Thoughts on Narnia
So I caught the movie version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe over Christmas. It wasn’t as ropey as some of the write-ups had led me to believe, I’d have to say, but then I can be quite forgiving of big eye-candy movies when they’re on TV. If I haven’t wasted the money on a cinema ticket, I don’t feel the need to complain about something I didn’t pay good money for — not directly anyway. And if I can faff about if I feel like it, making cups of tea or footering with the laptop while it’s on, well, even if it’s a bit shit, I’m not going to feel (as I did seeing Alien 4 in the cinema, for example) that I want my fricking time back, never mind my money. But, of course, there is that whole Christian allegory thing lurking at the heart of it, which should surely alienate me from it. Truth be told though, it’s never bothered me as much as the subtexts that lurk within LotR. I got a lot of enjoyment out of the Narnia books as a kid, and for all the transparency of Aslan’s death and resurrection, it was only really the final book, The Last Battle, that really didn’t work for me.
Still, on watching the movie a good couple of decades since I last read the book, as much as I found it enjoyable enough, I couldn’t help but start to think through just what Lewis is saying here, in allegorical terms, just how it all turns on the idea that, by the rules of Deep Magic, Edmund must die. Just how it all turns, back-flips, somersaults, spins around until it’s dizzy, ties itself in knots and eventually collapses in complete disarray.
See… Edmund is a traitor. He sold out his own siblings for some Turkish Delight and a promise of princeship. In terms of a Christian allegory, it’s safe to say that this means Edmund is a sinner. This is where Deep Magic Rule #1 comes in: traitors belong to the White Witch, who gets to gut them like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, if she so desires. Which is to say, sinners are damned to the devil. Now the White Witch doesn’t strike one as being averse to that sort of thing, being evil and all. Hell, seems like she’d have a rare old time invoking that rule every time it's breached, just like the devil, being evil and all, enjoys this whole damnation malarky. The White Witch, the devil — they’re pretty much characterised by their cruelty and malice. Only thing is, this logically brings us to our first conclusion: the rules of Deep Magic bring joy to the sort of cruel and malicious bastards who get their rocks off from gutting someone like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Which is to say, God's Law is pretty damn groovy if you're the devil. It’s carte blanche to inflict a torturous death on any poor bastard you can sucker into betraying their family or friends. So Edmund betrayed his siblings?
So Edmund must die.
Needless to say, the White Witch, being evil and all, plays a fairly active part in leading Edmund astray. She’s the devil, after all. Temptation is a big part of her her modus operandi. But Edmund, being a child and all, is a pretty easy target, it has to be said. Let’s face it, she offers him Turkish Delight and a princeship, and the Turkish Delight is pretty much as important to him in the grand scheme of things as the princeship, so he doesn't exactly have a great notion of priorities. Hmmm, methinks. Not being able to evaluate the relative importance of Turkish Delight versus princeship… being more concerned with sugary treatness than with political traction… surely Edmund could be quite literally described as in-nocent here — as “not-knowing”. Yes, practically speaking, he done the crime and is responsible for it in that causative sense, but isn’t that why we have an age of consent or an age of criminal responsibility — because we recognise that you’ve gotta account for the naivety of youth? Maybe the White Witch believes in capital punishment for minors, but that’s because she’s up there with Elizabeth Bathory in the World’s Worst Au Pair Competition, surely. Nobody’s going to take her demand seriously, surely.
But, yes, we’re told by Aslan. She’s right.
Edmund must die.
See, this is where Deep Magic Rule #2 comes in, as we learn that any breach of the rules of the Deep Magic will lead to the End Of Narnia As We Know It unless the decreed punishment is meted out. Which is to say, in the whole Christian allegory malarky, that God’s Law is absolute. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about age and responsibility. God’s Law don’t care if you’re an ickle bitty kiddy. So fucking what? You gonna die, you pint-size but neverthelesss treacherous motherfucker. You gotta be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on that stone table… and for the sake of Narnia, no less. You gonna burn in the fires of damnation, short-stop. And if the White Witch invokes this rule, it’s Aslan who insists that it’s absolute, note. Which is something we’ll get back to presently.
But, wait! What’s that you say? Edmund was weak and foolish rather than malevolent, and he knows he done wrong now. He’s really sorry and it was all a big mistake, really, so let’s cut him some slack. Killing him on the stone table seems a tad extreme. He's entirely ready to make some sort of atonement. Or, to put it in Christian terminology, Edmund is repentant. This doesn’t matter. Shut the fuck up, we’re told. Go read Deep Magic Rule #2 again. This is the End Of Narnia As We Know It we’re talking about. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about a transgressor’s change of heart. God’s Law don’t care if you’re so so sowwy. Boo fucking hoo. Tell it to the judge when he’s reading your sins from the book of life. Scream it at the top of your little lungs as you’re being cast into the lake of fire. So you really really wish you hadn’t done it? Too late now, fuckwit.
OK. Well, it’s a sort of Christian allegory. Seems kinda weird that it’s so dismissive of repentance, but it’s not so far off the attitude of some strains of Christian judgementalism — the Westboro Baptists, say. Saying sorry to your actual victims, doesn’t cut it for them. Repentance is about apologising to God. So should Edmund be apologising to Aslan, throwing himself on the lion’s infinite mercy? This is not clear, to be honest. What is clear is that Edmund feeling miserable about his treachery is just not enough. Oh no.
Edmund must die.
But, but, but… But Edmund's victims don't give a shit about Deep Magic Rule #2. Peter, Susan, Lucy, they're all entirely ready to accept his atonement, to forgive him his betrayal. Victims can forgive sinners, can’t they? Can’t they just — metaphysically speaking — choose not to press charges? So what if the White Witch wants to gut Edmund like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table? So what if Aslan insists she has the right? Surely if Edmund’s victims are willing to treat it as all water under the bridge that’s their prerogative. Um, no thanks, guys. We appreciate the thought and all, but we’d rather keep our brother with his innards innnardly.
But, no. Deep Magic Rule #2 says that ain’t the case. End Of Narnia As We Know It, remember? Whole fucking realm will fall apart if we let one little betrayal slip by (or so we’re told, at least… but we’ll get to that.) So, no. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about forgiveness on the part of the victim. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “mercy”. What kind of pussy are you, ya bunch of snivelling panty-waists? This is God’s Law, and there ain’t no getting round it. Victims, bystanders, fucking bleeding-heart human rights advocates — humanity don’t have a fucking say in the matter. You do the crime, you do the time. Traitors get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Sinners burn in Hell for all eternity. What part of this do you not understand, sons of Adam, daughters of Eve?
But, no, no, no, no, NO! Wait. Listen. It’s not just about forgiveness. Edmund's family love him. They really don't want him to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. No more than those who love a sinner are going to be down with that sinner suffering eternal damnation. Sure, he’s a dickwad; but he’s still one of the family, and to say they’d miss him is kind of understating it. We’re talking about trying to live with the knowledge that your brother was gutted. Like a slaughtered lamb. On the stone table. Because of what he did to YOU. Dude, that’s gonna fuck you up. Picture these kids twenty years down the line, Peter driven to alcohol in a vain attempt to destroy the memory of Edmund’s screams. Susan popping pills to stop the shakes every time she pictures the entrails. Lucy waking from the screaming nightmares in the middle of the night, in the bed of some random stranger from whom she’s sought the solace of sex without love. Cause you can’t risk love, you know, if it might get taken away from you for the smallest crime, taken away just when they realised the error of their ways, strapped to a stone table, and… and… and picture Lucy weeping, muffling her sobs so as not to wake the stranger she’s just been fucked by, alone in her misery because she’s afraid of the grief that can come with love. No therapists to give PTSD treatment in those days, remember. Sooner or later, we could probably expect one of those Pevensey kids to just stick a shotgun in their mouth and pull the fucking trigger. For the sake of all that’s good, for the sake of human kindness, fucking empathy, simple love, surely we can exercise a little fucking leniency here!
But Deep Magic Rule #2 says otherwise. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about empathy. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “love”. What? Are you a faggot or something? Oh, pleathe, Mr Athlan! Don’t gut our brother like a thlaughtered lamb on the thtone table! PAH! Next thing you’ll be saying that Edmund's family know him better than anyone in Narnia. And if they don't think he deserves to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb, surely they're the best judges of his character. Right? Right? Don’t make me fucking laugh. Deep Magic Rule #2 pisses on your character witness testimonies. The rules of Deep Magic don’t do leniency. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a flying fuck about what’s fair. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “justice” any more that it cares about your naivety, repentance, mercy or fucking love. Goddamn bleeding heart liberal panty-waist. Don’t you fucking get it? THE END. OF NARNIA. AS WE KNOW IT. There is no probation here, no deferred sentence, no time-already-served, no mitigating circumstances, no clemency, just the Law written into the fabric of reality, and that Law is fucking crystal fucking clear:
Edmund must die.
So Much For Justice
But let’s look at just why he has to die. Let’s look at it just a little closer.
I mean, this whole situation has come about because the White Witch has invoked the Law and, according to Aslan, that Law is absolute. But all the evidence indicates that Law has to be invoked Cause when you think about it, the White Witch has a whole secret service enforcing decrees that make treachery compulsory on pain of death. She has informants everywhere, even among the trees themselves. Mr Tumnus is scared shitless of what she might do if he doesn’t betray Lucy. And given that the most likely punishment is being turned instantly to stone, a fairly quick and painless death, all things considered, this rather begs the question of why he’s not way more scared of being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Instant petrification or slow and gory torturous death? Cryogenic storage or ritual disembowelment? The choice seems fairly clear-cut, I’d say. And yet, it kinda seems like the White Witch’s whole totalitarian rule is founded on the fear she engenders. The good denizens of Narnia are a damn sight more scared of disobeying those decrees than they are of being gutted like slaughtered lambs on the stone table. And those who are just plain bad to the bone… seems they can carry out acts of betrayal with impunity, informing on anyone and everyone.
Now let’s parse this into the underlying Christian allegory. In terms of Christian allegory the devil (the White Witch) could just get his kicks by punishing sinners (gutting traitors on the stone table), but he’s more interested in driving us to sin (coercing Narnians into acting as informants) as a means to an end, that end being power, presumably. This is working out quite well. The whole temporal world is fallen so far into sin, in fact, that the devil rules it like a tyrant. (The White Witch even has the trees working as informants.) Shit, the denizens of Narnia who aren't betraying their fellows constitute a persecuted populace, living in fear of their very lives. This is a surveillance state, motherfucker, with its lupine Stazi, its wolven Gestapo, its Big Bad KGB. None of whom seem overly concerned about being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table for tittle-tattling on their neighbours. So, is there actually any gutting going on at all here? Or has that stone table sat abandoned and forgotten all through the White Witch’s reign of terror, through treachery after treachery after treachery? Hell, how about that fox who passes himself off as a loyal subject of Her Nibs but is actually one of the resistance? His betrayal of the White Witch is all in the name of what’s good and righteous, but it’s still a betrayal. Being a traitor to the Evil Overlord doesn’t make you any less a traitor. So…
So where the fuck does that leave Deep Magic Rule #2? Edmund, we’re told, has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table or it’s The End Of Narnia As We Know It. Because of Deep Magic Rule #1. Well, Deep Magic Rule #1 means fuck-all to anyone under the White Witch's rule. It is not being enforced as the White Witch's decrees are. In practical terms, it is entirely irrelevant. Nobody is bothering with it. And guess what? Narnia hasn’t fucking ended. It’s got a bit intemperate, in more ways than one, but other than that… diddly squat. The only possible conclusion we can draw from this is that Aslan’s insistence that the rules of Deep Magic are absolute is kind of glossing over an important caveat: the punishment doesn’t have to be exacted if it’s not invoked. Which is to say, the rule is there but unless someone actually calls for it to be applied, it doesn’t matter a fuck. Which is to say, in allegorical terms, the devil can go merrily on his way in the world, coercing its inhabitants into sin regardless of any risk of damnation, because God’s Law is not being enacted upon sinners. It’s there as a threat, but it’s an idle one, unenforced in the temporal world. Because why the fuck would the devil inflict a moral lesson on those he’s been left to turn into minions by whatever means he so desires?
Unless, of course, Aslan comes back, and you can use all this Deep Magic guff just to get one over on him. Ah, so you’ve returned, Aslan, now that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve have come to Narnia? Bad news though, I’m afraid. I haven’t been bothering with the old laws much up till now, but seeing as you’re all upstanding and law-abiding, you should probably know that one of those humans has been a bit naughty. Anyway, I thought I’d check up the divinely decreed punishment just to save you some time and… let’s see… what does it say here? Ah, yes.
Edmund must die.
If I were Edmund, I’d consider this a little sodding inequitable. I mean, countless traitors get off scot free, even prosper as enforcers of the White Witch’s reign of terror, but one little act of treachery and Edmund has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Nobody else is getting gutted here. It’s not like there’s a queue of every informant this side of Caer Paravel all waiting for their turn to get gutted. Surely if it’s all about The End Of Narnia As We Know It, every traitor is of equal importance. How about that fox? Shouldn’t he be unpetrified just so he can be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table if its so bloody crucial? How about all those informant trees Tumnus is scared of? They can’t exactly be gutted like slaughtered lambs but if they’ve been acting as informants all these years surely there’s a Deep Magic Bylaw #3.27.(a) that says how they should be dealt with. How about the wolves? You’re not trying to tell me they’ve kept a secret service running without ever gaining someone’s trust just to exploit it. How about the Wicked Witch herself? If she’s as evil as she seems to be, it seems pretty fucking unlikely that she’s never stabbed one of her loyal followers in the back to further her ambitions. Even if Edmund has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, why the fuck does he have to get shoved to the front of the line? Just because the White Witch decides to invoke Deep Magic Rule #1 on him and nobody else? So much for justice.
Of course, it’s conceivable… perhaps… just barely… that “betrayal” is defined very exactingly in the rules of Deep Magic, that grassing on your neighbour isn’t considered an act of treachery, that none of the White Witch’s informants and bully-boys and general bad eggs count as traitors in that way, that not one of the heinous acts committed throughout the whole history of the White Witch’s reign of terror actually constitutes a crime punishable by being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. It’s possible, I suppose, that only Edmund’s crime is covered. Perhaps this is part of the old “God’s ways are mysterious” malarky, a Deep Magic Rule #3: don’t ask why perfidies uncovered by Deep Magic Rule #1 don’t require the perpetrator to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table; that’s just the Way It Is.
Or perhaps Lewis’s Christian allegory is actually a cunningly libertarian message: hey, don’t worry; God’s Law doesn’t actually apply nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a million; sure, you’ll get damned for all eternity if you hit on the one-in-a-million unpardonable crime, and it won’t matter a fuck how much you plead for clemency for this, that or the other reason, because God doesn’t give a fuck if you’re a kid or a cretin, repentant or not; but it doesn’t matter, because as long as you’re not that particular kind of a criminal, you’ll be fine. Perhaps it’s all some sort of sophisticated subversion asserting the all-encompassing embrace of God’s benevolence: worry not, O fascist boot-boys; fear not, O Stalinist enforcers; do not dread, O henchmen of the ganglords of the earth; for all is forgiven, yea verily, all but for the crime of being seduced by Turkish Delight into selling out one’s siblings!
Or perhaps it’s just Standard Model Legalistic Morality rather than libertarianism. Perhaps it’s just that infantile moralistic mindset Kohlberg labels the “law and order” mentality, the one that tells us there’s no grey areas in right and wrong, no “moral relativism” to be considered, no ethical judgement to be exercised. It’s God’s Law, a divine, natural, social, moral order, and it’s absolute; and furthermore it can draw the lines wherever the fuck it arbitrarily wants to, defining transgressions and decreeing the severity of their punishments on the basis of proclamations that appear utterly spurious to those who might (foolishly and faithlessly) seek to apply rational ethical evaluations which consider multiple factors (like naivety, empathy, mercy, justice, and so on.) Perhaps the Deep Magic of Narnia, the God’s Law it represents is just the sort of fucked-up self-righteous dogma handed down from on high and taken as received wisdom, the kind of bullshit that says, OK, we’re not gonna bother with grassing on your neighbour because that hasn’t been defined as a sin, but grassing on your family is a mortal sin punishable by being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. You know the type of bullshit I mean. It’s the same one that says there’s nothing wrong with slavery, or raping your wife, or umpteen other ethically abhorrent acts, but if you’re a man who makes fuckee-fuck with another man, well, you gotta be stoned to death, cocksucker, or burned at the stake, or damned for eternity. Or gutted like a slaughtered lamb, you know. On a stone table.
Deep Magic Rule #2, motherfucker. The End. Of Narnia. As We Know It.
It’s nothing to do with justice. It’s all about survival.
Loose Threads and Knots of Logic
Do we detect, in that dire threat of the fantasy world’s utter collapse, the infantile moralist’s dread of their self-righteous certainty crumbling? To accept that the sinner might not be punished (somehow, somewhere, even if only in the afterlife)… isn’t that to question the absolute authority of the moral system? Isn’t that to suggest that the Deep Magic is not written into Narnia’s fabric, that God’s Law is not unconditional and supreme in its application across the entirety of the temporal world? Isn’t that to suggest that our moral systems are, in fact, complex constructs of ethical judgements, contingencies we formalise and calcify into imperatives because we desire the certainty, the solidity of rules? To accept that the sinner might not be punished, to refuse to recognise the necessity of Edmund’s punishment, to reject that Deep Magic Rule #1 as an illegitimate and unjust nonsense, isn’t that to challenge the very legitimacy of the moral system itself, to flick one card away and bring the whole damned house of them tumbling down?
Seems to me like there’s an excellent Christian allegory here, in Aslan the lion being the one who tells us that the Deep Magic requires Edmund’s death. Oh, yes indeedy. Aslan is a big fucking pussy. Literally, metaphorically, idiomatically and allegorically, Aslan is a big fucking pussy. In his assertion that Edmund has to die or it will be The End of Narnia As We Know It, Aslan gives voice to the cowardice of every moral absolutist too chickenshit to face the fact of their own ethical creativity, preferring to follow their received wisdom rather than learn to fucking navigate for themselves, clinging to their mad, blind, crippled guide and going round and round in circles rather than striking out on their own. Because the idea that their confidence might be misplaced is too scary, would shatter their sense of certainty, leave them lost and confused. So Edmund has to die or Narnia will fall apart? That’s the dread of every conservative arguing against those who stand up to prejudice, the dread that the entire moral fabric of society will crumble if we dare to discard even one obsolete taboo.
Cause the only conceivable alternative to Aslan is, of course, the White Witch, right? Godlessness is just the path to a human Hell of cruelty and greed, malice supreme over all. It’s not hard to see, in terms of Christian allegory, the significance of Aslan’s absence. The White Witch is only in power because Aslan has gone walkabout. (The devil only rules because Jesus has fucked off and left him to do whatever he wants.) So when Aslan comes back, the White Witch’s little tinpot dictatorship of arbitrary decrees is pretty much bound to fall. (When Jesus strides back into town, the devil’s mechanisms of temporal dominion aren’t going to stand up terribly well against the avatar of an omnipotent deity.) Flip that round and there’s another side to the message though: without Aslan, the Narnians are too weak to stand up to the White Witch; without Jesus, we can’t beat the devil.
But this is where drama, imp that it is, enters the picture and starts to kick at the foundations of the allegory. Because Edmund doesn’t give a shit about Aslan. He doesn’t give a shit about anyone other than himself much, selfish and greedy little boy that he is. But through the ramifications of his actions, the impact they have on his siblings, the conflict this creates with his empathic bond to them, the realisation of the scale of what he’s done and the fact that he fucking cares about it, Edmund learns. Wandering out into the winter wastes of his own amorality, he faces the White Witch, falls for her wiles at first, but in the end develops a far deeper ethical awareness than any of the others. He’s done wrong and he knows it. He knows why he did it. He knows why it was wrong. He doesn’t need no Deep Magic to tell him treachery is a Bad Thing.
Aslan does though, apparently. Narnia is Aslan’s world, indeed; it is the world of his belief system made manifest, sung into earth and sky. He was there, we’re told, when the rules of Deep Magic were written, as Jesus was there when God laid down the Law. He knows them better than anyone, as Jesus alone knows the Will of God. Edmund only has to die because the White Witch invokes the rules and Aslan is bound by those rules, bound in a way the White Witch isn’t. Jesus has to follow God’s Law; the devil doesn’t. They are the bedrock of his very reality. For Aslan, big fucking pussy that he is, you either accept the divine decrees — all of them — or it all goes to shit. So, faced with the winter wastes of an amoral cosmos, Aslan must restore the idyllic fantasy even if it means accepting an unjust absurdity. Good Cowardly Lion that he is, Aslan needs certainty so bad it’s inconceivable that he simply shrug off the whole “gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table” thing as the barbaric bullshit that it is. Hell, the White Witch’s invocation of that rule is as much a challenge to his legitimacy as it’s an attempt to maintain her hold. With Aslan returned, Jesus back in charge, the moral system of the Deep Magic / God’s Law established once again as the One True Way, all it takes is for one little thread to be pulled out and the whole fucking tapestry of belief will unravel.
Let’s play by your rules, Almighty One, she’s saying. The rules say the boy must die. You say you’re all about what’s right and wrong, good and evil. The rules written into the world — as far as you’re concerned — they say that the boy done wrong, and they impose a punishment no rational being could possibly consider just. Your system is fucked. Your entire fucking philosophy is unsustainable barbarism, because it requires you to accept — to condone — an utterly unconscionable act — to wit, the gutting of a small boy like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. So whatcha gonna do about it, ya big fucking pussy? You ready to ditch Deep Magic Rule #1? You got the balls to be a mensch about it? You got the fucking cojones to admit that all this absolutism is a crock of shit, that you don’t really know what’s right and what’s wrong just as much as I really don’t care? Eh, big boy?
Ah, but wait! Aslan doesn’t just let Edmund die! He bravely(!) valiantly(!) gives himself up for sacrifice in place of Edmund. In an act of martyrdom beyond measure, he offers himself to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Such courage! Such love! Such mercy! Such blah fucking blah! Fuck that shit. Faced with a valid challenge to the entire moral underpinnings of Narnia, a dilemma that identifies an injustice intrinsic to the moral system at its most basic level, the inexcusable inequity of a system that would maltreat a child with such callousness that Charles Dickens would baulk at the melodrama of it, Aslan pussies out. He finds a legal loophole. According to the monumentally fucked-up rules of Deep Magic, a surrogate can be punished in place of the perpetrator. According to the rules of Deep Magic scapegoats are all well and good. According to God’s Law, whipping boys are A-OK. It won’t actually mean The End Of Narnia As We Know It if Edmund doesn’t die… just as long as some poor schmuck’s entrails get splattered on the stone. Sinners don’t actually have to go to Hell after all… cause Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
Not to undervalue Aslan’s suffering and all, but he does know, of course, that gutting an innocent person on the stone table invokes Deeper Magic Rule #0: should an innocent person be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, aforesaid person will return to life. We’ll leave aside the fact that Aslan fucked off and abandoned an entire realm to the whims of the White Witch, as apparently this does not constitute a betrayal. Abandoning his people, deserting them, leaving the weak and innocent to struggle on under a wicked tyrant — that’s not a betrayal. Oh, no. Aslan is innocent and as such will return to life. Oh, and aforesaid stone table will then be shattered as a grand symbolic sign that, yeah, OK, you’re right, the whole “gutting like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table” thing is a barbaric monstrosity, and we should probably just scrap it altogether; yeah, OK, you’re right, it would have been cruel beyond contempt to have Edmund gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, because all those ethical criteria you were using to argue for Edmund’s being spared — naivety, repentance, mercy, love, justice — they do actually matter a fuckload more than any moralistic Deep Magic rule; yeah, OK, you’re right, that sort of absolute decree of damnation with no recourse to appeal is ruthless to the point of psychotic; yeah, OK, you’re right, the punishment is so cruel and arbitrary it serves no purpose other than to give an opportunity for some jollies to the type of evil fuck you’d have to be to invoke it; it’s just… it’s just…
It’s just… you can’t expect us to just admit that openly… not to ourselves, at least.
Sure, the stone table is shattered. Sure, this is clearly a big symbol of Christian salvation, a revision of the Deep Magic standing for the revision of God’s Law. Look, forget all that Old Testament eye-for-an-eye stuff, it’s saying. It’s all about God’s forgiveness now, dig? Aslan’s death and resurrection reset the terms. But do they really? Aslan’s Deeper Magic trump card doesn’t define “innocent” in terms that include Edmund’s childhood naivety. All indications are that had Edmund been gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, unlike Aslan, he would not have been restored to life. It’s not that he didn’t deserve to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. It’s not that nobody deserves that because it’s fucking insane. It’s not that the Pevensey kids would have been entitled to recoil in horror from the leonine lunatic and his icy enemy the moment they started talking about Deep Magic Rule #1. It’s not that Edmund would have been quite within his rights to say a big fuck you to Aslan, the White Witch and the whole of fucking Narnia and, in the absence of anything even remotely resembling real justice, leg it for the wardrobe as fast as his little legs could carry him. It’s not that Aslan could have shattered that stone table the moment it was built, or thrown himself upon it before it had first been bloodied, torched himself upon it like a Buddhist monk rather than allow a single soul to suffer its rough justice. It’s not that Jesus the lion could have simply opened his big mouth at the point when Deep Magic Rule #1 was being written and roared out at the top of his lungs, FUCK THIS SHIT! It’s not that Aslan being there when the Deep Magic was written and being Jesus and all we might sort of wonder why he did fuck all to ensure it was set up in a way that wouldn’t entail little children being gutted like slaughtered lambs on the stone table. It’s not that Aslan was wrong to let it go down that way and now he sees the error of his ways, or that he was right then but times change and mores with them, so he’s just as right now to scrap it all as barbaric tosh.
Oh, no. Cause that would be an admission that such absolutist moralistic bollocks was just plain ethically retarded, that we all need to learn, like Edmund, how to behave as decent human beings by applying empathy and understanding to experience — which is just too damn scary to contemplate for most big fucking pussies. So instead we get the legalistic cop-out of a stand-in suffering damnation in another’s stead, a surrogate expiation of sin which works in the mindset of the moralistic cretin where two wrongs do make a right. Here’s that genius logic in all its twisted, knotted wonder:
All betrayal is bad. Duh… well, a torturous death is bad too, so if we inflict a torturous death on all traitors that’ll balance things out, yuh? But, duh… some traitors don’t really deserve torturous deaths. Cause they might have been, like, stoopid… or misled… or children, yuh? But… uh… don’t we still need to balance things out? Cause… uh… you can’t leave a crime unpunished. You gots to have a punishment, yuh? So… hey, I got it! We need to inflict a torturous death on someone, yuh? Duh… so how about we write in a loophole where you can just, like, inflict a torturous death on someone else, someone who has nothing to do with the traitor. Cause that’ll make things balance out. Yeah! Yeah! I mean, they’d have to be willing to die in the traitor’s place or… uh… well, that’d probably be kinda bad… I think they call that “murder”, yuh? And we should probably just let someone else do the killing, cause if we did it, we’d be bad too, yuh? But if we just find someone who’s willing to die so we don’t have to torture a child to death, and have the executioner do it to them instead… uh… then things will balance out. Cause you gots the betrayal on the one hand and the torturous death on the other. And that makes things even, yuh?
So Aslan Died For What?
Of course, it could be worse. The truly genius logic of St Paul was to say that one torturous death — the crucifixion of a young Jewish activist — serves to balance out not just one betrayal but all sins of every kind — or at least the sins of anyone who’s willing to join him in celebrating that torturous death as their means to salvation. When I say “genius” here, by the way, I mean in an evil, megalomaniac, Bond-villain sorta way. And I’m not being ironic with the “truly”. No, I really think Paul had a quite cunning realisation that the tragic story of Jesus’s death for his cause could be spun into a story of a scapegoat willing to take the wrap for anyone and everyone, and that this whole Jesus cult could be made much more compelling by pinning its mystical notions of sin and salvation to a grand symbolic act of blood-sacrifice. I mean, if Lewis’s Christian allegory took its cue from Paul, it would make the “two wrongs do make a right” message above look tame.
In St Paul’s Narnia, that stone table would already be broken, since Aslan would have died and resurrected and fucked off to fuck knows where years ago. In St Paul’s Narnia, the White Witch would still be in charge, the denizens would still be living in fear, and Aslan’s promise to return would remain unfulfilled. Oh, there’d be rumours among the resistance, faith even in the depth of wintry desolation, but the Pevenseys would have to save the realm without backup. In St Paul’s Narnia, we’d have one of the White Witch’s wolves having a Road to Caer Paravel experience, realising that they’ve been a bad, bad wolf. And after Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings, that wolf would be waiting there to tell him, hey, don’t worry; yes, you done bad; fact is, you done so bad that you ought to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table according to the Deep Magic; but Aslan loves you, and he died for your sins, so as long as you say these words of contrition along with me, you’ll be fine. What? You want to make amends to your siblings? Aslan forgives you and that’s all that matters. You want to help them in their struggle against the White Witch? Render unto the White Witch what is hers, I say. You heard that the White Witch just had Peter flayed alive, that Susan is to be hung, drawn and quartered, that Lucy is in hiding for fear of her life? Praise the martyrs of Aslan whose reward will come to them in Heaven.
Forget the temporal world, the Narnia of the flesh.
And in the Narnia that came after that, with St Paul the wolf preaching of Aslan’s death for all our sins, the White Witch’s minions included, it’s not hard to see Aslanianity really starting to catch on with the wolves and minotaurs. It’s not hard to see that Church of Aslan downplaying the role of the White Witch and her followers in his torturous death, blaming it on the centaurs, say. Give it a few hundred years and, who knows? We might even see the White Witch converting, a Holy Narnian Empire. Now there’s a Christian allegory for you.
Can we imagine Edmund buying the wolf’s take on the death of Aslan, taking that short-cut to a salved conscience? Or, with his newfound ethical awareness born from the drama of greed and pride, fear and folly, shock and remorse, do we maybe imagine Edmund telling the wolf where he can shove his eternal salvation, and heading off to fight beside his siblings if they’ll accept his deep and heartfelt apologies? And if he did? If Edmund rejected outright the whole idea that Aslan’s death was a valid expiation of his crime, would it make the slightest bit of difference? Even back in Lewis’s Narnia, if we reject outright the whole core of the Christian allegory, this notion that Edmund has to die, has to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table save for Aslan’s death in his place, does this make the slightest bit of difference?
See, the neat thing about stories, I think, especially fantasy stories where the archetypal aspect of the characters and the actions partake of the mythic, is that the rules of drama can fuck over any allegory. Lewis tries to give us his retelling of the crucifixion as the tale of Edmund’s redemption, tries to shape the action to suit his allegorical purpose, but the drama ignores that and goes blithely on. Edmund does not actually deserve to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. We know it. Lewis knows it. Most important of all, the story knows it. He’s not that bad. He’s only a child. He was weak and foolish. He’s sorry for what he’s done. His siblings accept this. They love him, and they know him well enough to know he’s not that rotten an apple. As ready as he is to make amends, and as ready as his siblings are to accept that, all that is needed, in dramatic terms is the symbolic enaction of atonement and acceptance. Regardless of the Christian hogwash, even after Aslan’s sacrifice, the drama still demands that enaction. And in utter disregard of Lewis’s allegorical message, in direct contradiction of his apparent intent, the drama gives us just that.
Edmund takes a mortal wound in a noble act of heroic self-sacrifice, and Lucy heals him with her magic potion.
Atonement and acceptance.
So Aslan died for what? Not much apparently. It doesn’t matter a jot, the drama tells us, what Aslan has done, not if Edmund still has to go through a dramatically satisfying enaction of atonement and acceptance. Not if, in dramatic terms, the whole death-and-resurrection just reads as a mechanism for getting him temporarily out of the way so that the heroes can be driven to the point of defeat, only for Aslan to come roaring in at the last minute to turn the tide of the battle. It’s of no more religious import than Han Solo flying in to blast Vader from Luke’s tail. No more than if Lewis had given us Aslan offering himself for Edmund in a prisoner exchange, and being led to his execution only to bust loose from his chains and come roaring in to save the day. No more than if we’d seen him fall off a cliff, or be washed away by a river, or be buried by a landslide, only for him to reappear just at the point he’s needed most, having saved himself at the last minute by cunning, fortitude or sheer bloody good luck. In allegorical terms his death is just a horrific spectacle required by an arbitrary rule, this fancy of a Deep Magic, but in dramatic terms we need the all-powerful cat out of the way to up the ante for the climax. In allegorical terms his resurrection is just a happy miracle resulting from another arbitrary rule pulled out of Aslan’s ass, this fancy of a Deeper Magic, but in dramatic terms we need the restoration of the fighting spirit for that final turn of the battle in the heroes’ favour. Deep Magic? Deeper Magic? The drama knows that deeper than any such nonsense, Narnia is founded on the rules of Story. It was bollocks when Aslan said that Edmund had to die. It’s still bollocks when Aslan says that now he doesn’t. Yes, the drama tells us, for the crime that Edmund committed there’s a price that has to be paid. But before Aslan’s death, the drama tells us that being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table is not that price. And after Aslan’s death, the drama tells us that the price is still unpaid.
So must Edmund still die?
No. That price is not some torturous death, simply the proof of his repentance, or more, the proof of something deeper than even a profound remorse, proof of an active ethical judgement, a capacity or even drive to judge what’s right and act on that judgement, proof of ethics as an existential skill. Any pain and suffering involved in that is not a righteous punishment, the drama is telling us. Edmund’s punishment is his remorse. His wounding is only the requisite demonstration of his utter commitment to this solitary, but all-important, altruistic act. Yes, it carries a sense of repayment, pain taken for pain given — this is part of atonement — but the sincerity of his benevolent motivation is what really matters, the fact that Edmund’s ethical judgement is what drives him into danger for the sake of others. And with that demonstration made, that pain and suffering can and should be dispelled as quickly as possible. Fuck the Christian allegory, the drama says. Lucy’s tending to her wounded brother is a real benediction, a humanist blessing that gathers him back into the familial fold, enacting the forgiveness they all feel, the real love and mercy of one human being for another, the acceptance that symbolically completes his redemption. It has to be done quickly, the drama tells us. The White Witch, Aslan, all of Narnia fades into the background. They don’t matter now. This is all that matters now, in dramatic terms, that it’s not too late for Lucy’s magic potion to save him. It’s not, is it? Is it too late? It mustn’t be too late.
Edmund must not die.
Fuck the Deep Magic with its stone table and its insane rules. Fuck the White Witch’s demands. Fuck Aslan’s solemn pronouncements.
Edmund must not die.
He doesn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve it. He never deserved it. And here’s the fucking proof, in a redemption that has sod all to do with anyone or any thing, man or beast, being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on a stone table… or nailed to a cross on a hill, for that matter. The prodigal son of Adam, who’s spent most of the novel being the villain’s willing pawn, has shown himself to be far more of a mensch than Aslan, ready to die for the sake of others and without a fucking secret loophole of Deeper Magic to ensure his return to life. And in dramatic terms, he must not die, because the Story says this — this — is How It Must Be. This is the story. This is how it has to play out. We need atonement and acceptance to complete the narrative of (entirely secular) redemption. Because for all the Christian allegory of Aslan and the grand instauration fantasy of Narnia, the human core of the story is Edmund’s narrative, the tale of the trials and tribulations of an apostate individual, a boy who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong, who hasn’t taken onboard anyone else’s mores as received wisdom, and who therefore has to learn the hard way, for himself and by experience. And when he’s done so, then, by his own bloody-willed act of sacrifice — nobody else’s — he has to earn his redemption.
And the drama slams its fist on the table and the whole house-of-cards allegory collapses.
Which is probably why, I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m able to enjoy the story without vomiting at the allegorical import it’s aiming for. In failing in those ambitions, actually, I rather think it ends up working quite nicely as an unintentional critique, Aslan’s gone-in-a-way-that-shatters-hope loss and back-in-the-nick-of-time return functioning as a narrative device for raising and releasing tension, but the rationale underlying it rendered so paper-thin by the hokum of Deep Magic that thematically it only serves to point up the dubious nature of those rules. A little tweak of cynicism and one might even imagine Aslan as a rather Gnostic Jesus, there at the founding of Narnia, alright, but as a witness to that Deep Magic being written by the type of dark demiurge who would relish the entrails of traitors being spilled for his entertainment on a cold stone altar. One might imagine that Gnostic Aslan as a weaker paraclete, one whose abandonment of Narnia is only the necessary relocation of a limited force of light called away to battle evil on another front, a Phildickian saviour-in-hiding who “must invade reality in order to redeem it”. Hell, it makes more sense than the idea that he’s the Jesus of a traditional omnipotent and omnipresent God, who should hardly have to leave one realm to rot while tending to another. But that’s really just playing with the inconsistencies for the mischief of it. When push comes to shove it’s enough for me that the allegory simply rings hollow and imparts that echo of emptiness to all the bombast about Deep Magic, enough that when we’re told that Edmund must die the decree is so profoundly senseless we can’t help but question it, ask why.
Enough that when we do so Story is waiting in the wings to tell us: do not listen to that horseshit; here’s why he must not.