Grace and Law in the Chronicles of Narnia
One of the consequences of learning about grace is that you become sensitive to anything that smacks of legalism. This can lead to some nasty surprises. One moment you’re enjoying a sermon/MP3/book and the next you’re jolted because the speaker or writer has just smacked you over the head with the stone tablets of law. This happened to me late last night as I was reading The Horse and His Boy.
Now lest you get the wrong impression, let me preface everything by saying I am a huge fan of CS Lewis. As far as I’m concerned The Chronicles of Narnia are the best children’s books ever written. The older I get the more I enjoy them. And I am well aware that they were not written as some sort of Christian analogy. Any fan can tell you how Lewis started writing and Aslan the Lion just showed up and took over. (If you want to know the back story, The Narnian by Alan Jacobs is the one of the best biographies of Lewis.)
That said, it is fair to treat the Narnia Chronicles as suppositions. Lewis certainly did when he said: “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.” In our world, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. But what about Narnia? What does Aslan model of the grace and goodness of the “Emperor-over-the-Sea”?
Well obviously Aslan died for the sins of Edmund and that was really something. He also set the witch’s captives free and broke the curse of endless winter. Everything he says is wise and full of grace.
Or is it?
Look at the snippet below which comes from ch. 14 of The Horse and His Boy. If you haven’t read the story – and it’s brilliant – Aravis is running away from the cruel land of Calormen. She was being forced into marriage and to make good her escape she drugged her stepmother’s maid. Later in the story she is chased by a lion who claws her shoulder. Aravis escapes but is wounded. Later she meets Aslan who says:
“It was I who wounded you… Do you know why I tore you?”
“The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You need to know what it felt like.”
“Yes, sir. Please – ”
“Ask on, dear,” said Aslan.
“Will any more harm come to her by what I did?”
“Child,” said the Lion, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”
When I read this as a younger man, Aslan’s wounding of Aravis struck me as fatherly discipline. Afterall, Aravis needed to learn the consequences of her actions. But in reality Aslan’s clawing is punishment applied in the merciless Mosaic sense of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Deut 19:21). Aslan says as much and I’m stunned. I’m as shocked as I would be if Jesus had flung stones at the woman caught in adultery. Why would Aslan do such a thing?
Now in the story Aravis starts out as an arrogant young lady. But by the time of her arrival in the northern lands she is well on the way to becoming, according to Paul Ford, “an example of true Narnian nobility.” She has confronted death and suffering in her desperate quest to be free and she has learned compassion and humility. In her heart she is no longer a Calormene but a woman of the free north. Then, just as she arrives in the land of safety, out jumps Aslan with sharp claws! Welcome to your new life kid.
Aslan tears her because her actions caused the slave to be whipped. It makes you wonder what Aslan would’ve done if the slave girl had been whipped and beaten. What if she had been killed?
So what lesson do children take away from this story?
Perhaps the lesson is that God keeps score and one day He’ll punish you for every sin. Or perhaps the lesson is about suffering. If you’re suffering it means God is punishing you for something you did a long time ago. Or perhaps you’re suffering because you were born in the wrong race, or in the wrong place, or in the wrong gender.
So all in all, the gospel of Aslan is wonderful if your name happens to be Edmund. But it’s not such good news for anyone else. Thankfully Jesus is nothing like that (Mt 5:38-39). Thankfully the true gospel offers grace and mercy to all who would put their trust in Him whether slave or free, man or woman, Calormene or Narnian.
I had a hard time falling asleep last night. Maybe it was Lewis’s legalism that was gnawing on my mind. Or perhaps it was the thought that for the first time in my life I was actually a tiny bit relieved that I don’t live in Narnia.
Hmm interesting thoughts, Maybe C.S. Lewis is trying to indicate that the tearing represents a different idea. I know the real Jesus would never really do that, I wonder where Lewis got that idea?
Elie Wiesel is credited with saying: “Some stories are true that never happened.” If a story has life-changing impact on you, whether or not it actually happened, it’s truth has changed you, which makes it true to that extent. Rabbinic stories are meant to do just that. Lewis, I think, means this when he writes: ““I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” I see him as teaching the girl something about her interpretation of the situation that he knew needed reinforcement or added dimension, as we all view a given situation from a singular p.o.v…. our own. I’ve always understood this scene as Aslan seeing the need to broaden Aravis’ understanding of the situation. God, as I understand Him, does this with His children, as David wrote: O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! For your narrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.” Psalm 38:1-2 I don’t see legalism in Lewis here, I see a difficult measure of grace being administered, “tough love,” as it’s been called.
What it it had something to do with unity? And by that I mean, maybe it was not to teach a lesson at all but to bring awareness of other’s suffering. Because Christ is in all and all is in Christ when one of the members of the body gets hurt, everybody hurts. Sometimes (well, most times) people are not aware of the unity that goes around the world and don’t understand or feel the effects of it. I have to be honest, I’m not really sure what I am trying to say here! I think that the idea of Aslan being vindictive or teaching a lesson doesn’t feel right to me…
I agree with Ana. I don’t think this is so literal. I believe that we do things not realizing the effect of our actions on others. In this part of the story, I believe Aslan waited until Aravis matured to reveal what her actions in the past had done. Sometime we don’t realize just how hurtful we can be.
I always believed that it was Aslan showing a proud and haughty Aravis (because that’s still the girl she was until the moment Shasta raced back to save her from Aslan’s clawing of her back) that her actions and her belief that those ‘beneath’ her were not worthy of her care or consideration (such as her maid who was whipped for oversleeping the night Aravis escaped) had consequences, and that her trick on the innocent had caused pain. I never saw it as a supposition that Jesus would cause us pain, but rather that Aslan was helping Aravis to see that SHE had caused pain to another. Doesn’t mean I came away with the thought that Jesus would make me suffer for the wrong I did to others, but that Jesus would be aware of it, and that if I caused another person pain, I (and Aravis) needed to know what that felt like. It’s part of the process that changed her into the Narnian nobility, and prevented her from treating others as subservient and lesser humans.
I know it sounds like an eye for an eye story, but perhaps Aslan is trying to show her here that when we hurt someone we are really hurting ourselves. Maybe it’s like forgive so you may be forgiven. We know that grace applies here, but there is an other application; if we don’t forgive others we are harboring poison in ourselves and it can lead to death. It can hinder us from operating under grace. Can we choose to turn from grace? It’s not about works of the law, but about our choices. Choose life, choose grace. Extend the same grace you have received. The measure you receive the measure you will give. I don’t know, I am trying to understand why Lewis would use this imagery. What do you think?
There was also when the dragon was torn through, in a way that was totally excruciating, to reveal the new boy, scrubbed clean, as it were… (Voyage of the Dawn Tredder). It is a suggestion of law in the one, and painful removal of the old nature (which was actually accomplished in Christ’s excruciating pain). does seem a little out of place, in light of other areas where the sin was revealed, only for Aslan to take it. Also, in the Silver Chair, their quest ended up being longer (and, for us, more interesting) because of one mistake made – but then, that’s the natural consequence of sin – that it hurts us, and others, not God’s relationship with us, who gives us complete grace. I think it was Lewis trying to bring to mind the consequences of her actions, so that she could realize that what she had done in deception had done harm, but couldn’t think of a way of demonstrating that through the cross, as had been already done with Edmund, and so resorted to the “quick fix” of law – which sin had agonizing and sleep-depriving consequences for Ellis (“I had a hard time falling asleep last night.”)
Good point about Eustace the Dragon. I’d forgotten that one. Thanks.
The ” undragoning” of Eustace was probably one of my favorite parts of the Chronicles, aside from every appearance of Aslan himself.
You know Paul, until I read this post I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. At first when I read this book I was not as confident of grace as I am now, and loving the character of Aslan as deeply protective made me also think it was protective of God to hurt us to show us our wrong. Which at the time made total sense to me because I was under the law but now I can’t agree that pain is protective…or prophylactic. It only causes more pain. And the cycle continues. Grace stops the cycle and brings healing. Thank God for His Grace!