Allegory or Otherwise? Reading the Chronicles of Narnia

Feast of Sts. John and Symeon the Fool for Christ

Aslan_with_Lucy_Square_2.jpgGREGORY the Great, the sixth-century pope and saint, described scripture as “a river broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” The same might be said of C. S. Lewis’s use of scripture in the Chronicles of Narnia. Some of his references are obvious to anyone with a superficial knowledge of the Bible, but others emerge only as subtle allusions and echoes. One thing the Chronicles are not, however, is biblical allegory. Lewis’s first published work of fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), is an allegory, and his first published book of literary criticism, The Allegory of Love (1936), is still considered a definitive treatment of the genre. Therefore when he insists, as he does repeatedly, that the Chronicles are not allegory, he knows whereof he speaks.

If the Chronicles aren’t allegory, who argues that they are? Just about everyone, it seems, from readers in the 1950s when they were first published, to commentators in the present, including people who should know better. For example, British journalist Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian when the first Narnia movie came out in in 2005, asserts that the series is “a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.” But Narnia haters aren’t the only ones who mistake the genre; Narnia lovers are just as likely to do so. Lewis received many letters from fans whom he had to disabuse of the notion that the Chronicles were allegory, but sometimes even personal tutelage didn’t do the trick. For example, thirteen year old Patricia Mackey received a long letter from Lewis explaining the topic in detail, but that didn’t prevent her from writing as an adult that “reading through the entire series built my understanding of allegory as a literary technique.” Ironically, she notes that this experience was a major factor in her becoming an English teacher.

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Lewis’s formal definition of allegory appears in his first scholarly work published in 1936, and little could he realize at the time that he would be restating it in some form or other for the rest of his life. He writes,

Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval man but to man, or even to mind, in general. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms … On the one hand you can start with an immaterial fact, such as the passions which you actually experience, and can then invent visibilia to express them. If you are hesitating between an angry retort and a soft answer, you can express your state of mind by inventing a person called Ira with a torch and letting her contend with another invented person called Patientia. This is allegory.

In a letter to a Mrs. Hook in 1958, his definition is simpler but essentially the same: “By allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial or literary) in which immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects, e.g. a pictured Cupid allegorically represents erotic love … or, in Bunyan, a giant represents Despair.” According to Lewis, an allegory “is like a puzzle with a solution,” and an author writes it deliberately. He contrasts it to myth, another genre in which he was expert: “Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows: in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and could not come to know in any other way.”

Lewis gives slightly differing accounts of the genesis of the Chronicles of Narnia. According to one version, he didn’t initially know what he was doing. He explains that from the age of about sixteen, he had had a “picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” in his mind. When he was about forty, he decided to make a story out of it.

At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the other six Narnian stories in after Him.

Elsewhere he writes in a similar vein,

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then … drew up a list of basic Christian “truths” and hammered out “allegories” to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.

According to another rendition, he seems to have worked more purposefully. As he informs Mrs. Hook, “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not an allegory at all.”

If not allegory, what genre are the Chronicles of Narnia? Sometimes Lewis calls them fairy tales, as he does above, and in the dedication of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, but more often he uses a word he himself coined, “supposals.” “I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.”

Although these accounts don’t necessarily contradict each other, they do reflect an evolving sense of the conception of the Chronicles. At any rate, Lewis was well aware of the pitfalls involved in trying to remember one’s own creative process, cautioning his readers that authors don’t pay attention to it when they’re in the throes of writing, and later they may forget how it happened. The important thing here, however, is not to attempt to reconstruct the evolution of the Chronicles, but to emphasize a fact Lewis felt quite strongly about, that the Chronicles are not allegory.

Leslie Baynes is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. Her area of research is Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, and within that, particularly 1 Enoch and the Book of Revelation.


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