Friday, December 09, 2005

CS Lewis's Narnia: Christian allegory...?

I've stumbled upon a surprising and, in my opinion, thoroughly unnecessary controversy centering on the inner meaning of CS Lewis's classic Chronicles of Narnia.

The controversy seems to have arisen as a result of heightened anticipation of the filmic version of the Chronicles' first* book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it boils down to this: was Lewis, in writing about Narnia, deliberately trying to craft a Christian tract?

A recent article** on, "The Jesus Symbol, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," argues that, if this was indeed Lewis's intention, then he failed: many children do not internalize the Christian subtext and learn about it only when they are older:

Perhaps that's why so many children have remained blissfully ignorant of the Christian subtext to Narnia for so long; if no one notices your bubble, they won't be tempted to burst it. Santa Claus has lots of eager, pint-size debunkers because his doings are the talk of the under-8 set for at least four weeks out of the year. I can't recall who first spoiled my intoxicating fantasies of escape to Narnia by explaining to me that Lewis was peddling the same stuff as dreary old Sunday school, but I suspect I read it somewhere -- and I know it didn't happen until I was about 13.

I avoided Lewis' books for years after discovering this "betrayal," but eventually I returned to them. Learning to appreciate a literary work's qualities when you disagree with it -- reveling in Milton's majestic verse even if you find his views on gender roles dismal, letting Dante carry you to the ragged fringes of human emotion even if you don't believe in his Hell -- that's a skill you learn only as an adult. Although I'm not a Christian, I still find Lewis' storytelling a fluent, silvery delight, his imagery potent, and the ethical struggles of his child characters eminently sympathetic and believable.

The article's author, Laura Miller, seems bent on rescuing the Chronicles from the clutches of the religious right. I understand her intentions, but she may be working against the master himself: Lewis, an Oxford don and one of the most widely read Christian thinkers in history, was unabashedly a man of faith. I find it almost inevitable that something of his Christian biases would end up in his works, intentionally or unintentionally, and whatever my own disagreement with the extreme elements in the religious right, I submit that the right isn't far wrong to detect thoroughly Christian elements in the Chronicles.

In literary criticism circles, the term "textual autonomy" is rather popular. What does it mean for a text to be "autonomous"? The idea is that, once a text has been written (the word "text," used loosely, can be applied to other art forms like paintings and dance, which can be a sort of nonverbal "text"), it is now independent of its maker. People who approach the text are free to interpret it on their own, and their interpretation is just as legitimate as the author's. The text, once free, is beholden to no one. It is, in and of itself, autonomous: semiotically neutral, i.e., always subject to somebody's interpretive filter, with no one interpretive filter privileged over any other.

I have always had trouble with this notion because, if critical theorists are right and no text is free of context, then the author's intentions must form part of that context. From this point of view, it is important to realize that Lewis's works cannot be declared non-Christian just because one feels they are. This feeling is, ultimately, all the critics have to rely on. The "evidence" for the non-Christian argument, cited in Miller's article, does not amount to much.

To wit:

Just how Christian are "The Chronicles of Narnia"? The question might seem absurd; the books' author, after all, was a famous Christian apologist who intended them to teach a form of the gospels. But one critic, at least, has challenged the legitimacy of Lewis' claim (voiced by the lion god Aslan, Lewis' Jesus surrogate) that "you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may better know me there." John Goldthwaite, a Christian himself and a scholar of children's literature, wrote an extended critique of the purported Christian underpinnings of the "Chronicles" in his intelligent, fiery and occasionally injudicious 1996 study of the field, "A Natural History of Make-Believe."

In essence, Goldthwaite argues that Lewis uses Narnia as a sheltered preserve for his own prejudices -- which, it must be admitted, were many and far from pretty. But closer to the heart of this critique lies Goldthwaite's assertion that "whenever a professed Christian feels he must create some wholly other world to explore the meaning of his religion, he is flirting with bad faith. When he fills that world with the make-believes of other religions, he is playing at polytheism. When he further sets sorceresses to rule over it, and werewolves, incubuses and wraiths, he is dabbling in Manichaean dualism, the idea that standing opposed to God's good creation is another, separate and equal, or nearly equal, creation given over to evil."

Miller rightly notes that the above argument against Lewis is theological, and therefore of limited appeal (i.e., non-Christians have no reason to care). But in my opinion, the argument, even on a theological level, holds no water. Christian writers from Dante (late 1200s to early 1300s) to Milton (early to late 1600s) have incorporated so-called "pagan" elements in what are decidedly Christian works, and they did so with explicitly Christian purposes. How is Lewis any different? When the Chronicles are viewed in the larger context of his oeuvre, they are quite clearly Christian. Goldthwaite's argument, above, that Lewis might have been "playing at polytheism" relies on the decontextualizing tactic favored by proponents of textual autonomy.

To me, it is obvious that Lewis intended Aslan the lion to be a Christ-figure. Whether Lewis intended his works to be part of a larger effort at proselytizing is a separate, and arguably more interesting, question. As things stand, though, the current controversy over Lewis's immediate intentions is bogus: Lewis most assuredly wrote a Christian parable.

*I recently bought the huge, one-volume version of The Chronicles of Narnia. According to the editors, Lewis wanted a later book, The Magician's Nephew, to be considered the first book in the series. The book is a prequel that includes a scene depicting the creation of Narnia by Aslan the lion.

**I refuse to link to Salon on principle: the site requires you either to pay for a subscription or to watch an ad to be able to view content for a day. Salon articles become viewable by the general public only when they've aged; I have no compunction about linking to their archives, since the archives are freely accessible.



  1. Would not surprise me if Lewis' "Narnia" had some Christian subtext, as Lewis was a staunch atheist who eventually embraced Christianity later in life.

    Additionally, the same could be said about Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy, there were quite a few Arthurian and Christian metaphors contained in those books.

    Did you know that Tolkein and Lewis were friends? I wonder who was influencing whom with their writings. They are so similar, they could have been written by either author.

    But this, as well as all of the hyperbole surrounding the un-Christianness of the Harry Potter books (re: Sorcery and witchcraft) does beg the question: Can't a movie simply be a movie? When is it safe to take things at face value and not infer another meaning?

  2. Christ symbols are a dime a dozen in Western why *wouldn't* a work by an unabashed Christian contain them, too?

    I believe that Lewis himself denied claims that the book was an allegory...but since his academic specialty was (I believe) medieval allegory, he would have had a fairly strict definition of the concept.

    It seems to me that if you're a Christian writing about a heroic figure, you're going to give that figure Christ-like qualities. I also think that the quality of any allegorical (or quasi-allegorical) work rests on whether it can stand alone as a damned good story even if you don't understand every little symbolic nuance.

    Even if you're not familiar with the Christian myth, the Narnia stories employ all sorts of archetypal motifs that make for good storytelling (as does, for that matter, epics like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars).

  3. Maven,

    Tolkien was, I think, rather vehement about denying the existence of Christian tropes in his works. It's very tempting, for example, to view Gandalf's death and return through a Jesus-lens, but Tolkien apparently addressed this while he was alive.

    But was Gandalf a Christ figure in spite of Tolkien's denials? Laura Miller's article suggests that authors' works take on a life of their own, independent of their creator. I'm not sure I completely agree; I think authorial intent counts. More on this in a bit.

    I agree with you, Maven, that sometimes a movie should just be a movie. In that sense, Miller has it right: kids don't go into a film with sharp awareness of symbolism, etc. In fact, Lorianne's comment suggests the same thing:

    "I also think that the quality of any allegorical (or quasi-allegorical) work rests on whether it can stand alone as a damned good story even if you don't understand every little symbolic nuance."

    My beef with the notion of textual autonomy (something Miller implicitly supports in her article) isn't so much that the idea itself is false, but that it often seems to get misapplied: how can you argue, on the one hand, that text is "autonomous" while simultaneously stressing that no decontextualized texts exist? The paradox becomes obvious when the textual autonomist says, "You don't need to know the author's intention. Your own interpretive filter is enough-- i.e., your take on the work is as legitimate as the author's own interpretation."

    If writing is an act of communication, I should think that authorial intent counts. If an artist-- say, an abstract artist-- explicitly says that her work is meant to be taken any which way, then OK: one is free to approach her work as one wishes. But in all other cases, actively ignoring the author's intention strikes me as an arrogant way to approach art or text.

    Kids, of course, can't be blamed for their naiveté, and people who write for kids doubtless anticipate that kids will come up with some wild ideas about what a given story means. But good writers-- JK Rowling is a fine example-- know how to craft imaginary worlds that aren't infinitely malleable: young readers of different backgrounds can have meaningful exchanges with each other about Rowling's work because she's artfully fleshed out her world and minimized the semantic plasticity.


    I get mixed signals, in my readings, as to whether Lewis expressly denied that he was writing allegorically. Miller's article suggests that Lewis did intend his works to have a Christian spin (which is not, I admit, the same as saying he was crafting an allegory).

    I agree that Christ imagery is rife in Western literature (I was, in fact, thinking about writing my post more from a Campbellian standpoint to discuss dying-god motifs): it's a compelling trope.

    I tend to see American culture as being infused with a resurrection metanarrative: we see resurrection themes, for example, in "the comeback"-- cf. the "Rocky" movies, in which Rocky gets the tar beaten out of him, only to come back in the later rounds.

    The West isn't univocal in how it employs Christ imagery. French Catholicism, for example, is beholden to the metaphor of the crucifix: a cross with Christ still on it, symbolizing passion and sacrifice. French heroes in literature and film are typically self-sacrificial (compare French action movie heroes with American ones); they often die at the end of the story. Great examples:

    "L'Homme du Train" with Johnny Hallyday

    "Le Professionnel" with Jean-Paul Belmondo

    "Léon" with Jean Réno (retitled "The Professional" in English; it's also Natalie Portman's screen debut)

    American heroes, reflecting a more Protestant, empty-cross sensibility, usually come across as "Christus Victor": the hero triumphs over evil and survives the struggle with the Adversary.

    Of course, Christ figures have to be treated with caution because their traits rarely parallel Jesus exactly. The same critique that applied to "The Matrix"'s Neo applies to Aslan: Jesus may have claimed to bring "not peace, but the sword," but his earthly existence was marked by nonviolence. Neo is a violent Messiah, and Aslan is, well, a meat-eating lion. Another interesting sci-fi Christ figure has to be Charlton Heston's Robert Neville in "The Omega Man." Neo follows in his tradition as a gun-totin' savior of the human race.

    However: people who study the larger issue of messianism are quick to note that even Jesus will, at the eschaton, have his violent moments. Being "mashiach" often means wielding a sword. Or toting a large gun.

    I suppose, in the end, that the new "Chronicles of Narnia" will provide food for thought no matter how long in the tooth we get. Symbolism will be for us old farts to mine and parse, and the kids will groove on the swords, monsters, and sorcery. The best children's stories hold up well over time because they have that mutlilayered quality, seemingly gaining depth as we become older and, we hope, wiser.


  4. I've always had a bit of a problem with textual autonomy, or the death of the author, or whatever you want to call it. Then again, I have a bit of a problem with a lot of postmodernist literary criticism, as it often seems to me to be a pendulum swing to the other end of the spectrum.

    If the author is truly dead, than studying the life of an author will yield no insight into a text. True, the idea is that one is free to interpret a text in any way one wishes and is not beholden to any set interpretation, but textual autonomists will usually not bother with the author at all.

    Looking at it from the author's point of view is interesting as well. If a text is completely autonomous, then an author is no longer responsible for his or work.

    Goldthwaite sounds like an extreme conservative, one of those Christians who believe that if it's not the Bible, it's Satanism. I guess I am a more liberal Christian in that regard. I mean, Jesus himself used parables to speak of greater truths. Does it really make that much of a difference if we're talking about vineyards and cities on hills and little old ladies who lose their last dime or if we're talking about lions and witches and wardrobes?

    I must also respectfully disagree with NuggetMaven above. I am a bit of a Tolkien freak, and I read a good deal of Lewis in my younger days, and I disagree that they are indistinguishable. Similarities are to be expected, given their friendship and similar backgrounds, but they do indeed have their differences. For one, I think Lewis was better at characterization than Tolkien...

    Or maybe I'm just a geek. :)

  5. Tolkien, according to his biographer, was bit by a spider when he was crawling around in the grass as a young todler in South Africa. He later said that he "bore no ill will" towards spiders. I think anyone who has read either the Lord of the Rings, or the Silmarillion, will realize otherwise! Sometimes authors are less than forthcoming about their works. Didn't Lewis himself once say that "If you want to insult an artist, ask him what his work is about. If he wants to insult you, he will tell you."

    As a former evangelical, I continue to enjoy the Narnia books (all of which I have read numerous times). Frankly, it seems to me that although each book is rife with biblical allusions, while the whole series is telling the Christian story, it is really the story as Lewis thought it should be told. In the series, Lewis breaks with orthodox church teachings on numerous occasions. There is a generosity of spirit in books such as "The Last Battle" that is not present in the biblical Apocalypse. And so with the series.

  6. Charles and Nathan,

    Thanks for your comments. This seems to be one of those rare posts that actually inspires people to share their thoughts.

    Charles, I went back and read the Maven's comments about the similarities between Tolkien's and Lewis's writing. In terms of style, I'd agree with you that Tolkien and Lewis are far from indistinguishable, but I'm not sure that the Maven was referring to writing style. If she was talking more generally about thematic commonalities,then I'd have to agree with her that many such commonalities exist.

    Another fantasy writer comes to mind in all this: Stephen R. Donaldson, whom I've blogged about before (cf. my "LOTR vs. Thomas Covenant" post; the link is on my sidebar in the "Sacred and Profane" section). Donaldson quite deliberately rips off Tolkien, but he completely subverts every single Tolkienian trope: the hero, a ringbearer like Frodo, is a bitter leper from "our" world, and none of the other seemingly familiar characters are quite what they seem. As Lewis does, Donaldson sets his adventure in an alternate universe, but unlike either Lewis or Tolkien, Donaldson isn't interested in a clear-cut, good-versus-evil conflict. His central character, Thomas Covenant, is the consummate antihero-- more a cause of problems than a remedy for them.

    Lewis's The Magician's Nephew contains a wonderful creation scene in which Aslan the lion sings his world into existence. I found this scene's simplicity and power to be in marked contrast to Tolkien's ponderous creation story, found in The Silmarillion.

    In terms of style, I'd choose Lewis over Tolkien for clarity and, yes, characterization, but Tolkien the philologist did a far, far better job of fleshing out his world in excruciatingly minute detail. I also think that Tolkien's and Lewis's purposes were different, which makes a comparison of their chronicles a bit like comparing apples and oranges, except on the most general level: that of the Campbellian monomyth paradigm.* Again, if this is what the Maven was intending, then I'd agree that Tolkien's and Lewis's writing contain plenty of similarities.


    *I may not be remembering this correctly, but Campbell's monomyth is something like: call to adventure, the encounter with the threshold guardian, the meeting with (and eventual loss of) the wisdom figure, conferral of the weapon/talisman, entry into the forest/maze and/or belly of the beast; and, ultimately, the return of the hero-- with his newly acquired "boon"-- to his people.

  7. OK, here's where the nitpicker in me comes out...

    Kevin said: "I'd have to agree with her that many such commonalities exist." and "I'd agree that Tolkien's and Lewis's writing contain plenty of similarities."

    I agree completely, but... there is a difference between saying that the works of two authors have many commonalities and similarities and saying that "they are so similar, they could have been written by either author"--that is, that they are indistinguishable.

    That's all I was trying to say, that Tolkien and Lewis are by no means indistinguishable. Perhaps that was not what NuggetMaven was trying to say, but when I read those words, that's what I hear. Maybe my English is failing me. ;)

    Sorry, I can be a real semantic nitpicker when I put my mind to it (actually, I don't even have to put my mind to it--it comes naturally).

  8. I have to agree with Nathan B above in that Lewis told the story of religion the way he felt it should be told.

    I believe that Lewis had problems reconciling his early values based aesthetic years with his latter acceptance of god.

    A good example of this is that in each story Aslan does eventually come to the aid of his people, fighting alongside them and helping them in their time of need. Something God/Christ never does in the Bible.

    Albeit even in Lewis' books Aslan often arrives a day late and a dollar short. Only showing himself and saving the day after countless lives have already been lost.

    Similar to christ/god Aslan is more than happy to stand by and watch his people die by the hundreds.

    But, almost with a breath of sudden conscience, Lewis is unable to let the story continue this way and has Aslan do what we all wish god would do at some point. Step in and actually use some of that stockpiled power.

    Sadly the result has always left a bad taste in my mouth. And similar to the bible, I'm not sure the result instills any kind of positive moral to the story.

    Devoid of religious subtext, one might write the story to have all beings in the land, including Aslan, fight the forces of evil with all their might from the get go (a la a good Tolkien novel). Winning through blood sweat and tears a hard fought victory.

    Instead we are left with a story that simply says faith in Aslan/God will see you through in the end, as opposed to hard work and true belief in yourself. And Aslan/God will only help those who worship and have faith in him.

    Despite Lewis' attempts to make Aslan more noble than the God presented in the Bible, he fails, rendering instead an even more flawed symbol, who actually does fight, but always is late to the fight. Not particularly a great icon to look up to.

    Still the stories are fun to read and enjoyable as fairytales based on their own merits, despite their questionable moral meaning.



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