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Probe Ministries > Culture and Society > Culture > The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Reflections on Its Meaning


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Reflections on Its Meaning Print E-mail

Written by Michael Gleghorn

A Very Brief Overview

With the recent release of the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the public fascination with all things "Narnian" has once again been raised. But what are we to make of this wonderful story? What deeper truths might it contain?

In order to answer these questions, we must begin with a very brief overview of the story. Four children—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—are evacuated from London to the house of an old professor during World War II. Once there, they soon discover a magic wardrobe that leads to another world! First Lucy, then Lucy and Edmund, and then all four of the children find their way into the enchanted land of Narnia. The country is ruled by the White Witch, who has placed it under a spell so that it's always winter but never Christmas.

Once in Narnia the children learn of Aslan, the great lion and true king of the country. After a long absence, he's now returned. He will deal with the Witch, they're told, and put everything right again. They also learn of an ancient prophecy, that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit enthroned at the castle of Cair Paravel, then the Witch's reign (as well as her life) will be over. It's believed that the time for this must be near, since Aslan and the four children are now in Narnia.

But Edmund threatens to ruin everything. Unbeknownst to the others, on a previous visit to Narnia he'd met the Witch, eaten her food, and come under her power. Although he really knows that the Witch is bad, he nonetheless betrays his siblings, hoping the Witch will one day make him king. Knowing about the prophecy, however, she eventually decides to kill Edmund. But before she can do so, he's rescued by forces loyal to Aslan!

Not to be outdone, the Witch then appears before Aslan, demanding the traitor's life. Aslan acknowledges the validity of the Witch's claim on a now repentant Edmund, but gets her to renounce it by offering to die in his place. The Witch agrees, and that night she slays Aslan on the Stone Table. She believes her rule in Narnia is now assured. But with the rising of the sun, Aslan rises from the dead! He leads his army to victory against the Witch and her forces. After personally dispatching the Witch, he installs the four children as kings and queens of Narnia, thus fulfilling the ancient prophecy.

This, in a nutshell, is the story. But did the author, C. S. Lewis, intend some deeper meaning? And if so, what is it?

The Search for a Deeper Meaning

It seems that Lewis had at least three objectives in writing his famous Chronicles. First, he simply wanted to tell a good story. And almost everyone who's read the Chronicles will agree that he succeeded admirably here, for they're among the best-loved books of all time. Second, Lewis also aimed at using his stories to communicate moral truth, both by precept and example. In this regard, Paul Ford observes that Lewis is something of a Christian Aesop. Like Aesop, he's more than just a storyteller; he's "also a moral educator."{1} As Gilbert Meilaender notes:

Lewis . . . believes that moral principles are learned indirectly from others around us, who serve as exemplars. . . . . the Chronicles of Narnia . . . are not just good stories . . . they serve to enhance moral education, to build character. . . . To overlook the function of the Chronicles of Narnia in communicating images of proper emotional responses is to miss their connection to Lewis's moral thought.{2}

Finally, Lewis also purposed to communicate important truths of the Christian faith by translating them into the imaginary landscape of Narnia. But here we must be careful. Lewis insisted that the Chronicles should not be read as Christian allegories. Paul Ford observes that in an allegory there are "one-to-one correspondences between philosophical or religious concepts and the characters or events or objects in a story."{3} The Chronicles, said Lewis, are not allegories. They're rather what he called "supposals." He explained the difference in a letter, with special reference to the great lion Aslan:

[Aslan] is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not an allegory at all. . . . The incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal.{4}

So while the Chronicles should not be read as allegories, it's still quite true that they're informed throughout by Lewis's Christian faith and imagination. They are Christian "supposals"—and Aslan is supposed to be what Christ might look like if He became incarnate in a land like Narnia.

Having discussed Lewis's purposes in writing the Chronicles, and having seen that they do indeed contain a deeper meaning, we're now ready to look more closely at the most famous of these: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Temptation and Sin

Two of the major themes developed by Lewis are temptation and sin. By carefully weaving these into his story, Lewis is able to address issues of importance both for basic morality and for the Christian faith.

When Edmund first stumbles into Narnia through the wardrobe, he finds himself alone in a snow-covered wood. Cold, and not much liking the look of the place, he almost decides to go home when he hears the sound of bells in the distance. Shortly thereafter a sleigh comes into view, and in it sits the White Witch.

The Witch stops the sleigh and questions Edmund. She knows of the ancient prophecy that, when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit enthroned at Cair Paravel, then her reign (and life) will be over. When she learns that Edmund is human, she raises her wand as if she intends to turn him into stone. But she changes her mind and with feigned friendliness invites Edmund to sit in her sleigh. She asks if he would like something to eat and Edmund requests Turkish Delight (which she magically produces).

As he devours the sweets, the Witch continues to question him. She learns that he has a brother and two sisters. Together, the siblings could fulfill the prophecy that would spell her doom! But the Turkish Delight is enchanted; whoever tastes it will want more and more. Knowing this, the Witch tempts Edmund. She says that if he will bring his siblings to her house, then she will give him more Turkish Delight—something Edmund desperately wants. She also says that she would like to make Edmund a prince. And later, when she's gone, he will even be king! So the Witch tempts him by appealing to his desire for power and pleasure.

And it works! Before Edmund returns home, "he [is] already more than half on the side of the Witch."{5} Later, when all four siblings get into Narnia together, Edmund slips away from the others and goes to betray them to the Witch. His desire for Turkish Delight and to be king leads him to yield to temptation—and sin. It reminds one of what James says in the New Testament: "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (1:14-15).

Though we might not like to admit it, there's something of Edmund in all of us. Like Edmund, we've all sinned (Rom. 3:23). And unless Someone intervenes who can change both us and our circumstances, then like Edmund we're also doomed to die (Rom. 6:23; Rev. 20:14-15).

Sacrifice and Redemption

Lewis claimed that the idea for his story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood." "At first," he wrote, "I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. . . . [and] He pulled the whole story together."{6} It's a good thing He did. For without Aslan the traitorous Edmund would have met a very different fate than that which actually befell him.

You see, Aslan's Father, the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, put some Deep Magic into Narnia at its beginning. The Witch, who accuses Edmund before Aslan, is quite knowledgeable about this Deep Magic. "Every traitor," she insists, "belongs to me as my lawful prey. . . . Unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will . . . perish in fire and water."{7} Aslan agrees that her claim is valid.

Although it looks like Edmund is as good as dead, Aslan, in a private conversation with the Witch, gets her to renounce her claim on Edmund's blood. It's only later that we learn why. The great lion made the Witch an offer she couldn't refuse. He offered to die in Edmund's place. True to His word, He arrives that night at the Stone Table and there He is slain by the Witch.

But that's not the end of the story. Early the next morning, as the sun peers over the horizon, the Stone Table cracks in two and Aslan is raised from the dead. He's conquered death through an even Deeper Magic, unknown to the Witch. As Aslan explains, "Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked . . . into . . . the darkness before Time dawned . . . She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."{8}

It's a beautiful picture of substitutionary atonement. Aslan willingly lays down His life for the traitorous Edmund, thereby redeeming him from the just demands of the Law. It reminds one of what Christ did for us. Paul told the Galatians, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'" (Gal. 3:13). Just as Aslan gave up His life for Edmund, so Christ gave up His life for each of us, dying as a substitute in our place so that we might forever share in the life of God!

Reflections on the Movie

As many fans of Lewis's classic story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have already observed, the movie is really quite good and well worth seeing. It is a generally faithful rendition of Lewis's beautiful and imaginative original. Indeed the film is really at its best when it adheres most closely to the book. It was reported that at one time another group of filmmakers was planning to produce a very different version of the story. Supposedly their plan was to set Lewis's wonderful children's classic "in present-day Brentwood. Instead of a White Witch wooing young Edmund with Turkish Delight, a cool Californian would win him with cheeseburgers."{9} If this is really true, we can all rejoice that such an absurd retelling of Lewis's famous story never saw the light of day. All those involved with bringing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the big screen are to be commended for adhering so closely to Lewis's original vision.

But of course no movie is perfect, and The Lion is no exception. Possibly two of the biggest disappointments for fans of the book are the diminished role given to some of Lewis's most important dialogue and the diminished importance of the great lion himself. For example, compared to his counterpart in the book, wise old professor Kirke has precious little to say in the movie.

Even more troubling, the extended conversation which the four children have with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan lacks many of the Beavers' most important declarations. Unlike the book, the movie never refers to Aslan as "the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea." And Mr. Beaver is also denied his famous response to Lucy's question about whether Aslan is actually safe. "Safe?" he asks, "Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."{10} Not only was such important dialogue cut, but as Jeffrey Overstreet noted, Aslan's appearances are "painfully brief." He doesn't "have the time onscreen to earn our affection and awe the way we might have hoped."{11}

In spite of such shortcomings, however, the movie still possesses much of the book's magic. What's more, it retains the crucially important themes of temptation and sin, sacrifice and redemption. Aslan still dies as a substitute for the traitorous Edmund, thereby redeeming him from the just demands of the Law. Finally, as Overstreet observed, "Those who respond to the movie's roar by running to Lewis's book will find Deeper Magic in its pages. Meeting them there, Lewis himself will lead them ‘further up, further in'."{12} If the movie leads a new generation of readers to tackle this classic story, then it will indeed have served as a fitting tribute to its author.

Notes

  1. Paul F. Ford, "Introduction," in Companion to Narnia (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), xxviii.
  2. Gilbert Meilaender, The Taste for the Other (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 212-13, cited in Ford, Companion to Narnia, xxxi.
  3. Ford, Companion to Narnia, xxv.
  4. C. S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W.H. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 283, cited in Ford, Companion to Narnia, xxv-xxvi.
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970), 39.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1966), 42.
  7. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 139.
  8. Ibid., 159-60.
  9. Andrew Coffin, "The Chronicles of Making Narnia," World, December 10, 2005, 21.
  10. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 75-76.
  11. Jeffrey Overstreet, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," www.christianitytoday.com/movies/reviews/lionwitchwardrobe.html, posted December 8, 2005.
  12. Ibid.

© 2006 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Michael GleghornMichael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University and a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children. His personal website is michaelgleghorn.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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