One of the important lessons we learn in Narnia is not just that Aslan is like Christ (and that we are like the people in Narnia who serve and worship him). We also learn the nature of the relationship between Aslan and his servants. The best way to describe this relationship is that of grace.
But grace involves much more than simply being nice or kind. By the very nature of the case, grace is always complete and total. There is one great example of the foundation of this grace (what Aslan did for Edmund), and two great examples of how this grace is applied in the world of Narnia. These are the change of heart in both Eustace and Jill, and so we will look at both in some detail.
Now, as we take a close look at what Aslan did for Edmund in the first book about Narnia, we should remember that in The Last Battle of Narnia, King Tirian says that it was by the blood of Aslan that all Narnia was saved. And later in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Edmund is talking to Eustance about his experience, he says that through it all Narnia was saved (p. 110). Clearly, C. S. Lewis wanted us to take the sacrifice that Aslan made for Edmund and apply to everyone.
As you remember, Edmund had betrayed his brother and two sisters by going over to the side of the White Witch. And even though the arrival of Aslan into Narnia destroyed the power of winter, the Witch still had a claim on Edmund—because he was traitor, and she had a right to all traitors. This is because of the law of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea, which is why Aslan is displeased at the suggestion that they try to "get out of" the dilemma. "‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again" (p. 142).
When the Witch first claimed him, what was Edmund’s reaction? "He felt a choking feeling and wondered if he ought to say something; but a moment later he felt that he was not expected to do anything except to wait, and do what he was told" (p. 143).
But instead of turning Edmund over to the Witch, Aslan offered to give himself up to the Witch instead. This is a very important point—Aslan was giving himself as a substitute for Edmund, and, as we have already seen, as a substitute for all Narnians.
Now, what does the Witch think of Aslan coming? "‘The fool!’ she cried. ‘The fool has come. Bind him fast’" (p. 151). And although the Witch has made her claims in the name of justice, what is her real motivation? "‘Stop!’ said the Witch. ‘Let him first be shaved’" (p. 153). She hated Aslan and wanted to humiliate him—her interest was not really justice. Aslan did not resist her. "But he never moved. And this seemed to enrage all that rabble" (p. 154). This is the point where the Witch taunts Aslan. This also plainly shows that she is not interested in justice at all. "‘Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die’" (p. 155). What does the Witch want to do after Aslan’s death? "‘It will not take us long to crush the human vermin and the traitors now that the great Fool, the great Cat, lies dead’" (p. 156).
But the Witch had made a very profound mistake. What was it? "‘It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know’" (p. 163). That magic was from before the dawn of time, and the Witch only knew magic from within time. The eternal magic was that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery died instead of a traitor, then Death would work backwards.
We see in this story the very great importance of what theologians call the substitutionary or vicarious atonement. Aslan died as a substitute for Edmund, and, of course, as a substitute for all of Narnia.
What happened here was very important, and this is why Lucy thought that Edmund should know what Aslan did for him. "‘All the same I think he ought to know,’ said Lucy" (p. 181). Given what we learn elsewhere in Narnia, it is likely that Edmund did learn what Aslan had done for him and for all Narnia.
One of the more important things to notice about children who get into Narnia is that they are sinners. They are not perfect little human beings—they have their problems, and Aslan works on their behalf to solve those problems. This includes both what we would call "good kids" and "record stinkers."
For example, in The Silver Chair, what did Jill think of Eustace at the top of the cliff? "When she saw how very white he had turned, she despised him" (p. 15). After Eustace falls off the cliff, how does Jill justify herself? "It’s not my fault he fell over that cliff" (p. 19). So she was looking for a way out of her troubles in England, but she was not looking for a way out of her troubles in her own heart. She was simply justifying herself. Now, in that condition, what happens to her? "She listened carefully, and felt almost sure it was the sound of running water" (p. 20).
She was very thirsty, and went to find the water. But what brought her up short? "And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion (p. 21). She was desperately thirsty, but in between her and the stream, was a lion. Now, what is the lion’s invitation? "‘If you’re thirsty, you may drink’" (p. 21). She is not at all sure about the lion, so she doesn’t do anything. But the lion speaks again. "Then the voice said again, ‘If you are thirsty, come and drink’" (p. 21). Jill was frightened that the lion was speaking to her. "It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way" (p. 22). Her fear began to be a religious kind of fear, and not the kind of fear you would have encountering a lion escaped from the circus. And her thirst was clearly a spiritual kind of thirst. This is one of the truly great passages in all the Narnia stories.
‘Are you not thirsty?’ said the Lion.
‘I’m dying of thirst,’ said Jill.
‘Then drink,’ said the Lion.
‘May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?’ said Jill.
The Lion answer this only by a look and a very low growl . . .
‘Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?’ said Jill.
‘I make no promise,’ said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
‘Do you eat girls?’ she said.
‘I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,’ said the Lion . . .
‘I daren’t come and drink,’ said Jill.
‘Then you will die of thirst,’ said the Lion.
‘Oh, dear!’ said Jill, coming another step nearer. ‘I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.’
‘There is no other stream,’ said the Lion" (pp. 22-23)
Now back in England, why had Jill called out to Aslan? "‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,’ said the Lion" (pp. 24-25).
Now what does this all mean? It means that not only did Aslan quench Jill’s thirst, he also gave her that thirst, and enabled her to call out to him. In short, Aslan did everything for her. He did his part, and he also did her part. And this is what we mean when we say that our salvation is all of grace, every bit of it.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we see the same kind of thing from a different angle in the conversion and transformation of Eustace. After he had been turned into a dragon, what does Eustace start to realize? "And poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still" (p. 104).
Now while he was in this repentant condition, Eustace met Aslan. And what was Eustace’s reaction to Aslan? "‘I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it—if you can understand’" (p. 107).
Where did Aslan take Eustace? ". . . and on the top of this mountain there was a garden—trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well" (p. 107). The well gives us a very clear baptism picture, but the first reaction that Eustace has is to use the waters of baptism to "dab" at his problem. Eustace thought the water in it might ease the pain in his leg (caused by the bracelet). "‘But the lion told me I must undress first’" (p. 107). Dabbing would do no good because baptism is a kind of death. And that is what the undressing represents. How does a dragon undress? Eustace remembered that dragons are snaky kinds of things, and undressing might mean that he was shed his skin."‘I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before’" (p. 108). Did any of his self-efforts work? "‘So I scratched away for the third time’" (p. 108).
Eustace wanted to be better, he wanted to do it, and yet he could not do this—it had to be done for him. So what did Eustance then do? "‘So I just lay flat on my back and let him do it’" (p. 109). But what was the difference between Eustace’s way of "dying" and Aslan’s way of dying? "‘. . . just as I thought I’d done it myself . . . only they hadn’t hurt’" (p. 109). Taking off the dragon skin is clearly a picture of repentance, and there are two kinds—the kind we do ourselves and the kind that God gives to us. The kind that God gives goes straight to the heart. Because of this, Eustace was genuinely changed, from that day forward. Or, more strictly speaking, he began to change. "To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun" (p. 112).
In these three stories—concerning Edmund, Jill, and Eustace—we see the foundational importance of the sacrifice of Aslan, and his death. But we also see that when he died, those who follow him died also. That is what we see with Jill and Eustace. And this reveals a very important point that we must make whenever we are talking about a substitutionary death—whether it is Aslan on the Stone Table in Narnia, or Jesus Christ on the cross in our world.
There is a way of understanding substitution that is misleading. In a basketball game, if one player is substituted in for another, this means that the second player comes out. One man plays, and the other does not. Aslan did not die as a substitute in this sense, as we can see in our illustrations. The other kind of substitution occurs when we elect a congressman to go to Washington D.C. and represent us. He is our substitute for us there, meaning that he represents us. When he votes, we vote.
If Jesus were the first kind of substitute, that would mean that He died so that we wouldn’t have to die. But if He is the second kind of substitute, that means that when He died, all those who were represented by Him died also. And of course, when He came back from death, so did we.
Learning these things is learning the gospel, and learning them in Narnia is a wonderful way to really grasp them.