Tim Challies’s excellent post this week on why Narnia’s Aslan is not the same as the divine characterizations in William Paul Young’s The Shack offered a literary side-note that addresses a pet peeve this English major and Lewisphile has held for a quite a while—the incorrect use of the word “allegory.” I address some of the ways people erroneously apply the allegorical sense to Jesus’s parables, for instance, in my book The Storytelling God, but in general, I notice more and more people referring to things that are simply symbolic or metaphorical as “allegorical,” making allegory a sort of catch-all category. But the history of literature does not allow such a sloppy application.
Did C. S. Lewis write allegory? The answer is not as obvious as it seems. Because modern readers define and interpret allegory so loosely and broadly, it has become common to speak of the Narnia stories as allegories of the Christian faith (or at least to speak of the first book in the series as an allegory of the gospel story), or to speak of Lewis’s Space Trilogy as allegories of spiritual origins and conflict. But the fact is that C.S . Lewis published only one true allegorical work: The Pilgrim’s Regress.
It is important to consider what Lewis himself believed about Allegory, how he defined it. He may well have been wrong (and perhaps modernity has blurred the fine edges off of his definition to the point where he would be wrong today), but I think we cannot rightly call works of his allegorical if he himself denied they were.
The brief note at the beginning of Perelandra includes the curious disclaimer that none of the figures in the story is allegorical. I always thought this odd considering that the book so obviously included references to the biblical account of the fall, and that the hero Ransom was so obviously a Christ-figure. Indeed, the second book of Lewis’s Space Trilogy is the easiest of the three to read “allegorically.” But again, we must keep in mind that Lewis regards allegory as a specific genre with specific rules.
How then does he define allegory? Perhaps the clearest definition in the most common language comes via a letter to Mrs. Hook (found in Letters of C. S. Lewis, 12/29/58):
By an 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 (which in reality is an experience, not an object occupying a given area of space) or, Bunyan, a giant represents Despair.
A more literary explanation is found in Lewis’s historical survey and critical appraisal of Allegory, The Allegory of Love:
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.
To put it more simply:
For Lewis, allegory is when tangible things or figures represent intangible ideas—emotions, experiences, virtues, or vices. As an example, the character Christian in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress represents Christianity or Christians in general, just as some of the characters Christian encounters in that allegorical work represent typical Christian struggles—fear, doubt, temptation, and so on.
An allegorical figure would represent an intangible concept. It is allegorical, then, when Johnny represents sacrifice, not when Johnny represents the person of Jesus. When figures represent not the intangible, but other things tangible (like other figures), then they become symbols. You could also perhaps use the word metaphor.
This is why the Narnia stories are not allegory either. Or, more specifically, this is why Aslan is not an allegorical figure of Jesus. In that same letter to Mrs. Hook, Lewis writes:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, 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 allegory at all. So in Perelandra. This also works out a supposition. . . . Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways.
Lewis goes on to elaborate, but a basic point is clear—the author did not regard Narnia or Perelandra (and I think, by extension, the first and third episodes of the Trilogy) as allegorical. He regarded the Narnia stories as “supposals,” a term I believe he invented himself to suit his purposes (although I could be wrong on that point). By “supposal,” Lewis meant to relate the imaginative speculation of his story, the exploration of the “what if?” he describes in the passage above.In his Letters to Children, he writes:
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books “represents” something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but I’m not writing in that way. 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 . . .”
None of this is to say that Lewis’s works are without symbolism. But if we want to interpret his writing correctly, we must at least do so according to the author’s rules. And if we are going to follow his rules for his writing, we must make the distinctions between allegory and symbolism and supposal that Lewis himself does.
This won’t keep anyone from reading the works as allegorical, or from saying they are allegories. The term has lost its meaning, really. And modern readers have inherited a slight reader-response critical mode from postmodern literary criticism without really knowing it. Nothing’s to keep you from reading Narnia as an allegory. Lewis acknowledges this:
Here, therefore, the critic has great freedom to range without fear of contradictions from the author’s superior knowledge.
Where he seems to me most often to go wrong is in the hasty assumption of an allegorical sense; and as reviewers make this mistake about contemporary works, so, in my opinion, scholars now often make it about old ones. I would recommend to both, and I would try to observe in my own critical practice, these principles. First, that no story can be devised by the wit of man which cannot be interpreted allegorically by the wit of some other man . . . Therefore the mere fact that you can allegorise the work before you is of itself no proof that it is an allegory. Of course you can allegorise it. You can allegorise anything . . . We ought not to proceed to allegorise any work until we have plainly set out the reasons for regarding it as an allegory at all.
— from “On Criticism” in ‘On Stories’ and Other Essays on Literature