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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 donít read it if you donít want the plot revealed.]

C. S. Lewisí 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 ĎChronicles of Narniaí 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 isnít religious propaganda. Well, itís 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 itís 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 Edmundís. 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. Theyíre just like humans in this respect. Itís just like a fairy tale. To anyone who is a vegetarian, this is the first thing which leaps out at you.

Notice that childrenís stories and cartoons routinely have talking animals in them. Thatís 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 itís 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 childrenís 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 ó the childís view of animals, which sees them as basically like us, and the adultís 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 same story.

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 animals?"

Violent Conflict

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 ó 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 canít 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. Lewisí own era that it boggles the mind that more people haven't noticed it. Itís 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 necessary, recourse.

This goes beyond the ritual self-sacrifice of Aslan (symbolic of the crucifixion) and Aslanís subsequent rebirth (the resurrection). Thatís 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 weíve 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 itís hard to fault Lewis for not solving the problem of evil in a childrenís 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 wouldnít 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 isnít 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 ó 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 childrenís 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 Edmundís petty jealousy you wouldnít get the same kind of apocalyptic finish to the book.

Evil characters do occur in other childrenís stories, so Lewis can sort of get away with killing off these evil characters. But as soon as the adults ó and perhaps even the more imaginative of the children ó 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 ó 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 Godís 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. Weíd call this a primitive, tribal religion, right?

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 be around?"

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. Lewisís 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 ó for example, the talking animals ó in order to do this. This is all very socially acceptable, but it is not the religion of Jesus.

Keith Akers
December 11, 2005