Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Trouble with Allegories

"To enjoy reading about fairies -- much more about giants and dragons -- it is not necessary to believe in them," wrote C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. "Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage."

Lewis is one of the 20th century's best-known Christian apologists, and his seven-book series about the land of Narnia is suffused with Christian symbols and references. But does that mean that the Narnia books are "Christian" works? And does it matter?

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opened this past weekend in movie form, the character of the lion Aslan, innocent of any crime, agrees to be put to death in the place of a child who has betrayed his own siblings. He is executed, but comes back to life, and leads the residents of Narnia in a successful revolt against the evil witch who has held them all captive in a century-long winter. It's a clear reference to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Or is it?

The British writer Philip Pullman calls the books "propaganda in the cause of the religion [Lewis] believed in." Yet in almost all of the articles appearing concurrently with the new film's opening, one adult writer after the next confesses that when they first read the books as a child, the religious references completely escaped them. As Meghan O'Rourke wrote in Slate, "Millions of kids have read The Chronicles of Narnia for 50 years without detecting their religious underpinnings largely because the moral lessons of the Narnia books are extricable from their spiritual ones."

And yet, Jessica Seigel writes in The New York Times, "My mother recently remarked that if she'd known the stories were Christian, she wouldn't have given me the books -- which are among my dearest childhood memories." Why?

O'Rourke explains, "Judging the Narnia books solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. It is a reflection more of our polarized moment -- in which a perceived cultural divide has alienated Christians from secular culture and secular readers from anything that smacks of religious leanings -- than of the relative aesthetic merits and weaknesses of Lewis' books."

The books suffer from having an allegorical reputation. An allegory is "a literary device in which each literal character, object and event represents symbols illustrating an idea or moral or religious principle." Animal Farm is an allegory; Narnia, despite the allegorical nature of Aslan and certain plot elements, is not. "Indeed," argues Lauren Winner in Beliefnet, "Lewis never liked to call the Chronicles "allegory," with the term's implication that every last animal, tree and chair was simply a cipher, standing in for some specific thing in the Bible."

This approach is similar to that of Lewis' close friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien -- incidentally the man principally responsible for Lewis' conversion from atheism -- who wrote in the foreward to The Fellowship of the Ring, "I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

Therein lies much of the problem: the freedom of the reader also allows him to claim to detect intentions of the author that might not be there. Kris Rasmussen, also in Beliefnet, confesses, "I am all in favor of pointing people to what is good, pure and true; pointing them -- not beating them over the head with it. My biggest fear is that in an overzealous attempt to use "Narnia" as some kind of special marketing tool, churches will deny others, who may not agree with a Christian interpretation of the story, their chance to discover for themselves the depth of meaning(s) in the tale."

A third Beliefnet columnist, Richard Mouw, states, "C.S. Lewis warned us not to read too much Christian theology into the stories of Narnia....But I do hope it will serve as an invitation for many people to reflect on the nature of the world in which we live. [It] is a good thing to be encouraged to go beyond the superficial, exploring not only the Deeper Magic, but also the other below-the-surface forces that drive our lives, even when we do not acknowledge their existence: our Deeper Hopes and our Deeper Fears -- those Deeper Yearnings that we ignore only at the expense of our humanness."


Steve said...

As often occurs in reading a book, the reader brings their own bias and suppositions to the work. C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and others have written works that Christians have embraced. Some see them as confirmation of the Biblical allegory, the climatic battle that is referred to in the book of Revelation.

However you read,the works of Lewis and Tolkein read them. They are well with the time.

That is the sign of a good author...letting the reader decide for themselves what the work means.

Matthew said...

I really enjoyed the books as a kid. I think my parents might have told me it was supposed to be symbolic, but that wasn't particularly meaningful to me at the time.

Anthony said...

I hope no-one's making the mistake of assuming this only applies to works of fiction in the fantasy genre - the problem of interpretation is universal to all the arts. Sculptors, play directors, visitors to an art gallery ... all these approach their medium from a different angle which necessarily colours their perspective.

Any reference depends very much on the recipient's understanding of the issues alluded to, so many authors (let's stick to writing for now) deliberately cast their nets wide to ensure the widest possible appreciation of their work.

D├╝rrenmatt's play Der Besuch der alten Dame (The visit) is, like The lion ..., concerned with the sacrifice of one individual for the (supposed, in this case) benefit of the wider community but also brings in colour symbolism, a Sophoclean chorus and allusions to Romeo and Juliet along the way. Sure, these won't be understood by absolutely everyone in a theatre audience, but the same can be said of many children reading C.S. Lewis. It won't stop them from enjoying it.

Except in a small handful of cases - Animal farm among them - an appreciation of a work does not, nor should it, depend on "getting" its creator's allusions. It adds immeasurably to one's understanding, true, but without alienating those not in the know and turning it into cult fodder.

C.S. Lewis' intentions were, I am sure, quite otherwise. It saddens me to think that people could turn against Narnia when they return to the books as adults and realise they'd missed something as children. How it is that an open nature can turn to small-mindedness and hypocricy with age ...

DJRainDog said...

*sigh* So good, Andy...And you wonder why you're single? You're simply too good for most of the guys out there. Not that YOU think so, but as an unbiased judge, I certainly do. ;-)