Beastly Metaphysics: The Beasts of Narnia and Lewis’ Reclamation of Medieval Sacramental Metaphysics

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The oft-made claim that The Chronicles of Narnia is an allegory,[1] though partially true, does not quite do justice to the power of the work, or the beautiful, grace-filled, and luminous world Lewis creates. In a work of allegory, as Lewis explains it in The Allegory of Love, characters are visibilia (“visible things”) invented to express or represent certain “immaterial facts” about the world of our experience, such as our passions or states of mind,[2] as we see in Lewis’ own example:

If you are hesitating between an angry retort and a soft answer, you can express your state of mind by inventing a person called Ira with a torch and letting her contend against another invented person called Patientia. This is allegory.[3]

But this, of course, is what we tend not to find in Narnia. Reepicheep, the Beavers, Ramandu, Jewel are not visibilia standing in for certain invisibilia of our world-representing things like Courage, Constancy, or Wisdom-though they may possess such qualities. The creatures of Narnia have a certain (admittedly fictional) integrity of their own that works against reading them as mere stand-ins or simulacra for aspects of our world, even if Lewis has certain didactic aims in their creation.

For this reason (among others that I hope will become apparent in this paper), I will refer to Narnia not as an allegorical world but as an “imaginary sacramental world.”  What Lewis calls “sacramentalism” or “symbolism” is a mode of thought quite distinguishable from allegory, though closely allied with it, since both find equivalences between visibilia and invisibilia.[4] Whereas allegory involves the creation of visibilia, such as Lewis’ Ira and Patientia, to be stand-ins for qualities such as Anger and Patience (the invisibilia), sacramentalism is the view that the things of our world (the visibilia) are, not really stand-ins, but instantiations or copies of invisibilia, things in a more real, but unseen world-Lewis says that “our material world…is the copy of an invisible world.”[5] The sacramentalist is doing something subtly different from the allegorist:

The allegorist leaves the given-his own passions-to talk of that which is confessedly less real. 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.[6]

Sacramentalist writings are embedded within a particular metaphysics, one which claims that the things of this world are not exhausted by their physical parameters, but overflow their apparent confines, exhibiting a superfluity of being that connects them back to their source and Creator. Lewis is, in fact, deeply committed to such a sacramentalist metaphysics.

Like the allegorist, Lewis leaves the given (our world) to talk of that which is less real (Narnia). But he does this, like the sacramentalist, in order to open a door for the reader to that which is more real and thus uncontainable by allegory. Lewis undoubtedly creates a world that reflects our own, but it is not a flat one-to-one allegory. Rather what he is attempting to capture in Narnia is the sacramental character of our world. In Narnia Lewis presents us with a sort of heightened sacramentalism, a carefully crafted imaginary world where the glory of its (fictional) Creator shines through all aspects of the fictional creation, bursting forth in animals talking, trees dancing, and stars sharing a meal with little children. It is precisely this heightened sacramentalism, this sense of encountering a luminous world of superfluity that makes Narnia such a successful fictional creation. The attractiveness of a character such as Aslan is that he isn’t like Ira or Patientia-a personification invented to represent some abstract passion or quality or state of mind-but a specific fictional sacrament or sign (what we could call an “invented given”) that has its own place within the story Lewis is telling, but also draws the reader toward something “more real.”