A Passage to India, A Walk at Dusk, Ajanta Caves, Aslan, Aslan's How, C.D. Friedrich, C.S. Lewis, Catacombs, consular diptychs, cromlech, E. M. Forster, haugr, Late antique ivories, Malabar Caves, Narnia, Newgrange, Nicomachi, Oseberg Ship, Prince Caspian, Qin Shi Huangdi, River Boyne, Stone Table, Symmachi, Telmarines, Terracotta warriors
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
We’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and have just finished the second book, Prince Caspian. We were interested, as we read, in “Aslan’s How”.
We knew, from the text, what the place was, as Doctor Cornelius describes it:
“…it is a huge mound which Narnians raised in very ancient times over a very magical place, where there stood—and perhaps still stands—a very magical Stone. The mound is all hollowed out within into galleries and caves, and the Stone is in the central cave of all.”
In the 2008 film of Prince Caspian, this is depicted as what appears to be a stone structure which is covered in earth and trees
(Spoiler Alert! Underneath the magic of CGI…)
This version reminds us of the Ajanta Caves, an Indian Buddhist monument dating from the 2nd century BC to (perhaps as late as) the 7th century AD.
These are, as you can see from this photo, spectacular on the outside, but even more so on the inside, as they are full of a huge number of wall paintings and sculptures.
(These, by the way, have their own literary history, being a model for the “Malabar Caves” which feature in the plot of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, 1924.)
Lewis, however, was from Belfast, and we’ve always imagined that what he was actually thinking of was the Neolithic monument of Newgrange, in Eire (the Republic of Ireland).
This was possibly a passage tomb—but there’s lots of scholarly discussion about that. At least it can be said that it has “galleries and caves”
and, like Aslan’s How (“How” being a worn-down form of Old Norse “haugr”, “tumulus/hill”), it’s up from a river, in this case, the River Boyne, as the How is just up from the Great River, in Narnia.
In Lewis’ description, it seems that the Narnians of long ago had constructed the mound to protect an object, “a very magical Stone”. As we know from the first book in the Narnia series, this is the Stone Table on which Aslan allowed himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch.
We’ve chosen this painting by Michael Hague because it strikes us as closer to what we imagine the scene to have been like and we prefer it to the scene in the 2005 film.
In particular, we differ on the table. Here’s another view of the one from the film.
To us, it’s more likely to have been modeled on a cromlech, the remains of a Neolithic tomb, of a kind found in numbers all over western Europe and which Lewis must certainly have seen.
The Hague painting obviously reflects this and the power of such monuments for painters goes back at least to the German Romantics. Here’s a wonderfully moody depiction (“A Walk at Dusk”, 1821) by our favorite painter of that movement, C.D. Friedrich (1774-1840).
Commonly, large artificial mounds like the How are tombs. In an earlier post, we talked about ship burials, like that of the Oseberg ship–
which must have looked like this before its excavation.
Such burials are a worldwide phenomenon. In China, perhaps the grandest is for Qin Shi Huangdi, the so-called “First Emperor” (built 246-208BC).
This site was rendered even more impressive in 1974 when the first of at least 7000 life-size ceramic warriors was uncovered after a local farmer began to dig a well.
These figures were originally painted in bright colors and held bronze weapons.
Aslan’s How is not a tomb, however, but the resting place of its opposite—the broken stone which is intended to be a symbol of resurrection, and this is in keeping with the parallel between Aslan and the Christian figure, Jesus, who is believed by Christians to have been killed, entombed, but, on the third day escaped the tomb.
(And we can’t show one of these wonderful late classical ivory carvings without adding another, a favorite, a so-called “consular diptych”—that is, a pair of ivory plaques joined together. They are thought to have commemorated the appointment of a member of an upper class family to the rank of consul. This diptych celebrated the appointment of someone from one or both of two families, the Nicomachi and the Symmachi, and is dated to about 400AD.)
This idea leads us to another possible model. Outside Rome, there are miles of underground passages associated with early Christians. They served both as secret places of worship, as well as burial places.
Considering that those Old Narnians who resist the rule of the Telmarines and take refuge in the How are often those who believe in the existence of Aslan as well, may we see Aslan’s How, with its central stone table as a reminder of Aslan’s sacrifice and resurrection, as the equivalent of the catacombs?
What do you think, dear readers?
Thanks, as always, for reading.