C. S. Lewis: Allegory and Symbolism


Quite apart from the use of a commonplace wardrobe as a portal to a different world, and the introduction of a ‘re-booted’ God figure join the form of Aslan, Lewis used other symbology in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Most notably the Hundred Years’ Winter was a kind of allegory of the Ironic culture in which Lewis found himself - a culture which was in the process of rejecting Life and the entire idea of Christmas. Aslan brings with him the thawing of the snow and ice and the new life of Spring, as well as Christmas. There is also the turning of people and creatures into stone - effectively killing them, or reducing them to matter, but, with Aslan’s return and rescue of all the stone figures, Lewis had a powerful image of restoration and resurrection.

In his 1936 scholarly work, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Mediaeval Tradition, Lewis explores this use of allegory as a tool in great depth, asserting that:

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. What is good or happy has always been high like the heavens and bright like the sun. Evil and misery were deep and dark from the first.

He might have added that ‘winter’ has always meant the worst and that turning something living into stone easily signifies death. He goes on to define what he sees as two ways in which the mind equates things:

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, he says, is allegory, and in it it is plain to see that the writer has taken an idea or feeling or something that he or she wishes to make clearer and given it an invented form to give the reader a visual and perhaps almost tangible ‘mass’ associated with the original idea so that the reader can better grasp what is happening on a mental or emotional level.

But, Lewis goes on to say, there is another way in which we do this equation, which he calls ‘symbolism’:

If our passions, being immaterial, can be copied by material inventions, then it is possible that our material world in its turn is the copy of an invisible world. As the god Amor and his figurative garden are to the actual passions of men, so perhaps we ourselves and our real world are to something else. The attempt to read that something else through its sensible imitations, to see the archtype in the copy, is what I mean by symbolism or sacramentalism.

In this, the author does not ‘invent’ a figure to represent something or give something an added reality to make ideas clearer - the author seeks a deeper spiritual truth beyond reality itself. ‘The difference between the two,’ says Lewis, ‘can hardly be exaggerated’:

The allegorist leaves the given — his own passions — to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real. To put the difference in another way, for the symbolist it is we who are the allegory. We are the ‘frigid personifications’; the heavens above us are the ‘shadowy abstractions’; the world which we mistake for reality is the flat outline of that which elsewhere veritably is in all the round of its unimaginable dimensions.

In Lewis’s language here, we see again his evocation of the Dantean cosmos beyond our own. Lewis goes on to discuss where, in literature and philosophy, the two uses of this mode of thinking come from. The important point for our case is that here we have Lewis defining for us the exact mental and creative process which he was trying to accomplish throughout his fiction: he wanted to find fictive forms which would of themselves transport sensitive readers to that higher, ‘more real’ world which he very much hoped was absolutely True. In this sense, Lewis didn’t ‘invent’ Aslan to ‘represent’ Christ in an allegorical way - he sought out a symbolic form through which he could communicate a greater truth about the wider universe.

Lewis takes pains in The Allegory of Love to make the difference very clear:

There is nothing ‘mystical’ or mysterious about medieval allegory ; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions. Symbolism is a mode of thought, but allegory is a mode of expression. It belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content, and it is learned from the practice of the ancients.

But however clear Lewis strives to make it, by the time he comes to write the Narnia books, the two uses have become confused in the minds of Twentieth Century critics, who tend to see only Lewis ‘inventing’ allegorical figures to convey Christian propaganda. This is understandable enough: in an Ironic culture, psychology reigns supreme. Fantasy can be nothing other than allegory, an attempt by authors to project inner feelings and ideas onto readers. An Ironic mind is incapable of viewing itself in a larger context: Aslan must ‘represent’ Christ, rather than be an image or a harmonic of an externally existing and real cosmic entity.

Lewis defended his approach, writing that:

The Narnian books are not as much allegory as supposal. Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?

But it was difficult for some readers, embedded in the culture around them, to see the main story as anything other than allegory of Christ's crucifixion: Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund, a traitor who may deserve death, in the same way that Christians believe Jesus sacrificed himself for sinners. Some critics even went so far as to conclude that, when Aslan is killed on the Stone Table, the table symbolises Mosaic Law: it breaks when he is resurrected, representing the replacement of the strict justice of Old Testament law with the redeeming grace and forgiveness of the New Testament.

Allegory abounds, according to this interpretation: as in the Christian story, it is women (Susan and Lucy) who tend Aslan's body after he dies and are the first to see him after his resurrection. In Christian belief, Christ is associated with the Biblical Lion of Judah, which to allegorists seemed to confirm their suppositions.

To leap the other way - to be able to see that Lewis was trying to find symbolic truth using images like Aslan - was a step too far for some readers.

Lewis apparently very much enjoyed writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was published late in 1950, to a muted initial critical response. As we might expect, based on the undercurrents of Irony in the culture at that time, fantasy and fairy tales were seen as indulgent, appropriate only for very young readers. With the rise of psychology, fantasies of the Narnia kind were even seen as potentially harmful to older children, confusing them and possibly impairing their ability to cope with ‘reality’. Lewis's publisher, Geoffrey Bles, even feared that the book might damage Lewis’ reputation and affect the sales of his other books.

However, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was highly popular with young readers, and has remained so ever since, across the world. A sampling of studies gives us a glimpse of its power: in 2004 it was found that to be a common read-aloud book for seventh-graders in schools in San Diego County, California, and in 2005 it was included on TIME's list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. The U.S. National Education Association named it one of ‘Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children’ in 2007 while the University of Worcester’s 2012 survey revealed that it was the second most common book that British adults had read as children, after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It has also been published in 47 foreign languages.

This kind of reception suggests that, far from hindering young readers from coping with the real world, it has given them a taste of something beyond the Ironic Twentieth Century. But the point is not that a book’s popularity determines whether or not its symbolism has been accurate; the point is to reveal what can be shown about the operations of Lewis’s own thinking and creative activities.

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