Aslan: ‘Not a Tame Lion’

A few years ago I did a Lent series on characters from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and 20070313-cs_lewis_strong_1what they can teach us about following Jesus. At this time when we’re especially remembering Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death, I thought I might post some of them here. Here’s the first one:

Aslan: ‘Not a Tame Lion’
In the late 1940s, C.S. Lewis was a teacher of English Literature at Oxford University. He had moved gradually from atheism to Christian faith in his early thirties; he had written a number of scholarly books about English literature, as well as some books defending the Christian Faith, including a very popular one called The Screwtape Letters – imaginary letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. He had also written three science fiction novels.

In the mid 1940s Lewis began getting some pictures in his head. He began to see a faun – a character from Greek mythology with the body of a man and the legs and feet of a goat. The faun was walking in a snowy wood, under a lamp post, with some parcels under its arm. Lewis wondered what the faun was doing there, and so he began to write a children’s story to find out. He wrote about sixty pages or so, and then suddenly a new character came bounding into the story – a great Lion, Aslan. Lewis said later that ‘when Aslan came into the story, he pulled the other six stories in after him’. The seven children’s stories about Aslan and the land of Narnia have become C.S. Lewis’ best-loved and most popular books.

The books are not allegories. Rather, Lewis explained, they are ‘supposals’. ‘Suppose there was another universe, and God and Christ appeared there and did things, but in a different form than in our universe. What might they be like?’

The Narnia stories present Christian truth to us in an imaginative way. For the next six weeks, as we go through Lent, we’re going to look at characters from the stories, to see what they can teach us about Christian discipleship. My outline for the series will tell you which of the books each week’s sermon is based on; I strongly recommend that you read them ahead of time. They are short books and very easy to read – each of them is about a two hour read, I think.

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c0191034eea2f970c-800wiToday we’re going to start with the central figure of the whole series, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure. In one of the books, it’s said of Aslan that he’s ‘not a tame lion… Of course he isn’t safe! But he’s good!’ Let’s see what Aslan has to teach us about Jesus.

When I was a little boy I used to sing a bedtime hymn that went like this: ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child’. This went along with the popular view of the blond haired Jesus with little lambs in his arms.

The truth is that the character of Jesus as we find him in the New Testament is just too vast for us to get him all in – it’s like trying to take a photograph of the Pallisades with a tiny camera! Because of this, we all tend to ‘leave bits out’ when we think about Jesus. In medieval times it was his majesty and authority that was emphasized, and people were afraid to even approach him. I suspect that was why the Virgin Mary was emphasized so much in those days; it was as if people were saying to her, “You talk to him for us, please!” Our age, on the other hand, has gone to the opposite extreme with Jesus. We’re a therapeutic age, and so we like the gentle, non-judgemental Jesus who specializes in warm fuzzies and active listening.

It was a feature of C.S. Lewis’ faith that very early on he was determined not to ‘leave bits out’ of his picture of Jesus. His oldest friend Arthur Greaves had been a Christian long before him, but after his conversion Lewis soon came to suspect that his friend wasn’t really taking the gospels seriously. In a letter to him he said, ‘I’m beginning to think that you can only get what you call “Jesus” out of the Gospels by leaving a lot out’. Some years later Lewis was writing a letter to a woman who was thinking about becoming a Christian. He says something like this to her: ‘Everyone told me that if I read the gospels I’d find Jesus irresistible. Well, I didn’t find that at all! What I did find was that most of the time we aren’t even invited to give an opinion about him – he’s the one who will give his opinion about us!’ So it’s not surprising that when Lewis came to give us his picture of Jesus in the character of Aslan the Lion, he tried to portray this combination of kindness and severity – of total authority and absolute love.

In the first of the Narnia stories to be written, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we meet the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They have been evacuated from London during the Blitz and are staying in the countryside at the stately home of an old professor. Little Lucy is the first one to discover the magic wardrobe which, sometimes, acts as a doorway into a completely different universe. She goes through it, meets the faun Mr. Tumnus, and finds out the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s a country ruled by the evil White Witch who has made it ‘always winter, but never Christmas’.

Edmund is the next one to get into Narnia; he meets the White Witch there and is foolish enough to become one of her supporters. Eventually all four of the children get in at one time. Lucy takes them to meet Mr. Tumnus, but they discover that his cave has been destroyed and he has been arrested for helping humans. As they are wondering what to do, the children are guided to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver – I should tell you that Narnia is peopled by these talking animals. There the beavers tell them that Aslan, the true ruler of Narnia, has returned and plans to set Narnia free from the rule of the White Witch. But he needs the help of the four children to do it, because there’s an old prophecy of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sitting on the four thrones in the castle of Cair Paravel.

Mr. Beaver is the first one to describe Aslan to the children. Susan asks who Aslan is, and Mr. Beaver says:

“He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time”.

Lucy asks, “Is he a man?”

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not! I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion”.

A moment later Lucy asks if this great Lion is ‘safe’.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good”.

And over and over again, throughout the Narnia stories, people are reminded that Aslan is ‘not a tame lion’.

Peter, the oldest of the four, says, “I’m longing to meet him, even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point”. And this is exactly what happens. Later in the story, when the children first meet Aslan, this is how he is described for us:

People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.

Good and terrible – gentle and severe – loving and commanding – this is Aslan. In other places in the books this combination of characteristics is underlined for us. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan ends up giving his own life in the place of Edmund the traitor, just as Jesus gave his life for us. Aslan is portrayed as being very close to the two girls, Susan and Lucy, especially to Lucy who he often calls ‘dear heart’ or ‘dear one’. But he never shrinks from confronting his dear Lucy with her shortcomings. In Prince Caspian he has been trying to get the children to follow him, but only Lucy could see him, and the others had not believed her. When Lucy finally gets to talk to Aslan about it, here’s what happens:

‘Yes, wasn’t it a shame?’ said Lucy. ‘I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so – ‘

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

‘I’m sorry’, said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. ‘I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?’

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

‘Oh, Aslan’, said Lucy. ‘You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you…’

There isn’t time for me to recount this incredible conversation, but you get the sense of how Aslan doesn’t shrink from helping Lucy to see the truth about herself.

Let me give one more example. In the book The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is the young 4l1sdaughter of a great Lord, who runs away to escape a forced marriage. She drugs her slave girl, so that she will go to sleep and won’t be able to stop Aravis’ escape. Later we learn that the slave girl is whipped for letting this happen. Toward the end of the story Aravis meets Aslan in a terrifying fashion; she is riding her horse, Hwin, and they are chased by a Lion. The Lion catches them, and strikes Aravis across the back with his claws, wounding her with great stripes. Later on, explaining this to Aravis, Aslan says,

‘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 needed to know what it felt like’.

Aslan loves people with a deep and tender love, but it is also a tough love, a love that never shrinks from telling them the truth, and sometimes even subjecting them to painful discipline, in order that they may grow and become the people they were meant to be.

We see the same thing in the Gospels with our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes we see his tenderness: he takes off his outer robe and washes the feet of his disciples, the job the slave was meant to do. He’s patient with them, forgiving them and restoring them when they fail. When Peter denies him three times he doesn’t reject him, but gives him an opportunity later on to reaffirm three times that he loves his Lord after all.

Yet the sense of authority is also very clear here. We sometimes read in the Gospels that his disciples were afraid to ask him things. We don’t get the sense that a fireside chat with Jesus would automatically be a cosy thing. Jesus tells his disciples the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. At the last supper, when Jesus warns his disciples that they are all going to desert him, Peter says, ‘ “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you”. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times”’ (Matthew 26:33-34). When a rich young man asks him what he must do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man turns away, refusing to pay the price, and Jesus doesn’t negotiate with him; he doesn’t say, “Wait – come back – perhaps we can come to an agreement – a tenth would be enough!” Jesus is the King; he gets to dictate the terms. He drives out the money changers from the temple with a whip, and he tells the Pharisees that they remind him of whitewashed graves – nice on the outside, but full of bones and corruption inside.

How are we to approach this Jesus? First we approach him in absolute confidence in his love for us. Aslan gave his life on the stone table so that Edmund the traitor could go free. In the same way, the Bible tells us that the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us on the Cross. He held nothing back. So we can be absolutely confident in his love for us.

But his love for us is not always the same as ‘being nice to us’. It’s a tough love that will never ‘let us off the hook’; if he knows that something is good for us, he will be relentless in pointing us toward it, even if it is hard and painful. He will always tell us the truth about ourselves, in the hope that we will accept it and move forward in our relationship with God.

And so we also approach him in absolute obedience to his authority. ‘He’s the King’, says Mr. Beaver. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy; the Son of God is our Lord, and we are summoned to follow him.

I find that the picture of Aslan in the Narnia stories helps me to understand and follow Jesus better. Toward the end of one of the books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that they will not be coming back to Narnia again. Lucy is heartbroken at the thought of never meeting Aslan again. But Aslan reassures her, “But you shall meet me, dear one”:

“Are—are you there too, sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me for a little, you may know me better there.”

And that is also my hope for you all as we go through this Lent sermon series.

One thought on “Aslan: ‘Not a Tame Lion’

  1. Pingback: Bree and Hwin: It’s Not About you! | Faith, Folk and Charity

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