Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles

Seminar — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

Well, as Scott said, and as my title suggests, I want to make a case this afternoon for Narnian discipleship. Or rather, my aim in this message is to convince you, as if you Lewis lovers needed any convincing, that Lewis’s Chronicles are a fruitful component of Christian discipleship and that you ought to take advantage of them.

I want to persuade you that you ought to make it your ambition to roam the Narnian countryside, to swim the Narnian seas, and to breathe the Narnian air so that you might live as much like a Narnian as you possibly can. And I want to argue that Lewis’s goal in these seven little books, and I think God’s goal in these seven little books, is to shape us, to mold us, to instruct us, and to form us into the image of Jesus Christ. And for my own part, I firmly believe that I am a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better teacher, a better son and brother, indeed, a better man, a better Christian for my hours and days spent inside Lewis’s wardrobe. Like so many, I have met God, the true God, the living God, the Father of Jesus Christ, in and through the imaginative bubbling that Lewis called Narnia. And I’ve grown in my love and affection for Jesus through breathing that Narnian air.

So when I was trying to decide how to make the case for Narnian discipleship, I had two options. And the first was that I could say some stuff about Lewis’s view of fairy tales, and then I could say some stuff about Lewis’s view of discipleship and try to draw them together and say, “Ta-da, there it is. There’s my thesis.” Or I could just show you. And since that sounded more fun to me, that’s what we’re going to do. So if you’re interested in Lewis’s view of fairy tales and his view of education and discipleship, then pick up a copy of the book. There’s a whole section on that. But I just want to summarize that conclusion.

Responding Appropriately to Reality

Lewis believed that education or discipleship is about training us to respond appropriately to the way the world is. There is a given-ness to reality and our thoughts and affections ought to conform to it. And so the task of discipleship is to train us in the responses to this objective reality which are appropriate. In other words, discipleship is meant to train us to feel pleasure or liking or disgust or hatred at those things which are really pleasant and likable and disgusting and hateful.

He also believed that fiction and fantasy and fairy tales had a particular value in accomplishing this end. Because what happens is by taking us out of this world into an imaginary world, we’re able to see this one better. In other words, they take us out of our own world into another world so that we can get some perspective so that we can see our own lives, our own circumstances afresh, more clearly. So the Narnian stories, I would argue, display through imaginative fiction the way the world really is.

Here is honesty and truth-telling in all of its simplicity. Here is courage and bravery in all of its shining glory. Here is treachery in its ugliness. Here is the face of evil. Here is the face of good. And if you live in these stories and you soak in these stories and you breathe the air of these stories, you’ll find that your heart and your mind, your thoughts, your affections will be shaped and transformed so that you come to fully reflect all that is true and good and beautiful in God’s world. In other words, you come to reflect Jesus by spending time in Narnia. That’s exactly what Aslan tells Lucy on one occasion:

This was the very reason you were brought into Narnia that by knowing me here for a little, you might know me better there.

Concrete Descriptions, Scenes, and Characters

So let’s dive in. I have about five ways that Narnia shapes us.

Number one: Narnia shapes us through Lewis’s vivid and concrete descriptions and scenes and characters. And Lewis is a master of this. Probably a number of you came into Lewis because he writes this way. He can describe around something. Instead of just naming it, instead of just defining it, he describes around it so that you can see it more clearly and you get it. It clicks better than if he just said it.

He actually gave advice to writers in which he said, “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want to feel about the things you’re describing. Instead of telling us that the thing is terrible, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was delightful. Make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.” And Lewis is good at following his own advice.

Let me give two examples. First, consider evil. What is evil? How can we come to understand what evil is? Well, I’m sure Lewis could give us a very precise, cogent, philosophically accurate definition of evil. Or he could show you a white witch who makes it so that it’s always winter and never Christmas, always frosty and never festive, always Minnesota and always February. Oh, you know what that’s like. You’ve been here for a pastor’s conference perhaps.

More than that, Lewis shows us that this witch, this evil, loves icy death and is at war with joy and gladness. So you begin to see, “Oh, I understand evil because of Lewis’ descriptions more than if he just said that.” So what does evil, icy death do? Well, it offers you enchanted food that will eventually kill you, which by the way, if you’ve ever had Turkish delight, you know that the fact that Edmund asked for it shows you he’s already half on her side. That stuff’s gross.

So this icy death — always winter and never Christmas — will seek to gorge you on enchanted candy. But then later when she encounters true festivity, a Christmas party with cheerful toasts and plum pudding, what does she do? She flies into a rage. She says, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?”

Do you see what Lewis just did there? In two vivid scenes with this witch, he showed you that underneath sinful indulgence and gluttony, and underneath sinful aestheticism is the same basic demonic evil. They come from the same bitter root, so that gorging on Turkish delight and rejecting the goodness of a happy feast is rooted in the same icy death, the same war with joy, the same always winter, never Christmas.

Brimming Descriptions of Mirth

Or here’s another description I’m sure many of you can relate to. Have you ever had this experience? You’re not hungry, and then you read something from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and now you’re hungry and you have to put the book down to go get a sandwich or figure out how to make a marmalade roll? I’ve never had one, but I want to really badly. You have to figure out what it is and how to make it because he describes it so well.

Or maybe you read these descriptions of feasts and mealtimes and you long to be there. You really want to be at that dinner table. You want to be in the midst of that joy and gladness and jollification. Or hopefully, since you can’t actually be there, you try to recreate it in your own home. Lewis paints us pictures of mealtimes in Narnia so that we try to have family dinners like the beavers, with a busy kitchen and good food served hot — laughter, stories, and raised hopes because Aslan is on the move. So this is what Lewis does. The point is this, Lewis is going to shape us through these vivid, concrete scenes that come alive in our imaginations so that he sends us back into our own lives on the lookout, ready to see and experience what we’ve just read for ourselves.

The Patterns of Our Thinking

Number two: Narnia shapes us by forming the patterns of our thinking. Let me put it this way. Lewis embeds apologetic arguments in the Chronicles. He scatters them all over the place so that our minds are shaped by truth, and we learn to recognize falsehood, recoil from it, back away from it, and instinctively react against it.

This is what the Scrubbs are doing in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That’s why he describes them in this way. He wants you to see how sour and shriveled progressivism is. He hates it and he wants you to hate it. He wants you to see how ugly and bitter this cowardly feminism that thinks that when you honor women, you’re really lowering them. He wants you to see how boring it is by showing you boring books that have a lot to say about grain elevators and nothing to say about dragons. And he puts these hints there so that when you encounter that same ugly worldview in the real world, there’s an instinctive “no” in your heart, maybe even before you’re aware of it.

Lewis, also, rightly I think, feared the overweening welfare state. He writes about it in a number of his essays. So he shows us the inevitable trajectory of that kind of state in the bean counting corruptacrat, Governor Gumpas of the Lone Islands. In one place, I think it’s in Screwtape, that Lewis says that we live in the managerial age and that the great evils of our day — his day being the Holocaust, and our day being the abortion holocaust — are hatched and planned in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lit offices by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

That’s why Gumpas ensures that the slave trade and all of its evil is conceived, ordered, moved, seconded, carried, and minuted with all due deference to Robert’s Rules of Order. We don’t often recognize the danger of bureaucratic evil. We see the fruit of it. We know where it finally shows up in a concrete way, but we struggle to make the connection between the clinic that does the killing, the concentration camp, and the capitol building, the university lecture hall, and the corporate boardroom, where that evil is planned and conceived. Lewis is so helpful in shaping our thinking.

Picking a Fight with Freud

He weaves his apologetics into the stories. The famous argument that he makes about Jesus — Jesus is either a liar, he’s a lunatic, or he is a Lord — that’s in there. He has the same basic structure of argument in the Narnia Chronicles. Go find it. That’s homework for you. In fact, here’s your second homework. I wanted to do this more fully, but there’s just no way we’d have time. My favorite thing, in terms of the apologetic thrust of Narnia, is the way that Lewis gets into a fight with Sigmund Freud in The Silver Chair.

Freud, along with other philosophers like Ludwig Feuerbach, were men who argued that God is simply a projection of our immature need for a father. So you’ve probably heard something like this around. When you’re a child, you’re dependent upon your parents and you come to see them as protective, as providers, and they give you emotional security and physical provision, so you’re dependent.

And then as you grow up, you realize that your dad is not as perfect as you thought when you were a kid. He has weaknesses, and he has flaws. He’s not as strong as you thought. And so there’s this confusion, this tension, because you still have the psychological need for a father, but you know that your dad no longer fits the bill. So what do we do? How do we cope?

Well, according to Freud, we just project our father into the sky and we create God our Father, our heavenly Father. So that belief in God is really just a coping mechanism. It’s how we deal with the fact that we’re children, we’re immature, and we can’t handle being grown up. So we attribute good things to God’s love and approval when they happen to us and bad things are attributed to his anger. You’ve probably heard some variation of that argument.

Well, that’s in The Silver Chair. There’s another homework assignment. Go find it. See how Lewis teaches you to respond to it, to react to it. What should you say? What should you do when confronted with that kind of thinking? Because here’s the deal, Lewis thinks that’s dark magic. That story of where belief in God came from is a dark enchantment and Narnia is an attempt to give you potent spells to break it.

Careful Attention to Trajectories

Number three: Lewis shapes us, Narnia shapes us, by teaching us to pay attention to trajectories. Think about Edmund in the first book. From the very beginning, he’s a spiteful, nasty little boy. He disrespects his siblings. He complains and murmurs all the livelong day. We learn that he’s beastly to anyone who’s smaller than him, including his sister. He jeers and sneers at her when he thinks she makes up this story about the wardrobe and the fawn. He even follows her, remember, into the wardrobe when she’s trying to hide because he wants to keep teasing her. He’s a very nasty little kid.

And then when he gets in and realizes she was telling the truth, there really is a world in there, he apologizes. He says, “Lucy, come out. I’ll say I’m sorry, if you like.” If you like. What do you mean you’ll say you’re sorry if you like? And then when she doesn’t respond, he says, “Oh, just like a girl. She’s probably sulking somewhere and won’t accept an apology.” Well, when you make it so sincere, Edmond, how could she not accept that kind of apology?

So what is Lewis doing with this setup of Edmond? Well, he’s showing us that in our lives, our direction determines our destination. We are, all of us, en-storied creatures. We live in a narrative and our lives have directions and trends and trajectories. And Lewis is mindful of the fact that those trajectories are governed by an author who is not mocked, who tells us we will reap what we’ve sown. So Lewis shows a sin in seed form, the beastly little boy, and at the budding stage he is meeting a white witch and eating her candy, and then he shows it in full flower with Edmund trudging through the snow, plotting revenge against Peter and against the beavers who have done him nothing but kindness. This is the trajectory. This is where spite and beastliness goes. This is what happens when it enters the wardrobe.

We Reap What We Sow

So here’s the deal. We sometimes think, “How wonderful would it be if we could really get into Narnia?” But the question that Edmund raises for us is, “What would happen if we got into Narnia, with all of our faults and flaws, our hidden sins and not-so-hidden sins? If we, with our petty grievances and deep bitterness and unchecked sexual sin, got into Narnia, who would we meet first? A friendly fawn, maybe some nice beavers? Or would the author of our story guide us to meet a witch who only wants to steal, kill, and destroy?

Or try this, if you got into Narnia and you met the witch, you’re half on her side, what would happen the first time we heard Aslan’s name? We think we’d react the way that Peter, Susan, and Lucy did, like there’s a battle calling, like homemade cookies in the kitchen, like the first day of summer and there’s sun shining and birds chirping and adventures calling from the backyard.

But what if instead we reacted like Edmond? What if we, because of the type of people we are here, got in there and recoiled in horror at the name of Aslan because we knew that we’d sown seeds that had made him our enemy. Lewis is clear, we are always sowing the seeds of our future selves. We are always sowing the seeds of our future selves. We are embarked and heading in a particular direction, and sooner or later we are going to end up there. And Edmund reminds us, we might not like the destination at the end of our road.

When it comes time to reap, we may find ourselves tied to a tree with a witch’s dagger at our throat. Now, the good news, of course, is that Edmund’s story, and ours, isn’t a tragedy. It doesn’t have to be anyway. It’s true that reaping always follows sowing just like night follows day. But in this case, Aslan reaps what Edmund has sown. Edmund’s treachery, Edmund’s spite, Edmund’s beastliness is all thrown onto Aslan, and the lion bears it away in his death at the stone table. This is the magic of substitution. The deeper magic that turns traitors into kings, that turns beastly little boys into just and wise men — the kind of deep magic that changes our lives forever. So there’s much to see if we’ll be discipled by the trajectories of Lewis’s story.

Manhood and Womanhood

Number four: Lewis loved the differences between men and women, and in Narnia he shows us the peculiar glory of manhood and womanhood. Lewis didn’t just want to defend biblical manhood and womanhood, he wanted to celebrate them, to praise them, to display them in all of their bright glory.

Our culture despises these differences. It hates the differences between men and women. It wants to blur the lines to equalize us in every way, destroying the distinctive majesty of men and the bright wonder of women. But Lewis loved that men were men and not women, and he loved that women were women and not men, and he didn’t believe that you need to tear men down in order to elevate women, and he didn’t think that you need to make the women stoop so that men can be properly honored.

He shared, I think, the sentiment expressed by Chesterton in one of my favorite little poems:

If I set the sun beside the moon, And if I set the land beside the sea, And if I set the town beside the country, And if I set the man beside the woman, I suppose some fool would talk about one being better.

Do you see that? Which is better, the sun or the moon? Which is better, the land or the sea? Which is better, the man or the woman? What a foolish question. What a stupid way to talk. Let men be men. Let women be women. Let the sun be the sun and the moon be the moon. Lewis loved these differences that God embeds in the world, these glorious distinctions, including the distinctions that God has established in role and function, in authority and responsibility.

The Glory of Narnian Queens

Now, I wrote a whole chapter on the glory of Narnian queens, and I’ve been married now for eight years to a Narnian queen. So let me just point you in a couple of directions. I’d love to unpack it more, but we won’t have time. Here’s a couple. Pay attention to Lucy. I think Lucy’s Lewis’s favorite. Notice how in tune with Aslan she is throughout all the stories. They even say she understands some of his moods. Ask yourself this question, in Prince Caspian, who is more attuned to the will of Aslan? Little Lucy or high king Peter? Lucy is. What is Lewis trying to tell us? What is he trying to tell us perhaps about a woman’s intuition?

Or take this, think about the glory and loyalty of friendship, and then think of Jill’s friendship with Eustace. Track that throughout the stories, track the kind of friend that Jill is to Eustace through the stories. Or I think this one’s even better. Think of Polly’s friendship with Digory. Polly is a really, really good friend, unafraid to take him on when he is wrong, but also sympathetic and recognizing how much his own pain is causing him to act in this way. She’s a really good friend. Or maybe Aravis in A Horse and His Boy. He’s true as steel and would never ever dream of abandoning a friend.

Or finally think about the grace of glad-hearted submission. So Lucy’s intuitive. She understands Aslan’s moods, but then she says, “Ought not we listen to Peter? He is the high king after all.” In other words, Lewis is showing us that she has more intuition. She gets Aslan better, and her intuition shines brighter when it’s wedded with glad-hearted submission to godly authority. There’s a beauty there that Lewis wants us to see and rejoice and celebrate.

Or I love when Jill, in *The Silver Chair *mocks the black prince, which is Rilian but he’s bewitched and acting like a prattling fool. He’s talking about, “When I’m king in overland, I will do all by the rule of my lady.” And Jill says, “Where I come from, they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives.” Why throw that in there? Because Lewis wants us to see there’s a beauty and glory if we embrace the order that God places in marriages, in churches, in relationships. He shows us the grace and strength and wisdom of Narnian queens.

The Dignity of Narnian Kings

Okay, then what about the men? Well, we could talk about the chivalry of Peter or the bravery of Shasta, but when I think about Narnian manhood, there’s only one place I want to go, and it’s to Archenland and the great king Lune. Lune is my favorite character in the Narnian stories by far, I would say. I’m convinced I’m related to him, jolly fat king though he is. You might think, “You look like you’re related to Puddleglum,” but it’s Lune. It really is Lune.

Why do I admire Lune so much? Well, okay, hold on. Before I tell you why I admire Lune, let me just draw attention to something. Here’s Lewis’s view of education. This idea, what I’m about to do, admiring Lune and wanting to be like him when I grow up, wanting to be like a fictional character when I grow up, what is that? Well, Lewis understands that we as human beings are imitative creatures all the way down. Before we understand ourselves, we know about others and we imitate them. Children imitate their parents and their siblings. Young ball players imitate their favorite athletes. Students imitate their teachers. Preachers imitate their heroes (he’s not here, don’t tell him). But you’re here at this conference, you’ve got to do that, right?

We Imitate What We Admire

Here’s the point. Readers imitate their favorite characters, that’s the point. Lewis knows that. Lewis knows that readers will imitate their favorite characters. So why do I admire Lune? Well, let me count the ways. First, he’s a man under authority. The king is under the law. It’s the law that makes him king. He knows he’s not God. He’s under authority. Second, he models great courtesy. When he first meets Aravis, he bows this great stately bow and he gives her warm words of welcome, but at the same time, he’s doing it in the clothes that he’s been wearing while he’s cleaning his dog kennels. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He knows how to behave in court, and he knows how to work hard and clean up messes.

Third, he’s thick-skinned. He’s stable. He’s not prone to rage or fits. In fact, when Prince Rabadash is in his court and is insulting him, and all the other men in the courts jump up out of their chairs and they’re up in arms, Lune rebukes all of them and says, “Sit down. Don’t be provoked by the taunt of a pajock.” I don’t even know what a pajock is, but I don’t want to be provoked by its taunts. It’s not true. I Googled it. It’s a peacock. It’s a male peacock. So you can impress your friends later.

Fourth, Lune is a great warrior. He defeats the Tarkaan Azrooh in hand-to-hand combat. He’s a wonderful father who delights in his boys, shows them great tenderness and affection. In fact, when he sees them, his face lights up and he gets a twinkle in his eye. He gives them big bear hugs, and yet he still provides discipline and boundaries for them. When his son mouths off, he says, “Corin, never taunt a man except when he is stronger than you, then as you please.” So in other words, there’s a place for taunting. If you’re Elijah and there’s 400 prophets of Baal surrounding you, let them have it. Cut loose. Go crazy with the taunts.

Sixth, Lune has suffered much. We have to read between the lines a bit, but he has suffered much. When his kids were young, he lost his wife. She died. He thinks for years he lost one of his sons in a shipwreck. So given the kind of man he is, there’s no doubt in my mind that was deep pain for him. But no matter how deep and heartbreaking it may have been, it didn’t cripple him. It didn’t rob him of joy and vitality. He’s still jovial. He’s still kind. He’s still wise. He’s still active and alert. He’s still bright-eyed and thick-skinned despite his sufferings.

And finally, Lune, utters what is for me, at this point in my life, the most fruitful line in all of Narnia. He says this:

This is what it means to be a king, to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat. And when there’s hunger in the land, as must be now and again in bad years, to wear finer clothes and laugh louder at a scantier meal than any man in your land.

What does it mean to be a king? First in, last out, laughing loudest. What does it mean to be a man? If you come to my house and you ask my four-year-old or two-year-old what it means to be a man, and if they’re not in one of their shy moods, they will say, “First in, last out, laughing loudest. Ha, ha, ha.” What does it mean to be a man? It means when you see where the battle’s the hottest, you run in that direction because you want to be first in. And as you go, you don’t go with a scowl on your face and shrillness in your voice. You go with bright joy and laughter in your bones. We need men like Lune. We need an army of Lune in the church — men who are stable, wise, great-souled, big-hearted, and willing to fight, suffer, and die for what they believe in, and who have indestructible laughter in their hearts. Oh, how Narnia has shaped me so much as a husband and a father.

Meeting the Great Lion

Finally, Narnia, there’s something that’s underneath all of this, underneath our meal times and our desire to have fun around the table, and underneath all of our apologetic efforts against welfare states and progressivism and Freud and Feuerbach, and underneath all of our attempts to read our own stories and to see how what we’re sowing will one day reap something we may or may not like, and underneath all of our efforts to be queens of Narnia and kings of Archenland, there’s the gospel — the face-to-face encounter with the great lion himself. And so let me close and illustrate this with two stories about Shasta and Digory.

Shasta, if you remember, is an orphan who is raised by an abusive stepfather who treats him like a slave. He has no friends, no companionship, and no hope for the future. When he finally escapes to the north, his journey is filled with danger. There are roaring lions and the ever-present threat that he’s going to get caught and executed as a horse thief. He gets separated from his friends in Tashbaan. He spends a fearful night in a graveyard surrounded by howling jackals. And every time something looks like it’s going his way, it immediately evaporates.

So he falls in with the Narnians in Tashbaan, and he’s happy, these are nice people. But then he’s forced to leave when Corin shows back up. He runs and runs and runs and arrives at the hermit’s house and finally thinks, “I’m going to have a rest,” only to be told, “Get up, run, run, run. You’re not done yet.” And then he meets King Lune finally. And he thinks, “Oh, now I’m safe. Now I can rest.” But then he gets left behind because he doesn’t know how to ride a horse.

For his entire life, Shasta has been at the mercy of forces beyond his control. He’s tossed about by events, by circumstances. He’s cut off from love, from affection, and from security. And then to top it off, he’s journeying through a mountain pass, he’s starving, he’s thirsty, he has tear-filled eyes, and all of a sudden there’s something walking next to him, breathing heavily, and it fills him with terror. This scared, hungry, orphaned little boy on a mountain says, “Who are you?” Okay, pause Shasta.

Consider Digory. When we first meet Digory, he’s been crying. Why is he crying? Well, because his father is away in India, he’s living with his crazy uncle, and most importantly, his mother is on her deathbed. In fact, the entire story of The Magician’s Nephew is really framed by Digory’s concern for his mom. In fact, the thought of mother well again almost consumes him. It’s the sort of thing that every time he thinks about it, he fights back the hope because he’s been disappointed so often.

And when he hears that Narnia might be the land of youth, he gets so excited and he runs down to Aslan, runs to the lion, hoping that Aslan will give him something to go back and cure his sick mom that he doesn’t want to die. And he gets down there and he hears that it’s his fault. He’s the one to blame for the evil coming into Narnia. And it just evaporates. His heart sinks. He knows, “There’s no way Aslan is going to help my mom now. There’s no hope.” So you have a little boy faced with the impending reality of his mom’s death. Time out on Digory.

The Boy Behind the Story

Before I show you how those two stories play out, let me add a third story. The story of a little boy named Jack Lewis. He’s nine years old. He’s lying in bed with a toothache and a headache, and he’s wondering why his mom doesn’t come in when he calls her. And after a while, his dad walks into the room and says, “Your mom is dying. She has cancer,” and that fills this little nine year old boy’s head with things he’s never thought about. It’s so alien, so shocking to a little boy. And sure enough, the cancer follows its course, and she dies. Here’s a little boy without a mom.

And in the meantime, in that stretch between the diagnosis and the death, his home becomes a place of fear. It’s filled with doctors and slamming doors, and whispered, dark conversations between adults. And later he describes the peculiar kind of childhood terror that’s created by adult agitation, like when adults are worked up about something. He says:

The sight of adult misery and adult terror has an effect on children which is merely paralyzing and alienating.

It just wrecks kids. It’s one of the reasons why men like Lune are so important. And then the little boy, during this same stretch with his mom on her way to death, prays the very first prayers of his life. They’re just desperate prayers, “God, please don’t let my mommy die.” And they go unanswered. And then to top it off, his dad does not take it well. In fact, he never recovers, according to little Jack. His dad grows anxious and unstable. He has an erratic temper and he flies into rages sometime and it causes Jack and his brother to withdraw further from their father. And Lewis describes he and his brother in this way: “two frightened urchins huddled for warmth in a bleak world.” Now, that is a perfect description of Shasta and Digory. But those two little boys are now huddled together in the presence of the great lion who is about to change their stories forever.

The Lion’s Tears

So go back to Digory. He thinks, “There’s hope for my mom. There’s no way Aslan is going to give me something now because of what I’ve done.” Digory gets surprised. Aslan asks, “Are you ready to restore what your foolishness has broken?” And Digory says, “Oh, okay.” But when he had said yes, he thought of his mother and he thought of the great hopes he had had and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out, “But please, can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” In this moment of childlike desperation, Digory asks for the impossible. And then he looks up into the lion’s face and the narrator says:

What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and, wonder of wonders, great shining tears stood in the lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that, for a moment, he felt as if the lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan, “I know grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.” Aslan knows. He knows pain, he knows sadness, he knows anguish and loss. He is a lion of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And he so identifies with the weakness and suffering of a lost little boy that tears well up in his eyes. And in a moment of glorious condescension, he stoops to give Digory a lion’s kiss. And that moment, that deep connection, that profound identification that happens in that shared moment of tears, sustains Digory later when he’s tempted to disobey Aslan, when he’s tempted to steal an apple for himself. All he has to do is remember those big shining tears and know, “I’m doing the right thing. I will not disobey.”

And then upon his return, Digory receives not only the “well done” from the lion, he also receives an apple from the protective tree, an apple that promises to make his mother whole again, and she’s healed and restored. And Digory’s story ends with a heart obedience, a healthy mother, a returned father, a big happy country house, and the glad approval of the great lion.

Tell Me Your Sorrows

Returning to Shasta, he was on his horse riding in terror with a large breathing thing at his side, and whispering a frightened question, “Who are you?” And he hears, “One who has waited long for you to speak.” Shasta says, “Are you a giant?” And he hears, “You might call me a giant, but I am not like the creatures you call giants.” Shasta says, “Oh, I can’t see you at all. Please, please go away. Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.” Then the voice breathes a warm, reassuring breath on the frightened child and says, “Tell me your sorrows.”

And Shasta does, from being orphaned and beaten by his adoptive father, to fleeing from multiple lions, hiding in ghoulish tombs, the heat and the thirst of the desert, and the hunger of the present moment. For a boy who had never known true affection, think about this, for a boy who had bottled up all of this pain that he’d experienced his whole life, he had just eaten it and eaten it because he had nowhere to go with it, the opportunity to finally unload all of this on someone, to maybe for the first time be truly heard, must have been a profound relief. And then the voice surprises him saying:

I do not call you unfortunate. There was only one lion, and he was swift of foot. 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. 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 night to receive you.

In that moment, Shasta discovers that behind a frowning providence, Aslan hides a smiling face. All that he had called bad luck and misfortune was really the wise and good plan of this great lion. He says later, “Aslan is behind all of the stories. He’s behind them all.” Seeing the face of the terrible lion, he slips out of the saddle and he falls at the lion’s feet. And he couldn’t say anything, but then he didn’t want to say anything and he knew he didn’t need to say anything.

And of course, soon enough, he’s reunited with his father, he’s welcomed back into the family. He becomes a prince of Archenland, and later a king.

The High King Above All Kings

So here’s the thing that you have to ask yourself about this. You’ve detected the similarities between Lewis’s own story and that of Digory and Shasta. And there’s the key difference in that the mom recovers instead of dying, and instead of a distant father, we get the reunion with a loving father. And so given that, someone, like maybe a Freudian, might say, “Lewis, you’re just engaged in a kind of wish fulfillment. This is just escapist therapy. You’re just working through your childhood pain by rewriting your own story with a happy ending.” Now, if someone were to say that to Lewis, I don’t know exactly what he’d say, but I can imagine what he’d say. So let me close with my attempt to express what I think Lewis would say to someone like that:

Perhaps I am working through my own pain and loss through these stories, but what of it? We live in a world in which mothers die. Might we not imagine a world in which they’re well again? Fathers can be harsh and intemperate. Can we not, for a moment, picture them as jovial and affectionate? Or have we grown too cynical to hope? And might the real answer to such childhood pain lie elsewhere? Isn’t the true import of Shasta and Digory found in their willingness to forego second things, however precious, in favor of things of first importance? Don’t their stories really demonstrate how crucial it is to put first things first, even if in the end they also have second things thrown in?

After all, Jesus said, “No one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or fathers or mothers, for his sake, will not receive back a hundredfold in this life, and in the age to come, eternal life.” Indeed, might the real comfort, the deep comfort, come not from the restoration of a mother’s health or the recovery of a happy father, but from the bright shining tears and smiling face of the high King above all kings?