Many Christian readers, upon discovering additional layers of meaning in the Narnian stories, immediately jump to the conclusion that the Chronicles are allegories. These same readers would be surprised to learn that C. S. Lewis denied multiple times that the stories are allegories.
The Narnian Stories Are Not Allegories
But it is not, as some people think, an allegory (“Letter to Sophia Storr,” in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol 3, 1113).
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 (Walter Hooper, Literary Criticism, 426).
Lewis defined allegory as “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” (“Letter to Mrs. Hook,” in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol 3). The two key components of this definition are:
- allegories are imagined (“feigned”) physical objects, and
- they represent non-physical (“immaterial”) realities.
The Literary Device of Supposal
In denying that the Narnian stories are allegories, Lewis does not thereby deny the Christian meaning inherent in the stories. But his goal was more nuanced than a representation of unseen reality; the literary device he chose is more aptly called “a supposal.” Here’s Lewis in his own 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 have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Walter Hooper, Literary Criticism, 426)
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.’ (“Letter to Mrs. Hook”)
This distinction between allegory and supposal can aid us as we seek to be discipled as true Narnians. Because allegorical figures make abstract realities in our world more concrete, the action still takes place in this world. Giant Despair simply becomes a name for our own struggles in this world. The connection between the narrative world and the world we inhabit is so tight that we never truly leave our own. (These comments should not be taken as a criticism of allegories, least of all, Bunyan’s masterpiece Pilgrim’s Progress.)
Going There to Live Better Here
In contrast to an allegory, a supposal forces us out of our world into another world, what Tolkien described as a “secondary world.” By creating Narnia, Lewis invites us out of our own skin and into that of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (and later Caspian, Eustace, Jill, Shasta, and the rest). The challenges we face are Narnian challenges. The victories we win are Narnian victories. But our time in Narnia is not an end in itself. We go there so that we can then live better here. By taking us out of this world, Lewis enables us to become something that we weren’t before, something greater and grander, so that, when we return out of the wardrobe, we face our own Giants of Despair differently. We face them as true Narnians.
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.