Content Note: Death, Bondage, Scarring from Cat Scratches, Roughhousing
Narnia Recap: Aslan has been executed by the White Witch at the Stone Table.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 15: Deep Magic From Before The Dawn Of Time
Well, you know what this Narnia deconstruction has been missing? Me being positive about the text, that's what. Brace yourselves, because I don't think I have anything negative to say about this chapter.
WHILE THE TWO GIRLS STILL CROUCHED in the bushes with their hands over their faces, they heard the voice of the Witch calling out,
"Now! Follow me all and we will set about what remains of this war! It will not take us long to crush the human vermin and the traitors now that the great Fool, the great Cat, lies dead."
At this moment the children were for a few seconds in very great danger. For with wild cries and a noise of skirling pipes and shrill horns blowing, the whole of that vile rabble came sweeping off the hilltop and down the slope right past their hiding-place.
Well, I guess I do have one criticism, but it's a reiteration of my earlier one that Aslan really should not have brought the girls with him to his execution. Even if we disregard the fact that they are children who should probably not have had this experience inflicted on them, there is also the point that they are very important children on whom the future of Narnia rests, so it would not be a stellar idea to let them get killed right after going through all this to save Edmund. Strategery!
But! We've already talked about that, so I won't dwell on it. I will instead note that I have learned a new word from this passage: skirling. It means "shrill" and is apparently almost exclusively used on bagpipes. I heartily encourage everyone on the site to work it innocuously into a comment at some point. I know I will be. For instance, my Primary Cat is a skirling cat. No doubt about that. (Auxiliary Backup Cat can also be skirling, but she's less skirling than Primary Cat.)
I will also point out here that I, personally, do not like bagpipe music. At all. I realize it has a rich and worthy history and I would never criticize anyone else for liking or producing it and I still tear up every time I watch the funeral send-off in "Braveheart", but I cannot hear the stuff without feeling like my brain is bleeding out my ears. And there is a bagpipe track on the excellent Claymore soundtrack, and I can't even bear that, so that's saying something because I love the music in that series. So all that is a long way to say that if C.S. Lewis meant to convey with this paragraph he doesn't like bagpipe music, then I personally am not going to disagree with him. *grin*
As soon as the wood was silent again Susan and Lucy crept out onto the open hilltop. [...] And down they both knelt in the wet grass and kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur -- what was left of it -- and cried till they could cry no more. And then they looked at each other and held each other's hands for mere loneliness and cried again; and then again were silent. At last Lucy said, "I can't bear to look at that horrible muzzle. I wonder could we take it off?"
This chapter is going to almost entirely focus on the unmuzzling, untying, and undying of Aslan. We start with the unmuzzling, which is initiated and completed by the two young queens of Narnia.
Lucy and Susan have, in only a few hours, transitioned from the world they knew as their home to a world completely foreign to them. This new world has jaunty fauns and talking animals and magic lions and vicious witches. Narnia is an amazing place, with moments of real joy -- consider how deeply wonderful they feel when they hear the name 'Aslan' -- but it's also a world that has at various points in the narrative confused, frightened, and mortally threatened them, and which now sends them spiraling into despair. They have lost everything they ever truly cared about in this world: Mr. Tumnus is stoned and gone; Aslan has been murdered.
The most logical course of action for these girls would be to leave Aslan here in this place, gather up their brothers, and disappear into the night. The Witch's troops are holed up in or near her castle, waiting the battle at dawn; Aslan's people are sleeping in their tents and are so inattentive that Susan, Lucy, and Aslan were all able to sneak out with a minimum of stealth or fuss. The four Pevensie children are alive, but not necessarily for much longer now that the Witch has killed Aslan. Surely the logistic difficulties involved in trekking back across the forest and finding the lamppost are significantly less cumbersome than the idea of seriously trying to win tomorrow's battle without Aslan there to rally the troops.
But Susan and Lucy don't do this. They don't even consider it. The narrator throughout this chapter describes them as being utterly lost to grief, and that's very possible, but I think their decision to stay is deeper than that. I think they don't consider leaving because they already consider Narnia their home. In the last few days, they've been on a whirlwind ride of loving and losing and seeing and experiencing and knowing. This Susan and Lucy are a different Susan and Lucy than the ones who lived in England a few days ago. This Susan and Lucy can no more get up and dust off their clothes and say let's leave this world for another one anymore than the English Susan and Lucy could have a few weeks ago when a world war forced them out of their house. The idea seems not to be conceivable to them.
When Susan and Lucy stay by Aslan's side, making the decision to unmuzzle him and then wait for a morning that -- as far as they know -- will change nothing, they make a decision to become citizens of Narnia. As cold, brutal, and horrific as this world can be, they're not going to seek to leave it. They've chosen to stick it out, for better or worse, and it is that moment of choice -- much like the choice that causes Peter and Edmund to grit their teeth and go into battle knowing they are likely to lose -- that makes them citizens of this world.
"I wonder could we untie him as well?" said Susan presently. But the enemies, out of pure spitefulness, had drawn the cords so tight that the girls could make nothing of the knots. [...]
But at last [Lucy] saw that whatever-it-was had begun to move up the upright stones of the Stone Table. And now whatever-they-were were moving about on Aslan's body. She peered closer. They were little gray things.
"Ugh!" said Susan from the other side of the Table. "How beastly! There are horrid little mice crawling over him. Go away, you little beasts." And she raised her hand to frighten them away.
"Wait!" said Lucy, who had been looking at them more closely still. "Can you see what they're doing?" [...]
"I do believe -- " said Susan. "But how queer! They're nibbling away at the cords!"
The girls are not able to untie Aslan, but the tiny Narnian mice are able to do the trick.
These are not Mice in the sense that Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are Beavers. These mice are not Talking Mice, for there are none; Aslan didn't make Talking Mice at the Dawn of Time. He made mice, but did not bestow on them the gift of speech or the special protections that come from being an Animal.
The mice are (presumably) prey for practically every animal and Animal in Narnia. They may well be prey for Aslan, assuming he eats at all. As Aslan is lord of Narnia, so too is he lord over the mice and has dominion over them, but their treatment under his lordship cannot be reasonably different from their treatment under the reign of the White Witch: they are the food, no matter who is in charge. Aslan has, in short, never given the mice anything except their existence as the lowest on the Narnian food chain.
Yet it is these mice that step forward to help Aslan, and to restore his dignity. They are the only animal or Animal who both witnessed Aslan's execution and then stepped forward from the protection of the shadows to offer him help. They do so not out of love, or duty, or because his fight against the White Witch will benefit them in the long run. They do so because they take pity on him, or possibly because they value him in spite of everything he hasn't done for them.
And Aslan -- not here, not now, but in the time between now and the next book -- will honor his debt to the mice. In Prince Caspian, Aslan will announce that he bestows a favor on a Mouse "for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice)."
And so we find that in the same chapter where Susan and Lucy transform from English citizens to Narnian ones, so too will the mice transform from Narnian food to Narnian citizens. And I think there is a certain symmetry there: both girls and mice transform because they stay beside Aslan, not because they reasonably think that doing so will help him or themselves, but because they value him. Even if they don't have any reason to value him, as with Susan and the mice! I find that very touching.
Susan and Lucy take a quick wall around the hill to warm themselves up after their long night vigil.
At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise -- a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant's plate. [...] The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan. [...]
"Who's done it?" cried Susan. "What does it mean? Is it more magic?"
"Yes!" said a great voice behind their backs. "It is more magic." They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
"Oh, Aslan!" cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.
"Aren't you dead then, dear Aslan?" said Lucy.
"Not now," said Aslan.
"You're not -- not a -- ?" asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn't bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her.
"Do I look it?" he said.
Though we really don't get to dwell on it, Lucy and Susan are as brave here as Peter and Edmund will be in battle later. The girls rush back to the Stone Table ready to defend Aslan's corpse with their bare hands, even knowing that in the light of day they will certainly be immediately seen and killed.
And then we have the resurrection scene. Aslan is restored to his former glory, with his mane grown back and the blood washed from his coat. Susan doesn't quite ask to see his stigmata, but she does get a heady scent of cat dander and warm breath. And you know, I find that touching, too. But what I like most about this scene, and the roughhousing that follows, is that this is really the first time where I've understood why the girls like Aslan so much and are referred to in later texts as having such a close connection to him. (Or, at least, Lucy is. But I said I'd be positive today.)
The girls have already been described as being close to Aslan, but in a way I don't fully comprehend. He has a magic name that makes you feel lovely all over, yes, but he is also stated to look very frightening. He was rude and curt to Susan when she made a perfectly sensible suggestion in the hopes that it might save her brother's life. And he then roared at the White Witch so fearsomely that no one dared to ask how he had saved Edmund.
And I know that a few pages later the girls were running their fingers all through his hair rapturously when he asked them to, but as a kid that didn't ring really true for me. I mean, I adore cats and always have and I've got two of them now and Husband understands that there will always be at least two cats in the house because that is how much I love cats. So I understand wanting to pet the pretty lion. I get that.
But I also have permanent scratch marks all over both my arms from where our house cat when I was six took umbrage to being dressed in doll's clothes and decided after the first bite! ouch! let kitty go! that it would be best to extract revenge right there in the middle of my heartfelt apology. Twice. Cats are complicated like that. And I learned soon after that that cats like to show you their tummy so that they can remind you all the reasons why you shouldn't dress them in dolls clothes. So even as a child, while I could understanding wanting to pet the pretty lion, I would have waited until my hypothetical little sister went first. I'm just saying.
Well, that story got away from me there. Anyway, my point is that here, I understand the love and affection and connection. As deeply traumatic and horrible and awful and really-should-not-have-been-witnessed-by-children as this event was, it is the sort of event where the resurrection after could really bind the participants together emotionally. They've gone through something incredibly difficult together, and come out the other side with everything all better now, and I think that could create a deep connection. Lucy and Susan, of all the children in this series, will be the only ones who saw Aslan in his intensely vulnerable state, who sat vigil by his corpse, and who saw him in all his glory and gladness when he came back to life. That's powerful.
"It means," said Aslan, "that 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 there 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 backward."
And, oh dear, I really did say I had nothing bad to say about this chapter and I think I've lied. I'll try to say this as non-badly as I can.
I have always seen Aslan as a Jesus allegory. I have always seen this portion of the text as a shout-out to the sometimes-expressed theological theory that only Jesus could die for our sins because only he was pure and sinless. If anyone else had stepped up to the plate to die for our sins, it wouldn't have worked because they themselves weren't sinless. In this particular theory, Jesus was the only possible sacrifice that could work as a substitution for us. And while I don't really hold with that theory and while I know there are a lot of Christians who don't hold with this theory, I did at least figure that C.S. Lewis was invoking that here and... once again I feel like something was lost in the translation.
This explanation from Aslan only seems to work if the reader understands this is an allusion to the Jesus As Uniquely Sinless theory; otherwise I feel like we're left wondering why no one else has ever volunteered to be substituted for a traitor before, especially if "traitor" is so vague in this world that it also includes 9-year-old boys who haven't, in my opinion, really done anything treacherous.
I mean, saying that the substitution has to be someone who has "committed no treachery" is not the same thing as saying that the substitution has to be someone who has committed no sin. Narnia doesn't seem to have a concept of a Fall and Original Sin, nor for that matter of Original Treachery. Furthermore, the Witch here is an active executioner not a passive collector of souls. She doesn't wait for death to come to the sinner; she brings death to the traitor. I think we can infer from Jadis' active status and the fact that not everyone in Narnia is dead that quite a few people in Narnia have "committed no treachery" and therefore would -- apparently -- be just as capable of substitution-and-resurrection as Aslan. The only difference seems to be that the other Narnians wouldn't be assured of resurrection beforehand.
So how does this work that no one has ever offered themselves as a substitute before? Do the treacherous of Narnia have no loved ones, no family, no friends, no lovers that value them over their own lives? (Which isn't to say that just because you love someone, you should be willing to die for them, but some people are willing to die for others nevertheless.) Is the key that people have offered and the Witch has just never taken them up on the offer? But is that's the case, that's a strange escape clause because -- as noted -- a wiser Witch would have just told Aslan that she'd stick with her original victim.
More than anything, I guess, what's been lost in the translation seems to paint the Narnians as very different from the people I know, or paints the Emperor as even more evil and/or short-sighted when (presumably) he set up all these laws before the Dawn of Time. And that kind of throws me out of the text a little. But I said I would be happy today, so let's move on.
Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.
And now we're back to me being happy because I can understand the bond between the two girls and Aslan. I think, in some ways, that this is when I as a reader formed a bond to Aslan. This is a piece of personality, a piece of characterization, that we haven't seen before: Playful Aslan. Happy Aslan. Relieved Aslan. The mask comes off and he's not a frightening god or a stern lecturer or a nurturer who -- as the narrator can't stop reminding us -- isn't tame and could tear you to pieces at any time but probably won't. No, he's a kitten just relieved to be alive, rolling around on the ground with the girls and chasing his tail. That brings tears to my eyes.
This Aslan feels like a person. He had worry and doubt and sorrow and regrets. Now he has relief and happiness and joy and that lovely feeling that the worst has happened and everything is going to be okay. He's giddy. I like that.
Even if we have to be reminded that he's so terrible that it's like playing with a thunderstorm. I am not going to let that ruin my happy.
"We have a long journey to go. You must ride on me." And he crouched down and the children climbed onto his warm, golden back, and Susan sat first, holding on tightly to his mane and Lucy sat behind holding on tightly to Susan. And with a great heave he rose underneath them and then shot off, faster than any horse could go, down hill and into the thick of the forest. [...]
Next moment the whole world seemed to turn upside down, and the children felt as if they had left their insides behind them; for the Lion had gathered himself together for a greater leap than any he had yet made and jumped -- or you may call it flying rather than jumping -- right over the castle wall. The two girls, breathless but unhurt, found themselves tumbling off his back in the middle of a wide stone courtyard full of statues.
And it's interesting to me that everything really is going to be okay. You can feel it -- in the aftermath of the tension of the death and resurrection, everything else is to follow will really mostly be wrapping up loose ends, like that whole Witch War thing. And we won't even see anything but the tail-end of that.
We the readers are not going to get to see the Very Scary Battle where Edmund is wounded and Peter is nearly defeated. That's going on right now, but we don't get to see it because it's not really the focus of the story. Instead we get to follow Aslan and the girls as they make everything lovely and better and cozy with the magic power of Aslan's magic breath and magic roar. And I don't think that's a coincidence that we're following Aslan now and almost to the end of the novel -- I really do think he's the main character of the novel now. And possibly he always was.
The raison d'etre of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe", at least as I see it, is the death and resurrection of Aslan. Everything else -- the Pevensie children and their evolution from frightened kids to confident monarchs, the war for the liberation of Narnia, the defeat of the ancient evil that has plagued the land for centuries -- these things are significantly less important than the life, death, and rebirth of Aslan.
And maybe that's okay. It's not every day that a mythological figure dies and is reborn. (Although it does happen once a year in quite a few mythologies.) Maybe I can't reasonably complain that the Pevensie children's loss of Narnia after a decade or more of living there is treated with a few throw-away lines, since it's not their story. I mean, I probably still will complain, but not today.
Ana's Note: Actually, I did remember after writing this that I like Heather Alexander's "March of Cambreadth". And that has bagpipes. So now I think I have to go join the Jadis side.