by Barbara Parsons Linville
[First published in Inklings, Volume 2, Issue 2]
I closed the book and for a moment felt the shock of leaving the world I had lately inhabited to return to this one. A strange storm had tossed my thoughts-whirling, scouring, casting them about me. It was like finding all one’s familiar belongings scattered over the countryside after a tornado.
Everything had changed since I had been away in the pages of that book. Colors pulsed bright, heraldic, full of hidden meaning. The chipped cup at my elbow boasted wondrous design and function. The most ordinary things had taken on deep beauty, hints of Something else, Somewhere else, Someone else, of purpose and meaning from the beginning of time. There was a flutter in my ears like the sound of wings and with it came the certainty that great good lay just round the comer. And, oddest of all, out of the tail of my eye I caught the constant shimmer of gold. (This last peculiarity remained with me for weeks before it faded.) And gold filled my dreams. Color and gold.
The book which had caused this rearrangement of my mental furniture was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in The Chronicles of Namia, by C. S. Lewis. But I was no child or impressionable adolescent when I encountered this fairy story. Rather, I was well into my thirtieth year, and my reaction to Lewis’ book certainly surprised me.
At the age of eighteen I had married and entered the workaday world. Lucrative careers or college courses might fire my daydreams now and then, but they were only daydreams. I worked in a dime store and then as a postal clerk. I read little, except for escapist stuff which left me feeling hollow and dissatisfied with life. My ideas were mostly black and white; my thinking was rigid, untutored, unchallenged. Facts were my true gods. They had to be, because my deepest fear was that there was no God or gods or purpose at all;that the only sound in the universe was an eternal, meaningless bleat.
But then came The Chronicles of Narnia and the breath of the Lion sweeping wonder and glory and the Deeper magic from before the Dawn of time right through my sterile house of facts. The best things of childhood in my thirtieth year. Color and gold.
And in the twenty-two years that followed the thirtieth one: Color and gold and literature, philosophy, art, theology, ancient languages (because one has to hear the original music of the work), the writing of curriculum and fiction and poetry, and, oh yes, the habitual reading of C. S. Lewis’s works — all of them.
In that long and leisurely reading of Lewis and others, ideas began to form around what I had now come to think of as the Narnian Phenomenon, that is, the capacity of an imaginative work of literature to change the reader’s life.
Metaphor: Strikes like lightning.
The lowest common denominator of that literature turned out to be metaphor.
Somewhere in the vague and vacant recesses of my past school years I had memorized the term for a test: A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one object or idea is substituted for another. I had copied the definition onto my examination paper and received an “A” for having the right answer.
I knew the right answer, but no one ever told me what metaphor really does, that metaphor takes my jaded, weary eyes and makes them see in new ways. When Gerard Manley Hopkins described the song of a thrush, he didn’t say, “The thrush sings pretty.” He said, “. . . it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.” And just as lightning is sudden to the point of shocking its beholder and as its report is loud and as its proximity strikes terror through us, so is the thrush’s song sudden and startling and earpiercing, and so it strikes joy through us with the same intensity as lightning strikes terror. By comparing a bird’s song to lightning, Hopkins has brought not just words but the song itself into our immediate experience. We have heard it ourselves. We have heard with new ears. That’s the purpose of metaphor–to take what is familiar and show it to us in a new light (or with a new sound.)
Allegory: Couching the truth
Now, expand the metaphor into a story and it becomes allegory. The school definition again: Allegory is a story in which a person or action represents truths about human existence.
The operative word here is truth. Truth about. This is what Bunyan had in mind when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress where a character named Christian takes a journey with a heavy burden on his back through such places as the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair. It is not difficult to see the symbolism here. It jumps out to meet us sometimes before we want it to.
A friend of mine doesn’t like allegory. She always feels she’s being tested to see if she can guess what all the symbols represent. But this is to read allegory the wrong way around if we believe what Lewis says in his Allegory of Love. Lewis tells us that we must not throw away the allegorical image once we see the abstraction that it represents, that the only way to read allegory is “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.”‘1
The allegory then is not the means to literal truth but the interpretation of that literal truth. It couches that truth in different wrappings and we see it from a new perspective, we see it with new eyes. But what is it that we see? The allegorist began with a certain concept he wanted to convey. Somewhere along the line he saw an imaginative way to impart that concept, by means of allegory. And though he may have found marvelous ways of opening up our perceptions of the concept, still it remains that concept and nothing else.
Give a roomful of people the allegory to read and they will most likely agree on its meaning. And their assessment of the story will agree with what the author had in mind in the first place. In the end, they will come back to the particular truth intended, and they will have apprehended that truth through the intellect.
Myth: Getting inside & living there
Lewis wrote only one strict allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress. The Chronicles of Narnia also contain some allegorical elements– Asian the Christ figure, Jadis the Satan figure, and so on– but the Chronicles go beyond allegory into a universe of subcreated worlds, that is, the universe of myth.
Myth, then, is a wider realm than allegory. It operates on differing levels of consciousness at the same time, pulling in insights and universal principles with it.
Lewis compares allegory and myth in one of his letters: “a good myth (i.e. a story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put). Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows; in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and could not come by in any other way.”2
Even the author is unaware of all the meanings within the myth she has written, for ideas are bubbling up from her unconsciousness as well as from her conscious mind and she herself may not see their significance until a later time.
Meaning upon meaning. Layer upon layer. Doors opening onto other doors. But how are these many meanings received? Not through the processing of the intellect. That’s what happens in allegory. We are not talking about mere truth statements now. In myth we are presented with some reality about our lives which we receive through the actual experience of the story. In other words, we live the reality rather than merely thinking about it.
In myth, we live the realities of the great universal principles such as goodness, faithfulness, friendship, loyalty, perseverance, etc. (Unfortunately, adverse qualities can also move us, depending on the myth we choose. Although I have found that those myths which lietoo far outside my own spiritual world are not so much tempting as merely great bores.)
Because we live the reality, myth begins to affect us from the inside out. From the inside, where things like emotions and facts and the will seem constantly at odds with one another. But myth is a bridgebuilder. It unites the intellect and the emotions even as we read, allowing us to experience concretely principles which would otherwise fragment themselves into hopeless abstractions.
The institutions that try to change us from the outside in (Just Say No campaigns, anti-whatever education, diet books, etc.) will never, never change us unless somehow they can get inside and live there. Getting inside and living there is exactly what myth does. And therefore it can appeal to the will and even begin to change it. We may experience a psychological shift, a movement away from or toward something, the beginning of pilgrimage.
On that day twenty-two years ago I followed Aslan on his way to the stone table. “It’s like the Crucifixion,” I said to myself at the beginning of it. But then I fell again into the story as Aslan said goodbye to Lucy and Susan, as he gave himself up to the white witch’s minions, and as they jeered at him and shaved his glorious mane and tied him cruelly to the table.
But what was this? Suddenly I was weeping in sheer anger at what the forces of evil had done to Asian, in sheer anger at how he had deserved nothing of what had befallen him And at the same time I was angry at the all-too-real forces of evil that had nailed Jesus Christ to a cross and how he had deserved nothing of what had befallen him.
That deep emotion continued through the grief of the two girls after Aslan’s death, and then sprang into joy as both Asian and Jesus came to life again within me. In reading about the one, I had lived what had happened to both. And what about my cherished religious dogmas, my revered facts? With Asian, they leapt into my life, lithe and muscular and real with holy terror that shook me to my shoes. Aslan was not tame. Neither was God. And I found myself on my face before him.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had built a bridge between my intellect and my experiential self. And over that bridge had swept good enchantment and wonder and joy. The best things of childhood in my thirtieth year. Color and gold.
1 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 125.
2 C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), p. 271.
Other works important to this article include: C. S. Lewis’s essay “Myth Became Fact,” found in God In the Dock, Eerdmans, pp. 63-67; C. S. Lewis’s essay “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot,” in Selected Literary Essays, Cambridge (especially p. 205); and C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love (especially the chapters titled “Allegory” and “The Romance of the Rose,” pp. 44112).