Back through the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Power of Allegory in Spiritual Formation

When I first read C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy phenomenon The Chronicles of Narnia as a 12-year-old I got the allegory even then: Narnia was the spiritual world, the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea was God, the White Witch embodied evil or Satan (himself symbolic), the wardrobe was like faith, by which we entered the spiritual realm, the Lion, Aslan, of course, embodied Jesus Christ, the Stone Table was the cross, Lucy and Susan were Mary and Martha, Edmund was Judas (or any of us), “Peter” the high king was the church — all obvious enough for any child who had stayed awake in Sunday school.

After finishing the seven-book series, I so longed for that world to continue that, in a move that prefigured a lifetime of audacious and quixotic projects, I took it upon myself to write the eighth Chronicle of Narnia. It was a slim volume I named The Three Fires, in which I, to make the homage to the Chronicles complete, constructed my own allegory of the Trinity, however crude. My enrollment in an eighth grade typing class came not a moment too soon, as I used the newfound skill to peck out its fifty-seven pages on my grandmother’s Smith Corona. With the help of my father, I got seven copies run off and spiral bound and hand colored each of the seven covers before having them laminated.

In ninth grade, I sampled The Screwtape Letters, his playful apologetic written by a conniving Satan. Then I moved on to rock-n-roll, girls, cars, video production and other activities more befitting a teenage American boy.

But Lewis wasn’t done with me. Our second encounter came when I was about 27 and delved for the first time into Lewis’ nonfiction, Mere Christianity, an anthology of transcribed radio talks in which he argues for Christianity in a style marked by simplicity, easily grasped metaphors, and air-tight logic. I was so influenced and taken with the book that a slew of his other apologetics followed: God in the Dock, The Problem of Pain, Miracles.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898 and was a staunch atheist from the age of 15 to 31. He eventually became a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and, influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton, he slowly rediscovered Christianity. Lewis said he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.”

Following his acceptance of God in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931. Following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he records making a specific commitment to Christianity while on his way to the zoo with his brother. He became a member of the Church of England — somewhat to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped he would convert to Roman Catholicism.

The close friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was on some level reenacted by my neighbor across the street and me, when he became the world’s foremost 10-year-old authority on Tolkien’s Middle-earth and I acquired similar credentials for Narnia. We were a Muppet Babies version of the Oxford dons themselves. Having cleanly divided children’s fantasy literature thusly freed us each to specialize in our areas all the more completely. Only occasionally during our long summer days playing together did orcs encounter centaurs.

Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia between 1949 and 1954, and died nine years later leaving a robust catalogue to convert and inspire Christians for at least a century to come, and most pointedly a body of apologetic in favor of basic belief in the divine. For their part, The Chronicles of Narnia have sold more than 100 million copies and various books within the series have been adapted for film, TV, radio, and stage. His legacy was never given its full due at the time of his death, as he died on November 22, 1963, the very day President Kennedy was assassinated. What little space was left that day for obituaries he had to share, incredibly, with Aldous Huxley.

Cloaked in the form of a clever fairy tale, The Chronicles of Narnia uses allegory to illuminate an impressive array of spiritual truths and dynamics.

I had not re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for 30 years, until last fall, when I read it aloud to my two older sons. In the meantime, I had gone on a long spiritual and intellectual journey that had culminated in my embrace of the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that claims that its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, fulfills the prophecy of the second coming of Jesus Christ (as well as the messianic promise of all historic religions).

What struck me in re-reading Lewis’ description of the Lion, Aslan, was how effectively he was describing the character not only of Jesus Christ, but, in accordance with my new understanding, the character of all the Manifestations of God, that is, all the founders of the world’s historic religions, including and especially Bahá’u’lláh Himself. And how he tries to put into words the effect the Manifestation, or even the name of the Manifestation, has on people.

Here then are Lewis’ descriptions of Aslan, followed by one famous description of Bahá’u’lláh by the only Westerner ever to have met him, the British scholar Edward Granville Browne. First, Aslan:

“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”

“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside…”

In Chapter 8, the Beavers struggle to further explain Aslan’s identity to those who have never heard of him:

“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.”

… “Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—THE Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

“I’m longing to see him” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

This notion of fierceness and goodness living within the same entity is one that may help us if we struggle with the notion of the “fear of God.”

Chapter 9:

“For the mention of Aslan gave [Edmund] a mysterious and horrible feeling, just as it gave the others a mysterious and lovely feeling.”

In Chapter 12, the children meet Aslan for the first time:

“But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”

And now, E.G. Browne’s famous “pen portrait” of Bahá’u’lláh. The encounter takes place in Akka, Israel, in 1890, when Bahá’u’lláh would have been approximately 73 years old …

“… my conductor paused for a moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed, replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure, crowned with a felt head-dress of the kind called taj by dervishes (but of unusual height and make), round the base of which was wound a small white turban. The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!”

Side by side, we can clearly see both authors struggling to find words that convey a majesty and nobility that for which human language, in all its glory, is ultimately inadequate.

C.S. Lewis’ writing — from Narnia through Mere Christianity — provided a crucial link in my spiritual growth, and I still treasure my shelf-foot of his books. I do not know if he ever even heard of the tiny, young Bahá’í Faith during his own life, and if he had, what critique he would have given it. So complete was his attachment to Christianity that I would presume if his exposure to the Bahá’í Faith was superficial he would have dismissed it as he did all other competitors in theological marketplace. However, I like to imagine that if he had encountered an unattributed collection of any number of Abdu’l-Bahá’s rational expositions, with their air-tight logic on the existence of God, the nature of Jesus Christ, or Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentaries on Old or New Testament scripture itself — in other words, if Lewis had taken a blind taste test — he unwittingly would have become a fan if not a follower. Ultimately, of course, I have no idea.

But in Chapter 17, the final portion of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis crystallizes Bahá’í Manifestation theology perfectly in a few choice lines. The four Pevensie children have been crowned kings and queens of Narnia …

“But amidst all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, ‘He’ll be coming and going’ he had said. ‘One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down — and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.’”

Here, the Manifestation of God comes and goes in different eras, and “attends to other countries,” a Bahá’í tenet if ever there were one.

In book 5, The Silver Chair, our new protagonist, Jill, another British school girl drawn into Narnia, is by a stream when she see’s Aslan for the first time.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.”

“My I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion — no one who had ever seen his stern face could do that — and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. …”

“Come here,” said the Lion. And she had to. She was almost between its front paws now, looking straight into his face. But she couldn’t stand that for long; she dropped her eyes.

This episode is clearly autobiographical. In his actual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his final, futile struggle against belief in God:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

“I Knew Thy Creation, Wherefore I created thee…”

In The Hidden Words, Bahá’u’lláh, writing in the voice of God, shares a glimpse of the Divine perspective with the quotation above. This verse came to me immediately as I reread the passage below to my boys, again from The Silver Chair. Here, Digory and Jill are puzzling about how they got into Narnia:

“Speak your thought, Human Child,” said the Lion.

“I was wondering — I mean — could there be some mistake? Because nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call to — to Somebody — it was a name I wouldn’t know — and perhaps the Somebody would let us in. And we did, and then we found the door open.”

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you” said the Lion.”

Repeating the Signs

In The Silver Chair, Jill and Digory find themselves in “Aslan’s Country,” pictured as an Everest-high mountain looking down on the Narnian world. Aslan has given the two four signs they must remember in order to complete their mission in Narnia. And before he dispatches them to the country below, he admonishes them:

“… remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the Signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters. And now, Daughter of Eve, farewell—” p. 21

Likewise, as Bahá’ís we are instructed to pray and read from the Writings in the morning and at night, and not to be distracted from the materialism of the world as it exists today.

Narnia is not a flawless text, and more than once Lewis’ word choice betrays the superiority complex common for his day regarding non-Western European culture. (Good guys are generally lily white with all the cultural trappings of Anglo-Saxons; bad guys are pretty much straight-up Arabs if not Muslims. Good guys generally live in the northern lands of Narnia. Bad guys in the south, etc.)

His pre-modern shortcomings notwithstanding, I do think that Lewis’ own remarkable spiritual journey and lifetime of deep thinking put him in touch with profound spiritual truths that touched his readers and for us, can enable understandings beyond what even he intended.

* * *

As mentioned earlier, in the same degree that I was consumed by Lewis, my neighbor friend was obsessed with Tolkien, and we were so much a part of each other’s lives that I hardly found it necessary to read The Lord of the Rings as I got a heaping helping of it simply through osmosis.

My understanding of the story grew immensely, of course, on watching the astonishing trilogy of movies unfold between 2001 and 2003. Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning (11) effort drew me into Middle-earth, and I decided I was past-due for an actual reading of Tolkien’s classic text.

The Lord of the Rings is named for the bad guy, the Dark Lord Sauron, but of course the real star is the hobbit Frodo Baggins, whom we follow from his cozy home in the Shire to the epicenter of danger in Middle-earth to destroy an instrument of evil, the One Ring.

As we learn through numerous episodes, the One Ring is power, not spiritual power, but worldly power — the power to control people, the power to crush people. It’s evident from the story that the ring corrupts everyone. Of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, and men, it’s stated expressly that the One Ring has the most effect on men. They are the weakest when it comes to resisting its temptation.

Indeed, the central question of the story eventually becomes, can humanity unmake this apparatus that already exists, worldly power. One context within which to view this question is the Bahá’í tenet of surrendering of national sovereignty to a world state: for the sake of the peace of the world, will enough sovereign nations be able to surrender enough sovereignty to make that envisioned peaceful, human rights-based commonwealth a reality. Each nation ultimately will face what Frodo faced as he stood inside of Mount Doom at the edge of the lava. Will we decide to keep the ring and lord it over others, or will we destroy it by uniting it with the power that forged it, by uniting with each other?

As I considered the history Tolkien was living through while writing the trilogy, mid 1940s to early 1950s, I considered that the ring of power could also represent nuclear warfare. As is the case for any weapon of mass destruction that by definition kills indiscriminately, the nuclear bomb is a tool that would corrupt all who use it, no matter how noble at the start. It is power than cannot be used in a moral way. As icing on this metaphor, I even saw the Ring in that visible circle that emanates out from ground zero.

The spiritual lessons in The Lord of the Rings are profound but less overt than Lewis’ Chronicles. And while there is a clear Manifestation character in the Narnia series, I could not put my finger on any such character in the Jackson movies.

But when I began to read the series, I quickly came across a character, not included in the movie, who indeed displays traits we associate with the Manifestation.

The character is a whimsical old man who also embodies the spirit of the woods in which he lives. He is Tom Bombadil. Just as the four hobbits leave the Shire on their long journey toward Mordor, Merry is attacked by an evil willow in the forest, and Tom Bombadil, passing by, rescues him and takes the quartet into his home. For several days he regales the hobbits with a sort of crash course on the world outside the Shire. At length, one of the hobbits ask him:

“Who are you, Master?” he asked.

“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made the paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

He is not exactly God, as he does not claim to have created all these wonders. But it’s clear he has a unique station. In the above passage, we get the notion of “pre-existence.” The Bahá’í understanding is that when mortal men (speaking of the real world now) are conceived, their souls come into being and associate with their bodies. When they die, they leave their bodies behind and proceed to worlds unknown, but we are assured that our souls continue to progress ever closer to God.

By contrast, the Mansifestations of God possess souls that are not only eternal into the future, but also into the past. This is known in Bahá’í theology as the pre-existence of the Manifestations. When we refer to Bahá’u’lláh as “the Ancient Beauty,” I believe this is an attempt to reflect that eternal, pre-existent essence.

Just two pages later, Tolkien gives us this other episode to chew on. Tom Bombadil speaks:

“Show me the precious Ring,” he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.

It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring around the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!

Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air—and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry—and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.

Just as the Ring had no effect on Tom Bombadil, worldly power had no effect on Bahá’u’lláh, or Christ, or Buddha. This indifference to worldly power is surely one of the prime characteristics displayed by all Manifestations. Tom Bombadil laughed at the Ring. Bahá’u’lláh, who began his adulthood by rejecting an invitation to the Persian court and an attendant life of luxury, laughed at the power of kings and high priests.

* * *

Returning to Narnia a final time, at the close of book 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis comes as close as anywhere in the series to explicitly stating his reason for writing the books. In this closing scene, Aslan breaks the news to Lucy:

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

Aslan’s point is well taken. The Manifestations of God are mysterious instruments through which God speaks to humanity. We are stretched to understand just who They are and what They were like. Should we not avail ourselves of every tool that can increase our understanding of Them? Allegory, literature, and even fantasy can function as such tools. If we look anew at our favorite stories through the lens of our beloved Faith, we can indeed know Him a little bit better, and that is well worth the enjoyable effort.

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