Beastly Metaphysics: The Beasts of Narnia and Lewis’ Reclamation of Medieval Sacramental Metaphysics

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Thus in the sacramentalist view of reality, the world as it appears is held up (“suspended” to use a term common in Radical Orthodoxy) on an ontological web of relationships with some “deeper” reality that is ultimately responsible for its existence and meaning. This means that all creation overflows-the being, goodness, beauty, and truth of the ultimate Cause pours out into the world through the suspended creature-or to put it another way, we can experience the being, goodness, beauty, and truth of the ultimate Cause in and through the suspended creatures. But the creature is not erased as a result.

Whereas for Plato an individual entity, such as a beaver, lacks creational integrity-it is only a shadow of a Form and its epistemological and ontological importance is exhausted once we have grasped the Form-a sacramental metaphysics is committed to the reality of God’s creation and so resists the erasure of the particular. We can see such resistance in the bestiaries, where the animals never disappear behind the symbolism. Almost all of the bestiary animals have characteristics and behaviors that are not read symbolically and some of the animals are given no symbolic reading at all. And the exuberant and colorful illuminations are of the animals themselves, not what they figure. The surface or appearance of the animals is not negated by the symbolism, and the depths give the appearance reality and the appearance is the means by which the depths shine forth. Under the surface are depths of meaning, beauty, goodness, truth, but the depths do not negate or overwhelm the surface; rather, they support and glorify it, so that surface and depth, depth and surface support each other, shining through each other. So too in Narnia, the beasts of Narnia are not mere symbols, but possess a certain fictional integrity as characters, though they remain ontologically dependent on their Creator’s gift of being.

Milbank, Ward, and Pickstock make a similar point in their introduction to Radical Orthodoxy.[27] After expressing their concerns that modern metaphysical theories (which argue for the ontological independence of entities), actually end up denying any reality to those entities, erasing them into the void of postmodern nihilism or into a falsely static ontological scheme, they then claim that only something like a sacramentalist metaphysics saves the individual creature-only if the creature is ontologically suspended on its gifting Creator can we encounter it as an integral other:  “…for the phenomenon to really be there they must be more than there…. This is to say that all there is only is because it is more than it is.”[28] Lewis’ Narnia has already given this dense sacramental ontology literary form. The reality of the particular individuals of Narnia-of Reepicheep, Jewel, Mr. Tumnus, even Beaversdam and Mount Pire-is suspended on the gift of being from their Creator, but they never disappear behind the gift itself.[29]

A special word should be said about Aslan. Lewis borrows quite heavily from the bestiaries to craft Aslan. According to the Physiologus, lion cubs are born dead and are only animated when the father lion breathes on them on the third day,[30] a story Lewis draws on in “the ransacking of the Witch’s fortress,” when Aslan’s breath reanimates the creatures turned into stone.[31] Comparing further, the bestiaries call the lion the king or prince of beasts and claim that the lion “loves to roam amid mountain peaks,” while Aslan’s country is a range of mountains beyond the end of the world; the lion and is merciful, sparing those who prostrate themselves before him, as Aslan shows mercy to the repentant traitor Edmund. So Lewis draws most fully on this sacramental literature in order to flesh out Aslan. Yet Aslan is not a lion; Lewis says that he is the Lion, “The Real Lion.”[32]

Aslan then is not an instantiation of a Form, but the Form itself of which all other lions are signs or sacraments. In Aslan, the fullness of the Form lives, takes on flesh (and so life and death) with his creatures. Now, Platonic Forms are impersonal abstractions-Unity, Equality, Beauty, Justice, Leonicity-but at least one of Lewis’ Forms is not an abstraction: he is the living personal godhead of Narnia. Here we see Lewis breaking with Plato in favor of something Augustinian and Biblical; not the static, abstract Forms of the Timaeus, but the living, incarnational God of the Confessions and the Bible is the Form of being, truth, and goodness in Narnia. In this incarnated God-Beast of Narnia we see Lewis’ highest expression of his imaginary sacramental world, by which the reader is drawn out of our world into Narnia, and then out of Narnia back into our world, but now mediated through the grace, mercy, and love of Christ, the God-Man, of whom Aslan is a literary sacrament.


[1] For instance, Peter Kreeft refers to it as a “theological allegory” in his C. S. Lewis:  A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1969), 36.

[2] Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), 44-45.

[3] The Allegory of Love, 45.

[4] The Allegory of Love, 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Physiologus, chapter 37, 52.

[8] By the seventeenth century these stories are seen as scientifically false, though symbolically useful. Thomas Browne (1605-1682) claims of them: “As for the testimonies of ancient fathers and ecclesiastical writers, we may more safely conceive therein some emblematical than any real story…” (Pseudodoxia Epidemica V.i.338-340).

[9] Prince Caspian, 71.

[10] The Aberdeen Bestiary, Incipit.

[11] The Magician’s Nephew, 118.

[12] Hugh of St. Victor, De tribus diebus 4.

[13] Bonaventure, Breviloquium II.12.1

[14] This notion of the world as a book continued into the early modern period, as for example in the works of Galileo and Thomas Browne, whom Lewis references in the next extended quotation. But the metaphor is subtly changed. The focus is no longer on the sacramental character of the beaver or pelican, since the stories about them are false anyway, but now rather on the reader’s “admiration” of God’s intelligence and power in creating a regular and rational universe. See for instance Thomas Browne, Religio Medici I.16. This is not intended to diminish in any way the beauty and importance of Browne’s work, which is as delightful and insightful a read as the bestiaries and The Chronicles of Narnia.

[15] Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 152.

[16] So Bonaventure refers to it in Breviloquium, Prologus 2, quoting James 1:17.

[17] Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, IV.1. See Jerome Taylor’s translation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 102.

[18] This is Bonaventure’s term for the superfluity of meaning in the Bible. See Breviloquium, Prologus 4.

[19] Peter Comestor uses a delightfully homely metaphor to discuss the superfluity of meaning in Scripture:  “Holy Scripture is God’s dining room, where the guests are made soberly drunk…History is the foundation…allegory the wall…tropology the roof….” Peter Comestor, Historia Scholastica, Prologue (P.L. cxcviii, 1053). Quoted in Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 242.

[20] Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Prologue, 4.1.

[21] Bonaventure, Breviloquium II.11.2

[22] The Last Battle, 169-170.

[23] Ibid. 170.

[24] The following account is derived primarily from Bonaventure’s Commentaria in Quattuor Libri Sententiarum, Books I and II. Bonaventure claims to be simply developing insights already made by Augustine of Hippo.

[25] This solution to the problem of the ontological status of Plato’s Forms comes from Augustine, De Diversis Quaestionibus Octaginta Tribus q.46.1 (PL 40, 29-30): “In fact, Ideas are the primary forms, or the permanent and immutable reasons of real things, and they are not themselves formed; so they are, as a consequence, eternal and ever the same in themselves, and they are contained in the divine intelligence.”  Augustine often refers to the Divine Ideas as the rationes aeternae, the “eternal reasons.”

[26] In Breviloquium II.1.4, Bonaventure gives a particularly clear statement of this: “The utterly perfect Principle from whom flows the perfection of all things must act by His own power and law, and for Himself as an end; for in His action He needs none but Himself. Hence, He must be the threefold cause of all creatures: efficient, exemplary, and final. As a result, every creature must bear the same threefold reference [significationem] to the first cause: for every one exists by virtue of the efficient cause, is patterned after the exemplary cause, and ordered toward the final cause. For this reason every creature is one, true, and good; has limit (modus), form (species), and order (ordo); and has measure, number, and weight – for weight is an ordered inclination. All this applies to every creature in general, whether material, spiritual, or composite, as is human nature.”

[27] John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy:  A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1999).

[28] Ibid. 4.

[29] Lewis pushes even further against the erasure of the creature, giving the particular an eschatological dimension. Into the “heavenly” Narnia, the Narnia underlying Narnia, Aslan brings all the good creatures of Narnia: “All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door” (The Last Battle 169). In fact, in the “real England,” “the England within England,” even Professor Kirk’s old country home still exists (181). This is not Plato, where the instantiation has hardly any existence and certainly none after death or dissolution. This is a sacramental ontology that allows an integrity to the creature, without denying its creaturely status-the gift of being is sustained even after the end of the world.

[30] Physiologus, chapter I: On the Lion, p. 4. Physiologus, translated by Michael J. Curley, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Here is the relevant text: “The third nature of the lion is that, when the lioness has given birth to her whelp, she brings it forth dead. And she guards it for three days until its sire arrives on the third day and, breathing into its face on the third day, he awakens it. Thus did the almighty Father of all awaken from the dead the firstborn of every creature.” The reference to Jesus as “the firstborn of every creature” is found in Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (NIV).

[31] The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Chapter XVI, “What Happened About the Statues,” 164-168.

[32] The Last Battle, 100.