The Christian as Author Exemplified: C. S. Lewis and the Basis of the Chronicles of Narnia

“And then Aslan came bounding in…”

Today, I would like to take a brief look at a particular method used by C. S. Lewis.  Many people still look at The Chronicles of Narnia and presume that Lewis is simply making a strong allegory for Christianity and the story of Christ.  This seems especially obvious in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place, and, in doing so, saves Narnia.  In reality, there is much more to Narnia than that, and if we understand Lewis’s approach, it can open new doors to us as authors.

By “allegory” most of us mean that a tale is symbolic–it takes another story (usually of a spiritual sort) and tells it in another context by using specific characters, events, and trends in the story to represent specific characters, events, and trends from somewhere else.  Allegories are often used in a surreptitious attempt to get ideas a hearing in a context where they would normally be denied.  The general idea, though, is that the author of an allegory teaches us deeper meaning by using substitutes that disarm our prejudices and presuppositions.

Unfortunately, while allegories are fine taken in moderation, the modern Christian mind tends think no more deeply.  That is one reason why our literary productivity is so scant and our reading so narrow.   We generally use this one very specific method applied to this one very specific set of stories, and we repeat ourselves over and over and over.  Many of us then measure how “Christian” a piece of fiction is based on nothing more than how closely it conforms to that specific method and result.  It is, therefore, no wonder many people get tired of Christian literature quickly–we’re saying the same thing in essentially the same way and have been for decades now, if not centuries.

That The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe appears allegorical on the face of it is therefore convenient.  Many Christians read it (the first in the published set) and it passes muster for their shelf based upon the presumption that it is an allegory and, therefore, Christian.  I wonder:  How popular it would have been had the Magician’s Nephew come first, where the “allegories” aren’t so “obvious”?  By the time we get to The Silver Chair, for example, we’re having to dig pretty deeply for allegorical interpretations.[1]

In reality, Narnia is speculative in nature, rather than allegorical.  Lewis is taking what he knows of Christ and religion, and he is setting up a “what if?” scenario:  What if a world like Narnia really existed?  What might God’s interactions with that place look like?  In the words of Lewis himself:

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.[2]

Herein lies, I think, one of the key differences between the Christians who write poor-to-average fiction, and those that do it really well.  The best of Christians as authors are not limited to allegory, but neither do they simply ignore their worldview and the very rich, historic/philosophical context that it gives them.  They (and we) should use that context as a palate, pulling from its brilliant and varied colors to paint intricate, engaging, and beautiful tapestries.  The result can be exhilarating, inspiring, or even frightening, but done well they can teach us important truths without ever dipping to allegory or sacrificing the good of the story.

After all, God saw fit to put very few limits on our imaginations.  We need not artificially add any ourselves!

Next Week:  A significant similarity between authors of Christian and non-Christian extraction….

[1] Many fall down when looking for allegory, but few return to the sunlit lands!  🙂

[2] The “Thinklings” have a good, short discussion of this topic too, and from it I copy/pasted the quote, rather than having to type it all in myself!

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic Approach
  4. “Good Fiction” or “Good Christian Fiction?”
  5. Of Christian Authors and Christian Pizza Makers
  6. What does it look like?
  7. Tolkien and the Rebellion of Melkor
  8. Marketing or Pigeonholing?

2 thoughts on “The Christian as Author Exemplified: C. S. Lewis and the Basis of the Chronicles of Narnia

  1. Yes. Here’s an excerpt from the book I am currently working on (on Lewis’s theology):

    A second difficulty arises from the fact that Lewis’s most popular books, and among his most theologically influential, are fiction. They are fiction, but they are not (except for The Pilgrim’s Regress) allegory, despite many careless statements by Lewis’s readers to the contrary. An allegory is a work of symbolic fiction in which there is a fairly simple correspondence between items or characters in the story and what they represent in the “real” world. (I know there are more sophisticated allegories in which the relationships are not that simple—but I’m giving a rough definition here to make a point.) For example, in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the characters have names like “Mr. Worldly Wise Man” or “Faithful.” It is not hard to tell what they represent, and their words and actions are intended as direct illustrations of the concepts that they picture. One is on pretty safe ground then talking about Bunyan’s theology based on Pilgrim’s Progress. But Lewis’s fictional writings are mostly not like that. Aslan is not simply Christ; he is Christ as he might have been if God had created a world of talking animals and been incarnated there.
    Lewis referred to the things that happen in Narnia or the Space Trilogy as “supposals” as distinguished from “allegories.” He explained to Edward T. Dell in a letter of 4 Feb. 1949, “You must not confuse my romances with my theses. In the latter I state and argue a creed. In the former, much is merely supposed for the sake of the story” (L, 2:914). Similarly, he wrote to a Fifth-Grade Class in Maryland on 24 May 1954:

    “You are mistaken when you think that everything in the book “represents” something in this world. Things do that in 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 and that the son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’” (3:479-80; cf. 3:1004; emphasis in the original)

    In the same vein, Lewis wrote to Tony Pollock on 3 May 1954: “Behind my own stories there are no ‘facts’ at all, tho’ I hope there are truths. That is, they may be regarded as imaginative hypotheses illustrating what I believe to be theological truths” (L 3:465).
    The most important passage for understanding the relation of the fiction to Lewis’s theological beliefs may be this one:

    “I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed 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 that the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. . . . 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?” (“Sometimes” 37)

    The fiction then is relevant to understanding Lewis’s theology; there is theology there, sneaking past watchful dragons to appear in potency. But one has to be careful about deriving theology from the fiction. On the one hand, the children learn to know Aslan in Narnia so that they might learn his other name here. “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little you may know me better there” (VDT 270). Therefore, we are intended to see parallels between Aslan (or Maleldil) and Christ. But we cannot assume that any given detail in the stories necessarily carries a doctrinal meaning. Rather, we should expect the parallels to be on the level of major motifs: incarnation, sacrifice, substitution, etc. As Lewis reminds us, “The only moral [or doctrinal lesson] that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind” (“Three Ways” 33). We want to know the theology that lies behind Narnia and the Field of Arbol. But if Lewis gave us an accurate description of what he was doing, we should expect first to find it taught it in expository works like Mere Christianity and Miracles, and then see it illustrated by Narnia and the Space Trilogy. And his description was accurate, for it is consistent with the nature of the kind of fiction he wrote.

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