As a child, I wasn’t much of a reader. But I was a listener. I loved listening to stories—to stories told and stories read. And the Chronicles of Narnia were some of my favourites, with my mother often reading them to me and my sisters before bed. Later in life, I would come to realize that C. S. Lewis was much more than a good storyteller, that he was a man with an unusual ability for seeing into the bone and marrow of humanity and for bringing this to life in story. And I found him especially skilled at enlivening one particular area of human existence: the reading of Scripture.
One such instance of this was when I was completing my seminary studies. I would often read fiction in the evenings, and at one point I re-opened The Chronicles of Narnia. As I came to the sixth book, The Silver Chair,[i] something caught my attention for the first time: the scene from which the story unfolds has deep echoes of the Bible. In that scene Jill receives instruction from Aslan about her mission, to rescue her companion Eustace and to find the lost Prince Rilian. Aslan has given Jill four signs to guide her journey but suspects she has not grasped them:
“Child,” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember . . . remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”[ii]
I soon discovered this echoed Deuteronomy, where Moses prepares Israel to live without him in the promised land. Time and again he calls the people to remember what the Lord had done in Egypt and the wilderness so that they might live rightly in the land. It was interesting to me that Deuteronomy, like The Silver Chair, cast memory as a vital guide for the people and portrayed its preservation therefore as a chief calling of the people.
I was fascinated by Lewis’s use of Deuteronomy in the book and wondered how it compared to the perspective of biblical scholars. But when I went searching, I was surprised by what I found: very little. The question had awakened a curiosity in me and I couldn’t leave it alone, so when my wife and I moved to England for my PhD the following year, I changed my topic up arrival. Instead of the original topic, I decided to pursue the question of memory in Deuteronomy (the fruit of this work can now be found in my book: Memoir of Moses: The Literary Creation of Covenantal Memory in Deuteronomy [Fortress Academic, 2020]).
Through my research I would learn that Lewis does not echo Deuteronomy alone, but appears to combine ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. To be sure, Deuteronomy serves as the governing framework for that scene in The Silver Chair: framing the story, firstly, as a great and challenging journey for which memory is vital, and characterizing the practice of memory, secondly, as a diligent and daily exercise (see Deut 6:4–9). But he also uses an element from Exodus, namely its notion of memory proper. In Deuteronomy, people remember God’s acts in order to motivate obedience to his commands; but in Exodus, people remember the commands themselves (compare Exod 20:8 and Deut 5:15). In terms of human memory, this means Deuteronomy focuses on episodic memory (images and experiences) and Exodus on semantic memory (words, facts, etc.).
In Aslan’s insistence that Jill remember the “signs,” therefore, it appears Lewis has adopted Exodus’s notion of memory, for it focuses on semantic memory: namely, the list of signs. And what it means is that the memory motif in The Silver Chair represents a tapestry of interwoven ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. I cannot say whether this merging of ideas reflects something intentional by Lewis, but I do think it represents a classic Lewis trait: an imagination saturated in Scripture that has produced a deeply theological exposition in story.
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperTrophy, 1953).
[ii] Lewis, The Silver Chair, 25–26.
Although he now serves as lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Malyon Theological College in Brisbane Australia, A.J. Culp originally studied English literature and writing. It was during those studies that he came to appreciate C.S. Lewis’ imaginative exposition of Scripture, which still influences his work today. For more of A.J.’s work, see https://malyon.academia.edu/AJCulp.
I love this reminder and share that same excitement when I find the beautiful intersection of faith and imagination.
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Thanks for that note, Tina!
I can see the parallels, or echoes, between remembering in Deuteronomy and in “The Silver Chair”. But I wonder if there is any explicit information that confirms that C.S. Lewis was drawing on Deuteronomy at that point? Such a connection between events in Narnia and events in the Bible is very different, for example, when Aslan offers himself as the sacrificial victim, in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and is killed and then resurrected, appearing to Susan and Lucy. in this case, the Narnia-and-Bible links are so obvious that we accept that Lewis intended the connection. He was writing allegory, or something very close to it, at that point.
Does Lewis mention Deuteronomy and/or memory anywhere in his essays, letters, diaries, books?
I don’t think so, John. What would we gain in having those links, I wonder? The language parallel of Aslan’s commendation in The Silver Chair and Deuteronomy 6 is pretty close. Would that be enough?
Why do you think Lewis pushed back so hard against claims that Narnia was allegorical?
I think, as scholars, the gain in having evidence that Lewis was aware of “memory” as a theme, connected with Deuteronomy, with an emphasis on memory, would be having evidence for a scholarly interpretation that suggests that Lewis did. Lack of evidence within Lewis’s papers (speaking generically) leaves scholars suggesting, without evidence. Why not ask? Why not look?
Of course parallels between works are interesting, and deserve to be made clear, and they may be important.
I actually think Lewis was not as straight as he might have been when he rejected suggestions that he was writing allegory — at least in “The Chronicles of Narnia”. He certainly knew that he was being allegorical, deliberately, with “Pilgrim’s Regress”. The title itself is one of those paralleling indications. But it is hard to deny that Aslan is allegorical, as creator, and saviour. Or walking unrecognised beside his followers, on the road to Emmaus, over the mountain pass from Calormene to Narnia .(Or have I misremembered “The Horse and His Boy”?)
Often Lewis wrote, and like John Bunyan, intended THIS to represent THAT.
Hi John, I am someone who as a scholar typically does what you talk about–linking biography and the literature. I love that kind of work! Lewis himself, though, thought that it was breaking something in what we do as readers. He wanted us to attend to what was there rather than who he was. He co-wrote a whole book on this, The Personal Heresy. In this case, if we asked, he would point back to the words, “Remember, Remember, Remember the signs,” and tell us to think about the text and the question.
I happen to think he is interesting on this point, a good caution, but wrong.
In this case, this little piece is not really as much about The Silver Chair as the suggestions it gives us as reader based on a link (the Deut 6 link) that I’m sure many others have made. I made the link in teaching years ago, anyway.
As far as allegory, I think that Lewis is right about Narnia not being an allegory and Aslan not being allegorical (Father Time in The Silver Chair is an allegorical character, so the text isn’t free of it). Aslan is himself–a supposal (what if God was incarnate in an animal land?), but he is himself, doing what he does. However, Aslan is figurative, a Christ figure. Lewis comments on Christ figures in his work and says that they are Christ figures in the sense that all of us are meant to live our lives as echoes of the cross, laying down our lives for the sake of others. In a fairy tale, of course, that death is a living reality–not in dying, for in our world too we die, but in that the magic of the “exchange” can actually happen in the rules of that world. So “death starts working backwards” in Narnia, the old traitor’s law breaks, etc. And in Harry Potter, this same cross-like self-sacrifice is the only way that the ultimate evil could be defeated (also a Stone, though not a stone table). And so on.
Lewis said he saw the journey Shasta as a kind of spiritual journey to faith. I’m not sure he was ever a terribly good reader of his own fairy tales, but even on that account I’m not sure what we gain in calling a metaphor, symbol, or figure an “allegory.” I just don’t see the one to one relationships of Character with Characteristic that it requires, like in Bunyan or Animal Farm or his own Regress.
Many thanks, Brenton, for your thoughtful and detailed responses. I take your points, indeed. I think “The Personal Heresy” may be more a caution against a literary interpretation along the lines of, “These words in Work X relate to, or are the result of Life Event Y, or Attitude Z in the author’s life”. Isn’t that different from hoping for evidence that Lewis made connections between Deuteronomy and human memory? If not, I stand corrected. Yes, I remember Lewis’s supposal, and accept that “Narnia” does not have the one-to-one systematic connections of an outright allegory. Thank you for your patient persistence, and clear explanations.
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I agree that the language parallels with Deuteronomy 6 are so close as to be almost beyond serious debate. The link to John 4 seems to me fairly obvious as well.
As to allegory, “The Last Battle” especially suggests a fictional universe in which the actual Son of God was incarnate as a son of Adam on Earth and as a Lion in Narnia. That is, it’s more than just symbolism. If I recall correctly, Lewis’s letters support that.
Yes, the symbolic link is tight–but can something be more than symbolism? Lewis called it a “supposal.” What advantages do we have in calling it an “allegory”? What does that do to enrich (or personalize, or trouble) our reading of the tet?
Thanks for your question, John, and for your thorough responses, Brenton. I was going to respond right away but then noticed Brenton had given much, much better responses than I could have! The only thing I might add is on the question of intertextuality (the evoking of one text by another). Intertextuality is itself a vast and complicated realm of scholarship, but it’s proven very useful in biblical studies for understanding the New Testament’s use of the Old. Pertinent to your own question, John, is the basic finding that texts evoke other texts in a spectrum of ways, ranging from very slight glints to explicit references. So while explicit references are the easiest to identify, they are by no means the sum total of intertextuality; they are only the tip of the iceberg. And much like the Titanic discovered, it is just as important to discern the submerged part of the iceberg! In biblical studies, Richard Hays has shown just how foundational echoes are to a text’s framing and meaning; I wonder if Michael Ward’s work has done something similar in Narnia scholarship?
Thanks AJ. Hays’ work is pretty important to me. I have written a longish lit theory piece on Lewis and intertextuality in “The Inklings and King Arthur,” so I’m always thrilled to hear people thinking about it. “Spectrum” is a good word. But then–and this is one of my dissatisfaction with intertextual studies sometimes–there needs to be a “so what?” “Brave New World” evokes “The Tempest.” But why? How do we experience the text(s) differently? That sort of thing.
On John’s point above, I wonder if “memory” is the way Lewis would describe it. I suspect rather than “memory,” Remember, Rember, Remember the signs” is about getting into the rhythm of the text. No, that’s still my words. Lewis uses “echo.” That works. He also uses “cathedral” as an image, so that like English cathedrals, built and rebuilt through the centuries, his work is like taking old-hew stones from the original chapel and reshaping the new one. Or maybe it is as simple as a trust that what God had provided for the jews as a way to pattern their lives is not just Jewish but essentially human.
Perhaps I’m making this worse!
Ha! You’re absolutely right: the way in which these texts serve as sources for later ones is a key question but also a vast and complex reality. So interesting, isn’t it?
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Thanks, A.J. I am not an expert in these matters, only a largely self-taught enthusiast. I understand the complexities of intertextuality. Explicit naming of other authors, or books, plays, stories, poems, as well as composers and pieces of music, and artists and pictures and sculptures, and quotes, and paraphrases, and historical people and events, and epigraphs, are clear instances, manifestly intended by the author. Of course, the cited other-text may be obscure, or unknown to the present reader. (Intertextuality is a major feature in the work of Elizabeth Goudge, the focus of some of my current researches. Much light can be shed on her characters and interactions once the other-text material is identified and considered in its quoting-context.)
Moreover, just WHAT an author may have intended by introducing that opening-to-another within his or her work may not be obvious, or unambiguous.
Intertexuality may be less clear, and contentious, when it is, perhaps, a shared image, or metaphor, or theme. Is there evidence that a possible echo is intended, or coincidental?
I have not previously heard of Richard Hay’s and would be glad to know of a good starting point for his ideas.
I assume you know Michael Ward’s remarkable “Planet Narnia”, which explores the many background materials Lewis drew upon in his whole body of work, not just “Narnia” as the title suggests. Were you referring to something else by Ward?
One of the great intertextual religious writers is David Jones, the artist and epic poet: “The Anathemata” and “In Parenthesis”, and much more: writing out of his Catholic faith. But in his case, his own footnotes are just the starting point for much more detailed explication of his intertextuality. And he does not supply footnotes for all the pieces of other-text he includes within his own work.
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