An Atheist In Narnia

~~~~

Petty Officer William Randall was standing in his bedroom, buttoning up his blue dungaree shirt, when he heard the wardrobe creaking open behind him. He whirled and saw a face in the narrow opening -- nervous eyes, a goatee and two short horns protruding from curly hair. When it saw him it gave a yelp and popped back into the cabinet.

Randall sprang to his bed and retrieved his forty-five from under the pillow. Break-ins were common here in Naples, Italy where he was stationed, and one could never be too careful. Slowly he advanced on the wardrobe. He threw open the doors and stared at what he saw there. The visitor had pushed aside his uniforms on their hangers -- three more sets of dungarees, and blue and white crackerjacks sheathed in plastic -- and beyond these, where the back of the cabinet should have been, a narrow stone stairway led upwards.

He opened his mouth. He slowly shook his head. "No way."

It had been fifteen years since he read the books, so he did not make the connection right away. It was simply a wardrobe, after all -- carved from wood, dusty from its long stay in the empty second-floor apartment in this sleepy country neighborhood before Randall arrived from the States and moved in, along with his collection of Nietzsche and Faulkner, and his computer that required a transformer to draw power from the Italian 220-volt sockets.

Now he remembered something he had heard last night, perhaps in his sleep: a distant uproar of guttural snarls and howls(a New Year's Eve party in hell, he'd thought); and the voice of a woman, high and shrieking with glee: "The fool!" "Bind him fast!" "Let him first be shaved!"

He wondered now. Did that come from outside, where the neighbors' dogs barked too often at night, or from the direction of the wardrobe?

Randall reached inside. He touched the stone, carefully, with his left hand, while his right hand clutched his weapon.

He looked up the stairs that spiraled out of sight.

I could get lost...and I'm supposed to be at the base in thirty minutes...

No. What had appeared could disappear again. In a twenty-first century world of knowledge, Randall had stumbled onto an incredible frontier. Leakey, Darwin, Lewis and Clark -- would they just turn their backs on this?

And he had his forty-five.

The stairway wound upwards through damp air for perhaps two stories. Randall heard voices ahead, but not like the tumult of last night -- these voices resounded like his own at age twelve when the school doors swung open to release him into three months of sunshine and swimming, hide-and-go seek and football romps in the grass. Then he reached a bright arched doorway at the top of the stairs, its wooden door standing open.

And then he heard a girl's voice say, "Aslan."

Randall paused. His brow furrowed. He knew that name. Aslan -- castles -- children --

Wardrobes.

For the first time in his adult life he whispered, "Narnia."

The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. The Silver Chair and the rest. And the characters: Lucy and Susan(which of them had just spoken?), Peter, Edmund, mighty mouse Reepicheep, Father Christmas...

And Aslan.

Who represented somebody.

Did C.S. Lewis have any idea? Was he a storyteller, or more like a chronicler?

Randall took a deep breath. Holding his forty-five at the ready, he stepped quickly and decisively to the top of the stairs.

A storybook menagerie of dogs, foxes, beavers, centaurs, unicorns, fauns, weird-looking men and women who might have been tree-spirits, scrambled and bounded around a walled courtyard. Randall spotted Lucy and Susan right away just because they were the only normal-looking ones there. A sleepy-looking giant towered high, casting his shadow across the yard. And standing in the center of it all, the eye around whom this storm revolved, was the golden lion -- Aslan.

One of the girls stood nearby. Randall tucked his pistol inside his shirt and waved at her. "Um...hi?"

She half-ran, half-skipped up to him. "Oh, hello!" she said with a British schoolgirl accent. "Were you turned into stone?"

"What's your name, miss?"

She confirmed it: Lucy.

Wild scenarios flashed through Randall's mind. What was this really? A mega-simulation? A computer playground that some billionaire and his guests could plug themselves into, based on a classic story? He put this question to the girl. She looked at him cock-eyed and it was obvious she had no idea what he was talking about.

"All right, then. I'm Randall -- William Randall. Radioman Second Class, United States Navy." He tapped the two black inverted chevrons on his left sleeve.

Her face lit up. "Oh! Were you fighting the Germans?"

Something else about the book: the children had lived during World War Two.

"Uh -- no. I'm stationed at Navcams Med -- Naval Communication Area Master Station Mediterranean," he quickly added. "The Navy shortens everything. But could you tell me what all of this is?"

A moment later he wished he not asked, for once Lucy got started there was no shutting her up. "Aslan was killed we saw it but then he came back again it was Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time and the Stone Table broke in two and now we're in the Witch's castle rescuing everyone she'd turned to stone and..."

Yes, yes. He remembered it now. They searched every corner of the place for prisoners; that must have been how the faun descended the stairs and found (instead of whatever used to be there) Randall's apartment. And soon Aslan, having set all the prisoners free, would lead them in a great cavalry-charge into a battle now being fought by Peter and Edmund and the rest of the good guys, against the White Witch and the horde of mutants whose voices had disrupted Randall's sleep last night. And the great lion, whom Randall understood to represent Christ, personally dispatched the Witch, who represented evil or the devil, in one mighty pounce.

The witch. Not just an evil person, but...evil itself.

An idea came to him.

Lucy was still rapid-firing. He managed in slip in a few words edgewise: "You're going to war, right? -- fighting the White Witch? -- I have a weapon -- let me help!"

There was a crash. The giant had just smashed a club the size of a tree trunk into the iron gate, and was now readying another blow. A sheepdog hurried about, organizing everyone into battle ranks.

"Oh, that's splendid!" Lucy clapped her hands.

Randall would need a ride. She helped him find a white unicorn. He climbed onto its back -- it looked perfectly normal if you ignored its narwhal-like horn -- and when the gate finally toppled with a rumble, the crowd rushed out through a cloud of dust with a howling of dogs and a neighing of horses, and Aslan unleashing a battle-cry roar that would echo in Randall's memory for a long time.

Randall clutched the unicorn's mane as it raced over green meadows, through groves of elms, poplars, and firs. The spring air whistled past his ears. He'd never ridden a horse except as an eleven-year-old boy at summer day camp, and then it was just a pony being led around in circles. If he tried to ride a horse now he would lose his balance and fall off. But the sleek unicorn ran so smoothly that he barely heard its hoofbeats; he almost felt as if driving his Renault hatchback down the two-lane highway he took to the base. He felt a jostle only when the animal leaped over gurgling streams.

He touched the forty-five inside his shirt and he thought: The White Witch represents all the wickedness in the world. In the book, warrior after warrior tried to strike her down, but she turned them all into stone. Then Edmund finally broke her petrifying-wand, but by that time most of the good guys were statues, and she held off Peter with her stone knife -- until Aslan arrived. And of course he dispatched her in a heartbeat, and scattered her entire army besides. End of battle.

But that was in a time of swords and archery, when man was still a child. Before he grew tall and strong and wise, and forged for himself forty-five pistols and automatic rifles, smart bombs and incredible weapons that split the atom and flattened whole cities.

And by whatever chance, I'm here as a representative of modern man armed with a modern weapon. I will show that we can triumph without higher help. I will take down the White Witch.

And now he heard the sounds of shouting and clanging metal.

The unicorn rounded a last corner of a narrow valley and shuddered to a stop.

What Randall saw there nearly made him throw up. Not just the carnage he had expected, the sprawled corpses with staring eyes, and the statues scattered around the field, frozen in attitudes of combat; but the very creatures of the wicked army. He had read of things like ogres and goblins and seen them represented in movies, before moving on to Darwin and H.G. Wells; but even CGI technology would be hard pressed to capture the sheer ugliness of these beings, the deformities that twisted their leering faces, bulged their eyes(sometimes two eyes, sometimes three or four) and warped their limbs so out of proportion that one arm or a leg protruded far higher or lower than the other. Some of the freaks skittered like spiders, unable to stand up straight; but in spite of all this they fought with an agility that astounded him, whirling their curved swords, shooting arrows. One arrow whistled past his ear and he realized that they had seen him.

The unicorn, without waiting for its rider to dismount, lowered its head and charged. Randall saw what had fired the arrow, a creature that looked like something molded together with fungus-splotched mud, reloading a crossbow so big that it might bring down an elephant. The thing's single yellow eye was fixed upon him. Randall whipped out his forty-five and squeezed the trigger. The bang nearly knocked him off his mount, and the noise echoed from the hills. The enemy thudded to the ground and lay motionless, still holding its crossbow.

Randall's mount gave a loud whinny and reared up, throwing him off. But he managed to land on his feet; he was proud of that. "Sorry!" he yelled above the battle-noise.

He glanced around. Everywhere he saw people in armor clashing with the misshapen monsters, and animals snapping with teeth or kicking with hooves. Where is she?

A fanged man-sized beast that he took to be a werewolf came bounding at him. He took aim. Bang. The beast crumpled.

He ran through the battle, stepping over the bloodied corpses of men and monsters, some with arrows sticking out of them. Where? Where? She was here somewhere; the statues all attested to that. Did Aslan already get to her by now -- ?

No.

He saw her.

She was perhaps twenty yards away, albino-white with eyes of pure hate, battling an armored boy who had to be Peter; and her stone knife and his sword were flying so fast that they appeared to have three blades each, just as the book described it.

But of course he can't beat her. His weaponry's not advanced enough. That's where I come in.

He raised his pistol. "Peter! Get clear!"

Both combatants saw him. Their swordplay ceased even as it raged all around them.

The witch raised an eyebrow. "Another Son of Adam? With some sort of weapon?"

She stretched out her arm. Randall's forty-five flew from his fingers and landed in the witch's ice-white hand. She held it up, studying it; and then she turned her eyes, and her new toy, on Peter.

"Noooo!"

Randall leaped forward and gave Peter a shove. The pistol roared in his ear, and he felt something hot graze his hip just before he hit the grass and got the wind knocked out of him. He, and Peter beside him, looked up to see the ice-woman standing over them with a look of triumph, holding the smoking forty-five high. For a moment Randall forgot even the sting in his hip where the bullet had burned a streak in his dungarees.

Peter hissed at him, "Where did you get one of those?"

Randall swallowed. "Guess Aslan will fix her now -- " he cringed.

"Aslan?" The witch glared. "I 'fixed' him myself, vermin! Or..." She bent down; her eyes burned through him. "Do you, who brings such strange magic, know something I do not?"

A warrior in armor lunged at her from behind. She whirled and shot him in the chest. He collapsed with a cry. Randall winced.

"Now," the witch continued, "Tell me what you meant by what you said." She pointed the forty-five squarely at Peter's head.

Randall's mouth trembled. Peter's face had gone white. No, no, he's just a boy...

"Aslan," he mumbled, "is alive."

The witch's eyes grew wide. "How can that be? Speak quickly!"

"He just is, that's all," Randall muttered thickly. Swords clanged, warriors shouted and fell to the grass, dogs barked and horses neighed; still no lion.

"So he sent this rabble?" The witch snorted and looked around. "No matter. Even without my wand, they have no chance. I imagine he will arrive shortly. Seeking revenge. Ha!" Her voice rose; it grated on Randall's ears. "Whatever magic it was that brought him back -- " she fondled her new weapon -- "this magic will fell him again, this time for good and all!"

She spoke something that Randall did not understand, and a beast like a troll with advanced skin cancer appeared, holding a sword and shield. "Guard these two." She strolled away, seemingly oblivious to the war around her, holding the forty-five cocked as if she had used it for years and not discovered it by chance just now.

Randall squeezed his eyes shut. He felt Peter's eyes upon him. He tried to think. Would a forty-five even faze a lion? He'd read Hemingway stories of African safaris with high-powered rifles. Perhaps his pistol wouldn't do more than nick Aslan. But if she hit an eye, or happened to pierce a vein in the neck...

Do something!

He struggled to his feet. The witch stood fifteen feet away, still ignoring the battle that never seemed to touch her, eyes sweeping every direction like radar.

"White Witch!" Randall shouted. "You may cease wasting your time."

She looked over at him.

"You have seen my magic," he thundered, pointing at the black pistol in her hand. "Did you really think I would allow another to use it -- I, who can assume not just a lion's shape, but any form I wish -- especially against the arch-enemy who did paralyze Narnia in eternal winter, and who did subject me not only to death, but humiliations unpardonable?"

It sounded pretty pathetic to him, and if any of his friends at the Navcams heard it, they surely would have doubled over laughing. The witch gave a contemptuous little snort and motioned to the troll. It cuffed Randall's ear with a blow like a small wrecking ball, knocking him to the ground. The whole left side of his face tingled with pain.

"Fool," the witch spat. Then she raised her voice and her weapon: "Aslan! I know you hear me! Come for me now!"

And he finally came.

Bounding over a hilltop, never touching the ground, the great lion came. If Randall blinked, he would have missed it. The witch had just enough time to shriek, and it was all over. The pistol that she never got the chance to fire thumped to the grass near Randall's head. He grabbed it, sprang to his feet, and banged a last shot into the startled troll's face.

Later he would think that the monster looked much better with its face blown apart.

The White Witch's army routed, and nothing left of the Witch herself, the victorious army rallied around its king of beasts, who set about restoring everyone who had been petrified in the line of duty. Lucy dispensed healing drops to the wounded from her medicine bottle. Then the lion padded up to the newcomer, who had tucked his forty-five back into his shirt.

Randall trembled, seeing in detail its deep eyes and the way that the breeze ruffled its massive, golden mane. He had never seen a big cat this close before, not even at the zoo. And yet this was not the terror he would feel if he found himself face to face with a lion on an African veldt; this was a fear of another kind. He forced his body into stillness.

Randall blurted, "Who are you?" He said this not so much out of doubt, but because for some reason it was important that he speak first.

"You already know."

It was a voice that would stop a truck, yet gentle, and it warmed his inner being the way a fire in winter would warm his body. "You were brave," the lion continued. "You fought courageously for my people."

"For mankind." And I almost got her! The scene replayed feverishly in his mind. If he hadn't been careless enough to let her disarm him...if he had planned it all out better beforehand...

A barely perceptible shaking of the lion's great head. "So it has always been."

"What do you mean?"

"Would you tell me why you decided to join with us, rather than staying in your own world?" Randall had a feeling that the lion knew already, but wanted to hear it from him.

"Well...I don't believe in God. I'm sorry, I don't. In stories a savior might magically deliver people from evil, but in our world that just doesn't happen too much." Somehow he did not feel as intimidated as he thought he would in this kind of situation, and this unexpected confidence spurred him on. "You see, the world's always been so crazy. Too many of the White Witch's kind getting their way. That's why I joined the military, to help protect my own people from them. But when you travel all over the world, you see a lot of the world's craziness. Crimes, riots, man's inhumanity to man -- it never stops. It makes me sick. One has to believe that there's some kind of hope that yes, we can overcome it. And here I saw the chance to prove it. If modern man, with his science and technology, can defeat evil here, then maybe he can do the same in his own world."

The lion said, "What of those under the Witch's spell? Was Edmund not her prisoner? He could have refused my help, but to what end? There is no shame in not being omnipotent."

No, no! Why couldn't he understand? Man could -- he really could...

And then Randall realized.

He took a step backwards.

"You," he said, "are not real."

The lion did reply.

"That's it, isn't it?" He looked around at the crowd. "None of this is real. I'm dreaming it. Hallucinating, or something like that. Some...'thing' in my mind, trying to fool me." He did not want to say weakness.

"Yes. It has to be. It doesn't add up. In the book, the wardrobe was in England -- how'd it get to Italy? Maybe another one was made out of that magic tree in The Magician's Nephew? And how could a story written half a century ago be happening now? And anyway, isn't it just children who can even find their way here?" The thought buoyed up his heart. Yes! If this wasn't real, then he hadn't failed!

"And I'm going to prove it!"

He squeezed his eyes shut. His fists clenched at his sides. "I don't believe it," he whispered. "I don't believe it...I don't believe it...WAKE UP!"

His eyes snapped open.

The lion was gone. The crowd was gone. He stood by his rickety bed with the Navy blue covers thrown over it, the chest of drawers with the big mirror and books stacked at one end, and the TV/VCR combination in the corner, just as he had left them. The gray light of morning showed through the window.

A smile spread across his face. He moved to the bed, touched it. He touched the dresser drawers and the books and the television and then he flew to the wardrobe and felt all over it, opening and shutting it, finding no stairs or anything else inside but a wooden interior that smelled of dust, and his uniforms undisturbed on their hangers.

"Yes!" He shouted and kicked up his heels. "Yes!"

He'd called the lion's bluff. He hadn't failed, only imagined himself failing. In real life he could succeed. Man would learn. Yes, he would learn, grow and progress, and someday...

Aslan, the children and the storybook creatures all stared at the empty space where Randall had been. They could even see the two small depressions left in the grass by his black steel-toed Navy boondockers.

"Where did he go?"

"He just..."

"Disappeared!"

Aslan spoke. "He wished to go back, and so I honored his wish."

Peter scratched his head. "Who was that man? He sounded American."

"He said he was in the American Navy," said Lucy, "working with radios."

"Will we ever see him again?" asked Edmund.

The lion shook his mane and replied in his warm voice: "Perhaps not. Still, one can never tell. What will he do, I wonder, when he notices that he still wears his battle scar, the streak on his hip burned there by the White Witch?"