The battle against the forces of darkness is, first and foremost, a rescue operation. Or so Jill Pole is told. Aslan advises her that her quest is to seek the lost Prince Rilian, “until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back into your own world.”
Her job is not to destroy the Lady of the Green Kirtle—Aslan doesn’t even mention her—or to prevent war in Narnia, or to bring justice for those talking beasts who have been eaten by giants. Jill has one clear job, and Aslan has specifically called her and Eustace here to do it.
Aslan gives Jill a tool to help her in her quest: a series of four “signs.” They are, Aslan says, “the signs by which I will guide you in your quest.” They’re legitimately terrible signs; more like riddles, really. We have to reckon with this strange, unclear, possibly unfair reality that Aslan doesn’t share everything he knows with Jill—not even helpful information that could help her to be more effective in her service to him.
Lewis clearly intends the four signs to be some sort of analog for scripture. They are a guide that Aslan tells Jill to repeat to herself “when you wake and when you lie down”—an echo of the instructions about the Torah (see Deuteronomy 6:7) and the wise commands and teachings of your parents: “When you walk, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; when you awake, they will speak to you.” (Proverbs 6:22, NIV)
One key thing to keep in mind regarding the complications to come as the story unfolds: when Jill accidentally knocks Eustace over the cliff, and Aslan asks her what happened, she replies that she “was showing off.” Aslan tells her that’s a good answer, and “your task will be harder because of what you have done.” It’s not clear why it’s harder, since she arrives in Narnia within a few moments of Eustace arriving, but Aslan has always made it clear to Lucy in past books that you don’t get to know “what might have been” if you had done the right thing. Maybe it’s just that she receives Aslan’s instructions and Eustace isn’t there for them. But a theme that’s repeated throughout the book is that the hardships the protagonists face along the way are largely the result of their own character flaws informing their actions.
In any case, the four signs Aslan gives Jill are: “First; as soon as the Boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend. He must greet that friend at once; if he does, you will both have good help. Second; you must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancient giants. Third; you shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you. Fourth; you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan.”
The first sign is bungled as soon as they arrive. Maybe they would have done better if Aslan had said, “You’ll see an ancient king who is actually your friend Caspian because it’s been years since you were here last time.” Still, the first sign is disobeyed out of ignorance. Eustace doesn’t recognize anyone as “an old friend.” (And hey, maybe it really is a riddle and Eustace was supposed to discover that it was a friend-who-is-old.) In any case, Aslan said if they followed this first sign then they’d get a lot of help along the way, but they don’t. So instead of “lots of help” they get sleepy owls and, eventually, a rather cranky Marsh-wiggle, which actually turns out for the best.
The second sign they abandon because of hardship. The weather is painfully cold, and the evil Lady in the Green Kirtle has suggested that there are warm beds and plenty of food to be had if they turn away to visit Harfang. It seems that our crew was almost there, though, because, unbeknownst to them, they were standing in the “third sign” at the moment they decide to head for Harfang.
The third sign is actually giant letters etched into the outskirts of the giant city that includes the words “UNDER ME.” This sign is meant to tell them to look under the giant city for Rilian. Now remember that Aslan knew perfectly well exactly where Rilian was. He could have simply said, “Go look under the ruined giant city for Rilian, where he’s held captive and enchanted by a witch.” He knew all those things. He doesn’t offer this information, though, and even now, with two of the three signs missed, Aslan doesn’t give a fuller revelation to Jill and Eustace. Instead, he just helps them get back on track with a dream…a dream where he literally just tells Jill the same words she would have seen if they had gone up to the ruined city as they were meant to do: “UNDER ME.”
Jill wonders if maybe the words UNDER ME were added later, after they missed them. But Eustace corrects her on that. “You were thinking how nice it would have been if Aslan hadn’t put the instructions on the stones of the ruined city till after we’d passed it. And then it would have been his fault, not ours. So likely, isn’t it? No. We must just own up. We’ve only four signs to go by, and we’ve muffed the first three.”
So they miss the first sign because of ignorance. The second because of hardship. The third because it relied on following the second. But the fourth…the fourth they understand (it’s pretty straightforward) and debate whether to follow it because they’re not sure what the consequences will be. It’s an important moment. They’re worried because Rilian—who is tied to the Silver Chair in that moment—is supposedly having a moment of “madness” when he asks them, in the name of Aslan, to help him. They don’t know what the consequences will be if they let him loose, if it will be good or bad. But they know this is the moment, this is the fourth sign of Aslan.
Puddleglum tells the kids, “Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do.” Whether the personal consequences are beneficial or dire, they need to do the right thing. So they do, and of course in this story everything works out for the best, as a result.
So why did Aslan give such vague instructions? Why not tell them exactly what needed to be done? Why not, for that matter, just do it himself? He has the power to simply walk into Underland and free Rilian. Why did he let Rilian fall under the Lady’s spell, and let her maintain a hold on the prince for years, and why let Caspian set out to sea seeking him if he was only going to announce that the king should turn back home, because Rilian has been saved and will meet him there?
Well, Lewis would tell us, this is the way it is in the war against forces of darkness.
There is a misunderstanding for some about the nature of evil and good in the Christian faith, and Lewis is touching on it here. Satan isn’t the equal and opposite of God. Satan is immensely weaker. Created by God. Lesser than God. When Satan is kicked out of heaven, God doesn’t even bother to do it: God has an angel take care of it. And though in other Narnian adventures we have seen Aslan intervene at the climactic moment to save the day, in this story—the one about fighting spiritual war—he acts as guide, commander-in-chief, and coach, but leaves the actual quest to his servants. Lewis is telling us clearly that, like Aslan, God could certainly intervene or, for that matter, simply take care of things himself. Instead, he gives us a role to play, and invites us into the work of fighting against evil in the world.
What happens in the story is precisely what Aslan intends. Puddleglum says, “Aslan’s instructions always work: there are no exceptions.” Aslan imparts the vague rules, the unclear instructions, in part so that Eustace and Jill will have the experiences that they do, so that the story would end the way it does. His instructions lead to the end he desires.
As Puddleglum notes, when the enchanted Rilian mocks them for thinking UNDER ME was a message to look under the city: “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”
This may be, also, why we see that Aslan is not interested in punishing the kids for getting things wrong along the way. They did what needed to be done, they learned the lessons they needed to learn. In a moment that’s one of my favorite scenes in the book, Aslan makes it clear he’s not interested in chastising the kids for what they got wrong on their quest. Jill tries to find a way to tell Aslan she’s sorry for missing the signs, for fighting with Eustace, for all the ways she has messed up along the way, and Aslan touches his tongue to her forehead and to Eustace’s forehead and says, “Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.”
No scolding. No condemnation. No instructions about how to do better next time. Just a reminder that at the end of the day she had done what Aslan wanted her to do: find the lost prince and bring him home.
Then they are taken—along with the newly resurrected Caspian—to “set things right” at Experiment House and clear it out of all the bullies and “cowards.” They’re told to only use the flats of their swords, not to kill anyone, and again Aslan gives instructions but doesn’t participate other than to “show his backside” to them by lying across the gap in the broken wall, facing away from England and toward Narnia.
Once again we are reminded that in a spiritual war, it is not human beings who are our enemy. Even the right-hand warrior of the evil serpent may be an enchanted prince. And the role of Aslan’s people, the quest, the mission, is to find those who have been lost, those who have been enchanted and bring them home. Some bullies might have to be scared off, and some cowards might need to be moved on to other jobs, but we have to remember they are still, at worst, only people who have been deceived by the power of deep spiritual enchantments.
In the midst of all that, Aslan brings other unexpected gifts, too: transformations for Jill and Eustace, and changes for the better in their own lives. Once all the bullies and cowards are chased away, “things changed for the better at Experiment House, and it became quite a good school.” The terrifying dark lake of Underland becomes a holiday spot for Narnians on hot days. And, perhaps most importantly, “Jill and Eustace were always friends.”
This holds true, I think. To follow Aslan on a quest, to fight spiritual darkness—even when done poorly, even when we mess it up, even if there are consequences for doing the right thing—nearly always leads to new relationships, and even lifelong friendships.
So, my friends, a reminder for today: in Lewis’ conception of the world, we are invited into a war with dark forces. Not against people, but against those who would harm people. Our mission, our quest, our role is to seek and to find those who have been captured, enchanted, corrupted or deceived—even if they are serving the darkness—and bring them home. And, we hope, to learn something about ourselves and to make new, lifelong friends along the way.