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.”

Narnia is in fact a fictional instantiation of a certain kind of metaphysics-it is a world crafted out of a Platonic, or really, medieval Augustinian, metaphysics of participation, of superfluity, and of sacrament. I wish to examine this philosophical vision, this sacramental metaphysics, to see what it is that Lewis has adopted and how he has adapted it; how he renewed and transformed it by focusing on the beasts of Narnia and the bestiaries turned to for inspiration. Through this examination we will see how Lewis, in his fictional Narnia, addresses certain challenges posed for the Christian committed to a Platonic metaphysics, especially its tendency to erase the individual creature in favor of its ontological source. We will also see how Narnia and its metaphysics presages other attempts to reclaim medieval metaphysics, including Radical Orthodoxy.

The beasts of Narnia may seem an odd place to begin a metaphysical inquiry. One the one hand, talking animals seem too trivial for much philosophical speculation, since they are most commonly didactic tools of children’s stories-often acting, like Beatrix Potter’s naughty Peter Rabbit, as stand-ins for the child or, like Leo Lionni’s poetic field mouse Frederick, as a source for homely wisdom. On the other hand, Lewis’ use of bestiary materials to flesh out many of Narnia’s beasts may seem merely to add a quaint medieval flavor to his imaginary world. Their strange stories and moralizing “allegories” seem unlikely grounds for an ontology.

Yet bestiaries are, in fact, Lewis’ prime examples in The Allegory of Love of literary expressions of sacramentalism. These “books of beasts” describe animals (mostly real, such as the beaver and the lion, though some imaginary, such as the phoenix) and their behaviors (sometimes real, though often imaginary, even bizarre). The bestiary writers then treat the beasts as “texts” to be “read” as signifiers of important religious and moral truths, discovering in and through these textual beasts a level of reality beyond the apparent. An excellent example of the bestiary approach from the Physiologus (the earliest bestiary, dating from no later than the fifth century), and one relevant to Narnia, is the section “On the Beaver.”

There is an animal called the beaver who is extremely inoffensive and quiet. His genitals are helpful as a medicine…. When the beaver sees the hunter hastening to overtake him in the mountains, he bites off his own genitals and throws them before the hunter….And the hunter, seeing that the beast has no genitals, departs from him.

O, and you who behave in a manly way, O citizen of God, if you have given to the hunter the things which are his, he no longer approaches you. If you have had an evil inclination toward sin, greed, adultery, theft, cut them away from you and give them to the devil….[7]

Here the imaginary behavior of the beaver is to be read as a sign for an important aspect of the righteous Christian life. The beaver’s behavior is a reflection of Jesus’ statement to His followers:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. – Mark 9:43

The clear connection here may make us suspect that the beaver’s behavior is fictitious, and it is unclear just how medieval readers received these stories, whether they thought them accurate scientific data or rhetorical tropes.[8] But in either case, the approach is to see God’s creatures as texts, so that in these creatures, the bestiarists encounter a world overflowing with meaning, a world of superfluity, in which the very being of the animals “stretches” beyond their physical existence toward some further reality-without, however, canceling out the existence or reality of the animals themselves.

The beasts of Narnia are integral parts of the heightened sacramentality of Lewis’ imaginary world, are important elements in its ontological superfluity, and are so quite unlike Peter Rabbit and more like sacramental animals of the bestiaries. Narnia’s beasts are of course important characters moving along Lewis’ narrative, but they also push against the confines of that narrative, just as the animals of the bestiaries overflow their appearances.

For example, Trufflehunter the badger is a delightfully drawn character with an important role to play in leading Caspian toward his destiny as King of Narnia, including the arming of the young king with dwarvish (non-human) armor and weapons. But through a subtle use of bestiary material Lewis moves us beyond the confines of this particular narrative moment. When the dwarf smithies offer Trufflehunter arms and armor like those given to Caspian, the badger refuses:

The badger could have had the same if it had liked, but it said it was a beast, it was, and if its claws and teeth could not keep its skin whole, it wasn’t worth keeping.[9]

Trufflehunter reports here precisely what the bestiaries say is the fundamental nature of being a beast:

The name “beast” applies, strictly speaking, to lions, panthers and tigers, wolves and foxes, dogs and apes, and to all other animals which vent their rage with tooth and claw….[10]

Lewis uses this bestiary definition as a means of distancing Narnia’s beasts from technologies-unlike human beings and dwarves, they neither need nor desire technology to further their existence-and harkens back to the original gift Aslan gave the beasts in their creation: “‘Creatures,’ says Aslan to the newly created and speaking animals, ‘I give you yourselves.'”[11] So Trufflehunter’s reference here to his own bestiality, as defined by the bestiaries, bumps the reader out of the immediate and apparent narrative moment into an awareness of the creatures’ being as gift from their Creator, as a sacrament of their Creator’s gifting love. It is in ways such as this, as well as use of bestiary materials in the crafting of Aslan and other characters, that Lewis draws on the sacramental character of the bestiaries to help develop and heighten the sacramentalism of Narnia.

Thus through the beasts Lewis draws on the medieval vision that the world is “a book written by the finger of God,”[12] “reflecting, representing, and describing its maker, the Trinity.”[13] But how can what is true of texts, that they have multiple layers of meaning, be true of animals as well? How could such a metaphor as this-the universe as the liber naturae, “the book of nature”[14]-come to be taken seriously in any sense other than purely poetically? Lewis points us in the right direction in a passage from The Discarded Image, identifying two primary sources for the sacramental existence of animals:

If, as Platonism taught-nor would Browne himself have dissented-the visible world is made after an invisible pattern…the expectation that an anagogical or moral sense will have been built into the nature and behaviour of the creatures would not be a priori unreasonable. To us an account of animal behaviour would seem improbable if it suggested too obvious a moral. Not so to them. Their premises were different.[15]

The sacramental vision of the world as text arises at the intersection between two modes of thought: on the one hand, the Platonic/Augustinian metaphysics of participation, and on the other, the characteristic method of medieval Biblical exegesis, in which exegetes discover (where appropriate) symbolic levels of meaning, including a moral (anagogical) meaning hidden under the literal signification of a Biblical text.

For medievals, like the bestiarists, the Bible is of course the text of texts, the text whose layers of meaning necessarily overflow the literal meanings of the words. The Bible is “the perfect gift…coming down from the Father of lights,”[16] God’s revelation of Himself and all that is necessary for the salvation of the wayfaring human being. But if it is to be the self-revelation of an infinite God-a God of infinite truth, beauty, and goodness-the Bible must possess a richness or superfluity of meaning unparalleled by any other text, like “a honeycomb, for while in the simplicity of their language [the Sacred Scriptures] seem dry, within they are filled with sweetness.”[17]

The “depth”[18] or excess of meaning found in Sacred Scripture[19] expressed itself, to the medievals, in four layers of meaning. The first, foundational, level of meaning is the historical or literal level of interpretation. The other senses are symbolic or figurative, including allegory, in which “one thing signifies another thing which is in the realm of faith”; tropology, or a moral level, in which “from something done, we learn another thing that we must do”; and anagogy, in which “we are given to know what to desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the elect.”[20] Medieval Biblical scholars were convinced that they were not adding to the text but only discovering the superfluity of meanings that God had hidden within the text. Hence Hugh’s honeycomb metaphor is apt-the exegete is only drawing out the honey that is already there.

But how did the honey get there?  The overflowing honey of Sacred Scripture is an expression of the infinite being, power, and goodness of its divine Author. This same superfluity is found in God’s original text, the universe:

[God] created this perceptible world as a means of self-revelation so that, like a mirror or a divine footprint (vestigium), it might lead man to love and praise his Creator. Accordingly there are two books, one written within, and that is [inscribed by] God’s eternal Art and Wisdom; the other written without, and that is the perceptible world.[21]

Here we meet the sacramental metaphysics that informs the bestiaries, and which Lewis instantiates in Narnia; a metaphysics that begins with the creatureliness of the creature, focusing on the creature’s ontological dependence on its Creator. As Lord Digory and Professor Kirk explain to Peter, and the others in The Last Battle, that the Narnia they had experienced before “was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here….”[22] He then mutters under his breath, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato…”[23] which, as Lewis is well aware, is not completely true.

According to Plato, as shadows and reflections are dependent on physical things for their being, so physical things are dependent on the Forms for theirs-the things of this perceptible world are but shadows cast by the really real Forms (Republic) or copies crafted by the artisan god (demiourgos) to resemble the forms (Timaeus). Though Lewis, with Augustine and others, accepts this basic ontology, he, like them, does not think that it quite satisfies certain Christian convictions about a Creator God. He is particularly wary of two things in Plato’s metaphysics: first, the tendency to erase the individual creature to merely a false appearance, since it does not have the reality of the Forms; and second, the impersonal nature of the source of being, since Plato’s Forms are impersonal abstractions.

Lewis instantiates in Narnia, not pure Platonism, but an Augustinian and medieval sacramental metaphysics in which a personal, Trinitarian God, who is absolute Being, Goodness, Truth, and Love, creates the universe ex nihilo.[24] In God, Being, Goodness, and Truth are ultimately one, bound together as an inseparable unity. Now, goodness and love are self-diffusive (i.e., their nature is to pour out of the lover toward the beloved), and in God they are not distinguishable from Being. Since God possesses these characteristics-Goodness, Being, and Love-in overabundance, He wills them to overflow as creation, following the pattern dictated by the Divine Ideas, Plato’s Forms now transferred to God’s reason into the Logos.[25] Every creature, then, possesses a measure of being and goodness, as well as a form or nature, as gifts of God’s goodness and love, and so, as in Plato, they do not exist independently of their Source, as autonomous entities, but their being is always possessed as pure gift. Nor can creatures be like anything other than their Triune Creator. Thus the being, essence, or nature of every creature-every lion, beaver, and badger, as well as every human being-comes from the Triune Creator as a gift and signifies or points back to that source. As God is a Trinity and Triune Cause-God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as efficient, exemplary, and final cause-so every creature possesses a trinity of characteristics-limit, form, and order-and through this three-fold mark it stretches beyond itself, back to its Creator.[26] It is thus through its very being that the creature can be read as a text signifying, at several levels of being, its Author.

Thus in the sacramentalist view of reality, the world as it appears is held up (“suspended” to use a term common in Radical Orthodoxy) on an ontological web of relationships with some “deeper” reality that is ultimately responsible for its existence and meaning. This means that all creation overflows-the being, goodness, beauty, and truth of the ultimate Cause pours out into the world through the suspended creature-or to put it another way, we can experience the being, goodness, beauty, and truth of the ultimate Cause in and through the suspended creatures. But the creature is not erased as a result.

Whereas for Plato an individual entity, such as a beaver, lacks creational integrity-it is only a shadow of a Form and its epistemological and ontological importance is exhausted once we have grasped the Form-a sacramental metaphysics is committed to the reality of God’s creation and so resists the erasure of the particular. We can see such resistance in the bestiaries, where the animals never disappear behind the symbolism. Almost all of the bestiary animals have characteristics and behaviors that are not read symbolically and some of the animals are given no symbolic reading at all. And the exuberant and colorful illuminations are of the animals themselves, not what they figure. The surface or appearance of the animals is not negated by the symbolism, and the depths give the appearance reality and the appearance is the means by which the depths shine forth. Under the surface are depths of meaning, beauty, goodness, truth, but the depths do not negate or overwhelm the surface; rather, they support and glorify it, so that surface and depth, depth and surface support each other, shining through each other. So too in Narnia, the beasts of Narnia are not mere symbols, but possess a certain fictional integrity as characters, though they remain ontologically dependent on their Creator’s gift of being.

Milbank, Ward, and Pickstock make a similar point in their introduction to Radical Orthodoxy.[27] After expressing their concerns that modern metaphysical theories (which argue for the ontological independence of entities), actually end up denying any reality to those entities, erasing them into the void of postmodern nihilism or into a falsely static ontological scheme, they then claim that only something like a sacramentalist metaphysics saves the individual creature-only if the creature is ontologically suspended on its gifting Creator can we encounter it as an integral other:  “…for the phenomenon to really be there they must be more than there…. This is to say that all there is only is because it is more than it is.”[28] Lewis’ Narnia has already given this dense sacramental ontology literary form. The reality of the particular individuals of Narnia-of Reepicheep, Jewel, Mr. Tumnus, even Beaversdam and Mount Pire-is suspended on the gift of being from their Creator, but they never disappear behind the gift itself.[29]

A special word should be said about Aslan. Lewis borrows quite heavily from the bestiaries to craft Aslan. According to the Physiologus, lion cubs are born dead and are only animated when the father lion breathes on them on the third day,[30] a story Lewis draws on in “the ransacking of the Witch’s fortress,” when Aslan’s breath reanimates the creatures turned into stone.[31] Comparing further, the bestiaries call the lion the king or prince of beasts and claim that the lion “loves to roam amid mountain peaks,” while Aslan’s country is a range of mountains beyond the end of the world; the lion and is merciful, sparing those who prostrate themselves before him, as Aslan shows mercy to the repentant traitor Edmund. So Lewis draws most fully on this sacramental literature in order to flesh out Aslan. Yet Aslan is not a lion; Lewis says that he is the Lion, “The Real Lion.”[32]

Aslan then is not an instantiation of a Form, but the Form itself of which all other lions are signs or sacraments. In Aslan, the fullness of the Form lives, takes on flesh (and so life and death) with his creatures. Now, Platonic Forms are impersonal abstractions-Unity, Equality, Beauty, Justice, Leonicity-but at least one of Lewis’ Forms is not an abstraction: he is the living personal godhead of Narnia. Here we see Lewis breaking with Plato in favor of something Augustinian and Biblical; not the static, abstract Forms of the Timaeus, but the living, incarnational God of the Confessions and the Bible is the Form of being, truth, and goodness in Narnia. In this incarnated God-Beast of Narnia we see Lewis’ highest expression of his imaginary sacramental world, by which the reader is drawn out of our world into Narnia, and then out of Narnia back into our world, but now mediated through the grace, mercy, and love of Christ, the God-Man, of whom Aslan is a literary sacrament.


[1] For instance, Peter Kreeft refers to it as a “theological allegory” in his C. S. Lewis:  A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1969), 36.

[2] Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), 44-45.

[3] The Allegory of Love, 45.

[4] The Allegory of Love, 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Physiologus, chapter 37, 52.

[8] By the seventeenth century these stories are seen as scientifically false, though symbolically useful. Thomas Browne (1605-1682) claims of them: “As for the testimonies of ancient fathers and ecclesiastical writers, we may more safely conceive therein some emblematical than any real story…” (Pseudodoxia Epidemica V.i.338-340).

[9] Prince Caspian, 71.

[10] The Aberdeen Bestiary, Incipit.

[11] The Magician’s Nephew, 118.

[12] Hugh of St. Victor, De tribus diebus 4.

[13] Bonaventure, Breviloquium II.12.1

[14] This notion of the world as a book continued into the early modern period, as for example in the works of Galileo and Thomas Browne, whom Lewis references in the next extended quotation. But the metaphor is subtly changed. The focus is no longer on the sacramental character of the beaver or pelican, since the stories about them are false anyway, but now rather on the reader’s “admiration” of God’s intelligence and power in creating a regular and rational universe. See for instance Thomas Browne, Religio Medici I.16. This is not intended to diminish in any way the beauty and importance of Browne’s work, which is as delightful and insightful a read as the bestiaries and The Chronicles of Narnia.

[15] Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 152.

[16] So Bonaventure refers to it in Breviloquium, Prologus 2, quoting James 1:17.

[17] Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, IV.1. See Jerome Taylor’s translation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 102.

[18] This is Bonaventure’s term for the superfluity of meaning in the Bible. See Breviloquium, Prologus 4.

[19] Peter Comestor uses a delightfully homely metaphor to discuss the superfluity of meaning in Scripture:  “Holy Scripture is God’s dining room, where the guests are made soberly drunk…History is the foundation…allegory the wall…tropology the roof….” Peter Comestor, Historia Scholastica, Prologue (P.L. cxcviii, 1053). Quoted in Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 242.

[20] Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Prologue, 4.1.

[21] Bonaventure, Breviloquium II.11.2

[22] The Last Battle, 169-170.

[23] Ibid. 170.

[24] The following account is derived primarily from Bonaventure’s Commentaria in Quattuor Libri Sententiarum, Books I and II. Bonaventure claims to be simply developing insights already made by Augustine of Hippo.

[25] This solution to the problem of the ontological status of Plato’s Forms comes from Augustine, De Diversis Quaestionibus Octaginta Tribus q.46.1 (PL 40, 29-30): “In fact, Ideas are the primary forms, or the permanent and immutable reasons of real things, and they are not themselves formed; so they are, as a consequence, eternal and ever the same in themselves, and they are contained in the divine intelligence.”  Augustine often refers to the Divine Ideas as the rationes aeternae, the “eternal reasons.”

[26] In Breviloquium II.1.4, Bonaventure gives a particularly clear statement of this: “The utterly perfect Principle from whom flows the perfection of all things must act by His own power and law, and for Himself as an end; for in His action He needs none but Himself. Hence, He must be the threefold cause of all creatures: efficient, exemplary, and final. As a result, every creature must bear the same threefold reference [significationem] to the first cause: for every one exists by virtue of the efficient cause, is patterned after the exemplary cause, and ordered toward the final cause. For this reason every creature is one, true, and good; has limit (modus), form (species), and order (ordo); and has measure, number, and weight – for weight is an ordered inclination. All this applies to every creature in general, whether material, spiritual, or composite, as is human nature.”

[27] John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy:  A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1999).

[28] Ibid. 4.

[29] Lewis pushes even further against the erasure of the creature, giving the particular an eschatological dimension. Into the “heavenly” Narnia, the Narnia underlying Narnia, Aslan brings all the good creatures of Narnia: “All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door” (The Last Battle 169). In fact, in the “real England,” “the England within England,” even Professor Kirk’s old country home still exists (181). This is not Plato, where the instantiation has hardly any existence and certainly none after death or dissolution. This is a sacramental ontology that allows an integrity to the creature, without denying its creaturely status-the gift of being is sustained even after the end of the world.

[30] Physiologus, chapter I: On the Lion, p. 4. Physiologus, translated by Michael J. Curley, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Here is the relevant text: “The third nature of the lion is that, when the lioness has given birth to her whelp, she brings it forth dead. And she guards it for three days until its sire arrives on the third day and, breathing into its face on the third day, he awakens it. Thus did the almighty Father of all awaken from the dead the firstborn of every creature.” The reference to Jesus as “the firstborn of every creature” is found in Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (NIV).

[31] The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Chapter XVI, “What Happened About the Statues,” 164-168.

[32] The Last Battle, 100.