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Betrayal and Atonement in Narnia
In the novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis creates the beginning of an epic work in children's fiction, a story set in a different world called Narnia where the young friends who are the protagonists of the story interact with an imaginative group of characters and situations. Lewis used this other world as a way of commenting on certain idea sin this world, though he did so in a way that some might consider out of date because he was not interested in the cynical vision of the modernists in fiction:
Harkening back to a premodern era, Lewis's works, particularly his fiction, address such themes as betrayal and forgiveness, good and evil, the nature of life and death, courage, loyalty, tradition, and the existence of absolute truth and a fixed moral order. He consciously rejects such contemporary themes as the endless quest for fulfillment, relative truth, innovation as a positive force, individuality, and self-actualization (Ross).
The theme of betrayal is played out through the character of Edmund and the way he betrays his friends at a key juncture in the novel. The theme is developed by Lewis in terms of his conception of Christianity so that the act of betrayal requires an act of atonement, often by someone other than the offender, as is the case in this novel.
The story tells of four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who find themselves in a different world after passing through a doorway found in a wardrobe. The world they escape is the world of World War II, while the world in which they then find themselves is a fantasy world where animals speak. The transition is abrupt, and for Edmund the transition creates an opportunity to serve himself while betraying the others. Edmund does not fully comprehend the enormity of what he does before doing it, and it is evident that he is seduced into his betrayal by the creature comforts he is given by the Queen of Narnia. When she offers him something to eat, he asks for Turkish Delight. The food she gives him satisfies him but is more than simple Turkish Delight, and she asks if he wants more:
Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking, for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating till they killed themselves (Lewis 38).
The Queen will not only give him more Turkish Delight, she will make him a Prince and eventually King if he will go back to his home and bring his brother and sisters with him the next time he comes. The Queen also tells Edmund not to tell his siblings about her, and he would follow this course readily except that Lucy appears and has learned about the Queen from others. Lucy knows that "she has no right to be queen at all" (Lewis 42). This knowledge makes Edmund uncomfortable, but he does not tell his sister about the Queen and instead does what the Queen wants because he wants the Turkish Delight once more.
Kathryn Ann Lindskoog discusses the books in this series and states,
C.S. Lewis is known for opposing the spirit of modern thought with the unpopular Christian doctrines of sin and evil. He considers evil not as a nebulous abstraction but as a destructive immanence which should be openly recognized and not complacently ignored, even though such recognition is disquieting (Lindskoog 38).
The Queen represents evil in this story, and Edmund commits a sin when he listens to evil and brings his siblings with him as asked, all to get the Turkish Delight he has been promised in payment. Because he is becoming a sinner, he also suffers from a variety of anxieties and fears, as when he fears that the others are "trying to give him the cold shoulder": "They weren't, but he imagined it" (Lewis 88). Edmund is able to commit his sin because he convinces himself that what the others say about the Queen is exaggerated and that she will not turn his siblings to stone. He also convinces himself that she is better than Aslan, who he has never met but who serves in his fantasy as a scapegoat so he can be on the side of the Queen. In this way he makes an excuse for what he does: "It wasn't a very good excuse, however, for deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel" (Lewis 89).
Lewis contrasts the world of the White Witch, a cold world warmed only by the illusion of magic, with the real world of the Beavers and others:
The children experience coziness, the pleasure of being in a warm confined place, and the pleasure of wholesome nourishment when they are with creatures who are brave, honorable, and kind (Myers 128).
Edmund, on the other hand, is associated with cold and with bad food because he has been seduced to follow the wrong path:
He eats the addictive Turkish Delight outdoors, sitting at the Witch's feet and bundled up in her mantle. He does not enjoy the nourishing meal at the Beavers' home because he is thinking of Turkish Delight, and the name of Aslan so repels him that he sneaks out of the cozy shelter to stumble through the storm without his coat. At the Witch's castle?
a large, drafty place filled with the deadness of creatures turned to stone?
his treachery is rewarded with dry bread (Myers 128).
No one can say that Edmund is grandly rewarded for his betrayal, and yet he seems to believe that he is receiving something more than the others will have. He even expresses the view that they should not share in his Turkish Delight, which is the only reward he wants. As noted, he even talks himself into the view that good is bad and bad is good, meaning that Aslan is bad and the White Witch is good. Her very name makes it seem likely that she is good -- she is the White Witch, after all, not the Black Witch.
The allegory in this story is often inverted in this manner and is never a simple one-to-one relationship between symbol and meaning. Matt Brennan, a student at McGill University, sets out in an essay on the Internet "to demonstrate that the Narnia Chronicles are not so much didactic allegories, but rather are well-crafted children's fantasies that incorporate Biblical themes in a way that young readers can appreciate" (Brennan). Brian Atteberry agrees and states, "The Narnia stories are reworkings in fairy tale form of the Biblical accounts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Apocalypse" (Atteberry 9). In this sequence, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe represents the lesson of Redemption. The biblical element explains the way the theme of betrayal and atonement is handled, for Aslan represents Christ in this allegory and so atones for the sins of the children by dying and being resurrected, and the parallels with the biblical story of Christ should be obvious. The book is the first in the series, and it sets the tone for the remainder:
But it was also the key book from Lewis's view, the one where he first set out precisely (as much to himself as to his readers) the Christ-role of Aslan, who dies to save Edmund, on the Stone Table, and then rises again; the pilgrimage role (fallible, favored, leading to brightness) of the human children; and something more: his personal view that pagan myth and Christian gospel are not inimical (Berger).
Edmund redeems himself in the final battle in the book, as Peter points out when he tells Aslan that "We'd have been beaten if it hadn't been for him" (Lewis 178). Yet, this is not how the sin Edmund commits is atoned for, because it is the action of Aslan in dying and being resurrected that accomplishes that task. The idea of surrogate atonement is a central tenet in Christian thinking. Christ died for the sins of humanity, and Aslan does the same for his kingdom and all those who are found in it, including the four children from outside the kingdom. Throughout, Lewis uses "the Biblical theme of temptation" and shapes this by using "New Testament readings as its primary source, drawing from the stories of temptation of both Jesus and Judas" (Brennan).
Lewis shapes this narrative in a way that appeals to young readers and avoids some of the moral consequences of making a child into a Judas figure:
By making Edmund's cravings for Turkish Delight the fault of the Witch and not his own, Lewis alleviates some of the gravity of Edmund's offense; once again taking Biblical imagery and softening it to appeal to a young audience (Brennan).
There is still great power in the way Aslan…[continue]
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