Audra and I have two orange cats, and I often wonder what is going on inside their furry heads. Why, for example, is this one gazing at me with such apparent contempt? And isn’t that one being willfully disobedient when she chews on the flowers on the table when I turn my back for a moment?
It’s tempting to ascribe human emotions and motivations to cats, but, of course, being a cat is quite a different thing than being a human. There is an irreducible and sometimes unsettling difference to animals; their thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are their ways our ways. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”
This otherness of animals is what makes the lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories such a compelling divine character. Aslan’s wildness is an apt figure for the wildness, the otherness of the Lord. Aslan, we read, is “not a Tame Lion.” When Lucy rolls on the ground with Aslan she can’t make up her mind “whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten.”
Aslan is not safe, says Mrs. Beaver, “but he’s good.”
One of the most striking pictures of Aslan’s wild goodness comes in The Horse and His Boy. In the book the eponymous protagonists, a talking horse named Bree and a boy named Shasta, flee the country of Calormen with another talking horse called Hwin and a girl named Aravis. (Being a talking horse is not unusual in Narnia, where there are lots of talking animals.)
At one point, the two horses and two children are traveling across a desert. Near the end of their journey, a fierce lion pursues them and terrifies them so much that they find reserves of energy they didn’t know they had. Nevertheless, the lion gains on them and is snapping at Hwin’s hind legs and even tearing at Aravis’s shoulders before they reach a walled hermitage where they take refuge. They are safe, but it was a terrible trial. The girl’s back is covered in blood.
Several days later Bree and Hwin and Aravis are in the walled courtyard of the hermitage. They happen to be talking about Aslan, Bree superciliously explaining to the others (who had not been to Narnia) that Aslan is not an actual lion. Just then, Lewis writes,
They saw an enormous lion leap up from outside and balance itself on the top of the green wall; only it was a brighter yellow and it was bigger and more beautiful and more alarming than any lion they had ever seen. And at once it jumped down inside the wall and began approaching [them].
Bree bolts to the far side of the enclosure in terror; Hwin and Aravis stand frozen “with open mouths and staring eyes.” And, Lewis writes, “There was about a second of intense silence.”
Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion.
“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.”
The reader already knows that Aslan is the same lion who had pursued them, terrifying Hwin and wounding Aravis — and that he had done this for their own good. But Hwin does not yet know this. She does not know. And the lion is most alarming. The last time she encountered a lion, “it was making snaps at her hind legs, and there was no hope … in her foam-flecked, wide-eyed face.”
But this lion is also most beautiful. Dangerous — and desirable. And it is Aslan’s beauty that elicits Hwin’s remarkable response: “You may eat me if you like.”
Is there a better image in literature of what it is to encounter the terrible beauty of the thrice-holy Lord? A more striking display of the self-abandonment of faith? If there is, I do not know it.
To me the scene is iconic, pointing beyond itself to the thing itself, gesturing to the surpassing loveliness of the Lord. Contemplating this Horse and this Lion helps me to better imagine what it cost Moses to approach the unburnt bush or ascend to the flaming fire on Mount Sinai, or Isaiah to see the Lord high and lifted up, or the Virgin to say Yes.
It stirs up my desire to imitate them, to respond like Hwin: “Please. You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
I hope this story also works on you.