Of the “Big Five” animals that Africa is known for – the lion, the elephant, the rhino, the Cape buffalo, and the leopard – Zambia boasts almost none in the wild. You might be able to find a lone leopard roaming around, but their numbers are dwindling due to the same habitat loss that drove away the others. In Kazembe, you are far more likely to find an abundance of goats and chickens, with plenty of bats, rats, geckos, and snakes making surprise appearances, but we have none of the lions so often associated with Africa.
Here, we have a different sort of Lion.
For the last month during naptime, I have shrugged myself out of the somnolent state that lunch tends to send me into and dragged a wooden chair into the first grader’s bedroom, where a few might be napping but most are chatting amicably, much to the chagrin of their nanny. I calm them into something resembling silence, sit down, and begin to read.
We are currently reading The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis’ 3rd book (chronologically) in The Chronicles of Narnia. I have been a Narnia fan for as long as I can remember. I can recall my father reading them to me as a child. The book we have in my house is a massive tome with all seven books in one set. The front cover features a lion, mane engulfed in a brilliant fire – Aslan. I have read these stories over and over, and each time they manage to stir my heart.
The Horse and His Boy is too often overlooked, in my humble opinion, amongst the other books in the series. I am not certain of the cause; perhaps it is because it does not feature the Pevensie children as the main characters. In fact, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy take a backseat to a young, scrappy runaway named Shasta. The setting is distinctly Arabian, as opposed to the more medieval feel of the other novels. The names are hard to pronounce. Honestly, the timeline in the story is a little confusing for younger readers, and while it features a single battle, there is no action on the scale of the epic wars fought in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Prince Caspian. It is markedly different than the other books, and I like it that way.
For those who have not read the novel, I will not spoil all of the details for you, but merely relate the plotline: During the reign of the Pevensies in Narnia, a young boy named Shasta and a wealthy young girl named Aravis, along with two talking Horses who are Narnian natives, hatch a daring plan to escape from their lives in arid Calormen and end up becoming involved in the political intrigue of the royal families of the two nations. Along the way, they inevitably learn a bit about themselves and other people and grow in maturity.
The children enjoy this book exceedingly. Henry has managed to sleep through half of it, but Chola and Ernest listen intently. Elias, surprisingly, becomes extremely involved in the plot and is very concerned for the wellbeing of the characters. His face lights up at their success and grows dark at their struggles. Johnny, with his characteristic loquacity, would never give me a chance to read if I let him ask all of his redundant questions. Each day goes something like this:
“‘I’d better creep back and see,’ suggested Shasta. ‘That’s a good idea,’ said the Horse. ‘But take care you’re not caught.’”
“Auntie Sarah – he is caught?!”
“No, Johnny, he has to be careful or he will be caught.”
“Who will catch him?”
“The fisherman, Johnny.”
“The fisherman will catch Shasta?”
“I don’t know, let’s find out. ‘It was a good deal darker now…’”
“The fisherman will catch the – the – the Horse?”
“Johnny, please be quiet.”
“The Horse is a bad guy?”
“No, Johnny, he’s not.”
“The Horse is a good guy?”
Cue weary sigh. “Yes, Johnny, the Horse is a good guy.” And so on and so forth.
Now, this is a bit of a spoiler, so don’t continue reading if you really hate spoilers. Then again, it’s a Narnia book, so the presence of Aslan is inevitable.
At several times along their journey, the children and Horses find themselves fleeing from lions – or one lion, as it turns out. It is a lion that drives the four characters together. It is a lion that protects Shasta from jackals and offers comfort during a long night. It is a lion who enables them to reach their goal in time, and it is a lion who saved Shasta’s life and set his destiny in motion as an infant.
Actually, it’s the Lion.
Shasta encounters the Lion in the dead of night, wandering in a strange land by himself near the end of the story. He cannot see how this Lion has been guiding his life from the very beginning. Even now, he cannot see that this Lion stands between himself and a great precipice, guarding him from danger and keeping him safe. He does not understand, truly, who this Lion is yet. Trembling, he asks the Lion who he is.
In a passage that echoes the “I am” of the burning bush in Exodus, the lion answers, “Myself,” in a voice “very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again, ‘Myself’, loud and clear and gay,” and then, “‘Myself’, whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it,” so like the gentle whisper heard by Elijah in 1 Kings 19.
As the mist turns from “black to grey and from grey to white,” Shasta knows “the night [is] over at last” and “a golden light fell on them.” Shasta “thought it was the sun.” In a way, he’s right.
“It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or more beautiful…After one glance at the Lion’s face he slipped out of the saddle and fell at its feet. He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything.”
The children listened to this passage in a rare, hushed silence. And for a moment, I was silent too, stirred by the image Lewis paints of Aslan. It is powerful in every novel, but I particularly like this version of Aslan, because he appears to a boy who was raised in a land that does not know or accept “Aslan, the great Lion, the son of the Emperor-over-the-Sea, the King above all High Kings.” But Shasta is able to recognize Him for who He is, despite a life spent in a world that is so very contrary to everything that Aslan stands for. That has significant implications for missions, both in the States and internationally.
Even more powerful, though, than the reaction of the human is the power of Aslan – of Christ. Like Shasta, I can’t always understand how He is weaving the parts of my life together into one beautiful story, better than any novel. At times, it doesn’t make any sense at all, and I feel as though I cannot escape the danger snapping at my heels. Like Shasta, I want to cry out, “‘I can’t see you at all.’”
But then, when I need it the most, I can hear Him – a gentle whisper, coming from all around, in my heart, spoken to my soul. “I am the lion. Myself.”
I am awed by His majesty. I am cowed by His magnificent power. I worship at His throne, humbled by my sin. And oh, to see His face – to fall at the feet of the Lion and see in the light that shines from Him – I, Sarah Marie Holley, the girl who loves the wielding of words and who always has something to say, would be unable to say anything at all.
But then, I don’t want to say anything.
I needn’t say anything.
In the truest sense of the word, He is an awesome Lion.