People come to Narnia from many different places. Some find the religious metaphors overwhelming, others don’t notice them at all. Some people love them because of the spiritual underpinnings. When we started this series, one thing I wanted to do was make the many allusions to Christian theology a little clearer for those who don’t come from a Christian background. In this article we’re going to look specifically at the moments when Jesus, uh, I mean Aslan, shows up in The Silver Chair.
There are a lot, and I mean a lot of Biblical allusions in this book. When Aslan walks in, Lewis piles them on top of each other until you could feel like you’re reading Bible fanfiction. This is no particular surprise, as Lewis loves to cobble together his mythology from a variety of places, and in Silver Chair we have references to Plato, Dante, Arthurian legends, Shakespeare (Rilian looks “a little bit like Hamlet”), and I’m guessing a whole lot more that I didn’t catch.
It all starts when Eustace and Jill do a little magic spell to try to get ahold of Aslan for help. This is the first time that we see something like prayer in the Narnia books…the children calling on Aslan’s name for help in the “real world.” They stumble into Aslan’s Country (not Narnia), and Eustace falls off a Very High Cliff. A great lion appears and blows Eustace to Narnia with a great wind that comes from his mouth. He eventually sends Jill there in the same way.
This is a clear—maybe the clearest in all of Narnia—reference to the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. In orthodox Christian theology, the Trinity is the idea that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three persons but one God. Not three gods, just one, but three persons, and all co-equal in divinity and status. Now, why would Aslan’s breath be a reference to the Holy Spirit? Because in both of the major Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) the words for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” are the same. Translators into English have to make a call on which word to use depending on context.
So, for instance, we have Jesus saying that followers of God must be “born of the Spirit” (capitalization here is interpretive on the part of translators). This is, by the way, where people get the terminology of being “born again.” Jesus goes on to say that “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” This seems like a pretty good description of what is going on with Jill and Eustace throughout this story. Aslan sends them where he wants them, including by blowing them to Narnia. One other Jesus moment of note: at the end of the book of John, Jesus is giving his followers their mission, their marching orders in the world, and it says, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Holy breath, holy wind.) Note that Jill, just like Eustace in Dawn Treader, ends up having a baptism moment as she passes through a cloud on her way to Narnia and comes out with her clothes wet. And of course it is Aslan’s Spirit that appears toward the end of the novel and blows away all of Narnia, revealing Aslan’s Country once again.
The references come thick in this next part: Jill follows the lion into the forest and sees a stream “bright as glass” that she immediately wants to drink from. This is a reference to the “water of life” as described in the book of Revelation (see Revelation 22:1), and using the same description. Jesus said this once, too, at the end of a Jewish Water-drawing festival, he stood among the crowd and said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” This is a reference back to Isaiah, and is mentioned again in Revelation 22, “Let all who are thirsty come and drink freely of the water of life.” Aslan comes quite close to quoting these scriptures when he says, “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.” There is no other stream, and Jill says she is “dying” of thirst. But the only way to life is through Aslan.
When Jill expresses concern that he may eat her, Aslan doesn’t promise he won’t because, as he says, he has swallowed up “girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.” This isn’t a direct reference, but I couldn’t help but hear the words of the prophet Daniel, who said that the Kingdom of God would “consume” all other empires. Or there is a quote in the gospel of Luke from an old prophet who meets the baby Jesus and says he is “destined to cause the rise and fall of many.”
Aslan asks Jill what became of Eustace, and she tells him the whole story, and makes it clear that it happened, mostly, because she was “showing off.” Aslan’s answer to her is, “Do so no more.” This is a clear echo of a story about Jesus, in which some religious leaders bring a woman who has been caught having sex with someone other than her husband. They ask him whether they should treat her according to Jewish law, which required that she receive the death penalty. A lot of religious people, then and now, would tell you that God must in a moment like this require death for the sin that has been committed—insisting that justice requires death—but Jesus instead says that whoever is without sin should “throw the first stone.” The leaders go away one by one, and Jesus says to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She says no one and he says, “Then neither do I condemn you” —which is an astonishing moment…no condemnation for this woman who was caught doing something wrong—and goes on to say “Sin no more.” (This is all in John 8:1-11).
Then Aslan starts talking to Jill about how she came to be in Aslan’s Country, and mentions that he had brought them here with a purpose. She says that she and Eustace were calling on “Somebody” (she can’t remember his name) to help them, not answering Aslan’s call and he says “You would not have called me unless I had been calling you,” a clear echo of Jesus’s words to his followers, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).
This exchange could get us into long theological debates about predestination and free will, a conversation that theologians absolutely love (if you don’t believe, me ask a pastor if they’re a Calvinist or an Arminian or something else and why), but one that Lewis had little patience for. He said that to even have the conversation requires an implication of the “ultimate reality of Time” which Lewis says he does not believe in. He goes on to say that it’s “undiscussible, insoluble” and “a meaningless question.” Lewis’s position is, more or less, “when we are most free, it is only with a freedom God has given us: and when our will is most influenced by Grace, it is still our will.” Or, as he goes on to say, “I’d leave it all alone.”
Jill asks Aslan if he is the “Somebody” they were asking for help and he says, “I am.” This is a heavily theological phrase in both Jewish and Christian theology, as it’s the name that God gives to himself when Moses asks who he is, a name that Jesus echoes when he claims to be God, a claim that drove his critics to accuse him of blasphemy and attempt to kill him. (Sidenote: you’ll notice that nearly all these Bible references come from the book of John or the Revelation, which according to Church tradition was also held to be written by John the apostle. Knowing Lewis, that is almost certainly not a coincidence.)
Aslan then gives Jill the signs and sends her on her way.
Let’s skip ahead now to the end of the novel, when the kids arrive together in Aslan’s Country once again. Aslan’s Country is not Narnia. It’s heaven. We saw this in Reepicheep’s journey, and will see again in the Last Battle. Some of the dialogue here about ghosts and who belongs in what world makes that clear as well, as does the resurrection of Caspian.
Now, this is a funny and strange thing about Christianity, and Christians don’t like to use this term, but there is a sort of limited reincarnation in Christian theology. Everyone dies in time, and Christian theology teaches that although the soul leaves the body at that time, that eventually everyone is put into new bodies (i.e. they are “incarnated again”), which are usually referred to as “heavenly bodies.” So in Christian theology, people aren’t running around as spirits for all of eternity—you get new, better bodies and still have physical form, still get to eat (a lot of descriptions about heaven involve food). In fact, our dying bodies will be “swallowed up by life” according to the Bible. (Check out 2 Corinthians 5:1-5.)
So it’s not surprising at all from a Christian point of view to see Aslan be so chill about resurrection. Everyone dies, everyone comes back to new life…some to Aslan’s Country and some to, as the Bible says, “everlasting destruction” (i.e. Hell). Everyone, good or evil, gets a resurrection of some kind. Now Lewis has some really interesting and unique thoughts about Hell, which we may touch on in The Last Battle, but that we’ll really get into it when we read The Great Divorce.
The important point being that Aslan wants to give us a little reminder here, a small change in our way of seeing the world. “(Caspian) has died. Most people have, you know. Even I have. There are very few who haven’t.” The only people who haven’t died are those of us who are still alive today. All of our ancestors have died (though they’re still alive in Aslan’s Country). There are more “dead” than living in the world.
But do note that Aslan sends Eustace to fetch a great thorn first, which has to be driven into his pad or palm, so that a great drop of blood can fall into the water of life to resurrect Caspian. This is, of course, a reference to the crucifixion: Aslan’s blood brings life, and the pierced “hands” of Aslan bring that life-giving force into the world.
And even before that, Aslan and the children cried to see death in the world. It’s not as it’s meant to be. Human beings weren’t supposed to die, not originally. And just as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, so Aslan weeps to see his friend Caspian laid low.
When Caspian wakes he says that he wishes he could see Earth and wonders aloud if that’s not a wrong thing to desire, and Aslan says, “You cannot want wrong things anymore.” There is a lot of theological work packed into this sentence, but I’ll just simplify and say that we are taught that when someone becomes a follower of Jesus, that they are given a “new heart” and that the deepest desires of the heart are transformed. In the Heavenly kingdom the desires to do evil are completely taken away…not, as Lewis would be quick to point out, because we lack free will, but because our deepest, truest selves do not desire to do evil to others.
Aslan promises the children he “will not always be scolding” which seems to me to be a reference to Psalm 103:8-10, which says, “He will not always accuse, nor will her harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve” because his is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love.” (Are those the first characteristics that come to most people’s minds when they think of God? If not, it may be you’ve been taught something different than how God describes God, here.)
Interestingly, Psalm 103 is actually a reference to another Bible story that Lewis is about to allude to. There’s a story in Exodus, where God says Moses will be allowed to see the glory of God, or at least the “backside” of that glory, because no one can see God and live. Moses hides in a cave, and God passes by. When Moses looks out to see the least of God’s glory, God self-describes using the same words that are quoted in that Psalm.
Which, of course, is exactly what we’re meant to think of when Aslan takes the children back to Experiment house and “lay down amid the gap he had made in the wall and turned his golden back to England, and his lordly face towards his own lands.”
And that, my friends, might seem like an awful lot, but it’s really only the allusions in two scenes out of the entire book. There are plenty of others along the way. But this brings us to the end of our posts about The Silver Chair. In a few weeks we’ll pick up with The Horse and His Boy if you’d like to read along. Stay safe out there. Beware of enchantments, and remember that human beings are not our enemies. Until next time! Aslan is on the move.