At the end of the last episode we caught a glimpse of Aslan for the first time, but this week he is very much the focus of the whole episode and we get to see him in his full glory. I first watched this series when I was 10 years old, and I was absolutely mesmerised by the Aslan costume/prop. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, because there are puppeteers inside (one of whom is Ailsa Berk, a name that should now be familiar with any Doctor Who fans who watched Confidential), but it also has animatronic features. Rewatching this series as an adult, I still think Aslan is a superb creation, with the blinking eyes really helping to sell it as a living creature. It is only slightly let down by the monotonously opening and closing mouth. Ronald Pickup is perfect as the voice, but I think it might have been better for his voice to have arrived in the children’s heads without seeing any mouth movements, in the absence of the necessary technology at the time to make the mouth move naturally in synch with the words being spoken. An unmoving mouth would have worked fine with the supernatural nature of the character anyway. But despite that, I was completely convinced by Aslan as a child and I still think he’s a remarkable bit of special effects work for the time. The integration of animation and live action also works well this week, for Aslan’s flying beasts and the scary creatures the Witch summons.
It is obvious by now that Aslan was written as a Christ-like figure, and he shows great wisdom in helping the children to heal the wounds inflicted by Edmund’s treachery, basically advising them to let bygones be bygones. The only words that need to be said are “I’m sorry,” and then they all move on. Considering the extent of Edmund’s betrayal, it’s actually quite a remarkable moment, but I think perhaps children get this better than adults, and can forgive and move on much more quickly than adults. It’s a skill we forget. Unfortunately, although they can forgive, the Witch won’t let them forget the betrayal, and claims ownership of traitors. This sets up treachery as a crime that condemns a person’s soul to possession by evil… until Aslan dies in Edmund’s place, which is obviously very biblical. Lucy and Susan accompanying Aslan on his journey to sacrifice himself for Edmund is also a Bible reference, and it’s a very powerful scene because it shows vulnerability on the part of Aslan (also true of Jesus). Like Jesus, Aslan experiences mortal feelings and wants to be comforted by friends in his saddest moment.
One aspect of Aslan’s character that is perhaps a bit troublesome today is his lack of pacifism. I’m not sure where I stand on the idea of a just war. Let’s just say it makes me uneasy. C.S. Lewis was a war veteran and rationalised the validity of killing the enemy quite clearly in his theology (a side note: I strongly recommend his Mere Christianity if you have any interest in that area). Aslan is therefore very far from being a pacifist, ordering everyone to stand back while Peter becomes a man by killing for the first time. Aslan makes a big thing about Peter cleaning his sword, and that seems to be something more than just practical advice (the sword will rust and stick in the scabbard if he doesn’t). It feels like there must be a deeper significance there, but it’s not easy to come up with a definitive answer to the question of the metaphor being employed by the writer. My favourite of the explanations I have read is that it’s about wiping off the stain of killing from the soul, which would be achieved by refusing to be proud of the outcome of the fight, and also perhaps following Aslan’s advice to the children not to talk about the past. It’s a bit stiff-upper-lip, repressing emotions (and that also applies to Edmund’s betrayal); a sign of the times it was written, maybe.
I found the ending to this episode very tough to watch as a child, and it’s still deeply unpleasant, but I suppose it has to be. Aslan is not just murdered, but he is humiliated first, chained up, muzzled and shaved, none of which is necessary as he arrives as a willing sacrifice. Somehow the humiliation seems worse than the killing, because it’s so cruel and unnecessary. It’s horrible, and the two Sophies do a great job of portraying the utter desperation and grief of Lucy and Susan in that moment. Imagine being left with that cliffhanger ending as a child, having to wait a whole week for the final episode. It was… troubling. But it was also remarkable, because the one thing you don’t expect to happen in children’s fiction is for the hero to actually be killed. Nothing I had ever read or watched had prepared me for that scene. It’s a brave move, but of course it’s the only choice for the writer considering the origins of the story. That source of inspiration offers the promise of happier times to come, for the final episode… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Episode Six