Thursday, December 08, 2005

See you later allegorist!

It would be possible, and it might be edifying, to write a Christian cookery book. Such a book would exclude dishes whose preparation involves un-necessary human labour or animal suffering, and dishes excessively luxurious. That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a pagan. -- Lewis 'Christianity and Literature'
On December 4th, The Sunday Times revealed the contents of a "previously unpublished" letter from C.S Lewis which "emerged ahead of this week's release of the Chronicles of Narnia movie" and "provided conclusive proof of the Christian message in the Narnia books." Things are always "emerging" in newspapers. I think it means "We just noticed" or "There is no actual story here, but we decided to report it anyway." The headline, too, was a classic example of the sub-editors art: Narnia's Lion is really Jesus. It has to say "Narnia's lion", because we might be too ignorant to know who "Aslan" is. The article contains a few short quotes from the letter, a reply by Lewis to one of the many children who wrote to him: "The whole Narnia story is about Christ".... "Supposing there really was a world like Narnia.and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?" Now, Lewis wrote an awful lot of letters. One could wish he had written fewer. Indeed, one could willingly murder all those Yanks who sent him food parcels during the shortages after the war. Instead of writing each one a personal thank-you letter, why couldn't he have hired a secretary and written some more book! We've had two thousand-page volumes of 'Collected Letters' so far and he still hasn't met Joy Davidman or started to written a children's book. This letter comes from vol 3, due out next year. The 'Collected Letters' are published by Harper Collins, which, like the Sunday Times, is part of Rupert Murdoch's empire. So perhaps in this case "emerged" means "The proofs of volume 3 were lying on someone's desk, and we had a look at them"? So it is literally true that this letter is as yet "unpublished". However, it is complete nonsense to say that it sheds any fresh light on the religious content of the Narnia books. A much smaller selection of Lewis's letters was edited by his brother and published in 1966. In it, we find the following: "But it is not, as some people think, an allegory. That is, I don't say, "Let us represent Christ as Aslan" I say "Suppose there was a world like Narnia, and supposing like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there." See?" And in another short volume called 'Letters to Children', we find him saying the same thing in the same words: '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'. 'The Times' wants us to imagine some kind of controversy between people who think that they have found a religious sub-text in Narnia and people who deny it's there. There is no controversy or debate: Lewis's intentions are easy to find out from any standard work. This would not be especially interesting but for the fact that, in the run-up to the movie, a lot of people have been saying a lot of very silly things about "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." For example, Tilda Swinton, who has possibly been getting a bit too deeply into her role as the White Witch tells the BBC: "Faith is in the eye of the beholder... the original book was more "spiritual" than religious...You can make a religious allegory out of anything if that's what you're interested in." Well, yes, indeed, you can, although it must be said that it is rather easier to do it to "The Pilgrim's Progress" than, say "Tellytubbies" or "Pulp Fiction". I have to say that I have never understood what people are talking about when they use the word "spirituality", and the idea of the spiritual as opposed to the religious baffles me even further. More worryingly, the producer of the film asserts: "When I first read it, it never occurred to me Aslan was anything more than a great lion. Christian themes were very important to CS Lewis and imbued everything he did, but he himself denied any religious implications." Got that? Lewis denied any religious implications in the Narnia stories. This lie crops up again in an allegedly humorous "A - Z of Narnia" printed in Sunday's "Observer" magazine "C is for Christian allegory --Is it or isn't it? CS Lewis said it wasn't really, which seems a bit disingenuous." The Australian magazine "The Age" prints the following astonishing excerpt from an interview with no lessor person than Douglas Gresham: "Won't it at least impart a subliminal Christian message to young audiences, I ask? ""I sincerely hope not," he snorts. "Because - and this is what people always get wrong - it's not a Christian film and the Narnia books aren't Christian novels...." A couple of years back, Harper Collins were exploring the possibility of commissioning new stories using the Narnia setting, a silly idea of which very little came. An internal memo was leaked to the press saying that these books would play down any Christian symbolism; the usual process of Chinese whispers occurred, and before long, it was being widely reported as fact that Harper Collins was planning to censor all religious references from the text of the the existing books. (*) Douglas succinctly denounced this as a "wicked lie". To hear Douglas saying that "the Narnia books aren't Christian novels" makes me think that either a: He has been murdered and replaced by a Slitheen or b: He was quoted out of context. The interesting question is not "Are the Chronicles of Narnia Christian books" – of course they are. The question is "How does the Christian element in them work?" Lewis, as we have seen, said that they were not "allegory": Aslan doesn't "stand for" Jesus; and the other characters certainly don't "stand for" anyone from the Bible or anywhere else. (Edmund is not given thirty pieces of silver; Peter doesn't deny Aslan three times; Lucy certainly doesn't anoint Aslan's paws with her tears, wipe them away with her hair or have seven demons cast out of her.) This is the point which the "Observer" writer misses: when Lewis said that the books were "Not a Christian allegory", he was denying that they were allegorical, not denying that they were Christian. "The Sunday Times" headline-writer managed to miss the point even with the text in front of him. Lewis did not say that "Narnian Lion is Really Jesus." What he said was that "In Narnia, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a Lion named Aslan; analogous to the way in which, in our world, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a human being named Jesus." Which, I grant you, would not have made such a snappy headline. When talking about the Narnia books, Lewis distinguished between his intentions as "an author" and his intentions as "a man". As an author, he had some images -- the Faun, the Witch riding a sledge -- which he wanted to use in a story; along with an inkling that he'd like to have a go at writing a fairy tale. This was the starting point. But "as a man" he developed the idea that such a story could be put to an edifying use. Christianity is embodied in a collection of stories, and one central story. Christ himself "never spoke without using a parable". Tolkien famously broke through Lewis's resistance to Christianity by telling him that it made sense as a story. But the central narrative of Christianity has become so familiar to us that we can't experience it as a story: we don't feel horrified when Jesus is killed, or afraid when his tomb is empty or amazed when he comes back to life. By presenting something very like the Christ-story in the context of an imaginary world Lewis thought that he could defamiliarise it and allow us to hear it for the first time. 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 associate with lowered voices, almost as it 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 association, 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. So the people who say "I read the books as a child without realising that there was anything religious about them" are reacting very much as Lewis wanted them to. And the people who feel that they have been tricked by the books have also got a point. If you're moved by Aslan's death and resurrection, then at some level, you've experienced a religious emotion. Maybe even done some kind of devotion to a being you don't believe in. It's harder for you to say "I don't understand what it is these funny Christian types think they're doing on Easter Sunday and Good Friday" – because at some level, you do. I can see why the books make the Polly Toynbee's and Phillip Pullman's of this world spit blood. They know that Christianity is hateful religion; they know that the-Christ-of-the-church is a monstrous figure; but when the Christ-of-the-church is presented to children, and even to many adults, disguised as a lion in a story, then a lot of them have the audacity to fall in love with him! Interestingly, Lewis never tries to press the point as an argument. He doesn't say "So, then, if you love my Narnia books, you are already, at some level, a Christian" or "Since this is a beautiful story, it must at some level be true". When Lewis wrote "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", he was "quite sure" that it would be the last Narnia book, and it does read like the last volume of a trilogy. At the end of the book, Lucy and Edmund come to the edge of the world (Narnia appears to be a discworld) and encounter a Lamb. They ask the Lamb to show them the way to Aslan's country; the Lamb turns into Aslan, and tells them that for them, the way to his country is through their own world. In case this isn't clear enough, the Lamb offers them food: Come and have breakfast" said the Lamb...Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. ("As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid theron, and bread... Jesus saith unto them Come and dine."- John 21:9) Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that this will be their last trip to Narnia: "And is Eustace never to come back here either? said Lucy "Child" said Aslan "Do you really need to know that?" ("Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved, following...Peter seeing him saith to Jesus "Lord, and what shall that man do?" Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry trill I come, what is that to thee?"- John 21:22) Finally, Lewis puts his theological cards very firmly on the table: "It isn't Narnia you know" sobbed Lucy "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?" "But you shall meet me, dear on," said Aslan "Are--are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund. "I am," said Aslan, "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." To use a rather Lewisian extended metaphor. Imagine two people looking at a religious artwork: say, a painting of Jesus on the cross. One of them is a Christian, there other isn't. The Christian regards the painting as a devotional aid; he meditates on it, looks at it while he prays, and generally feels inspired by it. The non-Christian also admires the painting. He doesn't just admire the brushwork, but responds to the whole scene: he's horrified by the realistic way the painter has depicted a man being tortured and moved by the dramatic way he is conveyed a mother's grief at seeing her son hurt. But these are exactly the same emotions which the Christian feels when he looks at the picture. The only difference is that the Christian art-lover thinks that these emotions bring him closer to God, where the non-religious art-lover does not. (He might possibly call them "spiritual", but I still wouldn't know what he meant.) It is possible to imagine two other visitors to the gallery having more extreme reactions. One visitor might be so hostile to the whole idea of Christianity that they can't respond to the painting as a painting. They probably can't even see it. They're so overwhelmed by their conviction that the Atonement is an immoral doctrine that they couldn't even start to admit that they were looking at a very pretty picture. At the other extreme, someone might be so overwhelmingly moved by the picture that they decided to become a Christian on the spot. The hostile critic would have plenty of interesting things to say about his objections to Christianity, but would not be have anything useful to say about the picture. (He'd think that the image of Mary was an instrument of patriarchal oppression regardless of whether this one was well painted or badly painted.) But you probably couldn't blame the painting or the artist for manipulating or brainwashing the convert: he wasn't responding to the painting but the thing which he thought that it was a painting of. And winning converts probably wasn't in the artists head; he just wanted to paint a very truthful picture of what he imagined the crucifixion to have been like. "By knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." I don't think Lewis is really proselytising or writing propaganda. I don't even think he's writing one of those teaching aids which uses stories to explain the difficult bits of a religious idea. I think he's trying to provide something a lot like a devotional tool that different people will use in different ways. Francis Spufford (**) says that even as a child he could see that "Aslan was both a talking lion and something else at the same time: I already knew that the story of him being sacrificed and coming back to life was a kind of cousin of the story of Jesus." And really, it shouldn't be necessary to say any more than that. Aslan is like Jesus, but not exactly like Jesus. I may have spent several pages "stating and re-stating the terribly, terribly obvious." But when people closely associated with the forthcoming movie are being quoted or misquoted as saying that the "Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is "not a Christian story", "spiritual rather than religious" and that Lewis repudiated the story's specifically Christian significance the obvious is probably worth stating quite loudly. (*)It is said that fledgling political journalists are asked to prove their skill by taking a speech by John Prescott and editing it into English without changing its meaning. I suggest that "Re-write Narnia with the religious element removed, but without changing anything else in the story" could be a similarly challenging party game for wannabee editors. (**) Chapter III of "The Child That Books Built" is the best thing which anyone has ever written about the Chronicles. "Some people" he says "feel got at by the Narnia books."
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43 comments:

David said...

"Aslan is Jesus" could be mistaken as a reference to the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, killed earlier this year. The resulting rumours of Maskhadov's resurrection would cause tremendous consternation throughout the Christian world, the Islamic world, and the Kremlin. The editor obviously decided that this risk was not worth taking for the sake of shortening the headline by one word, and wisely replaced it with "Narnian Lion".

Emily said...

A lovely, well-thought out post. I think I'll to print it out to present each time I'm met with such an opinion. I've been so disheartened by the perceived controversy over the upcoming film that I hardly bother arguing any more.

Phil Masters said...

Thanks, Andrew. I suspect that people who are, to whatever extent, bugged by the weight of the Christian message in Lewis's books can join with the people who like it a lot, in getting quite peeved by the film people who say it isn't there at all. The concept of the two-stream advertising campaign could partly explain this, but I was wondering how somebody like Swinton, who I previously thought of as fairly bright, could let her mouth be hijacked that way.

The idea that "it's not a Christian allegory" has been misread with the emphasis in the wrong place explains a lot.

Philip said...

Apparently the filmmakers, taking their cue from the oft-repeated assertion that "he's not a tame lion", have elected to represent Aslan as a hedgehog.

The Anglican Druid said...

when Lewis said that the books were "Not a Christian allegory", he was denying that they were allegorical, not denying that they were Christian.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Our debased journalistic establishment does not understand the distinction between "symbolism" and "allegory".

Phil Masters said...

To be fair to said debased (from what?) journalistic establishment, Lewis does seem to have used the term in a slightly narrow technical sense. His usage may be correct semantically or more useful for critical purposes, but what Narnia is, is something that a lot of people (and not just debased journalists) would call an allegory. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, et cetera.

Or, to put it another way - Lewis's definition of "allegory" appears to encompass, well, Bunyan, maybe The Faerie Queen, some newspaper cartoons, and probably some obscure and justly forgotten medieval stuff.

Louise H. said...

I'm definitely with Phil here. Sorry to contradict Lewis but Aslan obviously, one might say blatantly, "stands for" Jesus. He has four legs and a tail, but that I understand is the whole point of allegory, that something is represented by something that it isn't. The important thing, religiously speaking, is that he occupies the same position as a Sacrifice between God and his people and there is only one Sacrifice on record. If he is meant to be some alternative God Incarnate then all one can conclude is that Lewis had a very limited imagination about the possible characteristics of his Saviours.

Charles Filson said...

First of all Phillip: lol. Nicely phrased.

Next: Perhaps I lack the refinement to understand the issue here.

Narnia was written by a Theologian, and whether intentional or not, is rife with Christian symbolism and allegory. It might even contain [gasp] affirmation of the writers personal beliefs.

If you are afraid of being influenced by Christian ideas, if you think that seeing this movie is going to brain-wash your kids into attending church on Sunday, don't see the film. You'll probably miss out on a good story and some ripping good special effects, but at least you and your kids won't be exposed to dangerous and scary ideas.

On the other hand this might help you to understand what all those wacky christians have been complaining about when they rail against the 'hidden' messages in films that are going to turn their children into athiests or devil-worshippers.

Maybe you could all get together and work up some sort of mental-fortification program for all those feable-minded children that are being converted to witchcraft by wand waving high-schoolers or Christianity by talking Lions. ;-)

Earl Wajenberg said...

Louise H. wrote, "Sorry to contradict Lewis but Aslan obviously, one might say blatantly, "stands for" Jesus."

But, as Phil said, Lewis is being pretty strictly technical in his use of the term "allegory." (After all, he was a literature professor by occupation. Specializing in medieval literature, which has lots of allegory.) In that definition, "allegory" isn't something a single character can be, but the whole story.

So then, granted that Aslan = Christ, it still won't be an allegory unless you can "decode" all the main characters and events of the story into something else. This could be an amusing exercise, but the longer you work at it, the less convincing it will be.

For instance, Edmund is a traitor and so ought to be Judas. But he doesn't betray Aslan/Jesus, but his siblings. And he's redeemed, which Judas isn't. Enough ingenuity could patch that, of course, but even more ingenuity could "decode" the hidden significance of Mrs. Beaver's sewing machine.

(By the way, the mis-match between the technical level of a sewing machine and the general Narnian level of technology, along with how you keep food production going through 100 years of winter, is exercising some of the minds posting at the Steve Jackson Games discussion boards. And, yes, they know the real answer is "Lewis didn't care about those details." It's a thought experiment.)

Tom R said...

Sweing machines in Narnia? Simple. The Calormenes invented them, a la Black Athena and Robyn Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The Melbourne Age is about the same politics, the same intellectual level, and the same deep and sympathetic understanding of Christianity, as the Grauniad/ Observer.

Which is not saying much, given the "A-Z of Narnia" article mentioned [see http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,1657042,00.html]...

> " E is also for Evangelicals. They venerate CS Lewis in the US; there is a church in Monrovia, California, that has him pictured in a stained glass window."

If it has a stained glass window, it almost certainly won't be an "Evangelical" church. Try "Episcopalian", maybe? A few pages earlier in your Dictionary of Valid World Religions.

> "Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy, above)..."

One curious omission from the barrels of bytes spilled lately describing the LW&W film, is of any mention that Master McAvoy also played ... [drumroll] Leto II Atreides, God Emperor of Dune http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0287839/. So, if only Lucas had cast him as Anakin Skywalker, JMcA could have partaken in the Triple Crown of scifi/ fantasy's messianic tales.

> 'But we're not heroes,' protests Peter, setting up the film's best gag. 'We're from Finchley,' adds Susan.

As a person of non-Britishness, I would ask someone to explain to my why this is funny. Is there something about Finchley in particular? Or is it just the Arthur-Dent-type incongruity of a London suburb and a cosmic struggle

Tom R said...

... he felt this governing magic found its truest form in the Anglican God.

Yes, and we know how Lewis certainly became a fanatical Anglican, didn't he? Remember hsi famous apologetics book Mere Anglicanity, where he argued for a "common core" of belief among all who placed their faith in the See of Canterbury. I count a whole, oh, three or even four references to Hooker and the 39 Articles in his dozens of apologetics books.

T is for Tilda Swinton

Speaking of Australia, we may yet end up with Ms Swinton's long-lost clone as our Prime Minister circa 2015: see http://images.google.com.au/images?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GGLG,GGLG:2005-40,GGLG:en&q=julia-gillard&sa=N&tab=wi.

"Z is for Zoroastrianism... If anybody has a better Z, please feel free to send it in."

Gladly: Zardeenah, the Lady of the Night, a Calormene goddess. (Insert obligatory swipe here about Lewis' dangerous racism in depicting all dark-skinned persons as evil and all -- err, almost all -- light-skinned characters as good.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Hmm...I'd always thought that the reason Lewis didn't push the specificially Christian aspect of the Chronicles was that he believed that anything heart-wrenchingly beautiful drew the mind to Heaven. If all sublime art contains an element of truth and can be used devotionally, why fret over saying that one (and made by Lewis himself) in particular can be devotional.

Tom--
Evangelicals tend to like ugly buildings, but I actually went to an Evangelical church for a couple of years that had stained-glass windows, and it isn't the only example. So "E" might actually be correct.

For what it's worth, I think that Lewis is good for Evangelicals, if they'd just listen to him.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The system of religious signification in Narnia varies from book to book, and even from paragraph to paragraph. Think of the Turkish Delight: Edmund is certainly being tempted by an evil character; and this is clearly part of a moral or religious message. But do we say:

1: The Turkish delight represents sin at a psychological level: something which initially tastes nice, but which you carry on wanting more and more of even though it has stopped giving you pleasure and is now making you ill.

2: That it specifically represents the process of becoming addicted to a chemical substance -- Edmund has sold out his family to get another hit from his dealer?

3: That it is a moral "exemplar" of bad behaviour "Here is a character who did a very bad thing in return for a trivial bribe; be careful you don't do the same!"

The two least convincing readings, I suggest, would be the two strictly allegorical ones. Edmund is a traitor, and therefore represents Judas; ergo, the Turkish Delight represents thirty pieces of silver; and Lewis is saying that money has evil magical properties and that if you were allowed to, you would carry on eating it forever until you died. Ergo, the White Witch is Caiphas. Or Pilate. Or...

Alternatively, the White Witch is Satan, Edmund is Adam, the Turkish Delight is the Apple, and Edmunds fall is Original Sin. This works a little better, in so far as Aslan dies in payment for the sin of Edmund. Except that Edmund's betrayal can't in any be said to admit sin to Narnia (there has already been a kind of a Fall in the Magicians Nephew); and Edmund isn't breaking a No Turkish Delight taboo, but committing what he already knows is a moral offense; and he is by no means an innocent when he meets the Witch.

It seems to me we can do this all the way through the books. One can says Aslan's death is an allegory of Christ's death (*) without much problem. But is the story around it an allegory of anything? Lucy and Susan walk with Aslan to the Stone Table. Does this "mean" that some of Jesus female disciples and his mother were present at the Crucifixion; or does it "mean" that St Veronica wiped his face, or that he said "weep not, daughters of Jerusalem...". This seems a lot like nonsense: Lewis has created an event which is going to happen in his story-world, and makes his characters do something which it is narratively likely that they would do.

We can keep this game up indefinitely: Aslan's reanimation of the statues in the White Witch's castle is an obvious metaphor (one which Lewis uses frequently in his staight religous books); Edmund's petty graffiti is simply the kind of thing that Lewis thinks that character would do. When Prof. Kirke explains the Trilemma to Peter and Susan, he's saying very much what we would expect that character to say, but working in one of Lewis's favourite bits of religious argument.

If we are uncomfortable with saying "The Narnia books are not allegory" -- and Lewis's use of the term is certainly technical, not to say pedantic -- then perhaps we just need to find some new vocabulary. Would "Allegory 1" and "Allegory 2" help, or would it be better to say that "Pilgrims Progress is a fnurdlewibble, but Narnia is an oojamaflip"?





(*)Pedant warning: I have less problem with the statement "Aslan is Christ" than I do with the statement "Aslan is Jesus", in any case.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Finchley is a middle-class suburb in North London. For many years it's member of parliament was one Margaret Hilda Thatcher. I don't know whether that makes it funny or not.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Would "Allegory 1" and "Allegory 2" help, or would it be better to say that "Pilgrims Progress is a fnurdlewibble, but Narnia is an oojamaflip"?

How about:

"The Narnia stories are Christian, but they're not simply the story of Jesus retold in a storybook world."

Simple enough to go in a newspaper article and no technical terms for the pedants to jump on.

Phil Masters said...

I might say that Pilgrim's Progress is a "literalistic" allegory, or "extensively mapped", or "highly specific", or "very explicit", or something. Whereas the Narnia books (and His Dark Materials, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, and many alchemical texts, and Jurgen, and Gulliver's Travels, and lots of others) contain extensive allegorical elements and metaphors, and hence can be called allegories as the word is generally used.

If academic critics want to use the word in a more precise sense, well, that's their professional prerogative - but they'd do well to remember the difference when talking to the rest of us, to avoid confusion. Otherwise, it's like people who insist that "pseudo-medieval" is a technical term for social arrangements in parts of Europe over a rather limited historical period, or that a "quantum leap" must always be very small. It's just confusing.

(Would Lewis have called Animal Farm an allegory? Presumably not - but given the way that virtually everything in it has a one-to-one map with something in the real world, it's hard to think of anything more allegorical in most people's terms. If one went around telling most intelligent readers that it wasn't an allegory, one would just look like a crank.)

Tom R said...

> "Tom - Evangelicals tend to like ugly buildings, but I actually went to an Evangelical church for a couple of years that had stained-glass windows, and it isn't the only example. So "E" might actually be correct."

Gratias Ramblator Casteratoniensis. I stand corrected. However, I'm 99% sure that the Saint Jack SGW is an a Piskie church (I read about it in The New Republic, of all places, in 1989 or 1990!).

Tom R said...

And see Meghan O'Rourke's "The Lion King" in today's Slate http://www.slate.com/id/2131908/<

> The books have different heroes and heroines, but what unifies them is the "beautiful and terrifying" presence of Aslan, the son of the "King over the sea."

Emperor! Emperor Over Sea, not King! (Haven't you ever read "The Fisherman and His Wife?!) And no definite article!

Matthew Woodcraft said...

I think that saying "The Narnia books are Christian Allegory" is
misleading because it suggests that there will be a surface reading
which is not in itself Christian, and a symbolic reading which is.

But this isn't the case here. If you do consider that there are separate
surface and symbolic readings, then even in the surface reading Aslan is
the same person as the Christian Son of God.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Phil

If your point is that the author of "The Allegory of Love" used the term "allegory" in a technical, not to say pedantic, way, then I do of course agree with you.

It is actually very hard to find any books which conform to his strict definition. If allegory is the use of concrete images to depict abstract concepts" then "Pilgrims Progress", though it contains allegory, isn't allegorical all the way through.

However, given that the English language has perfectly good words such as "parable", "fable", "metaphor" and "proverb", it seems unhelpful to say that "The Fairy Queen" and the story of the good Samaritan are both allegorical. You'd risk using the word to mean "any story with some point". You'd end up having to say that the fable of the tortoise and the hare is an allegory of the fact that slow steady progress can sometimes be better than very quick progress -- even that "Oliver Twist" is an allegory of conditions in the 19th century workhouse, or that "Henry V" is an allegory of war against the French.

The story of the man who fell among thieves can certainly be read as an allegory. For example

1: The traveller -- The human race
2: Jerico = The New Jerusalem
3: Jeruslaem = The present world
4: The road = History
5: The bandits = Satan
6: Being attacked by bandits = The fall
7: The Priest = Abraham
8: The Levite = Moses
9: The Samaritan = Christ
10: The Inn = the Church
11: The Innkeeper = The Clergy
12: The Samaritan's money = The Sacrements
13: The return of the Samaritan to settle the bills = The Second Coming of Jesus

or

1: The traveller = A particular human being
2: Jerusalem = Birth
3: Jerico = Death, the next life, heaven
4: The road = The journey through life
5: Being attacked by bandits = Falling into temptation
6: The Priest = Faith
7: The levite = Hope
8: THe Samaritan = Charity

So the story either means that the Human race could not be saved from Original Sin either by the religion of Abraham or that of Moses, but only by Christ; or it means that when we are tempted to do bad things, there is no point in just having Faith in God or Hope that we will go to Heaven: we have to act on these feelings as well. Both of these allegorical readings turns up in "Piers Plowman", which is apparently an obscure and justly forgotten medieval poem.

These readings are ingenius; there is a certain intellectual pleasure to seeing a clever expositor discover an allegorical reading of a story, a bit like solving a holy crossword clue. They are also edifying and theologically orthodox. But they having nothing whatsoever to do with the story of the Good samaritan. The original story quite clearly exists only as a memorable illustration of a simple moral point. ("The law that says you should be kind to people applies to your enemies as well as your friends".)

So we can play humpty dumpty and say that both the Parable and the Pilgrim's Progress are allegories; or we can say that neither of them are; or we can say that one is and one isn't. I am perfectly happy with fnurrdlewhizzle and oojamaflip, myself.

We can say, of course, that the Good Samaritan, Gullivers Travels, Pilgrim's Progress and Animal Farm all have meanings; and we can say that the last three all contain symbols. But if you were to say that all four stories used symbols in a similar way, I think that you would be talking nonsense. And this was clearly all Lewis meant: "Some people think that my books work in the same way that Pilgrims Progress does. Some people are writing to me asking who Reepicheep and Mrs Beaver represent. If you ask that, you've misunderstood what I'm doing."

Keith Schooley said...

If we are uncomfortable with saying "The Narnia books are not allegory" -- and Lewis's use of the term is certainly technical, not to say pedantic -- then perhaps we just need to find some new vocabulary.

The Narnia books are, quite simply, didactic fiction. They are intended to Make a Point, which they do by using certain allegorical elements--primarily the identification of Aslan and Jesus.

I am, perhaps, the one person I know who is a Christian and deeply appreciates Lewis, but doesn't like the Chronicles all that much, mainly as a result of their didacticism. Of course, a lot of great literature is intended to make a point, but it is better done when either more or less thoroughgoing than in the Chronicles. For example, I prefer Screwtape and The Great Divorce because they are quite unabashedly didactic: the narrative is obviously just a vehicle to convey certain observations about faith and life. On the other hand, I prefer The Lord of the Rings because the point is better subordinated to the telling of the story. In the Narnia books, or at least Lion, I feel too much the intrusion of A Serious Point into what was an otherwise simply nice story.

(Or maybe I just came upon the Chronicles too late in life.)

Phil Masters said...

Matthew Woodcraft:

I think that saying "The Narnia books are Christian Allegory" is misleading because it suggests that there will be a surface reading which is not in itself Christian, and a symbolic reading which is.


Umm. Not sure about that. If we're allowing that Pilgrim's Progress is allegorical (and it appears to be about as close to the platonic ideal as we're getting) - well, it's presumably a Christian allegory, and it's very hard to see how a surface reading of the text could be non-Christian without actual brain death in the reader.

But this isn't the case here. If you do consider that there are separate surface and symbolic readings, then even in the surface reading Aslan is the same person as the Christian Son of God.

And yet there are lots of people who insist that they read the books, sometimes repeatedly, without noticing the explicit Christian element for years.

Andrew:

It is actually very hard to find any books which conform to his strict definition. If allegory is the use of concrete images to depict abstract concepts" then "Pilgrims Progress", though it contains allegory, isn't allegorical all the way through.


I'm beginning to think that "allegory" should be regarded, for practical purposes, as relative rather than absolute. Thus, we could say that X contains allegorical elements, or is somewhat allegorical, or is more allegorical than Y, without worrying whether it's hard-core allegory all the way through, or whether it attains that platonic ideal.

However, given that the English language has perfectly good words such as "parable", "fable", "metaphor" and "proverb", it seems unhelpful to say that "The Fairy Queen" and the story of the good Samaritan are both allegorical. You'd risk using the word to mean "any story with some point". You'd end up having to say that the fable of the tortoise and the hare is an allegory of the fact that slow steady progress can sometimes be better than very quick progress -- even that "Oliver Twist" is an allegory of conditions in the 19th century workhouse, or that "Henry V" is an allegory of war against the French.

You're probably right, and I for one hereby resolve to try and use the word "allegorical" with a little more care and precision in future.

However, for practical purposes, one has to accept that the word "allegory" will be mostly taken to mean "contains explicit metaphor or symbolism in the plot" or "contains story elements which stand for, represent, or closely parallel other things in the real world". Disgracefully lax, I know, but one has to recognise what one's hearers will understand by what one says. And allowing that "allegorical" can be a relative term, if one says that "X isn't an allegory", one is implying that X contains (virtually) no explicit symbolism or instances of things which map to other things in the real world. Which, for, say, Narnia, is palpably nonsense.

Matthew Woodcraft said...

Phil:

And yet there are lots of people who insist that they read the books, sometimes repeatedly, without noticing the explicit Christian element for years.

It doesn't follow that the books are allegorical.

Suppose I have read the books without noticing the Christian element, and then someone tells me that Aslan and Jesus are the same Person. Then something which was obscure to me has been made clear, but what has happened is not that I have interpreted a symbol. It's more like what would happen if I read a book featuring a character called Arthur Wellesley, and later someone told me that this was Wellington.

Phil Masters said...

Matthew:

It doesn't follow that the books are allegorical.

Okay, so it's not allegorical if it's meant to be literal (even if it's a bit obscure). Allegory has to partake of symbolism (which fits the Chambers definition, certainly). Fair enough.

However, I'm not sure that Narnia can entirely escape having a symbolic aspect. It's a fiction (and Lewis would never claim otherwise), but the thing to which much of it relates has a real world existence (of some kind, at least for Christians). Also, parts of it draw on Christian symbolism that was always, well, entirely symbolic - for example, the lion symbolised Christ in medieval texts.

Given a combination of close parallels of events and themes with the use of symbolically-laden imagery, I think that Narnia inevitably ends up being somewhat allegorical.

Charles Filson said...

I saw Narnia on Saturday with my Wife, Kids, Sister-in-law, and some friends and their kids.

My Sister didn't see any allegory; My wife did. I thought Father Christmas came out really well, which surprised me. I wasn't sure they could do that without it being corney.

The Trilemma was glossed over in a near mumble.

A friend of mine who is not overly familiar with Christianity and also saw the film, asked me which bits were Christian.

Charles Filson said...

You know, I also guess I should say that the most central Christian themes seemed rather clumsey. The 'Deep Magic' had not been mentioned in the film (or in the book as I recall) until the White Witch shows up and demands her sacrifice.

Had the underlying message not required the White Witch to be able to claim a traitor as her own, it would have made a lot more sense to not have rescued Edmund. Then Aslan would have still been able to offer himself in exchange.

This would have made a lot more sense for the surface story. It would have flowed a bit more smoothly. However it would not have fit the Christian story as well. Lewis rescues Edmund solely to make it allegorical. Edmund was in no physical danger when the witch came to claim him. Lewis wants to make it clear, I think, that Aslan is not rescuing him, but redeeming him.

So I guess now, I have to agree that the story is firstly a Christian allegory (and I use that term undereducatedly), and the surface fairy story comes a distant second.

SK said...

Actually, the 'deep magic' is mentioned in the film before it is in the book: when he shows Peter Cair Paravel (but doesn't mention that he will be High King...) Aslan in the film, but not the book, says that Narniais ruled by a 'deep magic' which 'separates right from wrong'.

Aslan also, in that scene, says that he also wants 'his family to be safe', which I thought a slightly odd addition.

(And it had more of the inserted whining with Peter only going along with Aslan because he wanted to rescue Edmund.)

Dan Hemmens said...

Aslan also, in that scene, says that he also wants 'his family to be safe', which I thought a slightly odd addition.

The film was All About Family. That's why they kept harping on about their parents, why there was the gratuitious scene with Edmund going to retrieve his father's photograph from the bombing, and so on.

With a slightly pseudy hat on, it seems that they took out as much of the Christian symbolism as they could, and replaced it with the favoured secular icons of "The Family" and "Believing in Yourself."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Matthew: I think that saying "The Narnia books are Christian Allegory" is misleading because it suggests that there will be a surface reading which is not in itself Christian, and a symbolic reading which is.

Phil: Umm. Not sure about that. If we're allowing that Pilgrim's Progress is allegorical (and it appears to be about as close to the platonic ideal as we're getting) - well, it's presumably a Christian allegory, and it's very hard to see how a surface reading of the text could be non-Christian without actual brain death in the reader.


Not quite. Two men are on a journey; fleeing from a hostile city, they fall asleep near a castle. The castle is owned by a wicked giant, who says that because they have trespassed on his land, he is going to imprison them in his castle and then kill them. But one of the travellers has been given a magic key-of-door-opening in a previous encounter, and they escape from the castle with some of the giants other captives. Not the worlds greatest story, perhaps, but perfectly intelligible. You could read it as having a moral, if you really wanted ("however bad things look, some solution will probably turn up") but it doesn't have any specifically religious message. However, if the two travellers are called Christian and Hopeful, and they are imprisoned in Doubting Castle by the Giant Despiar (the magic key being called Promise) then the whole thing has an obvious religious meaning. Bunyan gives us the religious names and the adventure-story simultaneously, where Spencer is more inclined to narrate about of chivalrous derring-do and then reveal that we've just seen Sir Jurisprudence rescuing Lady Property from the Castle of Tort, or whatever. Bunyan is interested in the adventure story primarily as a vehicle for his religous message; Spencer is about equally interested in his knightly adventures and their political and religious meanings. But the point is that in both cases the two can conceptually be seperated. And in both cases, you couldn't possibly work out the allegorical meaning without someone telling you. Christian's key represents "Promise" via a fairly arbitrary signifying system; not because keys are particularly promise-like.

Compare this with Gulliver's Travels: no-one has to come along and "decode" Lilliput for you: it
"represents" 18th century England by virture of the fact that it resembles it in some respects.

As ever, I think Mr. Spufford sums up what is going on in Narnia admirably:

"(The intensity) was strongest around the figure of Aslan,the great lion who is Narnia's Christ, and consequently a fictive sahdow in lion's form of our world's Christ, the Alpha and Omega of the real universe according to Lewis's belief."

SK said...

Yes, I realise the movie was all about Family (I was watching for one particular scene to see if they got the book: Aslan interrupting Lucy at the end as she waits for her cordial to work on Edmund. They didn't get it).

However -- Aslan's family was an odd touch. It was said in a portentious tone (as was everything Aslan said, of course -- his voice was utterly wrong but I'm not sure it's possible to do Aslan's voice with a human actor, so we'll forgive it that) and it was the last line of the scene, with a beat before the horn sounded just to make sure you processed it.

And it sure isn't in the book, so it must have been added to the script deliberately. Which means whoever added it must have had some idea of why they added it, and what they meant by it, but I can't think of what it was -- especially as the only other hint that Aslan might have a family, his father the Emperor-over-the-sea, was so thoroughly excised.

So: What did it mean? Why was that line in there? Who did whoever wrote that line mean when they talked about Aslan's family?

Or do you really think I'm over-analysing it and the line was just another chance to say the word 'family' in case some dullard had sneaked into the cinema and not yet realised that the most important thing in life (far more important than some weird talking lion) is being nice to your brothers and sisters?

Dan Hemmens said...

Or do you really think I'm over-analysing it and the line was just another chance to say the word 'family' in case some dullard had sneaked into the cinema and not yet realised that the most important thing in life (far more important than some weird talking lion) is being nice to your brothers and sisters?

I'm afraid that's exactly it.

Andrew, a little while ago (I think on his original website) wrote about something he called "the BabyJesus Religion" - the pseudo-religious dogma that crops up around Christmas time, which is all about Joy and Love and Family and Presents - and how it is distinct from Christianity, despite having co-opted the "baby in a manger" image.

The new Narnia movie is rather exemplary of the BabyJesus religion. Its Lion-God (who is really more of a Lion-Dumbeldore) would never dream of interrupting a little girl who was tending to her recently dying brother. That would undermine the whole Message of the film: that nothing is more important than Family.

Charles Filson said...

SK said: but I'm not sure it's possible to do Aslan's voice with a human actor

Darth Vader?

SK said...

No; the problem is that Aslan's voice is as much inside your head as outside.

Until movies can beam thoughts directly into your brain, I think they're stuck with Ballymeena's most famous son.

Dan Hemmens said...

No; the problem is that Aslan's voice is as much inside your head as outside.

Until movies can beam thoughts directly into your brain, I think they're stuck with Ballymeena's most famous son.


I thought the BBC adaptation did pretty well on this count actually. Ronald Pickup had a lot more authority than Liam Neeson, and the voice of Aslan did seem somewhat disembodied.

Of course it's never going to *actually* beam thoughts into your head, but I think that's a false distinction. There's never going to be a battle scene in a film that makes you feel like you *really are* in a cold wet field with Germans shooting at you, that doesn't render the war film impossible.

Jacob said...

I remember Peter as denying Aslan three times. Of course I read it a long time ago and don't have a copy handy...

Dan Hemmens said...

So: What did it mean? Why was that line in there? Who did whoever wrote that line mean when they talked about Aslan's family?

I've just noticed another, rather awful, interpretation.

In Book!Narnia, the great hope of Narnia, the great weapon against the White Witch, the rallying point, the Thing That Will Make Everything Better, is Aslan. When Aslan sacrifices himself on the Stone Table, he sacrifices not only his life, but also all hope of victory over the White Witch, and he does it all for Edmund. Leaving aside the connection with the doctrine of a certain well known religion, this is a powerful, and really rather amazing story.

In Movie!Narnia, the great hope of the land is not Aslan, but the Pevensies. Aslan is just the guy who brought them their army. When Aslan talks about wanting to "protect his family", he is foreshadowing the fact that he will sacrifice himself to save Edmund, not for Edmund's sake, but for the sake of the Prophecy, and the sake of Narnia. Essentially, Aslan's sacrifice in Movie!Narnia is simply a rational tactical decision: one life for many.

SK said...

Indeed: Aslan is a sort of bit player. It's not even Aslan who lets Father Christmas through, but 'the sense of hope the children have brought'.

It's quite sickening really.

What's with all the exclaimation?

Dan Hemmens said...

Indeed: Aslan is a sort of bit player. It's not even Aslan who lets Father Christmas through, but 'the sense of hope the children have brought'.

It's quite sickening really


I've recently been watching the BBC adaptations, and the distinction is stark.

BBC Version:

PEVENSIES: How do we fight the Witch?
BEAVERS: You don't. Aslan fights the Witch. Aslan is our only hope. Leave it all up to Aslan and everything will be okay.

Movie Version:

PEVENSIES: We're going home.
BEAVERS: You can't. You have to stay and fight the Witch!

Ironically, in fact, it kind of turns the whole thing into ... well ... an allegory. Aslan goes from literally being The Son of God to generally standing for Love and Sacrifice and Being Nice To Your Brothers And Sisters.

What's with all the exclaimation?

It's a bit of convention that I have embarassingly picked up on the internet. I *think* it has its origins in some sort of programming language. So "Book!Narnia" or "Movie!Narnia".

Abigail Nussbaum said...

[Attribute]![Noun] is a fandom convention that had its origin in, I believe, UNIX programming, and made a rather typical shift over into general geekdom and then into fandom. The exclamation point in this context is usually called 'bang'.

Rousseau said...

Definitely sounds like an analogy to me.

"Our world is to Narnia, as Jesus is to Aslan." In both cases, Jesus/Aslan is simply a symbol for God.

What seems to be forgotten is that Lewis didn't view this world as much realer than Narnia. So no Aslan isn't a symbol of Jesus, but rather they are both symbols of Christ.

So symbol, no; analogy, yes. And um, that sounds like allegory to me.

Tom R said...

Slightly tangential to this particular topic, but very relevant to the whole "Can all the Narnia books be filmed?" discussion...

In my mind is a vague memory of a quotation which I read many years ago, and I'm sure is by Lewis, where he says something about how all the evil the white man has done against the brown man, the black man, the yellow man and the red man is crying out to heaven.

Unfortunately, Google, Factiva, Amazon-com text search, et al, have turned up nothing.

Does this ring a bell with anyone here?

Scott said...

As I am unwilling to read 41 previous posts, perhaps I will not be the first to notice this. An allegory is symbolic. Lewis makes no claims of symbolism; instead, he considers alternative realities in Narnia, Charn (and by extension throughout the many, perhaps infinite, worlds or universes accessible via his wood between the worlds).

As an example, were I to propose a universe in which gravity repels instead of attracts (with repulsion increasing quadratically as distance diminishes) some fanciful person might presume I were "actually" making an allegory for human contempt. While that interpretation is all good and well for the critic--and it may be true--it in no way changes what I have done! Human creativity is not some quantum state that changes with observation, but it certainly benefits from open-mindedness.

Lewis in no way misrepresents his work when he claims it is not an allegory. Instead, it might be called a "thought experiment" (in contemporary parlance). That the recent movie's actress and producer are such dolts as to miss that distinction, and to be unaware of the immensely obvious theme of Christ, respectively, is predictable and laughable!

The power behind the scenes (in Europe, Russia, China, and particularly America--including Hollywood and Washington) have been feverishly removing all extremely intelligent people from the limelight. Do not imagine that these folks are not still around, actively running things and becoming financially secure. Personal experience tells this group is more empowered today than it was 50 years ago. Nevertheless, you'd have a hard time naming 20 people with 160+ IQs who receive regular coverage in the mainstream media today. Being the intelligent folks they are, they collectively realize that invisibility greatly increases their personal safety. (Recall the treatment they received under fascism, China or the former Warsaw pact nations.) It also may enlarge their useful window of opportunity—it's much easier to be effective and honest when you are not being manipulated by the media/banking/political system. In short: be neither surprised at stupidity nor dismayed that it seems to be an accelerating phenomenon. However, DO remove the brightest children from rank-and-file schools lest their minds become dull through lack of challenge. Now let me return to the topic at hand.

Plato never said his characters were shadows; it was but a manifestation of self resulting from their predicament. The brilliance of Plato's allegory is that it implies infinitely more by a philosophical induction (or an inverse reduction): even as we are more than shadows, perhaps we are still more than we yet know; I say 'Hooray for Plato!'

Let us not be so confined in these primate shells that we imagine ourselves to be nothing more than smart apes. Lewis's theology (and mine) sees us created in God's spiritual image. Having not bodies fashioned after the Creator's; but having minds and eternal spirits possessing some of the higher and finer character of God!

God made us creative. He gave us speech (yes, Jar-Jar--and George Lucas--that is part of what it means to be intelligent!) God gave us free will, the right to determine our future: to either sin or serve Him.

I will close with the very real (not allegorical) quote from 1 John 3:2 "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."

Andrew Rilstone said...

As I am unwilling to read 41 previous posts, perhaps I will not be the first to notice this. An allegory is symbolic. Lewis makes no claims of symbolism; instead, he considers alternative realities in Narnia, Charn...


I wrote:

Lewis, as we have seen, said that they were not "allegory": Aslan doesn't "stand for" Jesus; and the other characters certainly don't "stand for" anyone from the Bible or anywhere else. .... This is the point which the "Observer" writer misses: when Lewis said that the books were "Not a Christian allegory", he was denying that they were allegorical, not denying that they were Christian. ...Lewis did not say that "Narnian Lion is Really Jesus." What he said was that "In Narnia, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a Lion named Aslan; analogous to the way in which, in our world, the Word of God was incarnate in the body of a human being named Jesus."

Not reading the 42 posts is forgivable; not reading the original article is perhaps less so.

Plato never said his characters were shadows; it was but a manifestation of self resulting from their predicament. The brilliance of Plato's allegory is that it implies infinitely more by a philosophical induction (or an inverse reduction): even as we are more than shadows, perhaps we are still more than we yet know; I say 'Hooray for Plato!'

What the Cliff are you talking about? Plato said that everything we percieve is a shadow or copy of an original Idea or Form. Christian neo-platonists too up the idea that "the world of the Forms" might be heaven and "the Form of the Good" might be God. Who said his character's were shadows? (His characters were, I guess, caricatures or portraists of real people who illustrated philosophical points of view -- Meno, Aristophanes and above all Socrates.)

Having not bodies fashioned after the Creator's....

The idea that God has a body was condemned as heresy by mainline Christians as soon as it came onto the theological agenda. (Is this just a slip on your part, or are you, perchance, a Mormon?)

The power behind the scenes (in Europe, Russia, China, and particularly America--including Hollywood and Washington) have been feverishly removing all extremely intelligent people from the limelight. .....In short: be neither surprised at stupidity nor dismayed that it seems to be an accelerating phenomenon. However, DO remove the brightest children from rank-and-file schools lest their minds become dull through lack of challenge. .

Ah. A conspiracy theorist. This is going to be huge fun.