In the Christmas of 1838, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen published The Steadfast Tin Soldier. In it, a one-legged tin soldier endures an adventure filled with many trials—including a passionate love for a beautiful paper ballet dancer—only to be spontaneously thrown into a fiery furnace by a capricious boy. The story ends on the following note: “The next day, when the housemaid emptied the ashes, she found the tin soldier [had melted into] the shape of a heart.”1
Toy soldiers have a prominent place in my life because I have lived intimately with them for almost a quarter of a century. My husband is a toy soldier maker, and therefore our home—which also houses his studio—is filled with toy soldiers, books about history, models, clays, metal alloys, melting pots, castings, paints, and paintbrushes…all the elements of conceiving, creating, and collecting toy soldiers. Of course, toy soldiers, the classic metal figures surrounded by nostalgia, have been around much longer than the twenty-some years in which they have been a feature in my personal life. They have been a staple for generations who have collected them, played with them, and cherished them.
There is something compelling about toy soldiers. Whether they are rigorously realistic miniatures or the more toy-like classics, these small soldiers exude a mystique that begs for their stories to be told. Perhaps this is why they have always been such wonderful toys with respect to stimulating the imaginations of the children who have played with them. Yet they remain, simply, toys…inanimate illusions that only beckon with the promise of untold tales; play things, like puppets on strings.
So, many years ago when I first read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, it fascinated me to discover that Lewis compared not only mankind to toy soldiers but he used the image of the tin soldier as a metaphor for Christ himself. I distinctly remember being struck by that. I still am. What could Lewis have meant? Why did he select such a metaphor? Is it not the height of audacity to compare Christ to a mere metal toy?
To answer, we have to back up and consider why Lewis used this metaphor with respect to mankind in the first place. Here is how he puts it:
Imagine turning a tin soldier into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh: all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you. He will not be made into a man if he can help it (179).2
Lewis chooses the inanimate tin soldier as a metaphor because mankind, in its fallen condition, is essentially no longer animated3 in the proper sense. Furthermore, in its rebelliousness against God, mankind fights against God as He seeks to redeem and restore mankind to its original, intended form. God wants to change man from an inanimate—a dead (see Ephesians 2:1 and 2:5)—‘thing’ into the truly alive being God always intended him to be. In other words, one might say that the Creator God has the ‘ideal’ man in His conception before He ever clothes that ideal in material form when He animates—when He breathes life into—Adam.
Noting that Scripture describes mankind as God’s workmanship or, literally, His poetry—poiēma (ποίημα, see Ephesians 2:10)—consider what Dorothy Sayers writes in Mind of the Maker:
[There is a] universal experience that the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material form. Without the thought, though the material parts already exist, the form does not and cannot. The ‘creation’ is not a product of the matter… (22-23).4
What Sayers articulates is our human creative experience—that the ‘idea’ of the artist has valid existence, in and of itself, before it is ever manifested physically—through which we can analogically understand God’s act of creation; in other words, the idea has existence, fully and vibrantly and in a sense utterly ‘really,’ before it is given any material incarnation.
Once given material form, however, the first Adam fell. Through the Fall, God’s ‘ideal’ man destroyed himself, and became less ‘real.’ He became inanimate, lifeless, like stone. Think of Ezekiel 36:26 in which the human heart is described as ‘stony’—implying not just something hard, but also that which is incapable of self-change, devoid of life. Once in that state of “in-animation” mankind resists God with every fiber of its being just as violently as Lewis describes the tin soldier resisting tin being turned into real flesh. The tin soldier believes he is being killed, when in reality he is being transformed into a live soldier. Likewise, mankind believes it is being destroyed when, in fact, it is being redeemed.
It is interesting that Lewis chose tin and not stone to represent the lifeless component of his metaphor. The answer is perhaps to be found in the compelling image of the toy metal soldier: upright, valiant, so like humanity’s—and perhaps God’s as well—image of what we ‘ought’ to be. The metal nature of the metaphor—the tin—is significant in Lewis’ perspective. Perhaps this is because in the King James translation of the Bible, which is, I believe, the authorized translation of the Anglican Church in England to which Lewis belonged, Isaiah 1:25 quotes the Lord:
And I will turn my hand upon thee and purely purge away thy dross and take away all thy tin.
Here we discover the Scriptural teachings, metaphorically expressed through the imagery of dross and tin, of both fallen ‘tin’ man given flesh—becoming a new man—in his redemption through Christ, but also of dross—that is, sinfulness—being melted away from the new man as he is sanctified. The proportion works as follows: flesh (the new man in Christ) has the same relationship to tin (the old fallen man) that tin (the old fallen man) has to dross (impurity, or sin). To put it in terms of mathematics or logic5:
Flesh : Tin :: Tin : Dross
New Man in Christ : Fallen Man :: Fallen Man : Sin
Thus when dross is melted away from the tin, the tin is left in its pure state. Likewise, when the tin is melted away from the ‘tin soldier’ metaphor, the pure man—the ‘ideal’ man as God has originally created him, the new man in Christ—emerges; the created becomes the begotten:
Dross : Tin :: Tin : Flesh
Thinking of this in terms of a logical Hypothetical Syllogism (if p is to q as q is to r, then p is to r; or symbolically, if p : q :: q : r, then p : r), one can additionally now see that there is a logical connection, a vital relationship (for more about integrating this imaginative metaphor with logic, mathematics, and grammar see note below),6 between becoming a new man in Christ (being given flesh instead of tin) and becoming sanctified (having the dross, or sin, burned away).
We can now see why the metaphor of the tin soldier is applied by Lewis to Christ: Christ became man. According to the metaphor, Christ therefore became a tin soldier; he took upon himself fallen human form. But He became a tin soldier with a difference: He did not fight against the destruction of His human ‘tinny-ness.’ Because of Christ’s submission to the removal—the melting away—of the tin, He efficaciously extended the opportunity of doing likewise to the rest of mankind…not simply through example (although that is great enough), but through a supernatural miracle of transformation as the Second Adam. As Lewis describes it:
The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself …The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man (but before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body…The result of this was that you now had one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the created life, derived from His Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life…Thus in one instance humanity had, so to speak, arrived: had passed into the life of Christ. And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ He chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn…And then, after being thus killed…the human creature in Him, because it was united to the divine Son, came to life again. The Man in Christ rose again: not only the God. That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier—real tin, just like the rest—had become fully and splendidly alive (179-180).7
The implications of using this metaphor in relation not just to mankind, but with respect to Christ, are not only profound, but crystal clear and unmistakably instructive: first, man is conceived as a fallen, and therefore an inanimate, being who lacks ‘true’ flesh; he is a creature made of tin; second, Christ became, not ‘like’ that fallen creature but precisely ‘that’ fallen creature, and because He did, and He allowed the ‘in-animated-ness’ to be stripped from Him,8 it became possible for other men to have their hearts rejuvenated…to know Him, learn of Him, and become transformed into begotten creatures exactly like Him: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, kings and queens.
This leads to a subsequent question. Why? Why would God do this? This is a hauntingly persistent question that must be answered once the essential premises of the metaphor have been accepted. Blessedly, the answer of Scripture is clear: God did it for love:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)
The Greek verb used in this context is agapao (ἀγαπάω) meaning firstly, to love dearly, and secondly, to be well pleased with the beloved. This, in a nutshell, is why the Second Person of the Trinity became a tin soldier.
It is amazing. It is glorious. But we must not leave the metaphor there. As hinted at above, I believe that Lewis did not choose the simple metaphor of stone, and opted instead for the idea of the tin soldier, because there is yet one aspect of it that holds tremendous meaning and implication for us: the soldier. Christians, rejuvenated new men with hearts of flesh, reborn in the spirit, and endowed with a renewed capacity for understanding, are to serve as soldiers for the Lord of Heaven and Earth, their Commander-in-Chief. We are not mere stones that would, if necessary, cry out to glorify the Lord (Luke 19:40); we are His begotten, called to serve Him in His Kingdom. We are called to go to battle against all the forces that would struggle to have mankind remain a mere array of tin figurines.
The last question in this context, for me as a homeschooling parent, is this: how does this apply in my family as we homeschool our children? That verb agapao comes to mind again, especially with respect to the first commandment given to us through Christ’s disciple, Mark (and echoed in Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27):
“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:29-30 (NIV)
The answer is: we are to love God in return and to teach our children to do so. With new hearts, new lives in the spirit as tin soldiers transformed into real flesh in Him, and with new capacities for understanding, we are to use our minds to love learning, to love Him, to know Him, and to make Him known. We are to love God and to use our minds to cultivate knowledge, clear reasoning, discernment, imagination, beauty, and wisdom. We are to use our minds to be efficacious soldiers of light in His Kingdom while we ourselves are sanctified by Him. We are to teach our children to love to do these things, and to love the Lord as He fulfills His promises to us and in us.
Just as Christ become a tin soldier for the sake of love, for the sake of love we too should seek new flesh in Him, and rejoice when we are washed clean of all dross. As we celebrate the miracle of Christ’s birth, of His incarnation as one of us in the ranks of tin soldiers, we recognize that Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier metaphorically captures—as fairy tales usually do—a deep truth: when the tin is melted down, what remains is the shape of the heart…the symbol of abiding love.
1 Andersen, Hans Christian. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Harper Collins, 1992.
2 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1952.
3 “Animate” is a verb with roots stretching back into ancient antiquity: Middle English animat, from Latin animatus, past participle of animare to quicken, enliven, endow with breath or soul, from anima breath, soul; akin to Old English thian, thian to breathe, Old Frisian omma breath, Old Norse önd, gen. andar breath, life, soul…Latin animus soul, mind, Greek anemos breath, wind, Sanskrit aniti he breathes. From http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/unabridged?va=animate (12/23/12)
4 Sayers, Dorothy. Mind of the Maker. London, England: Mowbray, 1941.
5Logic is studied by Classical Conversations students in the Challenge programs. See https://classicalconversations.com/academic-programs/challenge-programs-7th-12th
6 To integrate this metaphor with ideas from logic and mathematics, one can think of these relationships in the following very basic terms:
• The proportion itself (formed above with the use of the colons and semicolons, flesh : tin :: tin : dross) suggests that the items on each side of the double colons have a similar relationship with each other.
• With respect to logic and the Hypothetical Syllogism, the suggestion goes deeper and asserts that there is a stronger connection between both sides—the same process unfolds on one side as unfolds on the other and a more vital relationship is then possible between the terms on the extremes (because the ‘means,’ or the items in the middle, are identical in both cases).
• If it were to be put in stricter mathematical terms, this would be analogous to the geometrical statement that two things which are equal to the same thing are therefore equal to each other (e.g., if a = b, and c = b, then a = c. This is a restatement of Euclid’s 1st Common Notion from Book I of The Elements: “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another” from Euclid, The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements, Vol. I. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1956. p. 155). If examined from the latter perspective, one can see that, in actuality, from a Christian theological point of view in which the premises are true within the context, this is the case: if one is in Christ, a miraculous transformation occurs in which sin (dross) melts away and one is changed from tin into flesh (becoming a new man); thus, a man in Christ IS a transformed man.
• One can also see this reflected in grammar because what we end up with is the predicate nominative construction: a “Christian” man is a “new” man.
7 See note #2
8 Think of Eustace, being stripped of his dragon’s skin in Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (part of the Chronicles of Narnia). This is yet another wonderful metaphor of this situation when it applies to us, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Note, however, that for us—in stark contrast to the sinless Christ—the ‘tinny-ness’ is compounded by sinfulness and thus is appropriately described in terms of the serpent at whose initiation Adam and Eve first fell.