A third of the way into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children come across two friendly beavers named, appropriately enough, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Mr. Beaver is the first person to mention the only character to appear in all seven Narnia books: Aslan the Lion. Aslan won’t appear until the final third of the book, but he’s clearly the most important person in it. As Mr. Beaver says, Aslan—not the children—is the one who will fix what’s wrong with Narnia.
Lewis said he was struggling to find Narnia’s direction until, “…suddenly Aslan came bounding into it.” Aslan is, in many ways, the beating heart at the center of the Narnia stories, the literal deus who shows up ex machina in more than one tale, and he provides at some times a sort of safety net, or an introduction to greater danger, or words of affirmation or rebuke, depending on what a character needs at the moment.
So where did the great Lion come from?
(Lewis always capitalizes “Lion” when referring to Aslan as opposed to other large cats, because he’s something more than a lion.) “I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time,” Lewis wrote. “Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.”
There are a variety of likely influences. The fact that Lewis capitalizes “He” as well as “Lion” is a clear clue of how Lewis feels about this particular Lion. In Christian symbology, Jesus is said to be the “Lion of Judah.” If Lewis was looking for the best animal to represent Jesus in a world of talking animals, it would almost certainly be a lion or a lamb.
Lewis would make an important distinction here. He never thought of Aslan as symbolic of Jesus. Lewis had strong feelings about people calling Narnia an allegory (as someone whose scholastic career had been widely applauded because of a book about allegory, this is not surprising). For instance, he pointed out the difference between a character from The Pilgrim’s Progress (an actual allegory) and Aslan: “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”
And, when a young mother wrote that her son Laurence was concerned that he “loved Aslan more than Jesus” Lewis didn’t respond by saying “oh it’s just a metaphor.” He said that Laurence, “can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.”
More than once Lewis refers to his type of fiction as “supposal”…an early term not unlike what we say when we call science fiction and fantasy “speculative fiction.” He uses this term to talk about not only Narnia but the space trilogy as well. “The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal: but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.”
The point being that Aslan is not representative of Jesus, and he’s not a metaphor or allegory for Jesus. For Lewis, Aslan is Jesus…the same God who incarnated in our world into the flesh-and-blood son of Mary incarnated in Narnia as a talking lion. We’re told Lewis sometimes prayed to Aslan. This will occasionally be important as we’re reading the Chronicles, to understand that Aslan’s actions are almost never some big symbolic thing we’re supposed to reflect on, but purely what Lewis thinks God would do if God had incarnated into Narnia as a great big magical Lion.
Lewis is not particularly interested in us knowing for sure that “Aslan equals Jesus.” He always plays it slant, and never once mentions Jesus by name. Lewis believed that myth prepares us for “true myth.” He loved the story of Balder, for instance, and believed that the love he had for that story, with the god’s death and resurrection, prepared him for the true and (by his estimation) historical myth of Jesus’s death and resurrection when he finally came to accept it. As he told his friend George Sayer, he wasn’t looking to convert people through Narnia so much as prepare them to meet Jesus in the real world. “I am aiming,” he said, “at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”
In fact, when a child wrote him saying that he couldn’t figure out what Aslan’s name must be here on this side of the wardrobe, rather than tell him plainly, Lewis wrote back, “I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas (2) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor (3) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people (4) Came to life again (5) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb… Don’t you really know His name in this world?”
Surely Lewis chose lion over lamb for a variety of reasons, one of which must be the regal history of the lion. As Michael Ward has convincingly argued in his book Planet Narnia, the Chronicles of Narnia is a seven-book tour through the seven planets of Medieval cosmology, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is our first stop at Jupiter, king of the gods (you’ll not find Zeus or Jupiter in the Chronicles, either…because Aslan is King of the gods as well as king of the beasts).
He also tells us that at the time of writing this book that he was “dreaming often of lions” and could not seem to keep them out of his life. And almost certainly his affection for the work of Charles Williams plays in as well. Williams’s Place of the Lion is a spiritual thriller about someone who unleashes the Platonic ideal of certain things into the world, and as those archetypes take shape, they pull their strength from the world around them. The first to materialize is the Platonic ideal of a lion… regal, powerful, unstoppable. As it moves around Britain buildings begin to collapse as the Lion grows in clarity and power.
After reading that book, Lewis immediately wrote to Williams to say, “I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life.” Certainly the great Lion Aslan reflects some of the Platonic Ideal of what a lion should be.
In our next post we’ll spend some time exploring the Stone Table and Aslan’s sacrifice, as we look at Lewis’s theological world and how it is revealed in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. For those who don’t know, though, one last piece of Aslan-related trivia: Lewis didn’t work particularly hard at finding a name. “Aslan” is the Turkish word for “lion.”
Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.