I’ve been working through Lewis’s letters for a loooong time, with many side forays into books I discovered about Lewis, or that influenced him, and catching up on his essays in order up to the time period I’m reading about in the letters. I’m currently in August, 1940 – after Out of the Silent Planet but before Perelandra. I just came across a very interesting letter written to a scholar who studied German literature in response to some questions she had about The Allegory of Love, specifically about the distinction Lewis makes between allegory and symbolism. I get the impression that she was asking him about Kafka and whether Lewis saw his work as symbolism or allegory.

What’s interesting is that in the letter, Lewis adjusts his opinion of the relationship of symbolism and allegory. In The Allegory of Love, he distinguishes between the two by saying that in allegory, the author is using an unreal character to image a real passion; in symbolism, the author sees the reality – the passion or person itself – as the image of something more, which he then tries to find, or image, through the fiction. ‘The allegorist leaves the given—his own passions—to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real. To put the difference in another way, for the symbolist it is we who are the allegory.’ The real topic in allegory is the human passion. The real topic in symbolism is spiritual – or at least something beyond humanity; that which the human passion imitates. We can see how this works in Lewis’s own fiction. He tries to get at spiritual reality – ‘that which is more real’ – in a way that gets around our mere reason; the characters show us that which is more real than reality. In The Allegory of Love, he also says that ‘[t]he difference between the two can hardly be exaggerated.’

In this letter (August 18, 1940, to Professor Butler), however, he describes how he would revise that section in the book. He says he still recognizes the distinction he described, but he also takes a look at symbolism and allegory as ‘literary procedure[s]’ and describes how the two overlap. He describes them this way.

  1. Allegory Each symbol, in isolation, has a meaning and the total meaning is built up out of these, e.g. you first know who Bialacoil is and what the Rose [means] then see what Bialacoil-guarding-the-Rose means. 
  2. Symbolical narrative or myth. What has a meaning is the total story, and the separate characters or ‘properties’ are mere products of analysis. i.e. ‘rescuing-Eurydice-from-Hell-and-losing-her-by-looking-back’ has a meaning that neither Eurydice in isolation, nor Hell in isolation has-or, if it has, you get it by analysis out of the total meaning and don’t build up the total meaning out of them. Also in a symbolical narrative the meaning usually cannot be stated in conceptual terms: it lives only in the story.

So this alternate view is focused on the level of detail or emphasis in the comparisons – in allegory, the detail is the thing; in symbolism the big picture is the thing. I think this really makes sense when you look at how he insisted that the Narnia Chronicles weren’t allegory – the important thing is not individual symbols (as in allegory), but the ‘donegality’, the atmosphere he creates with each novel as it relates to the heavenly sphere it is intended to reflect. (If you haven’t read either Planet Narnia or The Narnia Code, you really should.) You don’t have to understand the references to the gods to imbibe the atmosphere, or to have it affect you, though an understanding of the symbols deepens your understanding. To understand something as allegory, if it is allegory, requires more understanding – if you translated Romance of the Rose, but left the names of the characters in French, a person with no knowledge of French or Latin would be hard pressed to understand the allegory.

And that’s where it gets even more interesting! Just after the above contrast, he says, ‘But an odd thing follows. The same story may be mythical or symbolical to one person and allegorical to another.’ Later he adds, ‘the two things are not absolutely separable.’ He gives a few instances of this – George MacDonald, the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Kafka. He says as a child he imbibed the symbolism of George MacDonald – he got the flavor of his writings, knew that it connected to something ‘more real’. Later, becoming more learned – and a Christian – he came to see them as more allegorical. He imagines someone without any knowledge of religion reading the Pilgrim’s Progress and understanding that it’s symbolism and gathering some truth – but Bunyan was certainly writing allegory, as anyone with much Christian religious education understands. And he says that he’s read some Kafka, and to him it’s symbolism – he gets the impression of depth, the atmosphere of the thing, but to Kafka – and those more knowledgeable than Lewis – it may very well have been allegory.

So Lewis describes the difference between allegory and symbol as often having to do with the reader rather than the author. The author may be thinking primarily one way – either allegory or symbol – but for the reader, it may be symbolism unless or until they understand the specific symbols more clearly. And even writing with lots of specific symbolism, like Narnia, may not be allegory, as the distinction has more to do with emphasis.

So I’ve been thinking about how this applies to my work on the trilogy. When I described some of my ideas to Michael Ward (the maturation theme, masculinity+femininity=fertility, etc.), he said that he saw OSP as Lewis ‘establishing the masculine principle’, Perelandra as establishing the feminine principle and further describing masculinity, and THS as Mark and Jane surrendering to their ‘gendered realities’. I think part of the reason for our differences is that he sees it from that broader, more symbolic perspective. He’s breathing the air of Malacandra and Perelandra, but without seeking the origin of the fragrance, so to speak. Having delved more deeply into the masculine and feminine imagery as defined on the mountaintop, I see it as a bit closer to allegory. I’m not sure I would call it allegory per se, but I see more consistent themes having to do with the intersection of masculinity, femininity, and growth than appear from a ‘symbolic’ (as defined by Lewis in the letter) reading.

I do think Lewis intended this more allegorical reading of gender in the trilogy specifically because he gave us the key to reading the symbols when he wrote the scene on the mountaintop. Maybe he realized people didn’t get it in OSP, so he decided to be a bit more direct. By naming the eldila Mars and Venus in the scene, telling us that the difference between them was gender, and describing their appearance in a way that recalled both characteristics of the gods and of the planets/characters in the books he was doing the same thing Bunyan was when he gave his characters and places names like Christian and Hope and Vanity Fair. The symbols themselves have meaning, inside or outside the story itself, which in the letter Lewis equated with allegory. And they show up in all his writing! (This week I’m listening to The Silver Chair with the kids. They cross water and climb into a stone tower to free Prince Rillian. Not a coincidence. Femininity {water} + Masculinity {stone tower} = growth. Always.) I think that in the trilogy, he’s using the ‘literary procedure’ of allegory to accomplish the symbolic purpose of imaging the divine. I need to read a bit further in the letters and essays to get a better idea of Lewis’s further thoughts on allegory, especially as it relates to the trilogy, to be more certain.

What do you think? Was Lewis going more for symbolism or allegory – or at least as much toward allegory as worked in his cultural context?

[Edit] Note: My use of the word symbols in relation to gender above may be a bit unclear. I think Mars is a representation of perfected masculinity and Venus of perfected femininity. They are the equivalent of the Rose, so to speak. Lewis uses the mountaintop scene to delineate another layer of symbols that clue us in to their presence/influence, i.e. water, plants, green for Venus and red, stone, phallic symbols for Mars. Since his audience isn’t accustomed to full-on allegory (which he discusses in The Allegory of Love), he uses instead these more subtle references to the presence of Mars and Venus. But when you recognize their presence, they function the same way that he mentions in the letter – ‘you first know who Bialacoil is and what the Rose [means] then see what Bialacoil-guarding-the-Rose means.’

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