The Theme of Sacrifice in ‘Narnia: the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’

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In analysing the meaning of the CS Lewis’ first Narnia book, Erwin Cabucos discusses the redemptive fruit of love and sacrifice.

The Pervensie children are deciding what to do next when Lucy sees a Robin. “Look, there’s a Robin with such a red breast!” she says (58). They wonder if the bird talks so she asks the bird. The Robin does not talk but jumps onto the next tree and onto the other, guiding them to reach Aslan. The use of the symbolism of the colour red on the chest of the Robin is emphasised by the narrator: “You couldn’t have found a Robin with a redder chest and a brighter eye” (59).

Robins appear in England at Christmas-time. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Robin symbolises hope that the spell of the White Witch to Narnia will eventually end and Christmas will come. Christmas indeed comes to Narnia. The red-chest Robin foretells a bloody ritual which is needed to occur to have Christmas. Later in the plot, Aslan sheds blood to redeem his friend and eventually Narnians. This appears to be reminiscent of the popular English folktale which tells the origin of the red colour on the breast of the bird when it once tried to pluck a thorn from the head of Jesus at the Cross to help alleviate Jesus’ pain. In doing so, spurt of blood stained its chest which remains to this day (Knowles, 2010). Indeed, the references on blood and the idea of alleviating pain are consistent with the oozing of Aslan’s blood at the Stone Table and the two girls’ desire to help him from the distance.

Another reference of the use of the Robin appears to have originated from the English mythology that it is a symbol of fire and warmth, reminiscent of their other folktale that it once fanned the dying fire at the manger during the birth of Jesus while the Mother and the baby were asleep. In doing so, the bird was burnt by a flying ember and the Blessed Mother thanked the Robin by remaining the beautiful red colour on its breast. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the references of fire, ember and warmth evoke hope that the ice of the long winter in Narnia will soon melt.

The use of the symbol of Robin is only one of the myriad of symbols, motifs and themes in Lewis’ work developed from the myths, legends, folktale and fairy tales of Christian, English, Norse and Germanic traditions. These elements are paramount to attaining a reading that the novel brings to life the Christian messages of love and sacrifice to the children of 20th century. Christian concepts of redemption and compassion are glazed with the joyful experiences of friendship and adventure to be vicariously available to the young enchanted audiences.

A common characteristic of literature in the high fantasy category is the narrative of the quest and engagement in great battles to ultimately trample down the enemy. The triumph of the good equals the defeat of the evil. C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe pursues the theme of good and evil as strongly as the characterisation of Aslan and the White Witch does. Aslan arrives in Narnia to stop the wickedness of the White Witch, which include a pursuit to annihilate humans.

The White Witch epitomises the wickedness of a female protagonist who possesses a wand that can turn disobeying parties and characters into stone. Mirroring the witches of Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Vasilissa the Fair, and other fairy tales, the witch of Narnia claims to be the queen of Narnia. This royal witch, with her crown and sceptre, is merciless, cruel, power-hungry and sadistic. The White Witch puts a spell on Narnia so that winter reigns forever and Christmas will never to be experienced. Narnians are terrified of her and so they sway to her side in order to survive. When she learns that humans are present, she enrages for fear of losing her throne to humans. So she plans to kill them. Edmund succumbs to her tricks and is destined to be slain but Aslan presents himself to be sacrificed instead. The White Witch is overjoyed, expecting that she will be queen forever. She is wrong. Aslan rises from the dead and brings the stone creatures into life again. Aslan and the four children engage in war in order to destroy the evil faction. “Then with the roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamp-post to the shores of the eastern sea, the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch,” (160) goes the narration and the Witch dies. Creatures which see her dead either give themselves up or fly away. The four ascends to the thrones of Cair Paravel and Aslan maintains the great leadership of Narnia. “The children sat in their thrones and sceptres” (165) and “…they lived in great joy”(167). The evil reduces into the world of deflation and sheer reduction until it ends into the state of nothingness and death. The Witch dies. Meanwhile, the good elevates into the state of valour, respect, ascendancy, royalty, happiness, reign and power. The dichotomy between the triumphant and the defeated is marked by life and death, joy and sorrow, and possessions and nothingness. This form of didactic narrative in Lewis’ work marks the success of children literature as readers find a degree familiarity in the story. In the words of Tabbert and Wardetzky (1995:9): “The pattern is simple and do not overtax young audiences.” The message is simple: be good and you will ascend to success; be bad and you will reduce to nothingness.

The theme of good and evil extends to the Christian notion of sacrifice and love of humanity, as well as compassion and redemption. When Aslan and the children realise Edmund’s betrayal and his imminent death, the forces of good are filled with anxiety until Aslan offers himself to take the position of Edmund to be slain in the midst of the evil forces. This pleases and gratifies the Witch as it does sound that her wish as forever queen of Narnia will be fulfilled. However, her ecstasy dissolves by Aslan’s resurrection which consequently leads to her forces’ defeat. Aslan explains that, essentially, that she was unaware of the deeper magic:

“There is a magic deeper still which [the Witch] 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 there 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 backwards” (148).

The deeper wisdom suggests that if you sacrifice your life for the sake of others, you will gain life. Aslan has sacrificed himself for the sake of Edmund as well as for Narnians, hence, he gains life. He resurrects. This concept refers to the heart of Christian ethics and morality: love and sacrifice for the sake of others. Jesus has sacrificed himself on the cross for the redemption of humanity from sinfulness and into life. The bible teaches: “For God so love the world the he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life”(John 3:16), and “Christ Jesus has set you free from the rule of sin and death”(Mark 2:5).

The imagery of the ritual of offering alludes to the Christians’ ritual of sacrifice during a Eucharistic celebration in mass for Catholics or Thanksgiving in church service for non Catholics. In the ritual, the altar serves as the site of the slaying of an animal as an offering to a deity, facilitated by a representative of the group. This can be traced from the Hebrew tradition of offering of goats to Yahweh as a form of worship or thanksgiving, typified by the story of Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac to God at the altar, which later replaced by a lamb (Genesis 22). More importantly, the use of the lamb is further referenced from the remembrance of the Passover narrative when the angel of death passed over the door of the Hebrew smeared with lamb’s blood. The Hebrews were saved and freed from slavery in Egypt. In the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ becomes the lamb who is offered at the altar, slain on the cross, and who resurrects at the tomb with a removed stone. The pains of the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross through Golgotha, the piercing of the nails through his human flesh and the bursting of the blood from his hands are the physical manifestations of his offering and sacrifices. For Christians, Jesus’ blood becomes the saving blood which gives life. Jesus says: “This is my body… this is my blood… which shall be given up for you” (Luke 22:19). He adds: “I am the resurrection and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6).

On the other hand, Aslan is offered and slain at the altar by a group of evil forces through the leadership of the white Witch. Aslan is not a lamb but a lion, depicting a degree of closeness in terms of the use of animals. He is tied as the hags, evil dwarfs and apes charge at him. They shave him, mock him, and jeer at him before the White Witch buries her big knife into his flesh. The event is so horrific that the girls can not bear to look and they cover eyes (141). Then he resurrects. “The rising of the sun had made everything so different” (146). He gives them a ride to the castle to awaken the stoned creatures before they join in the battle which has eventually cost the life of the Witch.

These striking parallels between the Christian mythology of Resurrection and Aslan’s rising from the dead contain symbols which strongly evokes the Christian message of altruism. When Jesus’ rises from the dead, the stone cover of his tomb moves; when Aslan rises from the dead, the Stone Table break into two. Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Salome first discover that Jesus is alive. Lucy and Susan first hear the great news that Aslan is alive. Both times are sunrise and both heroes are from the male gender.

The use of the elemental materials such as rocks and stones suggests earthy references attributed to the female gender; that, there is a strong connection between the natural structural elements, life and women. The female gender is strong elements in life – a nearly ludicrous consolation to the representation of women in the traditional narratives. Women, if not victims of curses, maltreatment and spells such as Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc, are the maternal caregivers for the hero in times of need such as Lucy and Susan while Edmund and Peter fight in the battle. Lucy and Susan have the calling horn and healing potion, respectively. Edmund and Peter have swords and shields. Lewis’ novel appears to perpetuate the gender stereotypes present in traditional literature.

The talking lion and animals, small and ordinary creatures, mythological characters, lush forest beckoning for Christmas, battle with swords and medieval armours, potion that brings back life, horn that calls for important people – all these offer an accessible way for children to easily enter into the enchanting world of Narnia, the world where wonder, fun, adventure and grand messages abound. The old Christian message of love, sacrifice and redemption has been given a lively spin for the children of contemporary time to consume. This is effective in passing the message to the child because the narrative and the enchanting way that it is told encroach into the consciousness of the reader through thought-processes and conviction. Bettelheim (1986:45) explains: “fairy tale [stories] proceeds in a manner which conforms to the way a child thinks and experiences of the world.”

Narnia as a setting functions as the physical world where magic, quest, battles and valour occur. Bettelheim (1986:1-27) implies that the reading of the fantasy provides a psychological medium through which life negotiations and events are vicariously experienced. In the forest, meeting a strange character, such as the faun, is a casual affair; strategic planning to reach freedom is held in a hut of beavers; following an unknown guide like the hopping Robin is unprecedented; winning a battle against the forces of the evil is imminent; and, reigning castle, the Cair Paravel, happens. A myriad of emotions and feelings: wonder, anxiety, tears, and joy, are endured and experienced. All these happen within the boundary of the forest. In the genre of fantasy literature the forest is paramount to convey truth beyond, yet within them (Thomas: 1996:128). The use of the forest in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe appears to be necessary to tell the truth that good triumphs over evil for it is in Narnia that the saving of the humanity (Narnians) becomes possible and the defeat of the evil actually happens.

The world of Narnia is populated mainly by talking animals and mythological creatures, such as dryads, fauns, nymphs, as well as Bacchus, and Silenus from the Greek and Roman traditions, and giants and dwarfs from Norse mythology. The image of the differences of people signifies the inclusiveness and universality of the truth of the novel: if there is a god like Aslan who would love humanity so much, and for whom he would be ready to risk his life, that god is a god of humanity in all its diversity and differences. Narnians, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, are worthy recipients of love that springs from the sacrifice.

“Fantasy creates hope and optimism in readers. It is the pure stuff of wonder. …transforming out of the reality” (Pierce, 1996:183). Narnia offers the readers with heightened emotive and decision-making experiences, away from the air-raids and horrors of war in London. In Narnia, children rule, and they do rule Cair Paravel, the Castle in Narnia at the end of the novel: King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just and Queen Lucy the Valiant. In Narnia, children decide on whether they follow the unknown Robin or not, trust the beaver or not and plead with the Faun not to tell the Witch – all these actions are done without parental control. Literature is for pleasure; childhood is usually a happy state as oppose to the chaotic world of adults.

When Lucy first came back to the human side of the wardrobe, her anxiety over what might have happened to the faun as well as her curiosity to the enchanting environment are insistent. She feels the urge to go back. She feels the need to convince her brothers and sister to come to Narnia. And the wardrobe is almost as accessible as going to their bedroom. It doesn’t take long for Lucy to accidentally discover the wardrobe as she inspects the house. The wardrobe is on the same level of the house, signifying a sense of closeness, and perhaps intimacy of the role of the deeper magic in the lives of the audience. The magic is not so far away; not under the earth, not over the sky, but within our midst. Thomas’ (1996:124) quotes of Gaston Bachelard’s words: “The forest is a psychic state [where] psychic aspects swirling within our imagination.” C.S. Lewis novel suggests that our psychic state, where our ego maintains its balance through the constant battle between the pleasurable desires of the id and from the moralistic pull of righteousness, is simply right in our midst. It is in the depths of our self. The deeper magic of life of Narnia, the love for others, is not up above nor down below; it is in us where we are.

C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has made the antiquated messages of love and sacrifice alive again to children in the 20th century. Without the direct moral instructions and control from the chaotic and sometimes perilous world of adults, children are given a platform through which they experience and witness the concepts of redemption and compassion. The use of numerous parallelisms, symbols, motifs and themes from Christian mythologies and legends as well as from folktales and fairytales, has made personal development guides of the novel more enjoyable and accessible. In the words of Kennedy (2008:127): “The Chronicles [of Narnia] remind us that beauty, truth and goodness really do exist; that what we choose in life matters; that suffering has meaning; that sacrifice for the right things makes a difference; that heaven is real; and that God are reason for joy and hope, loving us eternally.”

List of References

Bettelheim, B., 1986, The Uses of Enchantment, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York

Doty, W. (Ed.), 2002, The Times World Mythology, Times Books, London

Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version, 1991, Catholic Bible Press, Ottawa

Kennedy, J., 2008, The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia: Explore the Magical World of Narnia and the Brilliant Mind Behind It, Adams Media, Massachusetts, USA

Knowles, G., 2010, ‘Animals and Witchcraft’,, accessed on 01 November 2010

Lewis, C.S., 1994, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harper Collins, New York

Lundin, A., 1990, ‘On the Shores of the Lethe: C.S. Lewis and the Romantics’, in Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 21, no.1, pp. 53-59.

Martin, P., 2009, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, Crickhollow Books, Wisconsin

Mathews, R., 2002, Fantasy: The Libration of Imagination, Routledge, London

Opie, I. and P., 1992, The Classic Fairy Tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Pierce, T., 1996, ‘Fantasy: Why kids read it, why kids need it’, in Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature, 3rd Edn., Ed. S. Egoff, G. Stubbs, R. Ashley & W. Sutton, Oxford University Press, Toronto, pp. 179-183.

Reinstein, P.G., 1983, ‘Aesop and Grimm: Contrast in Ethical Codes and Contemporary Values’, in Children’s Literature in Education, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 44-53.

Tabbert, R. and Wardetzky, K., 1995, ‘On the success of children’s books and fairy tales: a comparative view of impact theory and reception research’, in The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 1-19

Thomas, J., 1996, ‘Woods and Castles, Towers and Huts: Aspects of Setting in the Fairy Tale’, in Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature, 3rd Edition, Ed. S. Egoff, G. Stubbs, R. Ashley and W. Sutton, Oxford University Press, Toronto, pp. 122-129.

Tingay, J. 1993, Quest for Wonders: Myths and Legends in the Classroom, PETA: Newtown.

Tolkien, J.R.R., 1964, Tree and Leaf, Unwin Books, London.

How to reference this essay?

Cabucos, E. (2020), ‘The Theme of Sacrifice in Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, in, downloaded on today’s date.

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