“I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” That’s what Jack “C.S.” Lewis wrote to one of his friends when he was 17 years old.
Lewis told us, years later, that The Horse and His Boy is the story of the “calling and conversion of a heathen.” He doesn’t mean the term “heathen” as something offensive, and would of course put his past self in that same category. He was also—when he was an atheist—sensitive to the arrogance of religious people who talked as though they had found the truth and he had not. Never one to shy away from strong opinions, he didn’t seem to take it personally when others thought him arrogant in the same way after his conversion.
In fact—and we see this reflected in this book—Lewis seemed to have a great deal of affection for those who had not found Christ (or, as I’m sure he would have said, had not yet found Christ). Before we dig in to what Lewis says about conversion in this book, I thought it would make for some interesting parallels to touch on a few points about Lewis’s own conversion…
As an atheist, Lewis found himself moving toward a deep certainty that life was, at the end of it all, full of despair: “Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real, I thought grim and meaningless.” At the same time, he felt a presence—a Someone—trying to get into his life. He said he felt that he was “holding something at bay, or shutting something out.” He described it as something chasing him, something he could not escape. He was afraid.
In 1929 he felt he could run no longer. In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes:
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
Far from a joyful arrival into theism, he was “brought in kicking, struggling, resentful” and looking for “a chance of escape.”
We’re going to simplify a few things, but for sure his reading of G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald (particularly Phantastes) had a profound effect on Lewis in those days. But it was a late night conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien (who was Catholic) and Hugo Dyson (who was Anglican) on September 20th, 1931, that he said was the tipping point of his conversion to Christianity. And, as is typical for Lewis, the conversation wasn’t about any one thing. They talked about metaphor and myth, then moved on to Christianity. Then they talked about love and friendship, and then books and poetry (particularly the work of William Morris).
Lewis would write later that the key transformative truth of their conversation was this:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself…I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.
Tolkien left the conversation about 3 am that morning, but Lewis and Dyson stayed up until 4 am, discussing it all further, leaving Lewis with the suspicion that, “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things,’…namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”
Interestingly, he said it wasn’t until nine days later when he took the final plunge into full-on Christian faith. His brother was taking him to the Whipsnade Zoo on his motorcycle and Lewis said, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.”
This was a journey of years for Lewis, more than a decade between his firm atheism and his reluctant theism, and another two years from there to Christianity. Lewis doesn’t describe his conversion as primarily a journey of the intellect. It’s not about changing his beliefs and then becoming aware of God, but the opposite: He encounters God in various places, and the awareness of this Person changes his beliefs. In Surprised by Joy he describes his journey as largely a search for beauty, which he experienced as the doorway which most often led to him experiencing joy.
All of this, of course, is reflected in The Horse and His Boy. Though Shasta is our “main” heathen in the book, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin all have interesting moments on the journey as well.
Shasta had always been interested in “the north.” There was nothing interesting to the south, and he knew nothing about the north. He wasn’t allowed to go and the man he knew as his father also didn’t know what was to the north, nor was he interested. When a stranger comes to their hut, Shasta is given his twin reasons for running toward Narnia: fear of slavery in Calormen, and excitement about the strange and beautiful land Bree describes… “An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.”
So they set off, and it isn’t long before they have their first run-in with lions. “(Shasta) was feeling less frightened of lions than Bree because he had never met a lion; Bree had.” We’re told later, of course, that this is Aslan himself.
Shasta continues on through his adventures, at first scared by a lion. He is comforted by a strange cat at the tombs outside Tashbaan. A lion scares them badly enough to make them run faster, so they can get news of the impending invasion to the good people of the north. In the end, Shasta and his companions are confronted by a lion which mauls Aravis, and, at last, Shasta stands up to it, and it turns and leaves.
He doesn’t know anything about this lion (for of course these are all Aslan) until he is riding in the middle of the night (no doubt around 3 or 4 in the morning, just like Lewis) and hears “The Voice.” Shasta tells this Voice all about his troubles, and the Voice assures him it was not so bad: “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
Aslan has been alongside Shasta his whole life, he just never knew. He saw lions and didn’t know they could have a name. He had no memory of being saved from the waters (much like Moses) and delivered to foreigners to be raised (much like Moses), so that he could have a face-to-face encounter with God in the desert and help the people of his birth defeat his adopted nation (much like…um, Moses).
When Shasta sees Aslan, really sees him, his experience is that, “No-one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.” Much like Lewis, the personal interaction with God that has drawn him to this encounter has been with fear of the terrible or desire for the beautiful. Having found Aslan at last, he falls to his knees without a word. The High King touches his tongue to Shasta’s forehead and disappears in glory. It could have been a dream, but Shasta sees a lion’s footprint overflowing with water. Shasta drinks the living water and baptizes himself in Aslan’s footprint.
So we see in Shasta’s story that he is called to Aslan by Aslan himself. He doesn’t come to Narnia because he’s convinced of it, but because he is chasing beauty and running from slavery. We’re told he knows neither the true stories of Aslan from Narnia, nor the Calormene stories of the demon lion of Narnia. Yet he becomes a follower of Aslan as soon as Aslan reveals himself.
Aravis, on the other hand, we can assume knows the name of Aslan well. She’s been trained as a storyteller and is part of high society. We hear the Tisroc say at one point, “It is commonly reported that the High King of Narnia (whom may the gods utterly reject) is supported by a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a Lion.”
Though Aravis’s story is much more about escaping the world she knows to find something better, she, too, has an important encounter with Aslan. She’s scared by the lion in the desert, yes, but the more important moment is when Aslan catches her with his claws. Shasta scares it away… or so it seems. But even the kind hermit notices that the lion attack is not what it seems: “It must have been a very strange lion; for instead of catching you out of the saddle and getting his teeth into you, he has only drawn his claws across your back. Ten scratches: sore, but not deep or dangerous.”
It is because, as Aslan tells us later, he is giving Aravis the same wounds that her stepmother’s slave got when Aravis escaped. “You needed to know what it felt like,” he tells her. He’s trying to teach her compassion, and apparently it works because she immediately asks if the girl who has been enslaved is well. She apologizes to Shasta (now converted to Cor) soon after…though she assures him it’s not because he’s a prince. She realized her own mistakes when Shasta tried to protect her from the lion.
It would be easy, I would think, for Aravis to fall back into the Calormene reading of Aslan at this point, the foreign demon. He chased her, frightened her, and attacked her. Yet she sees these things, apparently, as Aslan intended…pains brought for her good and her enlightenment, another theme we’ve seen played out in Narnia before. Pain can sometimes bring us to an awareness of truth. But Aslan makes it clear, too, that whole unpleasant business is behind them now. “My paws are velveted,” he tells her, and invites her to come close to him without fear.
Hwin’s journey, like Hwin herself, is the simplest. She wanted to go to Narnia to escape Calormen, and she does. She was afraid of being eaten on the road, but as soon as she sees Aslan clearly she offers to let him eat her if he wants. “You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.” Likewise she requires no explanations or corrections, just a simple speech from Aslan, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.”
Now, poor, proud Bree has been the expert on Narnia for the whole book and, it seems, the expert on Aslan. We could say he was closest to Aslan of all of them. He wasn’t ignorant like Shasta, or misinformed like Aravis. He had seen lions before. But, big expert that he is, he thinks that Aslan being a lion is all metaphor. But even the people of Tashbaan know better than Bree on this point. “It would be disrespectful” to suggest he was a “Beast just like the rest of us.”
Of course he’s wrong, and Aslan sneaks up on him and proves it. “You poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”
Certainly there is an echo here of Jesus appearing to his followers after he has died and come back to life and telling them that he is not a ghost. He tells Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” The point being not so much that Thomas had doubts, but rather that God gave Thomas what he needed to be able to believe. And so Aslan has done the same for Bree…given him proof that he is not only the Son of the Emperor but also an actual, incarnate being in a lion’s body.
And Bree says he has been a fool, and Aslan says he’s ahead of the game for figuring it out so young.
So we see that all four of our main compatriots go through the experience of some version of the movement from ignorance of Aslan to joy in his presence. And none of them are transformed through reading a book, or losing a theological or philosophical argument. Because Lewis saw conversion as the moment when you cannot run from (or toward) Aslan any longer, because you have arrived in his presence. Conversion is purely the moment when one becomes aware of Aslan’s presence, and Aslan’s goodness.
We are given a contrast to our four heroes. Poor Rabadash the Ridiculous. Aslan appears to the Calormene prince, and encourages him to “accept the mercy” offered to him by the royal families of Narnia and Archenland. He need only set aside his anger and his pride, and accept mercy.
But Rabadash refuses, despite Aslan’s repeated warnings and shouts out the things he has been taught about the demon lion of the North… “the foul fiend of Narnia,” enemy of the gods. Rabadash promises violence and defeat for Aslan at the hand of Tash and makes a variety of faces that are meant to be intimidating and frightening. It is when he calls Susan “the daughter of dogs” that he has apparently gone too far, and Aslan turns him into (or reveals that he is?) an ass.
He’ll be healed in time, in the temple of his god and in front of all his people. But if he ever wanders more than ten miles from the temple, he’ll revert to his donkey shape.
So, again, in Lewis’s economy, it’s not the one who believes in Aslan who is a fool, and it’s not those who don’t believe in Aslan who are fools. It’s those who have seen Aslan face to face and refused to acknowledge who he is. Such people do not leave their encounter with Aslan unchanged (Rabadash not only became a donkey, he also became one of the most peaceable Tisrocs in history)…but they are foolish and rightly regarded as ridiculous.
Lewis saw himself in all these stories. He had been the foolish Rabadash, the prideful Bree, the ignorant Shasta, the thoughtlessly cruel Aravis and even, eventually, the gentle and willing Hwin.
Lewis believed that the road to conversion was one that required the presence of God. God moves one upon it. God starts the journey and is the culmination of it—there is no need for flailing about and fretting about theology, but rather one need only do one’s best not to fight the loving invitation to relationship.
This is reflected in the world that he created: There is a lion in the north, we are told, who wants good things for all people and all beasts and indeed creatures of every kind. This lion does not only invite us into his presence, but calls us. Aslan will give us a push if we need it. Will we be harmed on the path? Perhaps. He is not safe, but good. He makes no promises that he won’t devour individuals or nations. But those who have come to know him say that the journey is worth the trouble, and that in the lion’s presence they can become something better than they were before meeting the lion. That they have found beauty, and purpose, and wholeness in Narnia.
In this world today, friends, I have to say that I pray this will be so for each of us. Until next time, remember that Aslan is on the move. Be safe, be well, and let’s take care of one another.