I always liked Aslan a little better than Jesus. The Christ of the Bible could be rather erratic—a trait he perhaps picked up from God the Father. One minute he would be cuddling kids on his lap like a sandal-shod hippie Santa Claus, and the next he would be heartlessly telling his mom that he didn’t really think of her as his family, or flipping over tables in public spaces and yelling at people (good intentions notwithstanding, it is always scary when someone yells at someone else in public). But Aslan! Aslan took the best that Jesus had to offer and amplified it with a noble consistency of poise that never faltered. Even under the most extreme duress, Aslan was always gentle, kind, and patient—in spite of Mr. Beaver’s insistence that he was “not a tame lion.”
Where Jesus was perplexing, Aslan could be trusted. While the image that Jesus conjured up in my head was a blurry amalgamation of Jim Morrison and Allen Ginsberg (without the glasses), Aslan was always crystal clear: the golden hair; the strong, soft paws; the sexy, sonorous tone of his voice. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis had given me an image of God made flesh—specifically, the flesh of a lion—that I would spend years trying to square with the fiery and obtuse mystic of the Gospels.
As a child, this feeling that Aslan was rather superior to the Jesus I knew produced a fair amount of confusion, partnered with the special shame that accompanied the sense that I had displeased the immortal Godhead in a cosmic way. God had already given us a book, written at his own almighty prompting; how could I, a child in the fourth grade, elevate a fantasy book written for children over the greatest book ever written, the one with the ancient erotic poetry that culminated in twenty-two chapters of dense apocalyptic symbolism? I had been charmed off the straight and narrow path by the thing that was supposed to keep me on the path, by the homey cavalcade of talking beavers and parasol-toting fauns working in concert with the irresistible dyad of sword and sorcery.
In other words: I loved Narnia! Oh, how I loved Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Romantic, anti-Modernist fairyland dreamed up by professor and radio personality C. S. Lewis during World War II and published in the fifties made me feel like my day-to-day existence was actually part of a fantasy novel, and to live inside a fantasy novel was the fondest thing my devout pre-adolescent heart desired. I was a book kid, a summer-library- reading-program devotee, a bent-birch-stick swashbuckler. I was also the tenderest little Christian the Midwest ever raised, which meant that I was constantly harried by moral ambiguities.
If there was ever any question in fantasy literature about who was good and who was evil, it wasn’t in the books I was reading. Brian Jacques, then J. R. R. Tolkien, and then Christopher Paolini and Lloyd Alexander gave me worlds to inhabit where good and evil were as definite and measurable as height and mass, where clumsy and (more often than not) bookish boys blossomed into competent heroes with every resource at their disposal to repel every malevolent force. Since I was a clumsy and bookish boy who genuinely believed that invisible maleficent creatures were involved every time the letters in my brain danced their evil way into the shape “s-h-i-t,” I found these straightforwardly moral fantasy tales compelling in an understandable way—problematically so, in hindsight, but it is difficult for me to look back at that kid and judge him too much. He was always so furiously, so earnestly, judging himself.
Lewis described Christianity as a living fairy tale. In a letter to his close friend Arthur Greeves—a letter which I would one day come to pore over as I read his collected correspondence, Dear Jack, cover to cover—Lewis referred to Christianity as a “true myth,” different from all other myths insofar as, to use his emphasis, it “really happened.” Lewis was working with a complicated definition of the word “myth” that would hardly have been in my head when I was first reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there was nevertheless something in his theology that squared with my young understanding that evangelical Christianity was my ticket to a life that felt like an epic duel between the forces of good and evil. The dragons that I was out to slay may have been invisible, but they were not entirely imaginary either. They existed somewhere between the realm of material existence and my sensitive imagination, and I was going to spend my life starring in an epic fantasy that would allow me to conquer demonic foes in a figurative way, even if I did not have a literal sword like the hero of my other favorite book at the time, Little Pilgrim’s Progress, Helen L. Taylor’s adaptation for young readers of John Bunyan’s famous allegory.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe occupies a narrative space somewhere between the straightforward allegory of Little Christian in Little Pilgrim’s Progress and the looser employment of Christian myth in The Lord of the Rings. The four Pevensie children, displaced from London by air raids, discover a magic wardrobe in the country home in which they have sheltered from the war. The youngest, Lucy, discovers its magical properties first by walking farther and farther into the back until she reaches a forest, setting up a Through the Looking-Glass motif. (Lewis dedicated the book to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, who may have been playing the part of Alice Liddell.) The narrative that follows pits the Pevensies—Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter—against the unequivocally evil forces of the White Witch, who holds the land of Narnia in a perpetual winter until the is defeated by Aslan, the lion, the better Jesus. The parallels between Aslan and the way Lewis describes Christ in his rather unorthodox theology are extensive, but even the most casual reader will note that the White Witch isn’t truly defeated until Aslan lets her kill him instead of the traitorous Edmund, only to come back from the dead a short time later.
Right around the same time as I was first encountering Narnia, I was learning words like “propitiation” in my Wednesday Bible Club handbook: a blood sacrifice that secures the redemption of another. Without the shedding of blood, the “Letter to the Hebrews” reminded me, there was no forgiveness for sin. How is a ten-year-old who won’t squash a bug in the bathroom supposed to wrap his head around something like that? Maybe from the relative safety of a book full of fanciful creatures and a kindly talking lion. Narnia felt like a safe-enough place to encounter some of the most ruthless aspects of evangelical doctrine without cringing at all the blood involved. And it gave me a beautiful golden lion god who romped in the grass with children, who brought springtime into a frozen wasteland, whose warm breath could bring petrified things to life. Late at night, feeling like an abject failure in the throes of what I would one day learn to call major depressive disorder, certain that I had disappointed the Big-G God to such a degree that he would just have to cast me into Hell in spite of my fervent belief, I silently prayed to Aslan that he would pad softly into my room and make me feel better.
Given this fraught history, it may come as no surprise that I approached a reread of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with a certain amount of trepidation. I was scared as fuck to read this book again. The intervening years had seen my progression from full-time Christian missionary to divorced ex-evangelical deconstructionist with a Ph.D. (isn’t that how it goes?). Returning to Narnia felt like choosing, on purpose, to venture back into a musty old wardrobe from which I had spent years trying to disentangle myself. I approached this return with as much curiosity as fear: what might I have left in there?
I reached back in and found Edmund.
The White Witch is the undisputable antagonist of the story, but there is a commonplace sort of petty evil in nearly all of Edmund’s actions. As written, Edmund is not at all a sympathetic character; he bullies his younger sister mercilessly, and he has an irrational desire to hold power over his two older siblings, even though they do not seem particularly inclined to boss him around. He is the second of the Pevensie siblings to make his way into Narnia. When he does, he immediately encounters the White Witch, who grooms him with Turkish delight, creating a metaphor for forbidden fruit that would be employed by generations of evangelical youth pastors. The White Witch promises that she will make Edmund the king of Narnia if he can bring the rest of his siblings to her castle, a task that appeals instantly to both his pride and his avarice. When Edmund gets back to England, he pretends—without motive, so far as I can tell—that he has never been to Narnia and that Lucy is lying about it, simply for the cruel joy of making her look the fool. Once the whole group makes their way through the wardrobe and enjoys dinner with the beaver family, Edmund secretly heads off to the White Witch’s castle to sell them out, and the White Witch gets to murder Aslan only because a “deep magic from the dawn of time” says that the lives of traitors must be paid for in blood. Aslan sacrifices himself in Edmund’s place. As a character in a not-quite-allegory, Edmund bears the narrative burden of standing in for Judas Iscariot, all of fallen humanity, and all of the petty rancor that siblings can bear towards one another at once.
As a child, it was pretty obvious to me that you wanted to avoid being Edmund at all costs. The person you wanted to be was Lucy. Lucy was everything Edmund was not. She was kindhearted, gentle, and readily accepting of all the best parts of Narnia, whereas Edmund was mean, petty, and only interested in Narnia for the ways he might profit from being there. I did not see anything redeemable in Edmund then, and it is not easy to appreciate him now, which was perhaps the point; if one believes, like Lewis, that humans are (almost) irredeemably fallen and depraved, then the character for whom Aslan dies must be the most unlikable person, regardless of whether that makes for realistic characterization or not. The new feeling I found for Edmund was less a secret sympathy and more a newfound recognition, a point of convergence.
Part of what so obviously puts Lewis on Lucy’s side is her endearing innocence, her “faith like a child.” If you find a magic land called Narnia in the back of an old wardrobe, well, of course you go back and tell everybody about it right away. If Mr. Tumnus, the faun with the umbrella (portrayed in the film by James McAvoy!), admits that he was going to give Lucy to the White Witch but thinks better of it at the last minute, well, of course you forgive him instantly. If the family of talking beavers says that Aslan embodies all that is good in the world and the White Witch all that is evil, well, of course you take them at their word, because they are friendly beavers and you love everyone as soon as you meet them.
Edmund doesn’t think like this. Edmund’s deepest problem, the core of his part in this story, is that he is a doubter. He isn’t trusting, and he doesn’t take certain things at face value. Is he absolutely duped by the White Witch at their first meeting? Yes, he is. Her abusive nature is hidden behind her appeals to Edmund’s power fantasies. But he is the second of the Pevensies to get into Narnia, because regardless of his motives (which are mean-spirited, as Lewis has decided they must be), he is the one who feels a need to check out Lucy’s story independently, on his own. When the group first meets Mr. Beaver, Lucy is quick to say, “I think it’s a nice beaver,” although she has no evidence one way or the other, while Edmund is the one with the wherewithal to ask, “If it comes to talking about sides, how do we know you’re a friend?” And when the subject of Aslan comes up, Edmund (along with feeling “a sensation of mysterious horror,” an uncharacteristically Calvinist moment from Lewis) is the one who wants to know how it could be the case that the White Witch won’t turn him to stone along with all the other talking animals. As the only one without an innate sense of Aslan’s eternal goodness, Edmund gets left out in the cold with all the questions that nobody else feels the need to think about.
This is why, upon my return to Narnia, I feel some kinship, some spark of affinity between Edmund and me—not only because I too can have my petty and mean-spirited moments, but because Edmund and I are united in our failure to be Lucy. It wasn’t that there were some Satanic sweets so unbearably delicious that my hunger for them drove me away from Aslan forever, as the youth pastor’s metaphor might have had it. It was that there were too many unmanageable unknowns, too many improbabilities that demanded unequivocal acceptance, too many discrepancies between the gentle lion god that I wanted and the zealous accountant god who haunted my childhood insomnia.
And yet, there was one last little detail that stuck with me this time around, something so important that the only way I can imagine missing it the first time is that I was primed to see only what I was expecting to see. Aslan never fills everybody else in on his plan to trade his life for Edmund’s, and Lucy and Susan only find out what happens because they can’t sleep and go looking around. Near the end of the book, Lucy asks Susan if she thinks Edmund knows what Aslan did, and Susan not only insists that Edmund couldn’t have known the details, but that nobody should ever tell him what really happened: “Think how you’d feel if you were he.” Lucy moves to tell him anyway, but gets interrupted before she gets the chance. Edmund, so far as the narrative implies, never actually finds out that Aslan died for him. Belief doesn’t save Edmund; Edmund simply redeems himself, which I have been learning to do at the break of every morning since the departure of both the accountant and the lion.
Nathan Schmidt holds a PhD in English from Indiana University Bloomington, and serves as a contributing editor at GamerswithGlasses.com. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, The Dylan Review, the Indiana Magazine of History, and the anthology Blood Echoes from Tune and Fairweather Press. He knows one very good card trick.