++Rowan Williams on Aslan: knife edge of the erotic

Aslan is on the knife edge of the erotic according to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in an interview with Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

… I am here to speak to Rowan Williams, who, in his spare time from what he calls “the day job” as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, has written a penetrating and lucid book about C S Lewis’s children’s tales, The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia. Sitting in the Archbishop’s study feels a bit like being a Pevensie child listening to Professor Kirke from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is very clearly a book about the life of Christ,” says Williams in his quietly resonant voice, “in a way that isn’t true of the others.” I ask why Williams does not write much about the famous scene in which Aslan is killed and miraculously resurrected. “I think it is such an obvious parallel,” he says. “The more interesting thing is how does Lewis convey a sense of what the religious climate, the religious sensibility might be in another world? That is the teasing thing.”

Why turn Christ the lamb into Christ the lion? In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes about the exhilaration of his conversion from atheism to Christianity. There is a feeling, says Williams, “that something really quite fierce has taken hold of people” when they turn to God. “I’ve always connected it in my mind with T S Eliot’s image of Christ the tiger in ‘Gerontion’ – something springs on you.”

… In The Silver Chair, a witch has imprisoned the marsh-wiggle Puddleglum with Eustace and Jill. She tries to persuade them the world above ground is only a fantasy. The children are ready to give in but Puddleglum resists: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.” Those lines seem remarkably close to the theories of some modern theologians who hold that the truth of religious language is not as important as how useful it is in everyday life. We’re back to the idea of God being an excellent metaphor.

Williams doesn’t agree. “Puddleglum’s great statement of faith isn’t saying it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. He’s saying I have no means of knowing whether this is or isn’t true… But I know there’s something here that I can’t let go of without letting go of myself.” He compares Lewis to St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who went through a dark night of the soul but came through to see the light of truth. “Lewis thought most theologians were gutless liberals who didn’t care about the truth enough.” (Do I detect a raised eyebrow on the phrase “gutless liberals”?)

One of the most vivid scenes in the series comes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace – the spoiled child of non-smoking teetotal vegetarians: never a good sign in Lewis – is turned into a dragon. He tries to peel off his skin but finds only another set of scales. It takes Aslan to cut his claws in deep and rip it off – a “feeling worse than anything I’ve ever felt”, as Eustace says – for him to be reborn.

Williams thinks the sequence is astonishing. “We are all of us human beings in love with fictions about ourselves – dramas in which we star. And because Lewis was a big dramatic character himself, I think he knew it as well as anyone.” Self-examination will, however, only take you so far. “Eventually Eustace has to turn to Aslan and say – go on, you do the job, and he finds layers he never knew he had being stripped away.”

Most children, I imagine, miss the allegory; but most also enjoy getting their backs scratched, and that physical sensation is what they respond to. Aslan’s vital sensuousness, which Williams goes as far as to say is “on the knife-edge of the erotic”, is also on display in the passage in The Lion when Lucy and Susan roll around in the grass with the big cat. “Lewis in all his writing has a very strong sense of physical pleasures,” Williams tells me. “All kinds of physical pleasures, the pleasure of a pint in the pub, which he notoriously celebrates on many occasions.”…

He leaves his position as Archbishop at the end of this year to become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge – C S Lewis’s old college. Doubtless he will return to his academic interests, but it would be a shame if he retreated to speaking only to other theologians. In The Lion’s World his sometimes knotty prose style relaxes into an inspiring clarity. The ideas stay with you long after you finish the book, and his parting words on Lewis could apply equally to him. Great writers, he tells me, provoke you into looking beyond yourself. They seem to say: “Do you recognise that? Does that ring a bell? Something is moving in on you – well, getting its claws into you.”

Read it all here.

Interview from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website.

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