesusdiedonthecrossforyoursins business. Oh. Right.
What bothered me about the Narnia series, a little even at the beginning, but more and more each time I reread them, was that it was steeped in a prissy, oversimplified morality that only makes sense if you were a member of the pre-WWII privileged classes. Some of the imagery still resonates for me, but whenever I read it, I keep saying, “oh, come on now!” For instance, I could never buy the business of Aslan having to be killed — it just didn’t make sense even in story-logic.
It’s the same feeling I get with people who are explicitly Christian (what I call “capital-C Christians.”) We can communicate and maybe agree on things until things bump into their Christianity, and then the deus ex machina starts talking.
The real problem with Narnia is that Lewis cheats. Aslan must be killed? Oh there’s an even more secret rule that he gets resurrected. Edmund is a traitor? But he’s a child obeying authority, so he’s supposed to be able to recognise the myth he’s in without any basis. Susan doesn’t believe anymore so she gets left out of heaven. (No reason to believe this only authorial fiat). The Pevensie kids believe because they get miracles, but then everyone else doesn’t but should believe anyway. It’s your fault if you’re skeptical, cf the dwarfs in The Last Battle.
I will say that having been raised without the scourge of Christianity (or any religion), I had no idea that the books had any kind of Christian allegory to them, because I didn’t know the things being alluded to. No way would I have recognized, as a 12-year-old, that LWW was a rewriting of the Christian saviour story, because I didn’t know that story.
If you don’t know the allegorical stuff, the books are reasonably competent early epic fantasy, with a sort of Agatha Christie/cozy mystery-type feel to them.
Of course, the racism is…guh. THAT my twelve-year-old self noticed.
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