Aslan is Christ, Turkish Delight is sin, the White Witch is Satan, the Stone Table is the Cross, and Narnia stands in for the world in which good finally conquers evil. Everyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia and has a second-grader’s knowledge of the Bible can figure it out: The Chronicles of Narnia series is an allegory for the Christian story. After all, even C.S. Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (himself a Christian) disliked Narnia because of its overbearing religious allegory.
The problem is, the Chronicles of Narnia series isn’t a very good allegory. In fact, it’s not even a decent one. Why?
Well, according to one academic expert on allegory, the genre must be read “as a continued simile, but a simile which works backward.” In other words, a mere simile would say, “Jesus is like a lion.” The allegory, on the other hand, says, “This is a story about a lion (and the lion is like Jesus).”
The problem, though, is that “when we have seen what an allegory signifies, we are always tempted to attend to the signification in the abstract and to throw aside the allegorical imagery as something which has now done its work.” So you must keep paying attention to the literal lion in the story, even though you know he’s Jesus.
So far, so good — I already do this while reading the bits about Aslan (and you probably do too). But there’s more to allegory than that. The expert continues:
You cannot find out [which allegories are good and which are bad] except by reading them as they are meant to be read; by keeping steadily before you both the literal and the allegorical sense and not treating the one as a mere means to the other but as its imaginative interpretation; by testing for yourself how far the concept really informs the image and how far the image really lends poetic life to the concept.
If we read the Chronicles of Narnia in this way, what do we find?
It actually works pretty well, at least at first, for Aslan. Take the famous scene when Mr. and Mrs. Beaver first tell the Pevensie children about the great lion.
“Isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This passage is justly famous. For one, the concept of Christ truly does inform the image of Aslan the lion. Christ is King of creation. He’s not to be trifled with or taken for granted, but he is also Love Incarnate. That’s why he’s good, but he’s not “safe.”
And like a good allegory, it works the other way round as well — the image of Aslan lends poetic life to the concept of Christ. When you picture a lion, you see a fearsome predator with sharp teeth, taut musculature, and huge claws. But he’s no hyena — the lion is “king of the jungle,” because he possesses a nobility and a certain gentleness and softness. His claws retract, he purrs, his amber eyes gaze mournfully into yours — but still, he is not and never will be a housecat. So with the Aslan image, our concept of Christ is enriched immensely with the image of a fearsome and noble lion.
Aslan seems to work well when read according to this allegorical method, but what about the world of Narnia?
If Narnia is the world in which the story of salvation plays out, then what is the world of WWII-era England which the Pevensie children leave? Isn’t that also the world of salvation history?
And what, then, is the wardrobe itself? In literal terms, the wardrobe is the portal from England to Narnia. Allegorically, perhaps it is the passage from a humdrum, surface-level life to a life of faith… but Edmund passes through the wardrobe into Narnia before he ever comes to terms with Aslan and anything resembling “faith.” And while Lucy seems to trust the enchanted world of Narnia and its denizens implicitly, it is illogical to suppose the passage of faith could occur before the object of faith is perceived, which is what you’d have to say if the wardrobe is itself the passage of faith.
What is the allegorical reading of Father Christmas coming in advance of Aslan’s appearance? Is he John the Baptist? What do we gain from that? How about the sledge that the White Witch glides around in?
As you can see, when read according to the criterion laid out by the expert above, Narnia comes out as the work of an exceedingly lazy allegorist.
Now,” you might reply, “why take this one scholar’s opinion on allegory as the right way to read an allegory? This fellow, whoever he is, seems awful strict and exacting. Perhaps Lewis meant his allegory to be a bit looser.”
Well this scholar of allegory, if you haven’t realized already, is none other than C.S. Lewis himself. He wrote The Allegory of Love, which examines medieval allegory and the literature of courtly love, in 1936. The first Narnia book was published 14 years later.
To assert, then, that the Narnia books are allegories, you have to argue that Lewis changed his mind about allegory or went soft in the head in the late ’40s. There’s no evidence that either of these are the case.
The better solution, then, is the one Lewis himself proposes in a personal letter from 1958:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, 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.
Lewis calls Aslan, instead, a “supposal.” We might also use the phrase “thought experiment.” Lewis is giving free play to his imagination to answer his “What if?” question.
The Narnia books are often tarred with the label of allegory in order to discredit them as simple-minded or as heavy-handed didacticism. It’s a strange charge: Lewis is one of the best scholars to turn to who can show that allegory is anything but simple-minded. And furthermore, by his own criteria and his own letters, he shows that Narnia doesn’t work as an allegorical world anyways.
But even the figure of Aslan, whom we attempted to read in an allegorical way above, doesn’t really fit. True allegory, as this letter makes clear, represents the immaterial with the material, which is in many ways the opposite, or reverse-image, of a symbol.
Indeed, we commonly mistake allegories and call them symbols. If you’ve ever been stuck in a public high school’s English class, you’ve probably been forced to write an essay about how the green light in The Great Gatsby is a “symbol” for jealousy as well as for money (and particularly, jealousy of other peoples’ money). This is not symbolization at all — what you are actually writing about is an allegory. As Lewis writes, you allegorize when you “start with an immaterial fact, such as the passions which you actually experience, and can then invent visibilia to express them.” Jealousy and greed are real, and in Fitzgerald’s novel, a green light gives concrete, fictional expression to those passions. (It’s not, by the way, a particularly interesting allegory.)
A symbolical work, on the other hand, starts with the material world but seeks to climb beyond it into a realm of abstraction, which the symbolist views as the truer world. As Lewis says, “It [symbolism] makes its first effective appearance in European thought with the dialogues of Plato. The Sun is the copy of the Good. Time is the moving image of eternity. All visible things exist just in so far as they succeed in imitating the Forms.”
Aslan is neither the fictional, material allegory of the true, immaterial Christ, nor a shadowy symbol of a transcendent reality. But that is hardly to say he (or the Narnia series) is a failure. He’s a fairy tale character and the splendid answer to the question, “What if Christ were to show up in a magical land of talking beasts?”