I received a dusty, hand-me-down puzzle of Pauline Baynes’s map of Narnia when I was six. Every time I put it together, I’d linger over the last few pieces—Aslan’s face in the top left corner. I thought if I put them together in just the right order and longed for his presence just enough, maybe he would appear to me. I even took to putting it together in the back of my closet in order to more closely replicate Lucy Pevensie’s experience in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
A few months after receiving the puzzle, I watched the BBC’s production of The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe on our old-fashioned dial TV. The theme music instantly transported me to a world not my own. And when the carved lion on the wardrobe behind the credits faded into Aslan’s living face, my hope that I could find him hidden somewhere in a corner of our world rekindled.
Ever since God commanded humanity to cultivate and care for the earth and its creatures, we’ve felt a pull toward living things. For an animal to trust us is a small glimpse of Eden—a hint of what we were made for and a promise of what is to come. All through elementary school, I begged our dog Lady to talk to me like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver talked to Lucy. I hoped Lady would tell me how much she loved it when I carried her around like a baby and flipped her ears inside out, but without speech, all I could gather was that she tolerated my presence. I wanted more. Even simple affection from an animal would soften the ache of my desire for Narnia. For Aslan.
I’ve heard it said that perhaps animals could talk in Eden. The most compelling argument is that Genesis does not record Eve or Adam’s surprise when the serpent spoke to them. And when Adam and Eve chose to reject dependence on God and follow the serpent’s plan, mightn’t they have also lost the ability to understand (and be understood by) the creatures under their care? Perhaps part of the curse of futility included removing the easy communication they’d once enjoyed with the beasts of the field and replacing it with silent confusion. Imagine suddenly being unable to communicate with creatures with whom you’d once shared fellowship. I don’t think we have ever recovered from this loss.
I sometimes had encounters with animals that felt transcendent: a bareback gallop on my mare, Ruby, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, her colt frisking at her heels; an ankle-twining greeting from our cat when we returned from church. Even our neurotic Australian Shepherd, Beren, occasionally let go of his rigid sense of duty long enough to let me gaze into his eyes. And before he died last fall, his body bloated with the fluids his failing heart could not process, his steady look conveyed total trust. He knew we’d find a way to ease his pain.
But still, I wanted more. I wanted—I still want—to go to Narnia, where talking beasts and humans and mythical creatures live in harmony under Aslan’s authority. And most of all, I wanted to look into Aslan’s eyes, feel his breath on my face, sink my fingers into his mane. I wanted his glory and his beastliness and his love. I wanted to feel the hills tremble under my feet as he roared, to see hardened warriors quake with fear at the sound. I wanted Aslan to play with me like he did with Susan and Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, “now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs.” Not tame. Not safe. But good.
Did you ever love Aslan more than God? I did. I still do, sometimes. Aslan embodies the transcendent other that we long for, combined with the paradisal picture of friendship with lions. He is everything a child dreams of in an animal companion, right down to the way he knows your thoughts without you saying a word.
Our new Australian Shepherd, Luthien, is only six months old, gangly and uncoordinated and totally unaware of the realities of speed and momentum. And she might be “only” forty pounds, but when forty pounds of puppy and twenty claws use your thighs as a launch pad, the scratches hurt. She could probably kill us if she wanted to, but she has no idea of her strength. Her adult teeth are mostly in, and her fangs are half an inch long. She knocks over my plants and digs in my garden and is generally a wild beast. But she wants to be close to me, lean against me, even fall asleep splayed across my lap.
Several times a day, Luthien ambles over to me and puts her front paws on my armchair. If I pat her, she’ll clamber into my lap right away, disregarding any books, laptops, or children that may already be there. When I ignore her or block her advance, she hops onto the nearby couch and flops down in a heap, drowning me in reproach with her sage-green glare.
A few times she’s snuggled with me almost like a human baby, with her head on my chest, and as her eyes drifted closed, my heart filled with wonder. How can this animal trust me so much? Why does her affection make my heart ache with longing? Is this the taste of Narnia I’ve been searching for?
Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters. —Aslan in The Magician’s Nephew
When a timid horse finally approached and sniffed my shoulder, I felt a thrill—I was making friends with a 1,200-pound beast. No human is that large, that majestic. There was something transcendent about an animal—so different than us, but thinking, feeling, breathing, eating, like us. Perhaps that’s why Narnian animals are so attractive: They can relate to humans, but they remain truly animal, with snuffly voices, beaks and claws, tails, whiskers.
Why does Narnia entrance us? Why do we long to be transported to the land that lies between Lantern Waste and Cair Paravel on the Eastern Sea? C. S. Lewis’s lovely prose provides substantial appeal, but part of our longing is due to the effortless communion between humans and other creatures. Narnian Talking Beasts were endowed with rational thought by Aslan at the creation of Narnia, and, with few exceptions, interacted with humans with friendship and kindness.
Narnia seems like paradise because, in part, it is. In Narnia, humans rule animals and mythical creatures as Aslan’s ambassadors. When Aslan inaugurates the reign of King Frank and Queen Helen, days after he creates Narnia, he asks if they can “. . . rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves like the dumb beasts of the world you were born in, but Talking Beasts and free subjects?” Humans in Narnia are to live in joyful community with all other creatures, never exploitative and always compassionate.
The prophet Isaiah uses the image of unlikely communion between predator and prey animals to describe the New Earth. The wolf will dwell with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the young goat. The fierce will not lose their fierceness, but somehow they will not use it for harm. As Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “I think the lion, when he has ceased to be dangerous, will still be awful: indeed, that we shall then first see that of which the present fangs and claws are a clumsy, and satanically perverted, imitation. There will still be something like the shaking of a golden mane: and often the good Duke will say, ‘Let him roar again.’”
In the New Earth, we will be restored to our Edenic position as the compassionate co-regents of creation. Our children will lead lions and lambs. Perhaps my son’s lion will usher in springtime with a shake of his mane. Your daughter might ask her wolf to howl so the lambs and young goats can follow them to water. Our dogs will bound up to us, barking and leaping and wagging and licking, and we will understand it all to mean, “We found a tree with squirrels in it! And the most delicious smells,” just as clearly as if they had used words, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Cover image by Rachel Moenning.
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