When I was a child, I had no idea what was coming when Susan and Lucy snuck out of their tents. Aslan seemed sad, and the girls wanted to see why. Aslan told them how lonely he was, and invited them to join him on his long walk—on the condition that they will leave when ordered. My first time reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan’s words filled me with a deep and unshakeable dread. Aslan seemed to feel the same thing, walking with his head so low to the ground that it was practically dragging. The girls put their hands in his mane and stroked his head, and tried to comfort him.
When they reached the Stone Table, every evil beast of Narnia was waiting, including Jadis herself, whose long winter had begun to thaw at last. To Susan and Lucy’s horror (and mine!), Aslan had agreed to be murdered—sacrificed—upon the Stone Table, so that their brother Edmund could live.
Keeping in mind that Aslan is not a metaphor for Jesus Christ, but is the manifestation of Jesus in Narnia, this moment offers a central insight into Lewis’s beliefs about why, in their respective stories, both Jesus and Aslan die. It’s the climactic moment of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a key event in the entire Chronicles.
For those of you who don’t have a Christian background, I’m going to break out some Christian theological terms in this article. I’ll do my best to make them accessible and understandable from a casual reading standpoint, and we can chat more in the comments if I don’t make things clear enough. For those from a heavily Christian background, please remember this isn’t a seminary paper, so we’re going to be using some shorthand.
So. Why did Aslan have to die?
The easy answer, the one that tempts us at first glance, is to say, “Because Edmund is a traitor.” Or, in Christian religious terms, “Edmund sinned.”
Here’s an interesting thing to note, however: Edmund already apologized for betraying his siblings and had a long heart-to-heart with Aslan before the events of the Stone Table. Not only that, but he had received both the forgiveness and the blessing of his brother and sisters and the Great Lion Himself.
The morning before the events of the Stone Table the other Pevensies wake to discover that their brother Edmund has been saved from the Witch. Edmund talks to Aslan in a conversation to which we are not privy, but of which we are told, “Edmund never forgot.”
Aslan returns their wayward brother to them and says, “Here is your brother, and—there is no need to talk to him about what is past.”
Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and says he is sorry to each of them, and they all say, “That’s all right.” Then they cast around for something to say that will “make it quite clear that they are all friends with him again.” Edmund is forgiven by Aslan, forgiven by his siblings, and restored in his relationship with them all.
Aslan didn’t die so that Edmund could be forgiven; Edmund had already received forgiveness.
Despite this forgiveness, however, there are still consequences to Edmund’s actions. He still betrayed his siblings (and, though he didn’t realize it at the time, Aslan). Which means that, according to the “Deep Magic” of Narnia (a sort of contract set into the foundation of Narnia and its magic), Edmund’s blood rightfully belongs to Jadis. This is not because she is evil or the bad guy or anything like that, but because it is, in fact, her role in Narnia. She is, as Mr. Beaver calls her, “the Emperor’s hangman.” She brings death to traitors, and it is her right to do so. This is her right despite being an enemy of Aslan and Narnia (Lewis gives us a great deal more detail about what exactly was happening here when we get to The Magician’s Nephew, but I suspect he didn’t know those details yet as he wrote Wardrobe).
This may not sit right with you, and it didn’t with Lucy, either. She asks Aslan, “Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”
Aslan is not pleased with the suggestion. The Deep Magic is written not only on the Stone Table, but also “written in letters deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the World Ash Tree.” These words are “engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea.” It’s the bedrock of Narnia, the words and decree of the Emperor, and Aslan is not willing to fight against his father’s magic or authority.
So although everyone wants Edmund released from the consequences of being a traitor, there’s no clear way to do it if Jadis remains unwilling. In fact, if they refuse to follow the Law of the Deep Magic, Jadis says, “all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”
Aslan responds to this shocking detail by saying, “It is very true. I do not deny it.”
Edmund’s life is on one side of the scale, and Narnia’s existence on the other. Aslan seems to acknowledge that it is unjust in some sense (as he says to the Witch, “His offense was not against you.”). Aslan steps aside with Jadis to see if a deal can be brokered, and to the astonishment of all he returns and says, “She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood.”
The children do not know, at that moment, how this has been accomplished. But very soon they learn that Aslan, the creator of Narnia, the son of the Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea, the Great Lion himself, had agreed to exchange his life for Edmund’s. Aslan would die to save Edmund, the traitor, and also to protect the people of Narnia from destruction.
Which brings us, at last, to the theories of atonement in Narnia.
Atonement is, very simply, the act that brings two parties into unity. It’s often talked about in the context of reparations for wrongs done: How is the one who has done wrong going to make things right so relationship can be restored? In Christian theology, the term atonement is used almost exclusively to refer to the process by which humanity and God are reconciled to one another. Atonement restores relationship and brings unity.
In Christian theology, the central moment of atonement (the crux, if you will) is Jesus’s death on the cross. And, believe it or not, theologians have been working hard to explain what exactly happened on the cross and why it matters ever since. I like to imagine a few satyrs and dryads sitting around smoking pipes and drinking dew and debating these same questions about Aslan and his death at the Stone Table.
There are many theories of atonement, as many as seven “major” theories and probably as many minor ones. I want to talk about three in particular in this article: penal substitutionary atonement, ransom theory, and Christus Victor. Remember, we are looking for Lewis’s answer to “Why did Aslan have to die?” with the understanding that the goal of Aslan’s death is to restore humanity (and fauns and giants and talking animals and such) into right relationship with God (or the Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea).
I: Penal substitutionary atonement
Let’s get this out of the way from the top: this is not Lewis’s answer. I want to include it, though, because if you are a part of Evangelicalism or have interacted with many Protestants, this is the most popular modern explanation for atonement and how it works, and it’s important for us to clear the deck here so we can clearly see what Lewis is saying about Aslan.
Penal substitutionary atonement says that God must punish (penalize) those who have sinned, and that rather than punishing the wicked, he allowed Jesus to be punished (substituted in the place of the sinner). This is most often formulated in a way that makes it clear that sin makes God angry, and so the “wrath of God” must be satisfied (we won’t get into this, but penal substitutionary atonement grows out of another theory called “satisfaction theory.”).
So, very simply: humanity sins. God is angry, and there must be a punishment for this sin. But Jesus intervenes and takes humanity’s punishment. Then, once the just punishment has been meted out, God’s wrath is sated and humanity can enter into relationship with God.
However, in Narnia it’s important to note this: The Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea is not angry at Edmund. Aslan is not angry at Edmund. Neither the Emperor nor his son are requiring this punishment (though the Deep Magic makes it clear it is not unjust for Edmund to receive this punishment). In fact, Jadis can “relinquish her claim” to Edmund’s blood should she choose. It is Jadis who wants to sacrifice Edmund at the Stone Table which is, as the dwarf says, “the proper place.”
Lewis was not a fan of penal substitutionary atonement as a theory. The most positive thing he wrote about it was in Mere Christianity when he said, “This theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and silly as it used to.” So I guess he was warming to it. Slightly.
To sum up: Aslan didn’t die in Edmund’s place to satisfy the wrath of the Emperor or to absorb divine justice.
II: The Ransom Theory
Again, simplified, the ransom theory says that humanity’s sin bound us to death and put us under Satan’s control. Satan held humanity captive. Jesus died to “pay the ransom” and free humanity from their bondage. In other words, the death of Jesus was payment to free human beings (in some formulations it is God who is paid the ransom, but in the more common and earliest forms the payment is made to Satan). Obviously, there are some pretty big parallels here.
Edmund is the Witch’s by right because of his treachery. His blood belongs to her.
Aslan buys Edmund back with his own blood. (Side note: this is the concept of “redemption” in action—Aslan redeems (buys back) Edmund.)
It makes sense that Lewis would like this theory, as it’s both one of the oldest explanations of the atonement, and was one of the most popular for at least a thousand years of church history. Note that Lewis names his Christ figure in the Space Trilogy “Ransom.”
III: Christus Victor
In Christus Victor (Latin for “Christ is victorious”) there is no payment to the adversary. Instead, the death of Jesus functions to work God’s victory over all the forces of evil. The cross is a sort of trick, a trap, that allows Jesus to show his power over death (via his resurrection) and utterly defeat evil powers in the world.
There are a lot of aspects of this viewpoint in the story of the Stone Table. The Witch had no idea there was a “deeper magic” that would allow Aslan to be resurrected (of course she didn’t or she wouldn’t have made the deal!). And once Aslan is resurrected (note the mice who chew the ropes that bind him—I have a fun literary reference to share with you about that a little further along, here) the Great Lion leads Susan and Lucy to the seat of the Witch’s power, where he breathes on the stone animals and beasts and creatures and they all come to life again. Then (after three heavy blows upon the castle door), they burst loose from there and Aslan leads all his newly reborn allies to defeat the witch and her monstrous crew that very day (or, as Aslan says, “before bed-time”).
Aslan explains it like this:
“though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
In Christus Victor (or Aslanus Victor), the savior dies in the place of the sinner so that he can overcome his enemies and restore the whole world to its rightful state. As Aslan says before making his deal with Jadis, “All names will soon be restored to their proper owners.” Jadis will no longer be able to call herself “Queen of Narnia.”
Now it’s time for a fun aside from the sermons of St. Augustine (yes, we’re really throwing a party today!). In one of his sermons Augustine said, “The victory of our Lord Jesus Christ came when he rose, and ascended into heaven; then was fulfilled what you have heard when the Apocalypse was being read, ‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah has won the day’.” (When Augustine refers to “the Apocalypse” he’s talking about the book of Revelation in the Bible; specifically he’s quoting chapter five, verse five.) He then goes on to say, “The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death’s commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.”
So here’s a direct reference to the Lion who overcame his adversary by tricking his enemy into killing him on the cross, “the mousetrap” which was baited with his own death. Is this a little joke from Lewis, having the mice scramble out to gnaw away the cords which bound Aslan? I rather suspect it was.
At the end of the day, Lewis was a bit of a mystic when it came to questions of the atonement. In a letter in 1963, Lewis wrote, “I think the ideas of sacrifice, Ransom, Championship (over Death), Substitution, etc., are all images to suggest the reality (not otherwise comprehensible to us) of the Atonement. To fix on any one of them as if it contained and limited the truth like a scientific definition wd. in my opinion be a mistake.”
In Mere Christianity Lewis writes:
“A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
I’ll close with this: More than once I’ve been in conversation about Narnia and someone has talked about “Aslan’s dirty trick” in hiding the deeper magic from Jadis. Or I’ve been in conversation about Christianity and someone has referred to some version of atonement theory as being morally reprehensible or not understandable.
When we feel that way, Lewis would encourage us to look for the myth which rings true to us. What part of the story catches our imagination and quickens our pulse? Is it the moment when Susan and Lucy play tag with the resurrected Aslan? The kind-hearted forgiveness Aslan offers to Edmund? The humiliation and eventual triumph of the Great Lion? You should press into that part of the myth and seek truth there.
As Lewis wrote, “Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the Atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and if it does not help you, drop it.”