Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time

In one of the English classes I teach, the students are just starting to reach the level where they can read relatively simple novels, so I assign them a chapter a week of some novel, and one of our classes each week is devoted to discussing the chapter they’ve just read. Because of their limited English proficiency, and because they are housewives who are studying English mainly so as to be better able to help their children learn it, we generally read children’s stories. Currently, we’re working on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Generally our weekly discussions revolve around questions of vocabulary, grammar, and usage — but this past week we dealt with the 13th chapter, “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time,” which introduces the central idea of Aslan’s sacrificing himself to appease the law which demands the death of Edmund. All language questions aside, my students found it completely baffling — and I have to agree with them. While I’m a big fan of Lewis’s nonfiction and of the Screwtape Letters, I have to admit that this particular novel has a very poorly constructed plot.

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In the 13th chapter, it is suddenly revealed that, because of “the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning,” the Witch has the right to kill anyone who commits any act of treachery. In fact, executing traitors is not only her right but a requirement. She explains that “unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water,” and Aslan agrees that this is in fact the case. She also makes it clear that treason is treason, and that whom is betrayed is of no consequence. Anyone who betrays anyone has to be killed, or else the Emperor will destroy the entire country.

Prior to this chapter, there has not been the slightest hint that the Witch is an agent of the Emperor (whom Aslan also serves, and who is supposed to be one of the good guys) or that her special function is to avenge treachery. In fact, earlier in the story, the faun Mr. Tumnus betrays the Queen and is arrested for high treason and turned to stone — but his blood is never shed as the Deep Magic supposedly requires, and yet Narnia is not destroyed. (We know that merely turning a traitor to stone is not enough to satisfy the Deep Magic, because the Witch explains that she must “have blood.” Also, when she attempts to execute Edmund, she does not turn him to stone, which is otherwise her preferred way of punishing people, but tries to slit his throat.)

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Once the Deep Magic and its requirements have been revealed, Susan asks Aslan the obvious question:

“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there some way to work against it?”

“Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

The implication is that Aslan is unquestioningly loyal to the Emperor and accepts the Deep Magic and its requirements. Why this should be the case is not clear. We might assume that Aslan is unwilling to betray the Emperor because all traitors must be killed by the Witch — but of course later on in the story he does allow the Witch to kill him, so that can’t be his motive.

(Of course we readers know that Aslan is loyal to the Emperor because Aslan represents Jesus and the Emperor represents God, but I mean that within the context of the story his loyalty to the Emperor — who seems more like the Ancient Ones from The Cabin in the Woods* than like a proper God — is hard to explain.)

At any rate, for whatever reason, Aslan is completely loyal to the Emperor — and the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to execute all traitors. The Witch should therefore be confident that Aslan will not stand in the way of such executions, and in fact he does not. She confidently confronts Aslan and demands her pound of flesh, and he gives it to her (though of course he contrives to do so in such a way that Edmund is saved).

However, just pages earlier, the Witch does not seem so confident that Aslan will stand back and let her do her job. Despite wishing she could keep Edmund alive for a while to use as a bargaining chip, she decides she had better kill him immediately lest he be rescued and she lose her chance. She seems not to realize at this point that, should he be rescued, she can simply demand him back and Aslan will be forced to comply. Instead, she assumes Aslan will stand in the way of the execution.

“I would like to have done it [killed the traitor Edmund] on the Stone Table itself,” said the Witch. “That is the proper place. That is where it has always been done before.”

“It will be a long time now [that Aslan is back] before the Stone Table can again be put to its proper use,” said the dwarf.

This implies that Aslan will not allow them to use the Table thus — despite the fact that the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to do so and knows that Aslan is unwilling to oppose the Emperor’s wishes.

(Incidentally, I can’t believe I never noticed the rather heavy-handed symbolism of the Stone Table before. That the same thing should symbolize both the Ten Commandments and the Cross seemed especially natural to my Chinese-speaking students, since the Chinese word for “cross” is literally “figure-ten.”)

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Of course the reason the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is incoherent is that it is an allegory of the Atonement, and the Atonement is a mystery. But while some people may find unexplained mysteries acceptable in theology, they certainly don’t make for very good fiction. The whole point of an allegory is to elucidate that which is being allegorized by turning it into a story people can understand — and that Lewis fails to do.

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*If you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods, don’t. It’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen in my life — and this is coming from someone who has seen both 2-Headed Shark Attack and Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid. However, the synchronicity fairies saw to it that I watched it the day after teaching “Deep Magic,” so I had to point out the obvious parallels. In the movie, the Ancient Ones are “giant evil gods” who will destroy the whole world if they are not periodically appeased with the blood of people who are drugged, entrapped into “sinning,” and then “punished.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time

  1. I think you have to start from the premise that LWW *is* an effective novel, and that it ‘works’ and is satisfying at a non-rational level – and then, perhaps, try to understand why this can be so *despite* apparent incoherence in the plot.

    The matter of compatibility with theology is separate, and the allegorical aspects of the Narnia series are not exact and point for point, nor are they intended to be. The point is to illuminate specific aspects of Christian theology in high impact ways – not to make an mirror of systematic theology.

    But beyond this is the acceptability of the theology of blood sacrifice, and the moral system which the Emperor has set-up; and as an ex-Mormon you are sensitized to the logically-insurmountable difficulties of morally-justifying a God that is wholly responsible for literally *everything* that happens in His world – and that such a God *wills* all evil in His world: that such a God is *wholly* Good, despite appearances, can only be treated as a mystery.

    The (Mormon) alternative is regard God as wholly-Good, and *not* responsible for *everything* that happens in His world.

  2. Bruce, I don’t mean to suggest that the story ought to be compatible with theology in an exact manner. In fact, I think the plot weaknesses I point out are a result of Lewis trying to stick too closely to theology, plugging in Christian concepts point by point rather than reimagining them in such a way as to more compatible with the rest of the story.

    Lewis writes somewhere that Aslan is not a mere metaphor for Christ but is Christ himself — that he is Lewis’s answer to the hypothetical question “Supposing there were such a world as Narnia, what form would Christ and his sacrifice take in that world?” For that reason, when it comes to the details of Aslan’s sacrifice, Lewis is forced to stick pretty closely to theology as he understands it, even when this compromises the integrity of the story.

    The moral unacceptability of the Emperor and his Deep Magic is not really my main objection. In the context of a fairy-tale type of story, such things can be accepted. But even in a fairy tale there must be a certain consistency. If the law of Narnia is that every traitor must die or the country must be destroyed, then the story has to respect that law — instead of completely ignoring it until the 13th chapter. The Witch should demand Tumnus’s blood as well as Edmund’s. In fact, it is not clear why the Witch herself has been allowed to usurp the throne of Narnia (betraying the Emperor) for 100 years without having to kill herself.

  3. I think I have discovered the answer to this during reading Alister McGrath’s new biography of CS Lewis from pages 292-6, which addresses this very point.

    “But where do these ideas come from? They are all derived from the writings of the Middle Ages – not works of academic theology, which generally were critical of such highly visual and dramatic approaches – but the popular religious literature of the age, which took pleasure in a powerful narrative of Satan’s being outmanoeuvred and out witted by Christ. According to these popular atonement theories, Satan had rightful possession over sinful human beings. God was unable to wrest humanity from Satan’s grasp by any legitimate means. Yet what if Satan were to overstep his legitimate authority and claim the life of a sinless person…?

    “Lewis’s narrative in LWW contains all the main themes of the medieval atonement drama: Satan having rights over sinful humanity; God outwitting Satan because of the sinlessness of Christ; and the breaking down of the gates of Hell, leading to the liberation of its prisoners.”

  4. Very interesting, Bruce. Thanks for finding that.

    Of course, in LWW the Witch has already overstepped her legitimate authority by usurping the throne of Narnia, so it’s hard to see how Aslan’s death is a way of outwitting her.

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