Having a rain day yesterday, and thus no work, I decided to get out my paint and brushes and see if I could set down on canvas one of the images in my head.
It’s not something I’ve done a lot of late, because it takes some planning to get the materials out from under my son Ethan’s bed while he’s not taking his nap, and he’s only stopped taking afternoon naps fairly recently. Also, my wife has a tendency to use my off days as a time to bustle around doing all the things she needs to do that are so much more complicated with children in tow. I don’t normally mind – with my work schedule I don’t see nearly enough of my children – but it does rather put a damper on painting.
So yesterday I decided, “you know what? I want to paint something”, and actually did it. Procrastinators of the world unite, some time tomorrow.
The result was “The Stone Table” here:
I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia quite a lot recently, and with Easter just passed it was perhaps inevitable that I should settle on the Narnian equivalent of the Easter story as my subject matter, but there’s more going on in my internal world than just an Easter picture.
In the Narnian world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table is a sort of megalithic monument, described as a great table of stone engraved with ancient writing. It’s the initial rendezvous point for Aslan’s company and the children, where the great Lion is encamped in his royal pavilion. More importantly, it’s where the Witch kills Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, and where he comes back to life in resurrected power.
It’s described as an ancient place even in the days of the coming of Aslan and the breaking of the Witch’s hundred-year winter, connected with the powerful and mysterious Deep Magic from the dawn of time:
“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”
“Let us suppose I have forgotten it,” replied Aslan. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
“Tell you?” the Witch shrieked. “Tell you what is written on this very Stone Table? Tell you what is carved in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire stones of the secret hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-Sea?”
As I’ve grown older, the Stone Table has become associated not only with the Crucifixion but with the Law of Moses. Linguistically, it’s practically no distance at all from the tablets of stone that the Law was written on to a table of stone that the Deep Magic is written on.
Is the Deep Magic a Narnian incarnation of the Law, then?
Well, partly, perhaps. Certainly it looks symbolic of the “written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Colossians 2:14). The Law as our enemy, the cold power of legalism, the “letter” that “kills” as opposed to the “Spirit” that “gives life”.
Even, or more probably especially, as a follower of Christ, it’s dead easy to fall into legalism. Pun intended. Legalism is, after all, the essence of the religious spirit: the Rules we live by that tell us what God want from us and what we have to do to be a Good Christian. All of the “as a Chistian you shouldn’t…” things we add to the simple obedience of faith. Listen to that sort of music. Watch that sort of TV programme. Support that sort of political agenda.
In Colossians, St. Paul refers to these sorts of rules (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col2:20-21) as “the basic principles of this world”, the same word he uses in Galatians 4:9 to describe the “weak and miserable principles” which the Galatian church were in danger of turning back to. As I understand it, the Greek words translated “basic principles” are also translateable as “elemental spirits”, and this connection may reveal a second layer of symbolism in the Deep Magic and the Stone Table.
In the ancient world of Greek philosophy there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Everything that existed was thought to be a combination of these four substances, which were presided over by guiding spiritual forces – the “powers of nature” if you will. In the Stone Table we have Earth, obviously. The “fire stones of the secret hill” are connected with Fire. The very name of the Emperor-over-Sea reveals a connection with Water. That’s three out of four.
I have no idea whether this symbology is deliberate choice on Lewis’ part or simply me reading into it. On the face of it, this speech of the Witch’s is just ornamental detail, but it’s suggestive ornamental detail. And CS Lewis may have had more going on in his Narnia books than meets the eye, as Michael Ward persuasively argues in Planet Narnia. A connection between the Deep Magic and the elemental spirits of this world is not out of the question, and certainly the way St. Paul uses the word in Galatians and Colossians is more to do with legalistic rules of “righteousness” than with the ancient elements. The Law, both as it is written and as it is applied.
But the Deep Magic, like the Law of Moses, is not bad in itself. It is, as Aslan points out, the Emperor’s Magic. It’s written on the Emperor’s sceptre; impregnated into the very fabric of the Narnian creation at the dawn of time itself. As St. Paul said, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy“ (Romans 7:12). How can a Law which Paul speaks of as good in one breath be described as our enemy in the next?
It’s because we are fallen. We’re sinful, under the thumb of selfish desires we cannot fully master, proud, conceited, greedy and wrathful. A good Law can have bad effects if the one it is applied to is bad. To rescue us from the bad effects of the Law required something fundamental, because the Law, like the Deep Magic, is woven into the very fabric of the created order.
The universe is moral. We crave justice and hate it when justice cannot be seen to be done because we recognise at root that injustice Should Not Be. But all of humanity’s efforts have never succeeded in rooting out our flawed natures and creating the perfect moral society. Fascism tried. Communism tried. The Religious Right look like they’re trying, with all of the attempts to legislate Christian morality.
But we can’t do it on our own. Even the best of us are flawed. “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The whole idea that we can make a paradise here on earth by our own efforts is nothing less than a reinvention of the ancient alchemical dream that we can make gold.
In Narnia, however, the Deep Magic is not the highest law. There is a Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, of which the Witch is sublimely ignorant. Aslan’s sacrificial death on the Stone Table puts an end to the power of the written code and the elemental powers of legalism. As Aslan explains, “If she had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery were killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Deep Magic would unravel, the Stone Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards”.
The cracking and breaking of the Table is no natural event, but part of Aslan’s resurrection and symbolic of the final end of the Witch’s power, just as the arrival of Father Christmas heralded the joy of the new Spring and the unravelling of her hundred-year winter.
If a stone table were to break naturally through the weathering of years or an earthquake, you would expect it to collapse in the middle. This is how it’s often portrayed. But the breaking of the Table is anything but natural, so I painted it the opposite way. Just as in the mundane world the Temple curtain had to be torn from top to bottom, so in the Narnian world the Table should buckle upwards as if from a blast out of the very ground itself.
“What is it?” Susan asked. “Is it Magic?”
“Yes!” said Aslan’s voice. “It is more Magic!”
The Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. The grace and mercy of God that triumphs over judgement and rescues from death.
I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Both the reality and the picture.