Part 2: From Peter of Finchley to King Peter the Magnificent
C.S. Lewis wanted the aura, the fragrance, the ripple-effect of personal encounters with Aslan to linger in the minds and hearts of his characters, and his readers long after they had put the books down. In The Magicians Nephew, for example, Lewis described the lasting effect of a personal encounter with Aslan on the children Digory and Polly, when they gazed into Aslan’s gracious eyes:
Indeed, when people come to know Aslan personally, “face-to-face,” so to speak, look deeply into his eyes, and let him look deeply into theirs, they are never the same again. They come to know a love so deep, and so beautiful, that it penetrates the core of their hearts and changes them forever. And his gaze continues to change them, as long as they remain centered on him. It is an echo of St. Paul’s promise: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of splendor to another” (2 Cor 3:18 KJV).
This is really the main message of the most famous book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and of the film that was based upon it.
The main character of both the book and the film is Peter Pevensey, the oldest of the four Pevensey children. Peter stands out as “nobody special,” or so he believes. When the four children are at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and they are told of the prophecy that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve will one day defeat the White Witch and reign on the four thrones of Castle Cair Paravel, Peter is sure the Beavers must be mistaken. In the film version he replies “And you think we’re the ones! ... But we’re not heroes: we’re from Finchley!” (If you know England, you will know that Finchley is just a “white-bread” suburb of London, faceless and non-descript: no place special at all).
Later, the Beavers lead the children safely to where Aslan’s army is encamped, and when Peter’s younger sisters, Susan and Lucy, are the object of a surprise attack from a couple of ferocious wolves (agents of the White Witch), Peter, in a great burst of terrified courage, slays the wolves with his Narnian sword. Aslan then tells him to wipe the blade of his sword clean, and kneel before him. And Aslan “knights” him then and there with the words, “Rise, Sir Peter, Wolf’s-Bane, Knight of Narnia.”
Of course, Peter thinks this is all pretty special, and that maybe that is as far as he needs to go. But Aslan makes it clear to him that he wants Peter one day to rule as High King over all Narnia, and even to lead Aslan’s armies into battle against the forces of the White Witch. Later, Peter finds out that the challenge he must face is even bigger than that, for he learns that he is going to have to face the White Witch’s army without Aslan’s help, or so it will seem, for Aslan will have given his life for them as a sacrifice on the Great Stone Table.
What is Peter learning here? The same thing we are all meant to learn from coming to Narnia. You see, the best fantasy writing is not an escape from the real world. Rather, it enables us to escape from the falsehoods and illusions that cloud our minds and hearts in this world, by bringing us to another world where we can see the real issues of life more clearly, and put everything in perspective. In short, good fantasy is just an escape to a better vantage point, not an escape from reality at all.
The Narnian “vantage point” shows us that our heart’s deepest desire is to know Aslan and his love personally — and when we do that, and only when we do that, can we really find the antidote to the poison of the ancestral curse we inherited from Adam and Eve right from the start: the cure for our broken and wounded hearts. We see that clearly in Narnia, and begin to experience it even as we enter imaginatively into the tales.
As Lewis would say, however, (and as Peter Pevensey discovered) we have to be willing to go in for “the full treatment.” He explained this in one of the greatest passages in perhaps his most famous book, Mere Christianity:
That is why we must not be surprised if we are in for a rough time. When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected) he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along —illness, money-troubles, new kinds of temptation — he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have had not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us. …
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that these jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
Lewis here is the voice of Christian maturity, of profound understanding of the painful process of sanctification. He entitles this chapter in Mere Christianity, “Counting the Cost”, and the cost of discipleship has rarely been so vividly portrayed. He continues:
That is why [Jesus] warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect — until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with You, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can and will do. But I will not do anything less.”
And yet — this is the other and equally important side of it — this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As the great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son.
In the end, that is what Peter Pevensey attains: a spiritual growing-up from boyhood into manhood. Simply by his faithfulness to Aslan, his love for his brothers and sisters, and his courage, he becomes what Aslan knew he had it within him to become all along: not just “Peter from Finchley” or even “Sir Peter, Wolf’s-Bane, Knight of Narnia” (a “decent little cottage,” to be sure), but now “Peter the Magnificent, High King of Narnia”!
Indeed, all of the children grow into their true royal selves by the end of the book (royal indeed, because they are adopted sons and daughters, of Aslan, the King of Kings). So they are no longer just Susan, Edmund and Lucy, but “Queen Susan the Gentle,” “King Edmund the Just,” and “Queen Lucy the Valiant.” Essentially, that is what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is all about; it’s about coming to know the Son of God personally, and in coming to know Him, discovering — and becoming — who we were meant to be: adopted members of His family, saints of His merciful love, and destined to reign with Him forever.
Robert Stackpole, STD
©The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016