Time in the Chronicles of Narnia
Michael Peterson and Adam Peterson
In a deceptively simple way, Lewis weaves into the tales of Narnia many complex ideas that are widely discussed in the intellectual arena. One of these is the concept of time, which is a recurrent motif throughout the Chronicles. As we shall see, Lewis’s ideas about time lead us into philosophical reflection on extraordinary scientific findings, difficult metaphysical problems, and profound theological themes.
Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore!
Several of the Narnia books begin with the children conversing about time, trying to get their orientation to time – or perhaps we should say disorientation! Eustace calls it “the usual muddle about times” (LB, Ch. 5, p. 693). The problem arises when Lucy first returns from the wardrobe. She thinks she has been gone for hours, but Peter and Susan say that only moments have passed:
“What do you mean, Lu?” asked Peter.
“What I said,” answered Lucy. “It was just after breakfast when I went into the wardrobe, and I’ve been away for hours and hours, and had tea, and all sorts of things have happened.”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy,” said Susan. “We’ve only just come out of that room a moment ago, and you were there then.” (LWW, Ch. 2, p. 120)
Contemporary fiction, fantasy, and film are no strangers to concepts such as time travel or crossing over into another dimension. Who can forget when Dorothy woke up in her bed in Kansas claiming that she and her dog, Toto, had many adventures in the Land of Oz? But her family and friends assured her that she had just been unconscious from a bump on the head!
It’s not just that there are different times but that the “passage” or “flow” of time is different between this world and Narnia. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy became kings and queens in Narnia, aging, growing, and changing. We learn that Peter “became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior” (LWW, Ch. 17, p. 194). The most interesting change, though, is that Aslan appeared bigger as the children grew in Narnian time. Curious about this effect, Lucy asks Aslan if he really is bigger, and he replies: “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger” (PC, Ch. 10, p. 380).
Regardless of time spent in Narnia, when the children return to their normal world, they have not aged. Although they reigned “for years and years” in Narnia, when they came back through the door to England again, it all seemed to have taken “no time at all” (PC, Ch. 1, p. 317). When Edmund and Lucy meet Prince Caspian, we are told outright: “Narnian time flows differently from ours. If you spent a hundred years in Narnia, you would still come back to our world at the very same hour of the very same day on which you left. And then, if you went back to Narnia after spending a week here, you might find that a thousand Narnian years had passed, or only a day, or no time at all. You never know till you get there” (VDT, Ch. 1, p. 429; see also MN, Ch. 15, p. 103).
In addition, Narnian time flows at unpredictable rates.
“And that means,” continued Edmund, “that once you’re out of Narnia, you have no idea how Narnian time is going. Why shouldn’t hundreds of years have gone past in Narnia while only one year has passed for us in England?” (PC, Ch. 3, p. 330)
This unpredictability is behind Peter’s remark that returning to Narnia after 1303 Narnian years had passed was as if they were “Crusaders or Anglo-Saxons or Ancient Britons or someone coming back to modern England” (PC, Ch. 3, p. 330).
Discrepancies over time occur in several of the tales. When the children come back to Narnia after being away for a year at boarding school, Caspian says they have been absent “exactly three years” in Narnian time (VDT, Ch. 2, p. 432). And King Tirian tells Jill that what she perceived to be the passage of a week in her world was a “scarce ten minutes in his world.” He adds: “The time of your strange land is different from ours” (LB, Ch. 5, p. 693; compare to Ch. 16, p. 765). Interestingly, Lewis speculates that time in other worlds might have “thicknesses and thinnesses” in addition to linear directionality.
Philosophical problems arise concerning both the subjective perception and objective reality of time. Clearly, Lewis’s treatment of time in Narnia is completely appropriate to tales of fantasy, reflecting the child’s less settled, less reflective sense of time as well as all of the wonderment of passing between the normal world and an imaginary world. After all, when children are having fun, time seems to pass too quickly; but time drags when they’re bored. Similarly, Pink Floyd’s “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon comments on how adult perception of time is different from that of youth: “You are young and life is long . . . and then one day you find ten years have got behind you. . . . every year is getting shorter.” Although the subjective sense of time can vary between this world and Narnia, the Chronicles also claim that there is such a thing as objective time in each of the two realms, although it cannot be readily calibrated between them. And that claim deserves further discussion.
Does It Take an Einstein?
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) advanced the classical objectivist view of time: “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration.” Even today, this is probably the instinctive view of the ordinary person – that there is cosmic time, regular and measurable, although persons might differ for various reasons in their perception of it.
Our understanding of time was revolutionized, however, by Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) special theory of relativity. Contrary to the traditional assumption that time is absolute, Einstein showed that “every reference body (coordinate system) has its own particular time” Simply put, scientists have found that gravitational fields of massive bodies (such as the earth) and high speed motion (even approaching the speed of light), have amazing effects on time. Stephen Hawking (1942- ) considers the effects of motion by recounting the famous Twins Paradox. Suppose that
one of the twins went for a long trip in a spaceship at nearly the speed of light. When he returned, he would be much younger than his brother who stayed on Earth. . . . [T]here is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving.
The astronaut’s clocks – atomic and biological – have registered fewer hours and years than the clocks on earth have done. Amazingly, Einstein’s theory implies the possibility of time travel (forward, not backward) and rejects absolute simultaneity (because there is no absolute time governing different frames of reference). Although different observers moving relative to each other will assign different times to the same event, no particular observer’s measurement is more correct than any other’s.
So, relativity theory lends plausibility to the idea that weeks and years pass for the children in Narnia while only a very short time passes in their normal world. This is possible given different frames of reference. Relativity also implies that any observer can calculate precisely what time and position any other observer will assign to an event, provided she knows the other observer’s relative velocity. This makes rough sense of comparisons between times in Narnia and the ordinary world which Lewis provides in “An Outline of Narnian History.” In every recorded instance, Narnian time passes more quickly than time in England, although the flow of time in Narnia is not uniform (for example, 1303 Narnian years pass between the English years 1940 and 1941 but only a few Narnian years pass between 1941 and 1942). Based on relativity, we might even speculate that Narnian time flows at unpredictable rates because of erratic changes in velocity, but this strains even the bounds of children’s fantasy.
Contemporary science might even tempt us to compare the wardrobe as a magical passage between our world and Narnia to “worm holes” (time warps in astrophysics) that allow travel between time frames in distant parts of the universe. Digory makes a similar point about the Wood between the Worlds, comparing it to the tunnel between their houses back home: “Mightn’t this wood be the same? – a place that isn’t in any of the worlds, but once you’ve found that place you can get into them all” (MN, Ch. 3, p. 28).
Popular culture is no stranger to such ideas. Traveling across the “space-time continuum” is a key theme in the Michael J. Fox film Back to the Future. And The Santa Clause, with Tim Allen, has little Charlie referring to the “space-time continuum” to explain to his skeptical mother and her husband how Santa can visit all the houses in one night. These astounding facts about time reflect a new scientific vision of the universe as holistic, dynamic, and interconnected, a theme that Lewis uses to great advantage.
Aslan Just in Time?
Perhaps the most enigmatic reference to time is Aslan’s response to Lucy as he is leaving the children to visit Trumpkin the Dwarf. Aslan tells Lucy that they “shall meet soon again.”
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy, “what do you call soon?”
“I call all times soon,” said Aslan. (VDT, Ch. 11, p. 499)
All times soon? Incredible!
Relativity theory allows us say that Aslan inhabits a different frame of reference but doesn’t explain how “all times” from all frames of reference can be immediately present to any observer. This is because the transmission of information anywhere in the universe cannot be faster than the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). It takes billions of years, for example, for light to reach earth from remote galaxies.
For everyone except Aslan – the characters in the story and we ourselves – there is such a thing as time. There is the need to measure, and be measured by, time. So, what are we to make of Aslan’s claim that his relation to time is not like Lucy’s or anyone else’s? That for him all times – and therefore all events in all times – are immediately present? This claim is tantamount to the assertion that Aslan is not limited by any frame of reference or the speed of light, but that he can simultaneously encompass all other frames of reference. The very best in contemporary science has no categories to explain this!
Now our discussion of time has moved into the territory of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that addresses the big questions of ultimate reality that lie beyond the reach of empirical science. And we can’t take this discussion very far without factoring in Lewis’s metaphysical commitment to theism – the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being who is the eternal, personal creator and sustainer of the world. This makes it plausible to interpret Aslan’s statement – “I call all times soon” – as expressing the view that God is timeless.
Interestingly, the theistic tradition affirms God’s eternity, but theists disagree over whether God’s eternity is “timeless” or “everlasting.” The timelessness position asserts that God does not experience the world moment by moment as we finite persons do, but rather that he experiences the world’s history all at once. The medieval philosopher Boethius (A.D. 480-525) says that God possesses an endless life which has neither past, nor present, nor future, which he embraces as a “simultaneous whole” in an “eternal present.” Lewis sides with this position: “Almost certainly,” he writes in Mere Christianity, “God is not in Time.” Since our human life “comes to us moment by moment,” we instinctively assume that this is the way things are for God, except endlessly so. But Lewis says that every moment from the beginning of the world is “always the Present for Him.” Unlike us, God doesn’t have to wait billions of years to find out what’s going on in some remote part of the universe!
Some theists hold an alternative position: that God is everlasting through time and not outside of time. They argue that timelessness – as held by Lewis and many other theists – reflects ancient Greek thinking that God is static and unchangeable. At stake in the disagreement is whether we can coherently think of God as a personal agent. Conceptually, we take agents and their actions to be in time. The biblical description of God as one who plans, responds, and redeems entails that God changes, and a that these changes have beginnings and endings. So, surely, in some significant way, God is in time. In support of this point, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (1932- ) argues that “any being which changes is a being among whose states there is temporal succession.” Theists holding the everlastingness position believe that it appropriately preserves important characteristics of God: that God is still distinct from finite creatures in that he has no beginning and no ending, that his own existence is in himself, and that he is sovereign over his creation.
Although we cannot pursue this intriguing debate further, it’s clear that Lewis rejects everlastingness and proceeds as if timelessness is no obstacle to God’s being an agent. In The Horse and His Boy, the Large Voice of Aslan discloses that he was the hidden influence always working on Shasta’s behalf – as the cat who comforted him among the Tombs, as the lion who gave the Horses new strength, and so on (HHB, Ch. 11, p. 281). This account typifies Lewis’s understanding that God’s providence timelessly interacts with events in the temporal world, including free choices.
Lewis acknowledges that metaphysical theories about God’s relation to time are matters about which thoughtful people, including Christian believers, legitimately disagree. However, he also recognizes that the theory one holds must fit coherently with one’s other views. So, in his philosophical writings, he is careful to explain how his own theory of God’s timelessness fits with a number of key concepts, such as petitionary prayer and the incarnation of God in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. But Lewis is also concerned to explain how timelessness does not violate human free will.
Some philosophers think that God’s timeless knowledge negates free will – that is, the power to do otherwise than one in fact does. The Chronicles, however, confidently combine Aslan’s timelessness with portrayals of the characters’ free choices. Aslan says he can do nothing with Uncle Andrew, the Magician, for “he has made himself unable to hear my voice” (MN, Ch. 14, p. 98). When Lucy asks Aslan to save Edmund, Aslan replies, “All shall be done,” but it may be “harder than you think” (LWW, Ch. 12, p. 169). Aslan even warns Rabadash to put aside his pride and accept “mercy” so that he may avoid certain doom, but Rabadash freely chooses destruction (HB, Ch. 16, 306-7). So, truly free choices are not determined by Aslan’s timeless knowledge or by any other capacity of Aslan.
When Tirian and the Seven Kings and Queens meet inside the Stable and discover the Dwarfs huddling together, they soon perceive that they are not really in a stable but in a beautiful, open place. But the Dwarfs cannot perceive this, complain about the cramped conditions, and cannot even recognize Aslan when he appears. When Lucy asks Aslan to help them see, he answers: “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot do” (LB, Ch. 13, p. 747). First, Aslan growls, but the Dwarfs hear it as a gang in the Stable trying to intimidate them (compare to MN, Ch. 14, p. 98). Then Aslan makes a glorious feast appear, and even though they eat, they complain that it is distasteful stable food.
“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (LB, Ch. 13, p. 748)
Not even Aslan can override the Dwarfs’ free will. In the same vein, The Great Divorce tells us that Hell is the creature shutting itself up “within the dungeon of its own mind.”
Mere Christianity contains an explicit argument for the compatibility of God’s timeless knowledge and free choice:
[I]f God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. . . . He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.
Gaining a complete understanding of how time is used in the Chronicles requires more than exploring the science of relativity and the metaphysics of timelessness. It requires an examination of the theological significance of Aslan’s timeless life and purposes. As Lewis says in Mere Christianity, our life is “dribbled out moment by moment”; but of God he says, “His life is Himself.” The Bible depicts God speaking to Moses from the burning bush: “I am that I am” – that is, I am the Ever-living One (Exodus 3:14 (KJV)).
Theologically, this means that the inhabitants of time – persons, animals, and objects – and indeed time itself are created things, not self-existent. Aslan, by contrast, is in complete control of time, the great framework of our finite, contingent existence. This is clear when Aslan culminates history in the great Battle at the Stable (LB, Chs. 9-12, pp. 718-41) and calls Time itself to an end (LB, Ch. 13, pp. 748-51). Since time bounds our existence, what we creatures do with the time we have takes on tremendous significance: the choices we make, the actions we perform, the things we love, the aims we pursue.
In other words, time is filled with opportunity that we either grasp and use to the fullest or let slip through our fingers. Edmund, who himself was in peril of turning against good, chose to resist the sinister White Witch, and succeeded in destroying her wand and turning the fortunes of a fierce battle (LWW, Ch. 17, p. 192). However, the Dwarfs chose not to know Aslan as he really is. The Great Divorce aptly describes those who refuse the ultimate opportunity: “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.”
Opportunity for curing their self-imposed blindness melts away as the Dwarfs persist in the darkness of their own perceptions. Aslan roars: “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME”. The Door flew open. (LB, Ch. 13, p. 748) Through the open doorway Tirian, the children, and the others see the great giant, Father Time, awaken from his sleep. Aslan says: “While he lay dreaming his name was Time. Now that he is awake he will have a new one” (LB, Ch. 14, p. 749).
The Last Battle conveys the theme that Time will be transcended, and only those creatures who have loved and followed Aslan in time can share in the transformation that is to come. Creaturely time – and opportunity in time – ends in Aslan’s judging the truth of hearts as all rational creatures great and small, one by one, come through the Door. The very sense of time is confused in the description of this event: “This part of the adventure . . . seemed rather like a dream . . . . Especially, one couldn’t say how long it had taken. Sometimes it seemed to have lasted only a few minutes, but at others it felt as if it might have gone on for years” (LB, Ch. 14, p. 751). Here Lewis won’t let anyone’s perception of time be normal. How could he, with all creaturely worlds and therefore all times coming to an end?
As the children observe the terrible apocalyptic spectacle through the doorway, they see Dragons and Giant Lizards destroying Narnia, only themselves to die and whither, swept away by the perishing of time itself. Then Aslan says to Father Time, “Now make an end.” The giant quenches the sun and all is darkness. Aslan then instructs Peter to close the Door, which he locks with a golden key (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). Time is no more. But this ending is also a beginning. The children realize that they are in a beautiful country with blue sky and flowers and towering green mountains in the distance. They see laughter in Aslan’s eyes as he turns and shoots away toward the mountains, saying, “Come further in! Come further up!”
Where Is Aslan’s Country?
This is Aslan’s country. But how is it related to Narnia and the children’s England? The children don’t have a geography – or a chronology – to grasp it. Following Aslan westward into the high mountains, Peter, Lucy, and the others discuss whether it’s wrong to mourn for Narnia (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). When they begin to recognize features of Narnia along the way, they are puzzled over how they previously could have witnessed its destruction. In temporal life, once things are destroyed, they do not return. Peter wonders aloud why Aslan told them they would never return to Narnia, because they obviously had returned. How should they think about this new place, Aslan’s country?
Digory explains that Aslan meant they could not return to the Narnia of their finite, temporalized understanding: “[T]hat was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end.” He continues, saying that the Narnia and England they knew were just faint copies or shadows of the real Narnia and the real England (LB, Ch. 15, p. 759). Both time and what the children loved in time are contrasted to fuller, richer existence in Aslan’s country. “All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures,” have not perished but are more real than ever (LB, Ch. 15, p. 759). Even the flowers have “more color,” and every rock and blade of grass looks as if it “meant more” (LB, Ch. 15, pp. 759-61). Using similar images, The Great Divorce pictures both persons and things as more solid in Heaven.
Jewel the Unicorn cries out, “I have come home at last! This is my real country. I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this” (LB, Ch. 15, p. 760). Jewel here articulates the theological principle of the inherent value of temporal creaturely life, damaged but not destroyed by sin. So, it is entirely appropriate, as we spend the time of our lives, to love the truly good things and wish they would not end. Indeed, we find ourselves wishing with Jill that Narnia “might go on for ever” and not be subject to the inevitable destruction of time (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753). As it dawns on Jewel that he is in exactly that place which he had always desired, he squeals to everyone with the sheer delight of total self-abandonment: “Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, further in!”
Aslan’s timeless country is thus the context in which persons find their ultimate fulfillment. “Great joy” characterizes those who love Aslan and pass through the Door. After the Door is shut, the children feel deep satisfaction and their “hearts leapt” as a “wild hope” arises within them that they might stay with Aslan forever (LB, Ch. 16, pp. 766-67). Their joy is increased when they find that their friends Roonwit the Centaur, Farsight the Eagle, and many others who had died are among “the happy creatures” filling Aslan’s timeless kingdom. When we are related to God, Lewis says, we become “more truly ourselves.”
Life with Aslan
Time in the Chronicles allows Lewis to say both what Aslan’s country is and what it is not. It is a condition of full reality that is not subject to decay, destruction, and death. Now if “timelessness” sets Aslan apart from all else, we may ask, What is the unique nature of Aslan such that there is an unsurpassable quality of experience in his country?
Subtle clues – the “laughter” in Aslan’s eyes (LB, Ch. 14, p. 753), Aslan’s gently touching Emeth’s forehead with his tongue (LB, Ch. 15, pp. 756-57) – suggest that joy, love, and peace characterize the life of Aslan. Joy, love, peace, and the personal beings that are created to experience them are meant to last forever, beyond the ravages of time. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. . . . Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
We should not be surprised, therefore, that when Tumnus the Faun surveys the new land with Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, he explains: “that country and this country – all the real countries – are only spurs jutting out from the great mountains of Aslan” (LB, Ch. 16, p. 766). Connectedness in the country of Aslan is a metaphor for our participation in the life of God.
And God is Love. “Christians believe,” Lewis writes, that “the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.” The wonderful literary portrayal of this idea is that Narnia is created by Aslan singing, “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak” (MN, Ch. 9, pp. 64-70). God is not a static thing, Lewis explains, but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama or dance. Specifically, the God, who is above mere time, is essentially personal-social-relational life – or, as classical Christianity teaches, a Trinity, Three Persons in one Being. The Chronicles help us understand that we creatures of time must become related to what is beyond time. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.
The fascinating tales of Narnia – in which time, different times, and what is beyond time figure so prominently – captivate children, pushing all of their buttons with talking animals, evil witches, Father Christmas, Dragons, and a struggle to save a strange but charming land. No doubt the story appeals to the child in all of us. But it also touches the adult in all of us – the adult who has struggled with pain and disappointment, longed for enduring good, and who realizes deep down that the true meaning of it all, which we seek in time, cannot be a human creation and therefore must lie outside of time.
Interpreted theologically, the tales of Narnia are about the offer to finite creatures to allow a new world to be born in each of us and to let it come to full fruition in God’s kingdom. We could state Mr. Tumnus’s earlier point more precisely and say that the connectedness of everything to the mountains of Aslan is what makes them truly real! The imagery of connectedness suggests that God’s purpose is to bring about a great community or society or, indeed, a family. The Chronicles of Narnia paint an inviting picture of a relational universe whose whole destiny – sidetracked by doubt, struggle, and evil within the domain of creaturely time – is back on track toward its timeless source. No wonder, as we read it, as child or as adult, we seem to hear at our own level a voice beckoning to us: Come further in and further up!