Turning the Other Cheek in Narnia

I met a missionary once who had worked in Kenya with the Masai, a warrior people known for their strength and prowess. I no longer remember his name, but I remember vividly a story he told me about an earlier missionary who had taught the Sermon on the Mount to those dedicated warriors. When the chief of the tribe heard Jesus’ Sermon, he was amazed. “Is it true in your land,” he asked, “that when a man strikes you on the right cheek, you turn and offer him the other?” “Well,” the missionary hemmed and hawed, “not exactly.”

Whether we live in Kenya or America, England or China, Egypt or Iraq, the command to turn the other cheek is a profoundly difficult one that calls for a unique type of faith, love, and courage. Those familiar with the work of C.S. Lewis might consider the great Oxbridge don, apologist, and fantasy writer to be the last person to consult on the subject of turning the other cheek. Lewis, after all, rejected the pacifist position (see “ Why I am not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses) and supported the death penalty (see Book III, Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity). And his novels, including those for children, do not shy away from war and killing. What could such a writer have to say about Jesus’ call to passive non-resistance? A great deal, I believe.

Although the Chronicles of Narnia have been criticized for advocating violence, they are infused throughout with Christ’s teachings on self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and the love of enemies. This aspect of the Chronicles (which I will be analyzing in their original order of publication) is most clearly displayed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,where Aslan, the Christ of Narnia, lays down his life to redeem the treacherous Edmund.

When Edmund betrays his family (and Aslan) to the White Witch, and she demands her ancient right to the blood of all traitors, Aslan neither denies her claim nor seeks to minimize the severity of Edmund’s crime. Rather, he interposes himself between Edmund and the Witch, allowing the full brunt of the wrath meant for Edmund to fall upon his own head. Aslan, the Lion King of Narnia, possesses more than sufficient strength to defeat the Witch and her evil minions; instead, he turns himself over to be beaten, shamed, and killed. He does not resist the evil of the Witch; he absorbs and neutralizes it.

As part of the humiliation of Aslan, the Witch orders her minions to shave off his mane. The sight at first causes grief and horror to descend on Lucy, Edmund’s sister, who witnesses the death of Aslan from a distance. But then, when she looks again, she discovers, to her surprise, that “the shorn face of Aslan [now looks] to her braver, and more beautiful, and more patient than ever” (Chapter XIV). When Aslan turns the other cheek to the Witch, he does so out of a position of strength. His self-sacrifice marks a triumph that draws out of him a kind of courage and glory and endurance that transcend the military victory he will later win over the Witch.

Even more vitally, his self-sacrifice unlocks and unleashes a divine power that shatters the Stone Table on which he is killed and effects his resurrection from the dead. Aslan explains the paradoxical process thus: “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (Chapter XV). To turn the other cheek is not to surrender to weakness or despair but to convert hatred into love, defeat into victory. As Paul counsels, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21; ESV).

Between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, there stands a gap of one thousand Narnian years. During that interval, an evil race of men known as the Telmarines seizes control of Narnia and runs the talking animals underground. To rescue Narnia from these usurpers, Aslan raises up a messianic prince named Caspian who allies himself with the remnants of the Old Narnians and wages war against his evil Uncle Miraz.

As this synopsis suggests, Prince Caspian is a book marked by a considerable amount of warfare; it even includes a duel during which Miraz is killed. Still, amidst the warfare, Lewis creates space for Christian forgiveness. Caspian finds himself at the head of a motley army that includes a number of malcontents: in particular, a black dwarf named Nikabrik who advocates killing Caspian the first time he meets him, disavows all belief in Aslan, and tries to bully the army into taking witches and hags into their ranks.

Caspian shows great patience with Nikabrik, hoping to win him over to the side of goodness, but he is unsuccessful. In the end, Nikabrik attempts to bring back the White Witch through dark magic and is killed in the process. Nevertheless, when Caspian learns that Nikabrik is dead, he speaks words, not of condemnation, but of Christian pity over the fallen dwarf: “I am sorry for Nikabrik . . . though he hated me from the first moment he saw me. He had gone sour inside from long suffering and hating. If we had won quickly he might have become a good Dwarf in the days of peace” (Chapter XII). Caspian then orders that the body be given over to the black dwarfs that they might bury it after their own manner.

Though Caspian fails to save Nikabrik, his ability to turn the other cheek—that is, to endure opposition rather than destroy it and to speak (and think) well of those who treat him insolently—makes him a good leader who wins the confidence of his followers and gains the moral and spiritual authority he needs to restore Narnia.

Three years after restoring Narnia and setting things to right, King Caspian sets off on a sea voyage to find seven lost Lords who had been sent into exile by Miraz. He is accompanied by three earth children, one of them a spoiled brat named Eustace, who utterly lacks courage, imagination, and courtesy. Eustace quickly runs foul of a chivalrous talking mouse named Reepicheep who appears in Prince Caspian but then is given an expanded role in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Although Eustace baits Reepicheep constantly, the noble Mouse later shows him great compassion when he is transformed into a dragon. Rather than gloat over Eustace’s misfortune, Reepicheep becomes his “most constant comforter” (Chapter VII), sitting beside him in the evening and telling him stories of those who achieved success after experiencing bad fortune. The Christian charity Reepicheep shows not only aids in the spiritual growth of Eustace; it aids in his own slow transformation from a braggadocio with a short temper into a Galahad-like knight who risks all to reach Aslan’s Country.

We must not forget that to be struck on the cheek includes more than physical blows to the face. In our day to day lives, we are more often struck by ridicule and contempt than by open fists. In forgiving Eustace’s slanders, Reepicheep displays a strength of character that can absorb and neutralize Eustace’s bitterness and petty spite.

That strength passes down to Eustace who is called back to Narnia in The Silver Chair to help rescue Caspian’s son, Prince Rilian, from an evil Green Witch who has kidnapped the prince and is holding him captive in her underground lair. This time, Eustace is accompanied by Jill Pole, his fellow classmate at Experiment House, a modern school where bullies are “counseled” rather than disciplined.

When Eustace and Jill enter Narnia through an old rusty gate, they are being chased by several of these coddled bullies. To their surprise, they find themselves on the edge of a mountain hundreds of miles high. In an act of pride motivated by her desire to show Eustace that she is unafraid of heights, Jill stands on the very edge. Eustace reaches out to grab her, causing him to lose his balance and plummet over the side. Although Aslan saves Eustace by blowing him into Narnia, it takes him quite some time to be able to forgive Jill for almost killing him.

But he does learn to do so in the end, even confessing that he himself was no paragon of virtue. Turning the other cheek is not just a rule for our enemies; often, it is harder to forgive those who are closest to us. Remember that when Jesus tells Peter to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven, he speaks with reference to a brother (rather than an enemy) who sins against us (Matthew 18:22; KJV).

And we must learn to turn the other cheek for ourselves as well. When Jill meets Aslan at the end, she is so overwhelmed by her guilt that she cannot even speak the words, “I’m sorry.” But Aslan comforts her with what may be the most beautiful words in the Chronicles: “Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia” (Chapter XVI).

This moment of forgiveness is a deeply moving one, but it is followed shortly after by a scene in which Eustace, Jill, and the dead-but-now- reborn King Caspian exact vengeance on the bullies at Experiment House. A number of critics have censured Lewis for indulging the desire of readers to see the bullies get their comeuppance, but a closer reading of the scene reveals Lewis’s intentions.

When Aslan sends Eustace and Caspian out to deal with the bullies, he commands them to use the flats (not the points) of their swords. As for Jill, he has her use a riding crop rather than a knife or arrow. The point of the scene is not to exact eye for an eye vengeance, but “to set things right” (Chapter XVI). Experiment House is a broken school where evil has been allowed to fester. Aslan sees that the school is restored to its proper order, without doing any actual damage to the bullies. It is their pride, rather than their bodies, that is mortified and taught a lesson.

In The Horse and His Boy, which takes place simultaneously with the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis presents us with a supreme bully who very much needs to receive his comeuppance. His name is Rabadash, and he is the cruel, spoiled, ambitious son of the Tisroc (Emperor) of Calormen, a tyrannical kingdom to the south of Narnia. With the unofficial approval of his father, Rabadash mounts a sneak attack upon Archenland to the north, hoping to use it is a base for the conquest of Narnia.

With the help of the horse and the boy of the title, the attack is stopped and the defeated Rabadash is captured. Though he richly deserves to be put to death for his cowardly and unprovoked attack on Archenland, the victorious Narnians show him mercy. When Rabadash answers their mercy with foolish boasts, Aslan himself appears, and offers to turn the other cheek and forgive Rabadash for his crimes: “Take heed. Your doom is very near, but you may still avoid it. Forget your pride (what have you to be proud of ?) and your anger (who has done you wrong?) and accept the mercy of these good kings” (Chapter XV).

In response, Rabadash rolls his eyes, makes what he thinks is a scary face, and calls down curses on Aslan. Unperturbed by his threats, the patient Aslan gives Rabadash one more chance to accept grace: “Have a care, Rabadash. . . . The doom is nearer now: it is at the door: it has lifted the latch” (Chapter XV). But, again, the proud, unrepentant Rabadash rages against those who would do him good. With that, Aslan solemnly announces that the hour has struck, and Rabadash is transformed into a donkey.

And yet, even here, Aslan extends grace. He tells Rabadash that when he returns to the temple of his pagan god, he will be changed back into a man (in full sight of all his people!). However, if he ever strays more than ten miles from the temple, he will become a donkey forever. Because of this stricture, not only is Rabadash unable to mount any further military expeditions; he refuses to allow any of his generals to do so lest they outshine him before his people.

Though this episode may seem, at first, to represent nothing more than a simple revenge fantasy, it actually illustrates, in a slightly different way, the passage from Romans 12 quoted above: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” By sparing Rabadash, Aslan sets in motion actions that lead to peace with Calormen. Rather than being killed, Rabadash is chastened (as Nebuchadnezzar is in Daniel 4) and Narnia benefits from his subsequent inability to wage war. Rabadash’s transformation, though effected by Aslan, ultimately rises up from his own inner refusal to accept grace. Rabadash, quite literally, makes an ass of himself.

When we turn the other cheek to someone who is cursing us, the action more often than not causes the curse to fall back upon its initiator.

The final two Chronicles, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, take us to the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelation) of Narnia. In both novels, Lewis introduces villains who pervert or destroy all that they touch. Surely, it would seem, there will be little room for turning the other cheek in these novels; yet, even here, Lewis pays tribute to Christ’s call to extend mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus, who instructs us to turn the other cheek, also instructs us not to cast our pearls before swine, lest the swine trample the pearls underfoot and then turn around and tear us to pieces (Matthew 7:6). In The Magician’s Nephew, Queen Jadis, who will become the White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is a wholly irredeemable character who can neither give nor receive mercy. In the latter novel, Aslan will allow Jadis to kill him on the Stone Table, but he does not waste his time in either novel extending her a mercy that she can neither accept nor understand. In the same way, Jesus never attempts to “convert” the devil or to offer him grace.

The secondary villain however, a magician named Uncle Andrew, is capable of some slight reform. For this reason, at the end of the novel, Aslan puts Andrew into a deep sleep to separate him for a time from his pride and avarice. But that is all he can do for him, for Andrew has deafened himself to Aslan’s voice.

The same does not hold true for Andrew’s nephew, Digory. Though essentially noble and good, Digory commits a grave sin that brings evil into Narnia on the very day of its birth. Tempted, to a lesser degree, by his uncle’s lust for knowledge, Digory stubbornly and pridefully speaks a spell that he should not have spoken. As a result, he wakes Jadis from an enchanted sleep, allowing her, through a series of mistakes, to enter, and thus bring her malice and corruption, into Narnia.

Though Aslan is fully aware of Digory’s guilt, he does not punish him. Instead, he does two things that restore Digory to the side of good. First, he questions Digory again and again until Digory both confesses and realizes the full nature of the sin he has committed. Second, he gives Digory the opportunity to help undo the consequences of his sin by sending him on a quest for a magic apple. While carrying out his mission, Digory is tempted by Jadis to steal the fruit he was sent to get. This time, however, strengthened by Aslan’s forgiveness and trust in him, as well as by the knowledge Aslan has stirred in him of his own propensity to sin, Digory resists the temptation.

Even so, after Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, he does not send her back to her life of sin, but commands, and thus allows, her to go her way and sin no more ( John 8:11). True forgiveness frees us to move away from our sin, not to repeat it.

The distinction between those who can be redeemed through forgiveness freely given and those who close themselves off to all offers of grace grows even wider in The Last Battle. Revelation itself predicts this in its closing chapter: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still” (22:11; KJV).

That final sifting is foreshadowed in two unexpected episodes that occur in the extended denouement of the book. In the first, a group of Narnia dwarfs who have cut themselves off from the grace and truth of Aslan are killed and find themselves in the afterlife. Although they are in the same garden of light and life as the good characters, they cannot see or smell or taste or hear or feel that garden. From their point of view, they are stuck in a “pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable” (Chapter XIII).

When the good characters fail to convince the dwarfs of where they are, Aslan appears and pours out his love on the treacherous dwarfs. He offers them a rich feast of food and wine, but they cannot taste it. Finally, Aslan gives up, explaining to our bewildered heroes and heroines that the dwarfs “have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out” (Chapter XIII).

Though Jesus calls down strong condemnations on the heads of the Pharisees, he does not do so at first. Like Aslan, he reaches out to these pillars of Israel. It is only when they continually refuse to see or hear Christ’s message that he turns them over to their own hypocrisy and corruption. But that is not the whole story. Consider the tenderness and patience that Christ shows to the prostitutes and tax collectors. He responds to their sinful lives, not with fiery judgment, but with a hand held out in mercy.

Shortly after Aslan gives up on the self-deluded dwarfs, he encounters the equivalent of one of the Magi, a noble Calormene (Emeth) who, though he has served the pagan god of the Calormenes (Tash) all his life, yet yearns within for the true God. Though the dead Emeth expects to meet Tash, the moment he comes before the Great Lion, he recognizes that Aslan, and not Tash, is the One he has sought all his life.

In a supreme turning of the cheek, Aslan accepts the worship of Emeth. Even more wonderfully, when Emeth confesses that he has served Tash all his life, the merciful Lion responds: “Beloved . . . unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek” (Chapter XV).

To turn the other cheek is not to make oneself into a doormat or to fool oneself into believing that evil does not exist. Rather, it is to reach out with faith, hope, and love to a broken world populated by broken people. Yes, there will be times when we will risk casting our pearls before swine, just as there will come a time when we must withdraw our cheek. But there will also be times when our act of mercy and grace will touch a deep desire for goodness, truth, and beauty in the one who has wronged us.

And that will be cause for rejoicing, on earth as well as in Narnia.