ITALIAN children are lucky. In their folk stories, Jesus tramps round southern Italy with his mates, and roars with laughter as they fall into dung heaps, get thrashed by farmers’ wives, and turn the tables on stingy peasants.
The whole atmosphere is one of freshness and gusto, matched only in English literature by Ezra Pound’s Ballad of the Goodly Fere.
On the whole, British kids get a quieter Jesus. He enters their stories incognito — in the little boy who plays in the giant’s garden in The Selfish Giant, or the saintly Arthur, who gets a boot shied at him in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. In The Pooh Perplex, Frederick Crews even managed to discern Jesus in Eeyore.
In these stories, “Jesus” is gentle and uncomplaining (which surely lets Eeyore out), and transforms the bad guy, bully, or giant, by sheer love.
NOBODY gives you Jesus neat. Except perhaps C. S. Lewis, who, in his Narnia stories, offers us Aslan, the Lion of Narnia, as the veritable Son of God. Or does he? Aslan certainly dies for Edmund’s treachery, and rises again; he is wise, and tender, and romps with fauns, talking animals, and small children; but am I the only reader to have noticed a certain harshness in him? His first contemptuous glance at Jill in The Silver Chair, and his tit-for-tat mauling of Aravis in The Horse and His Boy don’t sound like Jesus to me.
And yet the numinosity is tangible — never more so than on the mountain pass into Archenland, when a frightened boy acknowledges the large beast which has been pacing beside him all night.
“Speak!” says a deep voice, “Tell me your griefs. . .”
He cannot be seen; it must be Aslan — but for a moment, you wonder if it was Jesus who spoke.
Sarah Lenton writes, broadcasts, and lectures on lyric theatre for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is studying for ordination at St Mellitus College.