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Atonement Imagery in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

December 14, 2005 by Jeff Wright

The Stone Table
I realize that it is a bit late in the game to discuss The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – seeing as the whole of blogdom has moved on to spiritual gifts (amongst others.) However, I’d like to throw a line in the Narnian water (later being better than never) because I’ve just come to a conclusion on a bothersome issue with the movie.

Steve Camp, in particular, expressed frustration over the atonement imagery in the book and movie forms of TLTW&TW. Namely, that Lewis appears (in allegory form) to advocate the ransom theory of the atonement.

For those unfamiliar let me give you GotQuestions.org‘s summary of the theory:

This view sees the atonement of Christ as being a ransom that was paid to Satan to purchase man’s freedom from being enslaved to Satan. It is based on a belief that man’s spiritual condition is in bondage to Satan and that the meaning of Christ’s death was to secure God’s victory over Satan. This theory has little if any Scriptural support and has had few supporters throughout church history. It is heretical in that it thinks of Satan, rather than God as being the one who required a payment be made for sin and thus completely ignores the demands of God’s justice that are seen throughout Scripture. It also has a higher view of Satan than it should and views him as having more power than he really does. There is no Scriptural support for the idea that sinners owe anything to Satan, but throughout Scripture we see that God is the One who requires a payment for sin. One of the leading proponents of this theory was Origen.

Obviously, the Ransom Theory (if it is presented in TLTW&TW) is a blight on the Christian value of a the book and/or movie.

I attempted to find out if C.S. Lewis advocated the Ransom Theory or if the metaphor medium simply limited him to a less than accurate depiction of the atonement. I was unable to find a clear statement from Lewis about his views on the atonement (although it appears his views changed to some degree throughout his life).

Unable to ascertain the author’s intent in the writing I thought it best to examine the issue from another angle: Is TLTW&TW useful to a believer when trying to illustrate the gospel. I think this discussion important because I believe a large number of Christians view the recent release of the movie as not just an opportunity for entertainment but also as a way to speak to a post-Christan culture about the work of Christ.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, regardless of what C.S. Lewis intended to communicate about the nature of the atonement, the imagery of TLTW&TW remains useful as an illustration of the gospel and the legitimate view of the substitutionary nature of the atonement.

I’ve arrived here after re-reading the novel form of TLTW&TW which contains helpful material that the movie left out.

If you remember the scene in the move where the White Witch comes to Aslan’s camp then you will remember that her argument went something like this:

1. The Deep Magic dictates that any traitor (i.e. Edmund) in Narnia belongs to her.
2. Aslan, powerful as he might be, is still bound to obey the rules of the Deep Magic and must turn over Edmund to her.

The book contains an element that the movie leaves out:
1. The Emperor Beyond the Sea (i.e. God the Father) wrote the Deep Magic into the fabric of Narnia’s existence.

Therefore the claim by which the Witch claims Edmund is on authority given her by the Emperor:

“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller…

“Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill.”

Therefore the book form of this second point has a much greater depth, considering the Law the Witch cites comes on authority from the Emperor:

“Oh, Aslan!’ whispered Susan in the Lion’s ear, “can’t we – I mean, you won’t, will you? Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can 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.”

With this proper understanding from the book in place we are able to reassess the symbolism in TLTW&TW.

The Law of the Deep Magic is part of the very fabric of the Narnian universe, put there by its creator the Emperor-beyond-the sea. The Witch has been assigned a specific role within Narnia as the executor of those who violate the standards of the Law of the Deep Magic. As such her claims to Edmund are more properly understood as the Emperor’s rights under which she exercises authority as executioner of the standards which the Emperor enacted.

You can see this in the book right after the quote from the Witch I posted earlier:

“Oh,” said Mr. Beaver. “So that’s how you came to imagine yourself a queen – because you were the Emperor’s hangman. I see.”

(underlined emphasis mine)

Now, rather than the emphasis being on the Witch’s ownership of Edmund we see her acting as the agent by which the Emperor’s rightful demands are fulfilled on those who transgress the Deep Magic. In that light, Aslan’s sacrifice is seen as a substitution of himself into the just penalty decreed by the Emperor via the Deep Magic.

Granted, the movie’s imagery of Aslan and the Witch going into the tent (not dissimilar to that of the book’s) is still troublesome because once they emerge the impression given is that Aslan has negotiated a release.

That alone remains the last vestige of the Ransom-theory possibility in the story once material from the book is used to bring clarification to the scenes from the movie.

Even Aslan’s summary of what happened at the Stone Table can be accepted once one has the proper context to house it in:

“…though the Witch new 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 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.”

Where this looks more like a further confirmation of the Ransom theory (namely that Aslan tricked the Witch into accepting himself as payment, the Witch not knowing that he’d come back from the grave) this passage now becomes Aslan triumphing over the Witch by fulfilling the plan of the Emperor from “before Time dawned.”

I conclude that while Steve Camp and others have a point about how the atonement metaphor in TLTW&TW appears, one only needs to supplement the movie with the book for the metaphor to come back much more closely in line with the Biblical picture of the work of Christ.


5 Comments »

  1. Jared Moore says:

    Jeff,
    good post. You cleared up a lot for me.

    In Him,

    Jared

  2. Mark Kodak says:

    Great post and excellent research. I have always seen Aslan as “playing along” with the witch’s self deception and usurpation of the throne in Narnia. It reminds me of the book of Job where the curtain is pulled back and we see God “playing along” with Satan, even though God is sovereignly moving all things.

  3. Joe says:

    Movies are like tht…they never quite catch the full meaning of the book.

  4. John Rush says:

    I linked to this post in my sidebar.

    Good stuff on Lewis.

    JRush

  5. Rose~ says:

    Great post. I really liked the book when I read it years ago. I am going to see the movie tomorrow. Your post is appreciated. Thanks. :~)

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