I have learned far more in Narnia than I can ever begin to explain, and so all I am going to try to do here is give you a small taste of some of the more important lessons I learned there. I hope that readers of these small sketches will be able to do what I have done, and read these books over and over for the rest of their lives. Each reading offers additional wisdom, but the wisdom is never simplistic—rather it is richly textured, reflecting the many different sources of Lewis’ insight.
One of the great lessons I learned in Narnia had to do with the meaning of true authority. C.S. Lewis has a great deal to say on this subject—on using authority the wrong way, using it the right way, and submitting to authority in the right way.
Let’s begin with the different ways that authority can be false. The Narnia books contain many different characters who try to abuse authority, but they only represent different ways to be grasping and selfish.
One of the obvious examples is Miraz, a usurper. For example, in Prince Caspian, what did Miraz do at the beginning of his rule? “When he first began to rule, he did not even pretend to be the King: he called himself Lord Protector” (PC, p. 59). Lewis is making a comment here about English politics in the 17th century—Oliver Cromwell, after he replaced Charles I in the rule of England, called himself the Lord Protector.
Then there is a denial of true authority in trivial, silly ways. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we see this kind of abdication of genuine authority. What did Eustace call his parents? “He didn’t call his Father and Mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’, but Harold and Alberta” (DT, p. 3). Just as it is wrong to grasp after authority that is not yours, so it is wrong to throw away authority that has been bestowed upon you. This is what the Scrubbs do.
There is a kind of imperious mentality that thinks that their rule must always be without constraint. In The Magician’s Nephew, we see that Jadis and Uncle Andrew both believe that they are “above the rules.” Both of them thought they had a high and lonely destiny.
“‘I had forgotten that you are only a common boy. How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny’” (MN, p. 68).
And how was Jadis different from Uncle Andrew when she said this? In all that mattered, she was not really different at all.
“Digory suddenly remembered that Uncle Andrew had used exactly the same words. But they sounded much grander when Queen Jadis said them; perhaps because Uncle Andrew was not seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful” (MN, p. 68).
There is another kind of wrong authority, a greasy kind of manipulative authority. In The Horse and His Boy, we find out what kind of man Aravis ran away from. Lasaraleen said, “‘My husband says he is beginning to be one of the greatest men in Calormen” (HHB, p. 100). But when we meet him, we discover that he is a craven, crawling flatterer. He is willing to abase himself in the presence of the Tisroc, but he is doing this so that he can have that same kind of power over others when he is away from the Tisroc.
There is another kind of sneaky, manipulative authority. Aptly named, the ape Shift manipulates the simple donkey Puzzle to get his way. How does Shift manipulate Puzzle?
“‘Really, Puzzle,’ said Shift, ‘I didn’t think you’d ever say a thing like that. I didn’t think it of you, really.’ ‘Why, what have I said wrong?’ said the Ass, speaking in rather a humble voice, for he saw that Shift was very deeply offended” (LB, p. 4).
Shift turns the Golden Rule around. “‘Why don’t you treat me as I treat you?’” (LB, p. 9). But then when Shift actually gets into power, what happens? “The Ape was of course Shift himself, but he looked ten times uglier than when he lived by Caldron Pool, for he was now dressed up” (LB, p. 32). And how does he use his position? “‘Now attend to me. I want—I mean Aslan wants—some more nuts’” (LB, p. 33). He used his position of authority to get something for himself, and not to serve others.
There is also the denial of legitimate authority in order to hold that authority for yourself autonomously. We see this in the behavior of the dwarfs in The Last Battle. How do the Dwarfs react to their liberation? “‘We’re going to look after ourselves from now on and touch our caps to nobody. See?’” (LB, p. 83). What is their rallying cry now? “‘The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs’” (LB, p. 83). Instead of submitting themselves in gratitude, they insist upon governing themselves.
All these examples show the problems that happen when authority is twisted. There are many different ways to get it wrong. But true authority is sacrificial and giving, and is embodied perfectly by Aslan himself. Aslan sets the pattern for all authority in these books, and it is the pattern of self-sacrifice and giving. This is the basis of all true authority. Even though it takes many different forms, it is recognizably the same kind of self-giving authority.
The Witch does not understand this kind of authority at all. What does the Witch think of Aslan coming to fulfill his agreement with her? “‘The fool!’ she cried. ‘The fool has come. Bind him fast’” (LWW, p. 151). But what was the Witch’s mistake? “‘It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know’” (LWW, p. 163). She did not know that the first will be last, and the last first. She did not understand the Deeper Magic of true sacrificial authority.
Because of this, we sometimes think we can never be sure if we are misunderstanding true authority also, just as the witch misunderstood it. And we sometimes think that sacrificial authority is not really authoritative at all—but it is the foundation of true authority. This is why Aslan is good, but not really safe. “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you’” (LWW, p. 80).
Not surprisingly, Aslan’s faithful servants, like Aslan himself, are sacrificial and giving, just as he is, and in the exercise of their authority they are very humble. For example, think about Aslan’s test of whether Caspian had the right kind of kingly character. “‘Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan, ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’ ‘I—I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian. ‘I’m only a kid.’ ‘Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not’” (PC, p. 206). Those who would possess authority in the name of Aslan must not be full of themselves.
And when Cor is just learning that he is to be king of Archenland, he doesn’t like the idea at all. And shouldn’t a king be able to do whatever he wants? The answer is no.
“‘Tis no question what thou wantest’” (HHB, p. 222).
“‘The King’s under the law, for it’s the law makes him a king. Hast no more power to start away from they crown than any sentry from his post’” (HHB, p. 223).
King Lune explains very clearly to his son what it means to be a king.
“‘For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land’” (HHB, p.223).
Authority flows to those who take responsibility. This is the kind of authority a righteous king has. He does not set himself up as a boss so that he can blame others. Rather, he sets himself in a position where he can take responsibility for what is happening—for good or bad—and in this way authority flows to him. When men seek to find someone else to blame when something goes wrong, authority flees from them.
Another way of saying this is that true authority doesn’t boss; true authority is obedient. And the more obedient someone is (to those in lawful authority over him), the more that someone grows in his own authority.
My favorite example of this is Trumpkin the Dwarf. What does Trumpkin think about the Old Narnians calling for help with the Horn? He thinks that such tactics “‘. . . are all eggs in moonshine’” (PC, p. 96). And when they decide to do it, and as a result Doctor Cornelius says that they must send messengers to at least two other places in case the promised help decides to come there, what does Trumpkin think about this? “‘The first result of all this foolery is not to bring us help but to lose us two fighters’” (PC, p. 97).
But then, how does Trumpkin demonsrate his true loyalty? When the decision is made, by Caspian, the one in authority, Trumpkin is as committed as anyone there to faithful obedience.
“‘But I thought you didn’t believe in the Horn, Trumpkin,’ said Caspian. ‘No more I do, your Majesty. But what’s that got to do with it? I might as well die on a wild goose chase as die here. You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders’” (PC, p. 98).
But this does not make Trumpkin into a blind cult member, or a brainless foot soldier in some dictator’s army. His loyalty has set and very defined limits, and this is very important. What are some suggested allies for the Old Narnians? “‘There’s an Ogre or two and a Hag that we could introduce you to, up there’” (PC, p. 76). And what does Trumpkin think about that? When someone observes that they would forfeit Aslan’s favor if they were to take such allies, Trumpkin shows us exactly how we should react to such compromises. “‘Oh Aslan!’ said Trumpkin, cheerily but contemptuously. ‘What matters much more is that you wouldn’t have me’” (PC, p. 77).
In other words, Trumpkin knows that he is under authority when it comes to practical decision-making. Caspian is the king, and he must decide when, where, and how they will fight the enemy. Someone has to decide such things, and Trumpkin will give his advice, but he knows that the decision is not his to make. But if it goes beyond strategy and tactics and becomes a matter of whether they should join up with wicked ogres and hags, that would be a decision that is not Caspian’s to make. And if he tried it, Trumpkin would head on down the road. Trumpkin knows that authority is genuine, requiring obedience, and that it is also limited, requiring limits to that obedience.
This kind of heart provides a simple way to make decisions. For another example, in The Silver Chair, where do Eustace’s loyalties lie? “‘And what I want to say is this, that I’m the King’s man; and if this parliament of owls is any sort of plot against the King, I’m having nothing to do with it’” (SC, p. 54).
George MacDonald, one of C.S. Lewis’s heroes, once said that obedience is the great opener of eyes. And that is what we see exhibited in many ways in Narnia. Plain, simple, honest obedience to plain, simple honest authority. We can see how this obedience works. In The Silver Chair, what does the Knight say while he is bound in the chair?
“‘By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you—’Oh!’ said the three travelers as though they had been hurt. ‘It’s the sign,’ said Puddleglum. ‘It was the words of the sign,’ said Scrubb more cautiously. ‘Oh, what are we to do?’ said Jill” (SC, p. 166).
So what do they decide to do?
“On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them?” (SC, p. 167).
And what is their thinking about it?
“‘You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do’” (SC, p. 167).
Throughout the Narnia stories, we see the nature of true authority, again and again. True authority is not that which never has to submit; true authority is obedient, and in that submission it grows into the kind of authority that Aslan — who obeyed the deepest magic — had.