Allegory, myths, fairytales and fantasies

The Chronicles of Narnia
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In session #22, we discussed allegory. Perhaps I gave the impression that I think the Narnia stories are allegories.  However, after reading chapter 1 of Reading with the Heart: the Way into Narnia by Peter J. Schakel, I have changed  my mind.

Lewis himself called them [the Narnia Chronicles] fairy tales and, more specifically, the type of fairy tales known as fantasies.

What are fairy tales?

Fairy tales, by definition, are short stories, involving supernatural events and characters such as elves, fairy godmothers, and witches, set in whole or in part in a never-never land. Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, whose ideas influenced Lewis greatly, defines a “fairy-story” as “one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy.” “Faërie itself,” Tolkien goes on to say, “may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power,” the power of Enchantment.

As fairy tales, then, the Chronicles, will be characterized by strangeness and wonder, usually produced by magic, but at the same time, as fantasies, they must be believable and have internal consistency. Such believability is attained, in fairy tales which are also fantasies, by creation of a separate, “enchanted” world into which characters and readers are taken.

What is a fantasy?

A fantasy, in literary terms, is “a work which takes place in a non-existent and unreal world, such as fairy-land.” [Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 219] A fantasy world should be independent of our world and self-sufficient: all the information needed to understand actions and meanings should be available within that world. It is an imaginary world and may have natural laws different from those of our world, but once those laws are established, they must be adhered to—if they are ignored or violated, the magic spell of the story will be broken. Tolkien again provides a useful explanation: “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘subcreator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.” [Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 60]

What is myth? Perhaps the common idea of myth is “fictitious story, or unscientific account, theory, belief, etc.” However, Lewis had a more precise idea:

A myth, according to Lewis, is a narrative with a simple, satisfactory and inevitable shape which imparts to its readers’ imaginations a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth. A myth, in other words, is a story, a narrative; it depends for effect upon its shape, upon what happens to whom for what reasons, not upon the particular words or style in which it is told; it must communicate imaginatively, not intellectually; and at its heart must be a truth of universal significance or applicability… “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.” [Preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, 3rd ed. (London: Bles, 1943), p. 13.]

Schakel believes that the Narnia stories are not allegory, and should not be read as such. To support his view, he quotes Lewis himself.

He tried to set matters straight in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”: “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then . . . drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all” (Of Other Worlds, p. 36). Elsewhere he cites the use of a secondary world as evidence that Aslan is not to be taken as an allegorical figure:

In reality . . . 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. . . . The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal; but granted the  supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine. ( Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (London: Bles, 1966), p. 283.)

Lewis expected his readers to enter his supposed world fully, to accept it as real and self-contained, and not to be asking what details in Narnia stand for in our world or looking for meanings that can be abstracted from the story through allegory. Their primary appeal, he expected, would be to the heart, not the head.

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2 thoughts on “Allegory, myths, fairytales and fantasies”

  1. In most cases, readers don’t know authors’ intention when we read a book for pleasure not for study. The effect of the story works between writers’ sentences and readers’ mind, regardless of the author’s intention. Right? If someone knows something about Christianity, he/she would tend to take the book (our current book) as a Christian allegory, I think. In that sense, it’s difficult to tell apart fantasy from allegory.

    The last sentence of your comment makes it easier fo me to tell apart fantasy and allegory. Allegory needs head (thinking) to be understood, like The Great Divorce: A Dream. Our current book appealed to my heart, so I can take it as fantasy. Lewis wanted to create Narnia and I enjoyed reading.

    1. There have been different “schools” of literary criticism over the years. The “school” I learned at university believed that, it is useless to speculate on the author’s intentions, or on any possible connection between the author’s life and what the author wrote. The thing to do is to be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and examine the writing. All the clues will be there. Everything else is pure speculation. (For those who are interested, in the history of criticism, this was called New Criticism, and you can find out more about it by clicking the link, or in Japanese here).

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