Sunday, May 4, 2008

Remembering Aslan

Screenshot of Aslan from the movie The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe © Walden Media

The movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005 Walt Disney version), was shown on network television last night. I happened to catch the end, which never fails to move me deeply on account of the memories it stirs of my first reading. Although this version has some weaknesses in other areas, including the final ending, it does a magnificent job of portraying the events immediately preceding and following the sacrifice of Aslan.

As many will recall, (*spoiler alert for those who do not know the story), Edmund, the boy who was tempted by the White Witch and betrayed his brother and sisters and all the good creatures of Narnia, is rescued and finally apologizes for his conduct. The White Witch, however, reappears and demands that Edmund be presented to her, citing the law that anyone who commits treachery in Narnia must be punished by her by death. Edmund's brothers and sisters and all the other good Narnia creatures, who had just been rejoicing at his return, look on despairing, not knowing what will become of Edmund. Aslan, the wise and powerful Great Lion, speaks. He acknowledges that the White Witch has correctly stated the law but he asks her to step aside to confer with him privately. They go off together and then return to the throngs of creatures on both sides who await their decision. Aslan looks sad and resigned. The White Witch looks elated but wary. Aslan then announces that the White Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund. The children and the creatures devoted to Aslan are happy and relieved. The White Witch then asks how can she be sure Aslan will keep his promise. Aslan roars loudly, causing her to retreat in haste.

Aslan and his followers return to their camp and prepare for the great battle. Aslan seems dejected and the others worry. Later that night, Lucy and Susan cannot sleep and discover that Aslan has left the pavilion and run and find him. He agrees to take them with him as long as they agree to go back when he asks them to. They travel on, the girls riding on his back, their hands deep in his fur and mane. He welcomes their comfort but remains sad and gloomy. Finally they all reach the Stone Table, the point where he must part with them. The girls turn back but instead of leaving, hide in the bushes.

The White Witch and her monstrous followers arrive. The Witch orders Aslan bound. He lies down and does not resist. His eyes show his pain and humiliation. The Witch, who appears to be about to kill him, stops suddenly, and thinks to order that Aslan be shaved. Her followers relish this task, holding up chunks of the great mane, and kicking and jeering at the supposedly all powerful Aslan. The Witch then has Aslan placed on the Stone Table. She raises her knife above him but pauses to tell him that while his death will appease the Deep Magic, and satisfy the need to punish Edmund as traitor, once Aslan is gone there will be nothing to prevent her from killing Edmund anyway. Aslan looks up in pain. Lucy and Susan, who are watching, turn their eyes away as the knife comes down, and look up to see him dead.

The Witch and her followers leave, Aslan's body remaining on the table. When all are gone, Lucy and Susan go to Aslan and embrace him once again. Tearfully they try to remove the ties that had bound him. They spend the rest of the night with him, crying with their arms and hands around him. Then morning comes. The girls notice mice running over Aslan's body. Susan tries to shoo them but Lucy stops her when she sees that they are nibbling the remaining cords that bound Aslan. Suddenly there is a loud, deafening noise, and the Stone Table cracks in two. Aslan's body vanishes. Then the girls look up and see Aslan standing, alive again. They rush to him and wonder if they have seen a ghost. But he reassures them he is real, as they feel his warm breath on them again. Aslan explains that if the White Witch had read further in the Deep Magic, she would have known that when a willing, innocent victim is killed by a traitor, the Stone Table will crack and death will be reversed.

This is not quite the end of the story because the great battle remains to be fought and the White Witch killed, but it is the apex. What surprised me when I first read it was that I knew it was coming, in part because I had heard something about the scene somewhere and knew of C.S. Lewis's reputation as a Christian writer, and in part because of all the Christian imagery and ideas planted in the story all along. Yet, when reading the book and even seeing the movie scene for the umpteenth time, I still felt suspense, tremendous dread, anguish and concern about what might happen and how it would all turn out.

Maybe I'm just one of those deeply affected by a story well told (or dramatized). Yet these scenes move me in ways that even I cannot explain. When I first read the book, I was already well into middle age, back in church, drawn to the Eucharist, accepting of the creeds, first received as a Lutheran, and later confirmed as an Episcopalian. The Lutheran pastor who had brought me back had given me copies of The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity (which I gratefully skimmed but put aside in favor of Luther's Large Catechism), and later I tried to read Narnia off and on, in the spirit of my newly found Anglicanism. But it took ordering the complete set a few years later, thinking my son might want to read them, that finally got me from The Magician's Nephew through to those scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And once I got there, I cried and cried. And something changed, something that had begun when I took my first Eucharist, later observed Lent and Holy Week, the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil, but had not yet been completed. It was as if something was still held back, though I did not know it, something that broke through some otherwise unmemorable weekend afternoon, book in hand, as Aslan came to life, died, and was resurrected.

Watching the movie again last night it struck me, what I think I realized at the time, that here at last was a Jesus I could really know, touch, and hold, like Lucy and Susan. Somehow, after many years of finding the figure of Jesus off-putting -- only finally being able to separate him from his fundagelical image by abstracting him, even as suffering and dying on the Cross, and taking him whole in the bread and the wine as a faceless, formless Trinitarian One -- that big, warm-blooded, furry, wild and powerful but compassionate Aslan finally made me feel what it is like to really know Jesus, to see and know what he did for us, and what it meant for him to give and for us to receive his sacrifice, just as if I had been there and witnessed it myself. Somehow this took me from a desperately wanting to not just believe but to see and feel something that was not just out of books or even creeds. Faith became flesh.

I suppose this all seems hopelessly sentimental. Responding to Narnia this way at all takes a certain kind of cultural mindset about animals and fantasy literature. I noticed in this morning's Epistle there was a reference to lions, the kind who devour people and other animals. And for those, like me, who may think of Aslan in part due to our relations with pets (cats and dogs), such feelings no doubt would not be shared by people in places like Rwanda where dogs scavenge and eat dead humans killed by war or genocide.

But I know a great many bloggers out there who have not only enjoyed but learned from their relationships with their pets. These relationships are especially important to humans who have struggled with betrayal and hurt from fellow humans, who can appreciate the faithfulness of their pets (yes, I know, cats and dogs differ in how they express and act on it), and can know something of God's love through them, as part of Creation. I'm not saying pets are human, and certainly not that Aslan is the equivalent or perfect representative of Jesus, but there is something marvelous about the simple, direct way Lucy and Susan reach out and touch Aslan, and he allows them to touch and embrace him, follow, weep over him, and finally be the first to see his return from the dead. It is that simple and direct relationship that many of us jeopardize when we get too bound up in doctrine or theology. And it is one I am thankfully reminded of whenever I see this story.


the Reverend boy said...

The sentimental in my always chokes up a bit when I read that part of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

And yes, our pets can truly teach us something about love, relationships and God.

Thank you for this.

klady said...

Thanks rev. boy. In hindsight it seems foolish of me to have tried to paraphrase Lewis, but... well. Had to seize the sentimental moment.

Although the ending seemed rather Disney (though I'm not sure how else one would do it), what I loved about the movie was that it seemed to get the timing right -- the suspense and the anguish of Aslan. I saw a couple filmed stage versions long ago and I was skeptical of how the new special effects would work with Aslan, but I think they did. Anyway, it worked for me, even tuning in at the very end.

o-mom said...

Sorry, I thought it was a God-awful movie. Flat and trivial in its treatment of Lewis' concepts which were much better in print. Just one of those movies you couldn't wait to be over, special effects notwithstanding. You might change your thinking after sitting through the entire thing. Some of the actors were just plain wooden. There was no excuse and it was hard to believe that they believed anything beyond that they were talking to a big lion puppet. Sad really.

klady said...

Well, actually I did see the entire thing before in the movie theater with my daughter. But I went with pretty low expectations. The kids and I had seen a version of it long ago on an old videotape we got from the public library in Illinois -- basically a filmed version of a stage production (very old educational t.v. or BBC?) -- which I liked very much and after that I saw some other version(s) which I could not stand. So what I was looking for in this movie was to get through it with some semblance of what I remembered of the book, and I did get that, in part because I the Big Scene worked for me, even the first time. I wasn't looking for great acting from most of the characters -- Aslan worked well for me and no one else much mattered, although the White Witch was at least pretty icy and scary.

Anyway, it could not dislodge the picture in my mind and the feel of Aslan's coat I got from the book. The rest... well, as far as I'm concerned, the rest of the plot about the kings and queens and the kids and all that always did strike me as pretty tedious. But Aslan's sacrifice is embedded in my imagination as something that finally, finally made sense to me. For some reason it's hard for me to image Jesus as a regular-looking man (don't know why), and a big furry, thoughtful, wise, compassionate lion does it for me. What can I say?