Are the "Chronicles of Narnia" Christian?
[Note: this essay gives away several of the key plot elements of
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," so don’t read it if
you don’t want the plot revealed.]
C. S. Lewis’ stories about the "Chronicles of Narnia" are
in the news, because of the movie version of "The Lion, the Witch,
and the Wardrobe," which is the second (and most famous) in the
series. Are these stories Christian?
Usually, when people ask the question "Are the ‘Chronicles of
Narnia’ Christian?", they are worried that the book or the movie
is manufactured by or on behalf of the Christian right. They want
reassurance that it isn’t religious propaganda. Well, it’s certainly
not religious propaganda in the sense that it is putting messages from
the fundamentalists into the movie; the story is not specifically
"Christian" in that way.
However, it is undeniably an attempt to repackage the Christian story
of good and evil. But how well does the story succeed at this? This
question is more debatable than most people think and it’s surprising
that more people haven't noticed the obvious problems here. Everyone has pointed out
that Aslan, the lion, is a Christ-figure. He sacrifices his life to save
Edmund’s. So far, so good; but there are other problems, which revolve
around the use of violence for sacred purposes.
The Talking Animals
The most interesting element is the one which is most transparently
child-like: the talking animals. This is actually the one feature which
is most clearly Christian in the entire book, and I doubt that Lewis was
even aware of it. The animals talk. They’re just like humans in this
respect. It’s just like a fairy tale. To anyone who is a vegetarian,
this is the first thing which leaps out at you.
Notice that children’s stories and cartoons routinely have talking
animals in them. That’s because children often identify more strongly
with animals than they do with the rather mysterious adult world. So
what does this mean? It can only mean that in Narnia killing animals is
wrong. Why, they are just like us! Not only is this a natural
assumption, but it’s clearly part of the framework of the Chronicles.
We have to assume that when the White Witch turns creatures, including
animals, into stone, that this is part of her evil nature.
This leads to some awkward questions for the adults in the audience:
what exactly does Aslan, the lion, eat? Does he devour these talking
animals? In other episodes of The Chronicles, it turns out that there
are both talking and non-talking animals. Killing a non-talking animal
is all right, but killing a talking animal is just as bad as killing a
human. We suppose that Aslan will try to strike up a conversation
with any animal he finds first, and if the animal doesn't talk back,
it's fair game.
Here we see Lewis the children’s author encounter Lewis the
adult. Lewis the child knows that violence towards animals is wrong.
Lewis the adult "knows" that it is right. Enter the
distinction between talking and non-talking animals — the child’s
view of animals, which sees them as basically like us, and the adult’s
view of animals, which sees them as not like us. Rather than resolve
this problem, Lewis just mixes both kinds of animals together in the
We know that, historically, Lewis was bothered by the problem of the
human treatment of animals. Although he was not a vegetarian, he was
against animal experimentation and what he saw as needless cruelty to
animals. The early Christians were more child-like towards animals than
the modern Christians, and so Lewis has unintentionally introduced a
motif from early Christianity. An early Christian martyr, a woman whose
story Eusebius tells, was tortured with a view to getting evidence that
Christians ate their own children. Her response was, "how can they
eat their own children, when they do not even eat the blood of
There is an even more serious problem here, and that is the question
of violent conflict. This is supposedly a story of redemption, but who
exactly is getting redeemed here? Edmund is redeemed even though he
initially takes the side of the White Witch. This is the other obviously
Christian feature of the book — and one often noted. Aslan
(symbolizing Christ) dies to save Edmund, the "sinner" for
whom Aslan dies, a straightforward analogy with Christianity. Of course,
Lewis does not make this specifically Christian, and
self-sacrifice is a feature of the religious heroes of other religions,
as well; but it certainly fits in with Christianity.
But why can’t the White Witch be redeemed? Why must she be killed,
and many of the creatures who serve her as well? What kind of a fantasy
creation is this? It is one thing if killing happens. It is another if
killing is regarded as a virtuous act, rather than a tragedy.
This is so transparently a product of C. S. Lewis’ own era that it
boggles the mind that more people haven't noticed it. It’s about World War II. This
war was regarded by Lewis, obviously, as absolutely necessary, and yet
how do you square this with the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence, love
your enemies, the pacifism of virtually all Christians before the third
century, and so forth? The necessity of violence, and the necessity
of doing violence, was so deep that it appeared to Lewis to be part of
the Christian religion itself. It seems that he needed to identify
Hitler (and probably other Germans as well) as either the devil himself
or at least his willing servant, with violence being the only, and
This goes beyond the ritual self-sacrifice of Aslan (symbolic of the
crucifixion) and Aslan’s subsequent rebirth (the resurrection). That’s
a little weird, and we could ask some awkward questions about it. For
example, who created this world and how did it come to be that a law
creating death for traitors (used to condemn Edmund) was originated in
the first place?
But if this were the only problem, we could say that we’ve seen
stranger things in the field of religion. After all, we do have the
celebrated "problem of evil" for which no one has really come
up with a good solution, and it’s hard to fault Lewis for not solving
the problem of evil in a children’s story. The death of the White
Witch could be seen as symbolic. The White Witch could be seen as a
non-personal reality (evil) personified in the Narnia-myth. In
Revelation it says, "and death itself shall die," and we
wouldn’t understand that to mean that there is a person,
"death," who must undergo death. We could understand the story
of the White Witch in a similar way.
But even putting that aside, Peter must kill the wolf, and then other
creatures must be killed as well. It isn’t pleasant, but it is a
virtue to kill them. This, in fact, is a recurrent theme in all seven of
the Chronicles of Narnia books — there is not just magic and talking
animals and a friendly lion, there is deadly and violent conflict. It is
a way of legitimizing the adult world and then placing it in a children’s
fantasy. One gets the impression that if you just introduced the
children themselves into Narnia, without the adults (the Witch and the
Lion), that even with Edmund’s petty jealousy you wouldn’t get the
same kind of apocalyptic finish to the book.
Evil characters do occur in other children’s stories, so Lewis can
sort of get away with killing off these evil characters. But as soon as
the adults — and perhaps even the more imaginative of the children —
start asking questions about the big bad wolves, or start showing some
sympathy for the White Witch, watch out. They have seen the truth, and
you are not going to be able to put it back into the bottle.
Is this Christian?
Lewis has made a conscious effort to strip overtly religious elements
from The Chronicles of Narnia. The whole series is a story with all the
elements of "faith" recounted as if they were
straightforwardly fact. We might want to take this modern myth on its
own terms and try to understand its point of view.
Imagine yourself studying a new religion you had come across in some
remote part of the planet which you had never encountered before —
perhaps the Amazon jungles, some remote corner of Africa, or New Guinea.
After mastering their language, you ask about their religion. It turns
out that there is another tribe over the hills which is their rival.
God, according to their religion, commands them to go and kill their
enemies or force them to do God’s will. God has various other
commands, but all seem to be subservient to this one. According to this
religion, failure to kill enemies will result in being punished: killing
is necessary and good. We’d call this a primitive, tribal religion,
But over the next hill is another tribe. They are a peculiarly
peaceful lot. According to their God, they are never to fight in wars
against other tribes and, when wronged or attacked, should run away,
seek accommodation, or in the extreme submit to being killed themselves,
rather than kill, even when it would be fully justified by the cause of
justice. Their prophet demonstrated this behavior by himself being
killed by a tribe which had recently overrun their own. "How
charming! How quaint! How naive! How long do you suppose this tribe will
Now which tribe has the religion which most resembles the religion of
"The Chronicles of Narnia"? Which tribe most resembles early
Christianity? Which tribe would you rather live among, the warlike tribe
or the peaceful one?
I think you can figure this one out. C. S. Lewis’s world is a
charming construction which, among various good things, has some bad
elements. His story seeks to explain violence and make it, somehow,
virtuous. He has to fight against some of the elements he himself
introduces — for example, the talking animals — in order to do this.
This is all very socially acceptable, but it is not the religion of Jesus.
December 11, 2005