As an English professor, I have spent the last two decades guiding college students through the great books of the western intellectual tradition. And yet, though I have taught (and loved) the works of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dickens, I do not hesitate to assert that Aslan is one of the supreme characters in all of literature. Though many readers assume that Aslan, the lion king of Narnia who dies and rises again, is an allegory for Christ, Lewis himself disagreed.
According to his creator, Aslan is not an allegory for Christ but the Christ of Narnia. The distinction is vital. Were Aslan only an allegory, a mere stand-in for the hero of the gospels, he would not engage the reader as he does. In fact, as Lewis explained, Aslan is what the Second Person of the Trinity (God the Son) might have been like had he been incarnated in a magical world of talking animals and living trees. As such, Aslan takes on a force and a reality that speaks to us through the pages of the Chronicles of Narnia.
In Aslan, we experience all the mighty paradoxes of the Incarnate Son: he is powerful yet gentle, filled with righteous anger yet rich with compassion; he inspires awe and even terror (for he is not a tame lion), yet he is as beautiful as he is good; The modern world has ripped apart the Old and New Testament, leaving us with two seemingly irreconcilable deities: an angry, wrathful Yahweh who cannot be approached, and a meek and mild Jesus who is too timid to defend his followers from evil. Aslan allows us to reintegrate—not just intellectually and theologically, but emotionally and viscerally as well—the two sides of the Triune God who calls out to us on every page of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
Every time a character comes into the presence of Aslan, he learns, to his great surprise, that something can be both terrible and beautiful, that it can provoke, simultaneously, feelings of fear and of joy. Borrowing a word from Rudolf Otto, Lewis referred to this dual feeling as the numinous. The numinous is what Isaiah and John felt when they were carried, trembling and awe-struck, into the throne room of God, and heard the four-faced cherubim cry out “holy, holy, holy!” It is what Moses felt as he stood before the Burning Bush, or Jacob when he wrestled all night with God, or Job when Jehovah spoke to him from the whirlwind, or David when he was convicted of his sin with Bathsheba and experienced (all at once) the wrathful judgment and infinite mercy of the Holy One of Israel.
Our age has lost its sense of the numinous, for it has lost its sense of the sacred. Through the character of Aslan, Lewis not only instructs us in the nature of the numinous, but trains us how to react when we are in its presence. When we finish the Chronicles, we may not be able to define the numinous, but we know we have felt it: each and every time Aslan appears on the page.
Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. You can purchase an e-book of all 26 “A to Z with C.S. Lewis” entries from Amazon.com.