The Captain and the Whale

A symbol is an animate or inanimate object representing something other than itself. We see symbols all the time. The heart represents love, the skeleton with cross bones represents danger, diamonds represent opulence. Even colors highlight different ideas. White can stand for purity or righteousness, black can stand for evil or sinfulness, green can stand for youth or strong desires. Symbolism is a common artistic technique used to suggest other themes than those appearing on the surface. When we considered C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we inferred that the White Witch symbolized Satan due to Lewis’s religious inclinations. There’s times where we can figure out what an object represents if we have enough information about the author. Yet symbols aren’t always easily defined. While some authors are straightforward in their writing, or at least give enough hints as to what they mean, other writers present symbols so complex that they leave it up to the reader to decide what the text means for themselves.

In 1851 Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale was published in America. I came across the book in 2009 at a used book store in my home town. The front cover’s illustration caught my eye: a large white whale hounded by a few boats lidded with spear-wielding men. But the text wasn’t as interesting as the cover. Indeed, halfway through the book I almost gave up reading it altogether. Melville’s loose sentences, following each other like a group of anacondas, were hard to mentally digest, much less the learned vocabulary composing them. A series of thoughts about whales and the whaling industry interrupt the novel’s plot at certain times. One could say the book is as much a fictional journey as an analysis of cetology. If you’re looking for modern thrills, a straightforward story, Moby Dick probably ain’t the book for you. When it first came out it received far more criticism than favor. It didn’t commercially succeed as some of Melville’s earlier stories had. When Melville died, he died a starving artist, unrecognized as the artistic genius some refer to him as today. Only in the early twentieth century did some scholars take another look at the condemned white whale and bring him to more favorable recognition.

A first person speaker named Ishmael, an inquisitive, adventurous sailor, narrates most of Melville’s tale. Ishmael tells the story of how he sailed on the whaling ship The Pequod with a diverse crew of men, among them the cannibal Queequeg, a Quaker named Starbuck, the happy-go lucky Stubb, a fierce whaler named Flask, and two more harpooners with him, Tashtego and Daggoo. The crew ventures across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, determined to hunt down and kill as many whales as possible for sheer sport and economic profit. They also encounter other whaling ships and take a few more passengers on board to go hunting with them.

But Ishmael’s primary vision centers on the ship’s captain, Ahab, as well as Ahab’s targeted whale, Moby Dick, also known as the great white whale. Ahab intends to find Moby Dick and kill him for biting off his leg during a previous voyage. Consumed by an insatiable thirst for revenge, Ahab stops at nothing to pursue his goal, even if it means ignoring the dire advice of fellow whalers or even his own conscience. When considering Melville’s symbolism, we must focus on how both the captain and the whale are described by Melville and the fact that Ahab wants to destroy Moby Dick. I’ll try to suggest different ideas Ahab and Moby Dick might represent and what Melville might be implying through their intense struggle with each other.

First we consider the novel’s protagonist, Captain Ahab. When in chapter 28 Ishmael mentions the captain, he refers to him as a ‘supreme lord and dictator.’ Because he’s the captain, Ahab has absolute authority on the ship. He issues orders as to how the ship is regulated and how the whales are to be hunted. Yet if he’s a ‘dictator,’ his rule oversteps its own boundaries. He may be too harsh in his judgments or place daunting pressure on his men regarding what he wants. His personality may be so domineering that it makes people cautious even during his absence. They comply to his power with a fearful resignation.

Ishmael further describes Ahab’s appearance: “He looked like a man cast away from the stake, when the fire has overunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them…..There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance…..a crucifixion in his face; in all the regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Ahab follows a cause he deeply believes in, one which he will not soon relinquish, though it causes him anguish. A religious dedication linking him to the crucified Christ of the Bible. His zeal is so strong that it may even bring him to insanity. His views are controversial, so much so that others are tempted to kill him. Like officers executing a radical citizen. But Melville mentions that the executing fire ‘overruns.’ Does that mean the heretic’s punishment is unreasonable, going beyond its intended purpose? And besides, the punishment has failed; the person, or rather the faith they hold to, is still alive and well, causing trouble like never before. Ahab’s a man whose cause, though heavily suppressed, still marches on.

Ishmael later describes Ahab’s mortal enemy, the white whale Moby Dick. In chapter 41, called ‘Moby Dick,’ Ishmael discusses what the whale appeared to be to the average sailor: “a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high pyramidal white hump.” Then later on on the same page, “…his unwonted magnitude…his remarkable hue…his deformed lower jaw…that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults.” Moby Dick, having a ‘wrinkled forehead,’ may represent old age, since aging usually brings on wrinkles. However, the ‘pyramidal hump’ suggests something that isn’t merely old but ancient. The whale isn’t a modern challenge to Ahab but a plight mankind has had to contend with throughout history. A great, unequal suffering experienced daily. A problem society longs to solve. Having a ‘deformed jaw’ may suggest not only old age but crookedness. Something unnatural or unbecoming, something that should not be.

But the most intriguing aspect about Moby Dick is his color: White. As I mentioned before, colors are occasionally used in literature to symbolize certain concepts. Chapter 42 is entitled ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ one of the novel’s most famous passages; In it, Ishmael hints at several associations of the color white such as “beauty, imperial hue, the white man’s ideal mastership over every dusky tribe, gladness, innocence of brides, the majesty of Justice, divine spotlessness and power, the aspect of the dead, an all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” He makes no definitive conclusion as to what Moby Dick stands for. He only leaves the reader to wonder for themselves. Why would Melville use the color white and not another? In deciphering the mysterious creature, the reader must keep the color white in mind along with Moby Dick’s other aspects, treating it with special attention.

We could sum it up like this thus far: Ahab pursues a noble, enduring, controversial goal which consumes him to the point of madness. He uses his authority as captain to rule and tyrannize his men to carry out his mission. He wants to vanquish Moby Dick, the white whale suggesting an ancient power causing mankind heartache and pain. The whale who personally injured him. The further he pursues Moby Dick the more he has a price put on his head (in Ahab’s case, it is the Quaker Strarbuck who considers ending Ahab’s life due to Ahab’s fanaticism). Ishmael says it like this: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the white whale’s hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Now let’s see if we can flesh out these generalizations. What can we further see in Ahab and Moby Dick and in the passionate voyage linking them together?

On the surface, Melville’s novel deals with whalers and whaling. In the nineteenth century, whaling was America’s top economic enterprise. In one of the introductory extracts Melville presents the reader, originally from Daniel Webster’s speech to Congress in 1828, we read, “’Nantucket itself,’ said Mr. Webster, ‘is a very striking and peculiar portion of the National interest. There is a population of eight or nine thousand persons, living here in the sea, adding largely every year to the National wealth by the boldest and most persevering industry.” Whaling was a bold industry because it required great courage. You had to travel many miles through an unpredictable sea, through waters which could turn turbulent any time, exposing one to sudden death. You had to spend many days in crowded and cramped areas with small rations of food, sweating laboriously under the hot sun. You had to outmaneuver animals which outweighed you by thousands of pounds, expertly hunting them down with sometimes fragile tools. A highly demanding job back then, to say the least. Yet through their hard work, whalers provided America with a vital commodity: ambergris, an oil extracted from inside a whale’s head. Whale oil was used for many things such as grease for rusted machines, perfume for women, and, most significant, for lighting lamps at night, both in homes and out in the street. Back then electricity wasn’t used like it is today. Americans depended on ambergris to provide an easier, more convenient life for themselves. The demand for it was high, giving businessmen an opportunity to make a substantial profit.

In this economic context Captain Ahab is a representative man, the fearless worker simply making a living. He’s dedicated to controlling his surroundings for his own profit. Afterall, economics is the science of how individuals manipulate their own environment for survival. As the average employer, he orders his employees to work efficiently and without laziness. Maybe being too stern about numbers, causing his workers to secretly fear and hate him while they toil without rest. Ahab chases a whale representing the universal, unchanging natural world mankind works to tame. Ishmael links ‘beauty’ to the whale’s white appearance. And certainly the natural world appears beautiful to most; enchanting skies, seas, trees, canyons, etc. But that impressive, beautiful environment can suddenly turn savage. You could get struck by lightning, have a tree crush your head, or drown in a raging wave. In an introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Moby Dick, Columbia University professor Carl F. Hovde (1926-2009) writes “For Melville, as later for Mark Twain, nature may be the mother of us all, but her violence destroys life as readily as she creates it; vigilance is the cost of survival, and even then we take great risks.” The natural world isn’t a light thing to tackle. Economics is a constant struggle. In his staunch determination to conquer Nature, Ahab risks his life and the lives of his men to make money. He already knows that Nature is deadly; afterall, he’s already lost one of his legs during a daily fight with the sea. Yet the captain painstakingly presses on, as if he were unphased at how dangerous the outside world really is and how terribly it’s already affected him.

The captain’s lust to control Nature hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years. Why would someone like Ahab be persecuted for wishing to make money? Though America’s economy boomed from whaling, all the hunting took a heavy toll on the numbers of whales in the oceans. Environmentalists and animal lovers alike cried out for stricter hunting laws in the hope that some whales could be conserved. Yet for all the regulations restricting fishing hours, whales are still killed in certain areas of the world today, such as off the coast of Japan. Human beings still pride themselves on hunting their more massive relatives. And as for Ahab’s tyranny over his workers, that still remains a troubling constant in the workforce, to a greater or lesser degree. Though employees have gone on strike and ransacked businesses to demand fairer treatment from their employers, the average boss simply terminates his rebellious workers and searches for new ones. Mass movements of frustrated citizens didn’t create as many opportunities to survive as Capitalism has, though the invisible hand may not touch everyone equally. The machine still works, in spite of being challenged by exhausted and demoralized people. So does Ahab continue to pursue Moby Dick, though some of his shipmates question his motives and actions.

A heavy duty boss at work isn’t the only person subject to challenges. Political leaders have had their fair share of pressure too. On re-reading parts of Moby Dick, I couldn’t help but notice Ahab being described as a king. In chapter 37 called ‘Sunset,’ the captain, after retiring to his cabin following his orders to kill Moby Dick, says “Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? This iron crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzingly confounds. Tis iron-that I know-not gold. Tis split, too-that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!” Ahab’s rule pleases him. He takes great pride in his power, deeply comforted by his divine status and position. Yet his authority weighs on him over time, as well as his kingly lust for wealth. What is supposed to comfort now torments. The stress of having to order subjects around and manage the affairs of a nation (not merely a ships’s crew) takes its toll on his health. But his nature is as much made of iron as the crown he wears. He was born for the job. He can handle the anxiety and confusion as well as others. He need not be intimidated by his limits. His pride presses him ever onward.

In his extracts, Melville alludes to a classic political text from 1651: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan or the Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. The passage Melville gives us is when Hobbes’s further explains his title. In chapter 17 of Leviathan, we read “…that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortal God to which wee owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to form the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the Essence of the Common-wealth; which (to define it,) is  One person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence. And he that carryeth this Person, is called SOVERAIGNE, and said to have Soveraigne Power; and everyone besides, his SUBJECT.”

Hobbes writes of a state where a sovereign power is elected by the people, through representatives. This person, or group of people, is responsible for maintaining civil peace in the nation as well as safeguarding the country from foreign threats. The sovereign’s power is absolute and instituted by God Himself. Since the citizens pledge their allegiance to the sovereign when electing him, they can’t challenge his authority without guilt. To condemn the king would be like condemning yourself since he’s your representative. If the subjects break their oath, then both the king and God Himself will judge them. Maybe Ahab is the monarch Hobbes illustrates. Interestingly, Ahab’s crew is referred to as his ‘knights and squires’(The title of chapters 27 and 28, which introduce the crew). In chapter 36, entitled ‘The Quarter -Deck,’ all on board promise to help Ahab chase Moby Dick, pledging themselves to him. In the same way a subject promises the king that he’ll obey his laws, trusting his authority to protect him from danger. If they break their oath, they condemn themselves to death. The whalers cross their harpoons with Ahab’s as knights would with a king at a royal table. ‘God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death,’ says the solemn Ahab.

Moby Dick, on the other hand, represents everything subverting a king’s authority. Hobbes, in chapter 29 of Leviathan, writes about several things that can threaten the Sovereign’s power. The king could be too slack in his rule when he should be firm. His singular throne could split into branches of power, producing strife and derision within the ranks. Subjects could argue that the Sovereign violates their consciences through his edicts and therefore, in the name of Justice (the virtue Ishmael links to Moby Dick’s whiteness), they should disobey him. Moby Dick stands for that aspect of nature which is human. That psychological longing for freedom and justice. Moby Dick symbolizes the subject’s rightful, natural liberty brutally assaulted by the vicious Ahab. We mustn’t forget that Ahab is described as a ‘dictator.’ If Hobbes imagined a Sovereign who stood firm in the cause of liberty, then Ahab certainly doesn’t fit the bill. He has no regard for anyone other than himself; if he has to tyrannize his crew to chase Moby Dick, then he’ll do just that. As the power hungry monarch executes a rebellious citizen longing for freedom, so does Ahab madly chase the white whale down.

But what if the roles were reversed? What if it’s the whale representing the timeless, malevolent ruler subjecting his people to slavery while captain Ahab is the radical, rugged individualist fighting for freedom? Hobbes wasn’t the first to coin the term ‘Leviathan.’ That word has also referred to other things throughout history such as a great sea serpent or even whales themselves. If Moby Dick is the political ‘Leviathan,’ then Ahab is the dangerous fanatic bent on defying his kingly rule. In this context, Ahab is another kind of representative man: the American Democrat. I couldn’t help but remember a piece of literature written just two years before Moby Dick was published, in 1849: Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience. The basic story around Thoreau’s essay was that, because he disobeyed the government by not paying his taxes, he was sent to jail for a brief time. Thoreau disapproved of the American war in Mexico in the 1840’s. By not paying his taxes, he is protesting what the government is doing in Mexico. His rebellion is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s unquestioning loyalty to the state. Thoreau writes “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” In recalling chapter 42 of Melville’s novel, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ we saw Moby Dick’s color linked to an ‘imperial hue.’ Yet he also is described as having a ‘crooked jaw’ in the previous chapter, chapter 41. The rule of law in politics is not as virtuous as it is often made out to be. It may appear just on the outside, but it performs sneaky evils behind the curtain of ‘honest’ politics.

Melville links Ahab and his men to a Democratic cause, a communal struggle for justice in the world. In ‘Knights and Squires’ Melville writes, speaking of the spirit of pity and love within men, ‘But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that astounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!’ Ahab stands for the common subject under a civil government, the average voter, the average working man. Not only the captain but his crew as well, works together for a common cause: Democracy, a government represented by the common person and operated by the common person. But in order for this noble, even divinely mandated mission to succeed, Ahab and his men must defeat Moby Dick, the beast who symbolizes the deadly authority of a divine monarchy, the abuse of power in the sphere of the ruling class. Armed with their superior strength, the sailors face the seemingly overwhelming power of the state, the power Thoreau mentions that threateningly meets man’s physical strength. Thoreau writes “The state never intentionally meets a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.” The struggle with the white whale is a physical one, to be sure. Just as the whalers are enamored in the struggle to tame their game in the open blue sea, so do the fighters for liberty face the force of the law head on in their battle for democracy and liberty. And in addition, because not everyone will agree with the concept of Democracy, they will suffer persecution from their fellow man and not just their government, seen as dangerous radicals. Thoreau will not submit to the government and neither will Ahab to the power of Moby Dick. As Thoreau concludes in his essay ‘The progress from a limited monarchy to the a democracy is progress towards a true respect for the individual.’ Hobbes would scowl.

Thus far we have considered the struggle between the captain and the whale in the context of economics and politics. Ahab could be the working man struggling to make a living against the forces of Nature, or the troubled king trying to control rebellion in his kingdom, or conversely, the radical fighter for the cause of freedom against an oppressive government. Yet I believe there is another angle to consider the story. In my personal opinion, it is perhaps the most relevant.

Early in Melville’s story, Ishmael and Queequeg attend a Christian service at the Nantucket boatyards. In chapter 9, ‘The Sermon,’ a message is delivered by Father Maple, a bold and frank Christian minister. The minister preaches about Jonah in the Old Testament. God commands the prophet Jonah to preach repentance to the wicked city of Ninevah, but the messenger disobeys his order. As a result, God causes a great fish to swallow Jonah one night while he is riding in a boat with some other men. For three days and nights Jonah lives inside the fish’s belly while coming to realize his sin in disobeying God. After he acknowledges his guilt and repents does God cause the great fish to spit Jonah back out.

Father Maple gives his sermon a concluding thought after he finishes speaking: “Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation!” And then the minister gives a contrast. “Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. O Father, chiefly known to me by thy rod, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own.” To sum the minister up, woe to those who serve the injustices of the world and the sinful pleasures of the self, but good for him who serves God first in all things no matter what the cost.

The reader must ask themselves: why does Melville go through the trouble of writing such a sermon down in his book? Does he wish to foreshadow certain themes the reader will confront later on? It seems almost certain. Melville gives us Christianity so that it will impress itself in our minds as the narrative unfolds. The voyage Ishmael and Queequeg are to embark on will have theological dimensions to it. There are not only political and economic angles to Melville’s tale but religious ones too.

Father Maple gives us a vision of the Christian as a warrior whose sole duty is to eliminate sin wherever it is to be found, to subject all things to the authority of Christ. As the captain’s wish is to kill and burn the white whale, so the Christian must kill and burn all non-Christian influence in the self as well as outside the self. Ahab sees his duty to kill Moby Dick as being divinely given to him by God Himself: ‘God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death.’ His purpose is Christian and puritanical. If he fails in his mission, he fails his God and sins against Him. In the economic sphere he could be trying to give God glory in his whaling life. ‘Do all unto the glory of God’ the New Testament mentions. In politics, he could be the king of old standing for the divinely mandated Leviathan, that government whose sole purpose is to bring honor unto God. Or maybe the Christian rebel who fights an ungodly and crooked political system is what Ahab represents. In a spiritual sense, he is simply the Christian fighting the powers of the Devil. Like the devil, Moby Dick is compared to the great sea serpent of the book of Revelation. He has a crooked jaw and a terrible malignity, a strong description of the believer’s adversary. And this battle against the Devil which the captain wages is communal and not merely individualistic; it involves every kind of nationality and language, just as the church’s message rises from all the ‘corners’ of the earth. Afterall, many different nationalities are represented by Ahab’s diverse crew. Perhaps he is like Father Maple, instructing his flock to fight the Devil. To conclude, Ahab could be seen as a Christian hero emulating the virtue of obedience to God’s commandments.

Yet we must remember that Ahab is sometimes described as crazy or fanatical. Is Melville making a statement about Christianity here, or the state of American religion? What if Ahab, in his zeal to serve God, takes his devotion a little too far? What if he becomes lost in his religious convictions to the point where his original aim is lost? Is the Christian minister, or king, losing it? Over working his subjects or pastoral flock to the point to where they wish to kill him? Even though the church and government were invested with the doctrines of Christianity throughout history, that didn’t stop people from rebelling against them. The British novelist D.H. Lawrence suggested that Ahab represents ‘the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness’ that wishes to subvert all that is good in human nature. Lawrence shared a negative view of religion during his time. He saw religion as stifling, causing more harm to the individual than good. It was the white person’s religion which was causing unnecessary strife in the world. A fight whose purpose was pointless. Since human nature was an integral part of life, or the ONLY means to live, then fighting it in the name of God could only backfire. Maybe Lawrence is right. Ahab, in his religiosity, destroys more good than evil. The sinful flesh that Father Maple so vehemently condemns is more pleasant than corrupt. This view would be more humanist than Christian if one were to consider it as an interpretation of the novel.

In fact, ‘Ahab’ is a name more associated with rebellion against God rather than humble service towards Him. In the Bible, the Old Testament King Ahab is presented as a vile, wicked ruler who disobeys God at every turn. God punishes him and his kingdom as a result, cursing Ahab to a violent death. Maybe Melville is giving us another form of Father Maple’s sermon, his own rendition of biblical tradition. Like the pastor, he is presenting a rebellious, sinful captain bent on destroying Christianity rather than upholding it. A romantic hero who does not wish to give God any credit at all but to deny Him at every turn. Perhaps this is why some readers of Moby Dick saw it as unchristian when it was first published.

Moby Dick reminds us of God, particularly because of his infinite size, his holy aura of white, and the divine spotlessness that Ishmael hints at. And the captain is Satan’s messenger, trying to eliminate God and His influence from the world. From the beginning Starbuck thinks Ahab’s lust to kill the white whale is blasphemous. Ahab retorts back to the Quaker: ‘Speak not to me of blasphemy; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!’ And later on he mentions that he will wreak hatred and havoc on the ‘white whale agent or the white whale principal’ if he can. It seems to me at least that this is Ahab’s poetic way of describing Christianity itself. An ‘agent’ could refer to an angelic messenger, and a ‘principal’ sounds like a doctrine or maxim. Either interpretation is bad news for the Christian reader: Ahab is either the crazy Christian who has lost touch with love and reason or the anti-Christian hell bent on eliminating Christianity from the world. Maybe Melville is presenting a warning to the world of what happens when either path is pursued. Afterall, the captain fails in his endeavor, washed away in the sea with the unconquerable white whale following him. Is this a more despairing look at life altogether?

In the end…the worker dies trying to tame Nature, the king is killed by his subject, or he kills them, the Christian ultimately fails in trying to conquer sin, while the non-Christian will ultimately suffer defeat at the hands of God, though his rebellion be brute and swift….either way, the captain fails to tame the whale, as the end of the story shows us, and once the reader figures out their interpretation of the whale and the captain, then they must think about the conclusion of the story and what it says about our real lives.

These views are only several ways to see Melville’s story of course. The novel has been seen through many lights over the years since Modernist critics brought it to light in the early 20th century. Some critics focus on race, for example, how the whale represents the power of white people in world history, particularly in Europe and America, and the fight involved trying to lower that power, a kind of Marxist reading of the novel as it were, or maybe, to the fear of whites, an anti-white message all around. Some link Captain Ahab to Shakespeare’s King Lear, focusing on Ahab’s royalty, pride, and old age. Others focus on the whale being described as inscrutable or intangible, hinting that Moby Dick either is void of meaning, or that he cannot be understood. This would be a kind of anti-symbolic interpretation of the story and even this is plausible. Perhaps there is no symbolism at all, or if there is, then we are dealing with a symbol whose dimensions are too broad to fully understand not only as readers but as human beings. Life is complicated, and when art tries to manifest this complexity, it only leaves us more astounded to the mysteries of the universe. Like Ahab, we try to plumb the meaning of life in what we see, only to face our own mortality and lack of sufficient answers.

It has been said in literary circles that ‘you bring yourself to a text.’ When considering a story whose meaning is hidden in poetry and seeming ambiguity, who you are as a person, and your experiences, will ultimately determine how you not only see a symbol in a piece of literature, but any book at all. This is true of any thing in life. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, the old saying goes. The book is like a lake, and we, like Ishmael, look on its glassy surface and see ourselves staring right back at us.

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Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time

From the days of cavemen chipping images on stone walls to the nights parents read to their children from an Amazon Kindle, storytelling has been a universal means of relaying cultural values. Stories aren’t just created to entertain and pass the time. They’re meant to teach something important about life, to provoke a person to serious self-reflection and examnination of the world around them. The moral of a tale can concern religion, politics, psychology, economics, science, history, or even art itself. Oftentimes a story remains in our heads not only because of its exciting plot and memorable characters but because of its message, the themes and ideas the author wishes to convey to the reader.

In the middle of the twentieth century, famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis published one of his most enduring works: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The book is the first of seven stories in the The Chronicles of Narnia series. It was one of the first novels I read as a child. Though I enjoyed the storyline, the morals Lewis sought to highlight didn’t penetrate my mind back then. I simply didn’t care about any deeper messages, only if the story was fun to read. Writing primarily for children, Lewis interwove religious themes into the plot through his characters and their actions. He wished to introduce Christianity to young readers, not through sermon or theological discourse, as was often the case in Christian cultures for generations, but through fiction. It was an uncommon, and, in the view of some conservative Christians, unorthodox method of training future generations to think biblically. Yet the story was successful, inspiring film adaptations over the years and opening doors for religious authors to explore the possibilites of mingling Chrisitian morality with imaginative modes of expression.

The four main characters in the story, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, have just arrived in the magical land of Narnia through a wardrobe. After traveling through a snowy forest, they find themselves in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Mr. Beaver mentions “Aslan” at his dinner table, a great lion prophesied to return to Narnia and restore peace. Susan asks Mr. Beaver “Who is Aslan?” (Lewis 85). Mr. Beaver replies “‘Who is Aslan? Why, don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood’” (Lewis 85). The words “King” and “Lord” are high royal titles reserved for someone in authority. They are words of reverence. Most kings throughout history were addressed as “Lord” as a sign of deep respect.

In the holy text of Christianity, the Bible, God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, is often referred to as “Lord.” In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word for “Lord” is “Adonai.” Some examples of its usage include Psalm 86:5: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in stedfast love to all who call upon you” and Job 28:28: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Lord” is “Kyrios.” Some examples of its usage are Matthew 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” and Acts 16:31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” By having Mr. Beaver refer to Aslan as “Lord,” Lewis hints that Aslan is a metaphor for the God of the Bible, the Lord Jesus Christ. So the reader can expect Aslan’s actions in the novel to be signifcant in that they teach them about God and His ways.

Another important character in the book is the White Witch. Her magic has brought a curse to Narnia; the land experiences a never ending winter year round. The witch’s name itself is oxymoronic: the word “white” usually represents purity, holiness, and goodness. But the word “witch” refers to someone who dabbles in evil spells for malignant purposes. Her name juxtaposes two ideas that don’t logically belong together. Though she induces Edmund, Lucy’s older brother, to join her side, at least for a time, in the battle against Aslan’s supporters, it’s only through charming deception. She promises Edmund a share in her kingdom but never fulfills that promise. She enslaves him instead. The apostle Paul makes the same distinction in the New Testament referring to God’s ultimate adversary, Satan. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 11:14 that Satan masquerades as an “angel of light.” Like the people who follow his crooked ways, the devil is nothing more than a liar appearing as a truth teller. Satan constantly rebels against God by tempting His people with enticing offers of glory, wealth, and power, which seem fulfilling at first, but eventually lead to spiritual demise. His desire is to see God fail in His plans and purposes for the world. Now the reader is reminded not only of God but his enemy as well and must now reflect on what can be learned from the Witch’s schemes regarding sin and evil.

The animals who live in Narnia long for Aslan’s return, which will free their country from the witch’s winter; according to a prophecy, the lion will usher in a new spring. Spring is the season of the year in which life starts anew, as flowers once again grow from the soil and birds chirp merrily through the fresh air. It is foretold that when Aslan returns, the Witch will be defeated for good. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, speaks of God’s returning to the world to overthrow Satan and all his forces for eternity, instituting an enduring kingdom of peace and harmony. In chapter 20, verse 10 we read “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” God’s righteous judgement on Satan will be the end of evil on Earth and one of many great victories for God’s people. The world will be released from the burdens of sin, pain, and death once and for all. And a new Heaven will come for all Christians; we read in chapter 21 verse 4: “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” So the reader can see God’s promise to His own through the prophecy the animals eagerly expect to be fulfilled.

But the price Aslan has to pay to deliver such a promise isn’t pleasant. It is fraught with deep anguish. Edmund runs away from his brother and sisters, joining with the White Witch, believing she will grant him power and turkish delight (his favorite sweet treat). But once he discovers the witch to be a liar, he realizes he’s gotten into a situation not easily fixed. In the biblical book of Genesis, Satan, as a serpent, tells Eve that if she eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God forbade her to eat from, then she will be “like God, knowing good from evil.” Eve takes the fruit and eats. Adam partakes too. As a result, the forerunners of the human race have sinned against God. This leads to a spiritual seperation from God, a grim fact that they didn’t count on. Not only they, but every human being from their lineage, are sinful slaves to Satan. They are spiritually dead to God, unable to please Him on their own terms. This concept is what Saint Augustine would refer to as “Original Sin,” that humanity is born into sin from the beginnings of the Fall (Adam and Eve’s tramsgression) and on through history.

Though Edmund eventually finds his way to Aslan, seeking refuge, the Witch claims that he is to be punished: “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill” (Lewis 155). She refers to this law as the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time. According to the Bible, because the human race disobeys God’s commands, they are entitled to God’s everlasting judgment. Turning against God’s Law is a serious offense, one that earns an unbearable penalty. Paul, in his New Testament letter to the Romans, remarks that “those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (verse 8). Edmund is guilty in his betrayal. So he must pay the price by dying at the hands of the Witch, just as unrepentant sinners do before God.

Aslan, however, decides to step into the matter and take Edmund’s place. He’s put to death on the Stone Table at the hands of the Witch, so that Edmund may be free from that same punishment. Yet Aslan’s loving sacrifice seems pointless; now that he is dead, who will protect Narnia from the witch? Susan and Lucy, witnesses to Aslan’s execution, despair, unsure as to what hope they can hold on to. But as soon as everything seems lost, Aslan reappears to them, alive and well. Astounded and rejoicing, Susan asks Aslan what his miraculous return means: “‘It means’ said Aslan ‘that though the witch knew the deep magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…she would have known that when a willing victim who had commited no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward’” (Lewis 178-179). This climax to the story points the reader to the Bible’s ultimate teaching: the Gospel.

The Gospel teaches that God came to earth as a man named Jesus Christ. Christ was put to death on a cross to bear God’s eternal punishment on sin. In this way, Christ’s death satisfies the penalty of God’s Law, that all those who transgress it must ultimately perish in Hell. Not only that, but Christ’s perfect obedience to God also earned a status of righteousness for God’s people; Christians, (those who repent of their sins and believe in Christ’s work for their salvation) are counted righteous in God’s sight because of Christ’s merit, even though Christians are sinners themselves and by no means perfect, upstanding people. Because of Christ’s life and death, Christians are forgiven of their sins before God. Their relationship to Him is restored. A famous section of the New Testament, John 3:16, mentions “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Aslan’s resurrection also points to the teaching that Christ came back from the dead three days after His execution. As the resurrected Savior, He promises His people eternal victory over death, death in both its physcial and spiritual senses.

So when one reads The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one not only encounters an engrossing tale of fantasy, a story of four children’s exploits in a magical land with a heroic lion and an evil witch, but also an extended metaphor of the biblical story of mankind’s fall from grace and their redemption by the mercy of God. A plot that bears only some resemblances to our everyday world suddenly reminds us of our public and personal lives even as it takes our mind away from our normal routine. Quite a humorous irony there, in my opinion. Lewis gave his readers a new and fresh way to learn the precepts of the Bible, and to this end he seems to have succeeded quite well considering his popularity in the sphere of Christian apologetics and fiction. Granted, Lewis’s Christian convictions may not resonate with all readers personally, but one cannot deny the role of spirituality and religion in the world we live in. Even if one does not believe in the Christian dogma, one can still enjoy an easy, entertianing book concerning the bonds of siblings, bravery, deception, and the pain and triumph of loving sacrifice.

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Collins, 1950. Print