Beyond the Stone Table: Aslan Before & After Martyrdom
Religion, Magic and Mysticism in Narnia
In today’s An Algebra of Archons, we explore how C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia is both inspired by and interwoven with Christianity, and how its symbolism merges with scientific doctrine, philosophical and ethical questions of morality—and unpack, what that all means in the context of its narrative.
The Chronicles of Narnia are one of the most famous examples of a fictional universe being inspired by and interwoven with Christianity. C.S. Lewis regularly denied that Narnia was an “Allegory” [ 1 ] instead positing it as a fictional parallel universe. In doing so, Lewis creates a host of symbolic implications beyond such trite observations as “Aslan represents Jesus” and “Tash represents Satan.” Tash is far more like an Anti-Christ figure then an actual Satan Figure tying in with the fact that he is the false equivalent of Aslan then The Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea, but more on that later.
Narnia, often dismissed as the lesser more childlike version of Middle-earth is a world whose symbolism runs deeply into Christian theology and cosmology, and merges that with scientific doctrine, philosophical and ethical questions of morality, all deeply ingrained in the mundane and the magical of its world.
Religion and Narnia
Narnia’s religious aspect is well known and discussed. Aslan’s creation mirrors the creation of the world in Judeo-Christianity; his betrayal, sacrifice and resurrection are all reflections of Jesus’ actions. Even The Final Battle is essentially the Book of Revelations by another name.
More subtly however, Christian themes are interwoven into the stories’ plotlines and the religions presented within the universe of the story. If one looks at The Horse and His Boy the nature of divine revelation is presented as the boy stumbling in the darkness running in fear of the lion until he finally speaks to the lion. When he does the lion reveals he has always been with him and he will always be with him which is a clear parallel to the standard story of forming a personal relationship with Christ. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader speaks to the resisting of temptation that is the core of Christian values and The Silver Chair is about the deceptive nature of evil.
By forming a universe that is intrinsically both moralistic and personal, where the forces of good and evil are both real and represented in conscious figures, Narnia inherently creates a level of spiritual agency to the characters, where they are compelled to ally their spirituality with one side or the other. In a universe that is amoralistic, that good and evil can be argued to be non-existence, there is no compulsion for the characters to “pick a side” should they believe neither is real, and in a universe that is moralistic but impersonal, where good and evil are not physically manifested, a person may lay in apathetic spiritual slumber should they choose not to not heed either abstraction.
This in turn reveals a great deal about the morality of the Narnia-universe and its symbolism. Religion is characterized from other forms of spirituality by being dominant and emotion-focused. Since religion in the Narnia-world is so omnipresent and so anthropomorphic in its characterization by focusing heavily on figures rather than forces, we may view the Narnia universe as forming pseudo-solipsism. Where the world is what it is not because of external forces that are imposed onto it but because ruling figures deem it so via their wills. This in turn suggests a negative view of over-acceptance, and a positive view towards struggle and trial. How you may ask?
If the world is controlled, or rather, controls and we view such a statement from the lens of religion then we can imagine that any apparent wrong-doing or ill fortune is actually formed, not from impersonal laws, but from an opposing will and that an “acceptance” of that is merely a submission to a negative will that is greater than your own. This ties in with the Christian view of both temptation, that one must remain ever vigilant and not accept sinfulness when one is offered it, and the Protestant view of hard work, that hard work and suffering “builds character” and helps protect one from sin through suffering. Lewis was not a Protestant and was certainly not a Catholic, having many noted issues with the Catholic church [ 2 ].
Suggesting that one should not be accepting of sinfulness has both positive and negative effects in our world. It shifts the locus of control internally, placing more stress on the individual but also giving them more hope for redemption, at least theoretically. Having this be so omnipresent in the world of Narnia suggests a worldview that is very un-deterministic, but instead a world forged by the ever controversial “great man theory” and what that implies.
Religion as an institution is surprisingly rare in Narnia despite the heavily religious implications of the universe. It is mostly used in The Last Battle leading to the Worship of Aslan, the Worship of Tash, and the attempted syncretic “mix” Cult of Tashlan.
What’s immediately striking about this fact is the sort of implicit refutation of Hegel’s principle of “Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.” Whereas the dialectical method, a fundamental part of most modern logical systems is generally considered a form of progressing, in Narnia it is merely a corruption with a positive thesis and a negative antithesis being muddled and confused into a synthesis which is inherently fallacious.
This view can be best understood as a sort of anti-moral relativistic, and to some extent even anti-relativistic in terms of logical frameworks and human understanding. As Aslan says in The Last Battle:
“Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted” [ 3 ].
Aslan and Tash, Good and Evil are fundamental principles. Aslan is the thesis and is already divinely perfect. Tash is the antithesis but has nothing to add to Aslan of value. Any attempt at synthesis is objectively wrong in this metric.
What’s interesting is that contrary to some forms of Christian theology this promotes a DIS-unity. There may be some hidden unity to parts of the cosmos, but it can never be fully unified due to the presence of evil. This will make for interesting comparison to Narnia’s view on science, as will be seen later.
Narnia and Magic
Magic is distinguished from religion in spirituality due to its submissive rather than dominant nature. In magic the humans are the masters, whereas in religion humans are the followers. The two obviously can naturally blend. As religion becomes more and more systemic and controllable, it veers closer to magic, consider the mystical applications and life and spiritual benefits proscribed from the Kabbalah in Judaism or the fortune-telling and life guidance of Bagua and Feng Shui derived from Daoist principles to see how religion can veer into the magical. Conversely, as magic becomes more and more controlling over one’s life, more predicative rather than influencing and often more animate, it veers closer and closer to religion. Consider classical tales of magical Faustian bargains where one’s magic returns ripe for misuse to get a real sense of how veers into religion and ethics.
So how is magic and its ensuring implications depicted in the world of Narnia? Given the nature of magic and Christianity’s history, one would suspect that “magic” would be considered an ill force, perhaps even heretical. If one read only The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe one could be forgiven for taking this viewpoint. After all the only magic user of note in that story is the Wicked Witch who uses said power to freeze over all of Narnia so that it remains entirely winter and never Christmas.
The Narnia Universe is rife and filled with magic, although most notably is when its use is nigh-invisible. Many beings in the Narnia Universe possess traits we might describe as magical however to them it is merely the mundane. Magic is a force in the Narnia universe that concentrates in areas and people. The stars, as exemplified by Coriakin, all possess the ability to perform “magic” but to them it is easy as walking is to the human. There are examples of both magic used by “good” and magic yielded by “evil.” What’s more, any human could learn magic should they try, as is the case with Andrew Ketterley. Magic even concentrates in certain physical areas. The Southern Marsh for instance doubles as a scrying pool and the Calormene Empire feared invading Narnia specifically because Narnia has a much higher concentration of magic then they did.
This seeming oddity actually reveals a great deal about magic in the Narnia universe and its purpose. If you recall, the Narnia Universe has a significantly more internal locus of control then some other Christian-inspired universes. If magic as a submissive force is permitted and not treated as a dark force innately that gives humanity more ability and reinforces the notion that they have the ability to resist evil. That is not innately an optimistic state of humanity as the existence of evil merely being a suggestion is that if people can change it and don’t then they have failed to. However, it is an optimistic statement about the capacity of people in general.
This “invisibility” of magic holds another interesting microcosm all of its own. The inhabitants of Narnia never recognize their land as particularly magical, and indeed when magic is noted as strange or wonderful it is by someone who is coming from a land of lesser magic. The symbolic implication is immense: The power to resist temptation and sin, to maintain control of one’s destiny, is invisible to those who have it.
The ontological and philosophical implications of this, while straightforward, cannot be understated in the context of understanding the symbolism of the Narnia Universe. For if people have the ability to control their own destiny, then what is needed is not to empower them but to awaken them. The difference, though perhaps seemingly subtle, is incredibly powerful. For it suggests that people are born with innate qualities rather than nurtured into having them, and that these innate qualities are positive and tend towards Aslan’s majesty.
The usage of magic in the Narnia Universe is used to subtly reinforce that anyone can do the right thing, should they have the realization and will to do so, and further promote the internal locus of control.
Narnia and Science
Narnia has a fascinating relationship with science and scientific theories. If one was to start reading the Chronicles of Narnia from the chronological state of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, one would find that is actually has an immediate parallel to the scientific concept of the multiverse.
In the story the main character is teleported via magic ring to the “Woods between Worlds” where he finds an assortment of pools that take one to different universes, each with different laws governing them. This relates into Lewis’ description of Narnia as an alternate universe, just one option out of many. It is from one of these worlds that the White Witch emerges, Charn, after she destroys said world with the Deplorable Word. That Narnia works via a Christian rule set similar to ours holds theological implications about the nature of sin and salvation, through from a thematic standpoint only really suggests the concept of aspects, the same being may be known by different names and traits in different worlds.
Science, similar to magic, is a form of spirituality formatted by submissive mysticism, where the mystical elements are controlled rather than controlling. Science differs from magic in that it is analytical, focused on finding and then utilizing patterns and rules occurring in nature hence the riff on Clarke’s Third Law, often misattributed to Larry Niven: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
One aspect of the Narnia Universe interesting to view through the lens of science and mysticism is the Telmarines. The Telmarines are pirates from our modern world and yet when they invade Telmar and in the interactions with Narnia it can be seen that they use primitive weapons occasionally augmented by cannons and gunpowder. It can be argued their technological capacity actually decreases as the series goes on; during The Last Battle they are noted to have invaded Narnia with spears and drums.
Is this perhaps a reflection of their moral character? The short answer is: not directly. The Empire of Calormene, for all its faults, is certainly an industrial massive military empire whose technology seems to maintain steady growth to some extent; despite their disadvantage in magic, as seen in The Horse and His Boy they seem to be more technologically advanced then the Narnians. It would seem that the Telmarines lack of advancement is instead a reflection of their nature as thieves, not creators, and that by taking from others they lost what was initially theirs [ 4 ].
This view of science, encouraging science to be creative and not merely disruptive, suggests a view that is consistent with an internal locus of control and the ability to create either a positive or negative circumstance and importantly in this case that the circumstance that is created will be reflected in one’s material well-being.
Narnia and Philosophy
While the universe of Narnia encompasses a widespread collection of beliefs, philosophical systems, personae, and worldviews, it is its philosophical mysticism where its symbolism can be used to find the more hidden aspects in The Chronicles of Narnia.
In the Narnia Universe, while there is the obvious good/evil dichotomy structured as those who are on Aslan’s side and those aren’t on Aslan’s side, there is also the more subtle association of illusion with evil [ 5 ].
The White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle both employ magical illusions to deceive, but what is common to all villains in Narnia is the use of deception and lying to achieve their goals. Evil is presented as something deceptive. This is intriguing philosophically as it implies the default state of the world is good and that people are convinced to do evil and tempted towards sin not because it is inherently beneficial but because they are tricked into believing it is so. One might draw parallels to Dante where Satan holds no real power, and is a glorified beast, but the absence of good causes evil to fill the void, which draws people into thinking it has inherent power.
- CalormeneEmpire.jpg “The Calormen, formally the Calormene Empire, allude to a critical and certainly skewed view of the Islamic cultures, but also their technological and scientific might.” Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. HarperCollins, 2002 https://speculativefaith.lorehaven.com/my-time-in-calormen/
- shutterstock_327357083.jpg “The walking Jesus allegory on four paws, Aslan is an inescapable figure throughout all of Lewis’ narrative. Even when not entirely present, he leaves a mark on each individual narrative.” The Bee Hive. “Aslan Was Wrong (about Forgiveness).” The Bee Hive, 1 Mar. 2022, www.thebeehive.live/blog/aslan-was-wrong-about-forgiveness “Lion_leu_aslan_asia.Jpg.” Free-Images.com, free-images.com/display/lion_leu_aslan_asia.html Accessed 17 July 2022.
A writer and philosopher, Ben Steiz strives to create realistic and engaging cultures and beliefs for fictional settings. A scholar of narrative and metaphysics, and having graduated from Bard College with a double major in creative writing and philosophy, Ben specializes in symbolism. As one of The Unconventional’s contributors, he unpacks layers of metaphor in world design and storytelling as a research assistant. He’s also penned his own series, “An Algebra of Archons”, examining mysticism.
- Lewis, Clive S. Letter to Mr. Higgins. 2 Dec. 1962. MS. N.p.
- Pearce, Joseph. C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. Charlotte, NC: Saint Bendict, 2013. Print.
- Lewis, C.S. “The Last Battle.” The Chronicles of Narnia, Harper Collins, 2002, pp. 164–165.
- Lewis, C.S. “The Horse and His Boy.” The Chronicles of Narnia, Harper Collins, 2002.
- Lewis, C.S. “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” The Chronicles of Narnia, Harper Collins, 2002.