Books and Code · A Miscellany

When a teacher plays 'gotcha': A case study with an Easter theme


I recently tried re-reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in Spanish. I couldn’t make it past chapter three because I got bored and was too aware that the plot suffers the deeper one reads. However, reading the first two chapters in a foreign language reminded me just how fantastic those two chapters are. (Re-reading something in a different language is as close as you can get to the experience of reading something for the first time.)

Anyway, this reminded me of an incident a few years ago in a class I took online that included this book on the syllabus. And since today is Easter—the holiday commemorating the event that this book allegorizes—this is a doubly appropriate time to share it.

After the course lecture on Wardrobe we had the opportunity to send in questions and comments which might be addressed in the final wrap-up lecture. I sent in the following:

Why a table and not a totem pole? Beyond being a convenient landmark for meetups, the table seems to have no special utility to Narnians. Yet it is a curiously convenient object for performing sacrifices. When it breaks it reminds us of the temple veil from the New Testament story which explicitly was being used for sacrifices in Jesus’ day. Why does Narnia have a conspicuous ancient sacrificial altar out in a field somewhere that no one sacrifices on? If this is supposed to imply the “Deeper Magic” is fated, why no foreshadowing within the Narnian world? This strikes me as a glaring signpost that CSL is more concerned with message over story.

This is in regards to the stone table on which Aslan is sacrificed by the White Witch. It has always annoyed me how contrived this whole aspect of the book is. It reeks of wholesale transplantation of Christian theology. In class, the prior lecture had discussed the degree to which CSL consciously borrowed from Christianity. One relevant datum was CSL’s description of the genesis of the idea in Of Other Worlds, wherein he says that the story began with a mental picture of the faun holding an umbrella, “then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it.” Notice what is missing from CSL’s explanation: a stone table. Incidentally, in my opinion the best part of the book is that original bit derived from his mental picture–before he began consciously tinkering with it…

So anyway, the lecturer did use my question in class. He explained that there were several similar questions and he had chosen mine as representative. Then he spent several minutes good-naturedly chastizing me for overlooking a single relevant passage in Chapter 13. When the White Witch decides to sacrifice Edmund she says:

“I would like to have done it on the Stone Table itself,” said the Witch. “That is the proper place. That is where it had always been done before.”

I felt quite embarrassed by this because he was nominally correct. I had overlooked this passage. On the other hand, his long-winded response did not address the substance of my comment. Did these throw-away lines really adequately rebut the assertion that the Stone Table was not logically integrated into the Narnian mythos? I thought (and still think) not. I also felt (perhaps unfairly to him) that he had cherry-picked my version of the question because of this noted flaw. Otherwise, he might have addressed the substance rather than the technicality.

At any rate, because of the nature of the online interface (the instructor is broadcasting video & audio, but students can only type text directly to the instructor who may or may not notice), I did not feel capable to respond. In a typical classroom, it would be easy for me to interrupt and clarify or amend my question as necessary to facilitate real dialog. Instead, I felt that I had blundered into a rhetorical trap, without ability to confute, and with the knowledge that the poor presentation of my view would be disseminated indefinitely. Obviously, this bothered me so much that I still think about it three years later.

[Update: It has been pointed out to me that the above is poorly stated. My intent was not to ascribe intention but to explain how I felt from my point of view—a distinction I obviously failed to communicate. Certainly the lecturer deserves not only the benefit of the doubt on this point, but my explicit statement that in my experience he is not the sort of person who would intentionally make a student feel that way, which is why this post has now been edited to remove identifying information.]

That is where it had always been done before.

Contrary to the lecturer’s contention, this little passage solves nothing at all. Granted, it does contradict my snark that the Stone Table was unused–we learn that it has been used to sacrifice traitors before. Ok, so what? It explains nothing while heaping on loads of additional questions. Go ahead and transfer all of my comments in regards to Edmund’s/Aslan’s sacrifice to the earlier (unknown) sacrificial victims. Who were those victims? Why didn’t Aslan save them like he did Edmund? Why have a convoluted “traitor clause” as the world’s foundational law? None of this is explained here or in the creation myth in The Magician’s Nephew.

In fact, there are no satifying answers to these questions because CSL borrowed these ideas wholesale from Christianity where people have been dissatisfied with the proposed solutions since Jesus’ death. Why would the Emperor Beyond the Sea make such a dumbass law? Why intervene now for Edmund and not earlier for the poor bastards already sacrificed? The story only makes any sense if you already know the Christian dogma and don’t ask the questions you know you shouldn’t ask in Sunday school.

If he thought my question was out of bounds because it touched on religious themes (odd for a CSL course, but understandable), then he should have just said that (which he did on a different occasion which I might blog about another time). If it was in-bounds, then I think my point was unfairly dodged.