Repost: The Passion of Aslan

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content.

[Content Note: Death, Torture, Execution]

Narnia Recap: The four children have joined Aslan at the Stone Table. The White Witch has demanded Edmund as a traitor sentenced to death, and Aslan has made a secret deal with the Witch, out of the hearing of the rest of the company. The Witch's final question -- "But how do I know this promise will be kept?" -- was answered with a fierce roar from Aslan, and she fled the camp in fear.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 14: The Triumph of the Witch

I want to say a few things before we start this chapter.

The biggest cause I had for hesitation when planning a Narnia deconstruction was Chapter 14 of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe". I hesitated because I know that this is intended to be an incredibly emotional and difficult passage, and I'm deeply concerned about extending it the proper respect. I strongly considered skipping this chapter entirely, but finally it seemed to me that the best thing to do would be to include the chapter, but to do so as respectfully as I possibly can. However, I want to apologize deeply in advance should I say or write anything inappropriate or insensitive, and I do encourage anyone to speak up to me -- either in the comments or, if you prefer, by email -- if I cause offense.

Also, I recognize that many people read this chapter as an allegory of the crucifixion of Jesus, and that many other people emphatically do not. I very much want to be respectful of the subject matter and not mock or belittle anyone's religious beliefs, and I would like that respect to permeate both this post and the comments as much as possible. It's worth remembering going in that there are almost as many interpretations of the crucifixion of Jesus as there are church denominations, and this Narnian version -- if, indeed, it is meant to be one -- is simply one man's interpretation in a sea of thousands. I hope to approach the Narnia text with that in mind.

So having said that, let's move into the text. And -- advance warning -- all this seriousness has left me a little nervous, so there will be silly pictures ahead in an attempt to lessen the tension a little. I apologize in advance.

   AS SOON AS THE WITCH HAD GONE ASLAN said, "We must move from this place at once, it will be wanted for other purposes. We shall encamp tonight at the Fords of Beruna."
   Of course everyone was dying to ask him how he had arranged matters with the witch; but his face was stern and everyone's ears were still ringing with the sound of his roar and so nobody dared.

Edmund, you will recall, has just been a topic of heated conversation. The Witch has labeled him as a traitor and Aslan has not objected to this classification. The Witch and Aslan have both clarified to the entire company that traitors were sentenced to death at the Dawn of Time by magic-rules so deeply ingrained in the foundations of the world that, should they ever be broken, the world will perish in fire and flood. It would seem that Edmund's goose is pretty much roasted.

Now Chapter 13 ended with a little teaser where Aslan and the Witch went for a little walk and had a heart-to-heart and then when Aslan came back he told the company that the Witch had "renounced the claim on your brother's blood." And there was much rejoicing.

Except... that's not quite how the debate was being framed earlier. Mr. Beaver was right (if possibly gender-insensitive) when he labeled the Witch as "the Emperor's hangman"; she's owed the blood of traitors because the Emperor or the Deep Magic or something at the Dawn of Time apparently decided that traitors needed killing. The fact that she owns the blood of traitors should not automatically mean that she can also pardon them as she pleases or accept a trade in their stead; that's generally not within the purview of an executioner.

The fact that it is within the Witch's purview here is singularly odd to me, and I think it would be considered odd to everyone in Aslan's company. In fact, I think it would be very fair to question why an Enemy of Narnia was put in charge of the execution of Traitors to Narnia, but then given the power to pardon them as she pleases. It seems like there are some conflicts of interest there.

Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself, because no one in Aslan's company knows any of this. "Everyone" positively ached to know how he arranged matters with the Witch, but "nobody dared" to ask him because the residual effect of his roar to the Witch has frightened them all. These pronouns are distressing to me, because not "everyone" has the same stake in this decision. The Narnians lose their world in an apocalypse of fire and flood if the magic-rules aren't followed; the Pevensies lose their brother depending on how this all shakes out; Edmund potentially loses his life. All of these things are Very Bad, but they're the sorts of Very Bad that I think would generate different reactions depending on which barrel one was looking down. So while I might not have noticed this if I wasn't going through this novel at a snail's pace, it's worth pointing out here: Edmund does not appear in this entire chapter.

As an authorial choice, I'm not very comfortable with the decision to leave Edmund out of this chapter. Whether this chapter is meant to be an allegory for the crucifixion of Christ or not, it is a sacrifice story, and removing entirely the person on whose behalf the sacrifice is being made runs the risk that the reader will lose sight of the point.

By removing Edmund's presence and voice from the chapter, the whole thing seems almost like a play with only three players: Emperor, Witch, and Aslan. All three of them seem to be trying to out-maneuver each other; the Emperor made rules with escape clauses that may-or-may-not have been made known to the Witch, the Witch follows the rules in an attempt to out-smart Aslan (she plans to kill both him and Edmund, and mocks him for his useless sacrifice), and Aslan hopes to save both himself and Edmund by taking advantage of the escape clause. Without the humanizing effect of Edmund, the whole thing feels like a strange game being played out by inhuman-and-unknowable beings who care more about winning than about saving Edmund, his siblings, and the Narnian people. And... I think that's probably not something you want to convey as an author, crucifixion allegory or not.

Nor is this impression helped by all the "not a tame lion!" and Aslan being narky with Susan's suggestion in the last chapter, nor by the general impression that Aslan is frightening and unapproachable and "nobody dares" ask him how he managed to save Edmund and if it will 'stick' (so to speak) or if they're all in danger of perishing in fire-and-flood tomorrow. I feel like these would be perfectly reasonable questions to ask and I further feel like Aslan should anticipate these questions and address them, so his utter unwillingness to do so sort of heightens the sense that he's on such a different plane of existence that he's unable to empathize with humans and human-like Animals. I find that portrayal unfortunate.

Moving on.

   During the first part of the journey Aslan explained to Peter his plan of campaign. "As soon as she has finished her business in these parts," he said, "the Witch and her crew will almost certainly fall back to her House and prepare for a siege." [...] He then went on to outline two plans of battle -- one for fighting the Witch and her people in the wood and another for assaulting her castle. And all the time he was advising Peter how to conduct the operations, saying things like, "You must put your Centaurs in such and such a place" or "You must post scouts to see that she doesn't do so-and-so," till at last Peter said,
   "But you will be there yourself, Aslan."
   "I can give you no promise of that," answered the Lion. And he continued giving Peter his instructions.

Peter is the eldest and therefore the chosen tactician for the upcoming battle. Over the next few hours, Aslan will give him a crash course in Narnian strategy, which I would expect would be Very Complicated, all the while darkly hinting that Peter is going to be On His Own when the fighting commences.

There are problems with this scene. First and foremost, Edmund (and the girls, but that would be expecting a lot at this point) should be here as well, given that he's a destined King of Narnia and it's crucial that the Pevensies start presenting a unified government now to stomp out any residual anger at Edmund the Traitor.

Second and possibly more important is that the best possible lesson Aslan could teach Peter right now would be how to find and select capable generals to whom a good portion of the battle planning will simply have to be delegated. The Narnian army is made up of hundreds of different species, all of whom have unique abilities, needs, and diets. Peter is never, ever going to remember every little detail about his troops -- he needs a General Swallow to whom he can turn the next time a battle hinges on knowing the airspeed velocity of an unladen Swallow.

This meme that the True Arthurian King does everything all on his own Because Bootstraps is just silly and needs to crawl off and die somewhere, please. Well, that's my opinion anyway.

Alright, enough procrastinating.

   For the last part of the journey it was Susan and Lucy who saw most of him. He did not talk very much and seemed to them to be sad. [...]
   This was the Fords of Beruna and Aslan gave orders to halt on this side of the water. But Peter said, "Wouldn't it be better to camp on the far side -- for fear she should try a night attack or anything?" [...]
   "No," said Aslan in a dull voice, as if it didn't matter. "No. She will not make an attack tonight." And then he sighed deeply. But presently he added, "All the same it was well thought of. That is how a soldier ought to think. But it doesn't really matter."

I... don't know how to approach this.

I don't really like Aslan. That's probably come through pretty clear in my previous Narnia posts. I think he's distant, unapproachable, and unquestionable -- none of which are things I personally appreciate in a god, king, leader, or boss of any kind. I think that his sacrifice for Edmund could be equally read in the given text as an act of love or an act of duty or an act of wartime maneuvering, and I wish that more effort had gone into characterizing the act as definitively one thing or another instead of leaving it all very ambiguous to the reader. And I very frankly think that if Aslan was really trying to be selfless and sacrificing, he might well have prevented exposing his suffering to these very young and extremely vulnerable children.

But! Given that I try very hard to be Not Judgmental, I still truly appreciate that for whatever reason, Aslan is giving his life in place of a small innocent boy. I fully understand why Aslan might be sad and morose in the face of his upcoming trials and tribulations, and I can't condemn him for being less than perky at the moment. He seems to be trying to do the right thing in preparing Peter for battle, and if he seems distracted, well, how can I blame him? I can't. I won't.

And yet... and yet... I still don't know how omniscient and all-seeing Aslan is or isn't supposed to be. I find it a little grating that he flat out tells Peter not to take defensive measures to protect the camp because the Witch "will not make an attack tonight". He ends up being right, of course, but does he know he's right? How long does he expect his execution to take? It seems to me that an ambitious, impatient White Witch could make a swift end to the whole business by executing him as quickly as possible and then taking the camp while all her followers are still riding high on confidence after killing Aslan. She doesn't do this, and doesn't even seem to consider it, so Aslan is right to tell Peter not to worry overly much about a sneak attack, but... it just doesn't sit well with me.

   Supper that evening was a quiet meal. Everyone felt how different it had been last night or even that morning. It was as if the good times, having just begun, were already drawing to their end.

And... I don't really understand this statement at all. Since the children have arrived in Narnia, almost nothing has gone well for more than a few moments. They tumbled into Narnia cold and hungry, found that Lucy's friend had been dragged off by the police and his house ruined and burned out, they had a warm meal that was badly spoiled by the realization that their brother had walked out to his death, they walked a forced march over several bitterly cold miles to meet a frightening god-lion who sentenced Edmund to death after ordering his companions to let Susan dangle over the jaws of a giant, vicious wolf so that Peter could risk his life stabbing it.

I'm just kind of unclear how War Starts Tomorrow and Aslan Has A Sad doesn't fit with the general tenor of Narnia. It seems like right this very moment should be the nicest time so far, seeing as how the children are reunited and no one is mad at anyone else now. There should be some sort of relief that, no matter how bad things get, at least all the children have each other. Once again, the exclusion of Edmund from this chapter just changes the whole tone for me.

   "Can't you get to sleep either?" said Susan. [...] "There's been something wrong with [Aslan] all afternoon," said Susan. "Lucy! What was that he said about not being with us at the battle? You don't think he could be stealing away and leaving us tonight, do you?" [...] Then Susan suddenly caught Lucy's arm and said, "Look!" On the far side of the camping ground, just where the trees began, they saw the Lion slowly walking away from them into the wood. Without a word they both followed him. [...] He looked somehow different from the Aslan they knew. His tail and his head hung low and he walked slowly as if he were very, very tired. [...]
   It was no good trying to run away so they came toward him. When they were closer he said, "Oh, children, children, why are you following me?"
   "We couldn't sleep," said Lucy -- and then felt sure that she need say no more and that Aslan knew all they had been thinking.
   "Please, may we come with you -- wherever you're going?" asked Susan.
   "Well --" said Aslan, and seemed to be thinking. Then he said, "I should be glad of company tonight. Yes, you may come, if you will promise to stop when I tell you, and after that leave me to go on alone."

Aslan is walking to his torture and execution. He is traveling to where the Witch's forces are camped out by the Stone Table, where there will be Animals who can see in the dark as clearly as we can in the noonday sun, and where there will be torches to cast light over the clear Narnian countryside. When last we met the Witch, she was suspicious of Aslan's capitulation to her demands, and she feared a reneging of his promise, perhaps even a secret attack while she was wrapped up in her preparations for an execution. Both she and her forces are alert for any kind of trickery, and are anxiously scanning the hills for their god-lion prey.

So, naturally, he agrees to take along Queen Susan and Queen Lucy. Two of the four humans whose lives are essential to the Emperor's prophecy of the Witch's demise. Both of whom are, apparently, unarmed.

   "Are you ill, dear Aslan?" asked Susan.
   "No," said Aslan. "I am sad and lonely. Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that."
   And so the girls did what they would never have dared to do without his permission, but what they had longed to do ever since they first saw him -- buried their cold hands in the beautiful sea of fur and stroked it and, so doing, walked with him. And presently they saw that they were going with him up the slope of the hill on which the Stone Table stood. [...]
   "Oh, children, children. Here you must stop. And whatever happens, do not let yourselves be seen. Farewell."
   And both the girls cried bitterly (though they hardly knew why) and clung to the Lion and kissed his mane and his nose and his paws and his great, sad eyes. Then he turned from them and walked out on to the top of the hill. And Lucy and Susan, crouching in the bushes, looked after him and this is what they saw.

And this starts the passion of Aslan. I'll go ahead and post the block of quotes now and then run back over my thoughts as best I can.

   A great crowd of people were standing all round the Stone Table and though the moon was shining many of them carried torches which burned with evil-looking red flames and black smoke. But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won't describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book -- Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. In fact here were all those who were on the Witch's side and whom the Wolf had summoned at her command. And right in the middle, standing by the Table, was the Witch herself. [...]
   Lucy and Susan held their breaths waiting for Aslan's roar and his spring upon his enemies. But it never came. Four Hags, grinning and leering, yet also (at first) hanging back and half afraid of what they had to do, had approached him. "Bind him, I say!" repeated the White Witch. The Hags made a dart at him and shrieked with triumph when they found that he made no resistance at all. Then others -- evil dwarfs and apes -- rushed in to help them, and between them they rolled the huge Lion over on his back and tied all his four paws together, shouting and cheering as if they had done something brave, though, had the Lion chosen, one of those paws could have been the death of them all. [...]
   At last she drew near. She stood by Aslan's head. Her face was working and twitching with passion, but his looked up at the sky, still quiet, neither angry nor afraid, but a little sad. Then, just before she gave the blow, she stooped down and said in a quivering voice,
   "And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die."

My first thought is that I'm struck by the repetition in the text that Aslan could have any time in the proceedings stopped the execution and killed everyone there and yet didn't. I suspect this is meant to tie into a Christian theme that Jesus, as the Son of God, could have called down lightning from the heavens but choose not to. And yet... I feel that something has been lost in the translation.

Perhaps the difference is that (at least according to some theories of the crucifixion) Jesus was dying on behalf of the people killing him, but Aslan's sacrifice is not something that the Ogres and Hags and Incubuses can or may partake in. Somehow, Jesus choosing not to slay his executioners feels like an act of mercy and kindness -- he loves them so much, he's willing to let them kill him rather than kill in order to protect himself. Aslan, on the other hand, does not spare the lives of his executioners out of love -- indeed, he's personally assembled an army to slay them tomorrow and will show up on the tail end of the battle to help with the killing -- but rather he lets them do their brutal work because his hands are tied by the Emperor's Deep Magic. That doesn't make his self-sacrifice less noble, but it does change the meaning a bit for me.

Then, too, I'm distressed that Susan and Lucy witness this scene. It's... not a pleasant scene. (Indeed, I wonder how the book would have been received if the "Christian Allegory!" label hadn't been attached. The movie version struck me as astonishingly brutal and really drove home to me that the MPAA and I really are not on the same page at all.) You could perhaps argue that Susan and Lucy are about to be rulers of a not-always-pleasant land and that this experience is their initiation into the ugliness of adulthood in the same way that tomorrow's battle is an initiation ritual for Peter and Edmund, and yet... There's still something about it that seems fundamentally wrong. I'm not one to try to preserve the Innocence of Children over all else, and I'm always on board with the argument that when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, the faster kids learn to defend themselves the better, but this still just doesn't seem right to me.

Maybe it's that I'm still not 100% on board with the idea that the Pevensie children absolutely need to be adults just yet, when there must be perfectly good royal advisers and generals and, I dunno, Narnia cabinet members they can appoint to help them ease into the stark reality that is the Narnia justice system. Maybe it's that I can't quite shake the "this is a crucifixion narrative" monkey on my back which then leads me to the point that it's a very different thing for an adult to watch someone executed by a flawed-and-unjust human legal system than for a child to watch someone executed by a flawed-and-unjust godly legal system. Maybe it's just that I was so traumatized by passion plays in general and Carmen in particular as a child that I just can't wish the experience on any other children, regardless of whether it's necessary or not. I'm not sure.

If we approach "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" on its own terms, we find a heinous situation where an innocent adult has to give their life to save a child from execution. The situation is tragic, and the adult is noble for willingly submitting to a torturous death. I can respect that without reservation, and I do. But I fervently wish that some of this scene -- maybe all of this scene -- could have been written differently. Still, C.S. Lewis choose not to, and I'll try not to judge that choice.


Post a Comment