American culture (and Western culture generally) has a difficult time dealing with death and the dying. We often do not know how to interact with those who are terminally ill. In a culture that is all about this life, consuming goods and living life to its fullest, death is the ultimate enemy. It is the voice we hear, but we wish to silence in our culture because its reality testifies that our efforts to stay young and to submerse ourselves in the pursuit of material wealth will end in a pine box or an urn. That is not good news.
A surprising aspect of C.S. Lewis’ children’s stories to me is the fact that he chose to deal with death openly and frankly. Children’s books that talk about death? Perhaps because of his own very personal experience of the death of his mother while he was a child, Lewis had to struggle with the meaning of death at an early age. In the stories of the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis recognized and illustrated the basic truth of Christianity; in a fallen world, there is no “real” life without death. Aslan, the great Lion, rescues all of Narnia and defeats the White Witch, not in battle, but through his sacrificial death at the Stone Table. Aslan willingly gives up his life for one who has betrayed the community and, in so doing, frees Narnia from the power of death. For Lewis, death does not represent the end but more of a passage or a door to something else. Indeed, in the Last Battle even Jewel understands that death is the way into Aslan’s country and the stable door becomes the entry point.
One of the most beautiful passages in all of Lewis’ works regarding death appears in The Silver Chair. King Caspian dies and all of Narnia mourns. Even Aslan mourns.
Then Aslan stopped, and the children looked into the stream. And there, on the golden gravel of the bed on the stream, lay King Caspian, dead, with the water flowing over him like liquid glass. His long white beard swayed in it like water-weed. And all three stood and wept. Even the Lion wept: great Lion-tears, each tear more precious than the Earth would be if it was a single solid diamond.
Death is painful for all, even for the great Lion. But it is not final. Aslan asks Eustace to drive a thorn into his paw, and the Lion allows a drop of his blood to fall into the stream.
At that same moment the doleful music stopped. And the dead King began to be changed. His white beard turned to gray, and from gray to yellow, and got shorter and vanished altogether; and his sunken cheeks grew round and fresh, and the wrinkles were smoothed, and his eyes opened, and his eyes and lips both laughed, and suddenly he leaped and stood before them – a very young man.
Caspian is alive. It is clear from the story that he is no longer “at home” in Narnia, but he is alive and well in Aslan’s country. Of course you know that in Aslan’s stories there are many worlds, and one may pass from one to another, but it is the experience of death that transports one to live in Aslan’s country. Death is mysterious; it is a real experience that ushers one into new relationships and into a new place. In a funny way, Lewis conveys that it is only in death, both in the form of Aslan’s death and even our own, that we have hope that the pain and suffering of this world is transitory.
Of course, I know that little of what I have conveyed above is new to anyone who might read this website. The death of the great Lion and the transformational nature of the sacrifice of the one (Christ in real terms) provides all with hope. One of the reasons I like Lewis so much is because he struggles with his own theological commitments. Later we all know that Lewis marries Joy Davidman, and soon after their marriage she is diagnosed with cancer. Although she goes into remission for a short period, their time together was very short. In his brief book, A Grief Observed, I met a Lewis who was at least different from the author of the Narnia stories. It is one thing to write about death and express in abstract terms one’s own commitments. It is quite another thing to come to grips with the untimely death of one that you love more than any other. In this work, Lewis cries out at the beginning of his journal that God has shut the door on him; He offers no comfort nor explanation for the death of his Joy! How can a loving God be so cruel?
A Grief Observed was one of the first Lewis’ books I read, and I found it comforting – comforting because the author found himself struggling with the very truths he had expressed elsewhere. Like Lewis, I struggle with the notion of death, and there are times I just want to ask God, “Why?” Lewis does it for me. It was in the death of his beloved wife that his theology of Christ’s sacrifice and his hope for the future became real. It was in her death that he began to struggle with her loss and not knowing what Aslan’s country really looks like. He wanted to be there, to walk in Aslan’s country with her.
Yesterday, I was on a tour of Woodlawn Plantation just outside of Alexandria, Virginia, and the tour guide noted that many of the children born to women in that era died in child birth. Very few mothers had all their children live into adulthood. For most of human history, death has been a consistent presence in every household through every generation. Death was part of life. It is only for our world that death is so distant and remote. We hold it at bay in hopes that it may not come. It will come. Lewis provides me with hope in the midst of pain. Hope that this life is only one experience. Hope that there is more to life than material wealth and existence. Hope that we will see those we love who have gone before us. Hope that, in Christ, death has been conquered, and through that door that the real story begins. In the words of The Last Battle:
And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was on the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Robin E. Baker is president of George Fox University in Newberg, OR. His research has focused on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, 19th-century American political/quantitative history, and the history of the southern United States. Baker has taught classes at George Fox as professor of history. He also speaks frequently on the integration of faith and learning in the Christian university and he has a special interest in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien