Why C.S. Lewis Said Narnia is “Not Allegory at All”
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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary an allegory is defined as:
1: the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence
also : an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression
2: a symbolic representation
So, using this definition, are The Chronicles of Narnia an allegory?
Most say yes.
The Narnia series is certainly full of symbolism. It is pretty much impossible to ignore the very pointed use of capitalizing Aslan as “He” at the end of the series. It is easy to see parallels between a deity dying on a Stone Table in a traitor’s stead to appease Deep Magic and a deity dying on a cross in the place of sinners to appease a higher power’s justice.
C.S. Lewis himself seems to have supported these symbolic readings.
In a letter to a mother whose son, Laurence, was worried that he loved Aslan more than Jesus, Lewis responded this way:
But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not–I mean, the body of a lion. (But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them as He would–He may really have taken all sorts of bodies in them which we don’t know about.)Letters to Children ~ Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead
This interpretation of Aslan by Lewis is strikingly similar to the conversation Emeth has with Aslan in The Last Battle (which had not yet been published at the time he wrote to Laurence’s mother).
But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.The Last Battle ~ C.S. Lewis
However, Lewis did not support an allegorical reading of Narnia.
In order for a book to be classified as an allegory it has to have more than just symbols.
The site litcharts has an extensive page on what makes an allegory an allegory, but here is the relevant part when it comes to interpreting Narnia:
Although all allegories use symbolism heavily, not all writing that uses symbolism qualifies as allegory. Allegories are characterized by a use of symbolism that permeates the entire story, to the extent that essentially all major characters and their actions can be understood as having symbolic significance.
While Aslan certainly seems like a symbolic character, other characters in the story do not have counterparts in the same way. The White Witch does not represent Satan. The four Pevensies do not represent some grouping of virtues. Puddleglum is inspired by a real-life person, but does not actually represent gardener Fred Paxford.
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, in Bunyan, a giant represents Despair.Letters of C.S. Lewis ~ W.H. Lewis and Walter Hooper
Basically, in order for a written work to be allegorical, everything must represent something else. Compare Narnia with Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress. Every character in that book represents someone or some idea in the real world. Of course, not every allegory is quite as overt as Regress (it’s easy to understand what each character represents when they have names like “Mr. Enlightenment”), but allegories are symbolic all the time. Narnia is not.
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 allegory at all.Letters of C.S. Lewis
So, if Narnia is not an allegory, what is it?
Lewis referred to Narnia as a “supposal”.
Returning to Merriam-Webster, a supposal is defined as:
1: the act or process of supposing
2: something supposed : HYPOTHESIS, SUPPOSITION
Lewis wrote about this concept multiple times.
All your points are in a sense right. But I’m not exactly “representing” the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying “Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the ‘Great Emperor oversea’) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?” Perhaps it comes to much the same thing as you thought, but not quite.Letters to Children
Unlike allegories, supposal as a literary term does not seem to exist outside of Lewis’ own writings. But, for context, there is a famous fictional work that uses similar phrasing:
“Suppose there was a bright fire in the grate, with lots of little dancing flames,” she murmured. “Suppose there was a comfortable chair before it–and suppose there was a small table near, with a little hot–hot supper on it. And suppose . . . “A Little Princess ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett
Indeed, the “supposing” that Sara Crewe engages in throughout A Little Princess might help readers understand the concept as Lewis presented it. Sara imagines throughout the book by using the word “suppose”. Only instead of supposing as Sara does that a single bite of a bun is a whole dinner, Lewis supposed that Jesus would appear different on another world, and yet do the same things. And, although it happens within the story instead of being the basis of the story, the significant times that Sara supposes come true in some fashion.
Lewis also considered his Space Trilogy to be supposals rather than allegorical.
So in Perelandra. This also works out a supposition. (‘Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully’).Letters of C.S. Lewis
The line between allegory and supposal can seem a bit blurry the way Lewis describes it, but the distinction is still there.
Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan’s picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal; but granted the suppposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.Letters of C.S. Lewis
Essentially, “supposing” is simply the basis of a story that asks “what if?”. What if the main characters of Hamlet were lions? What if Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires? What if all humans decided to work together to create a better future and then built spaceships to study new life and new civilizations?
Did Lewis intend The Chronicles of Narnia to be heavily symbolic?
Yes, and also no.
As with any piece of writing, Narnia transformed over time. Lewis wrote about the process more than once, but perhaps the best reference for this is from the essay Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.
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 collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for; 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 in 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 even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.
. . .
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Narnia is not an allegory because it does not fit the definition of an allegory. However, Narnia does ask “what if?” and then uses symbols to answer that question.