What’s a Symbol? (Allegory Pt 1)

It’s become very popular to call The Chronicles of Narnia allegorical. However, as several scholars have noted, C.S. Lewis himself refuted that suggestion. He preferred to call it a “supposal.”

A similar argument comes up in discussions about Jesus’ parables. As Mark L. Strauss notes in his book Four Portraits, One Jesus, for a time in church history it was popular to “allegorize” the parables and claim they had various odd and hidden meanings. However, there are big problems with this approach.

So what really is an allegory?

Well, it’s hard to explain what an allegory is if you don’t start by explaining what a symbol is.

What are symbols?

Symbols are essentially hidden meanings that the author wants you to unearth in the story.

They give you a new level of understanding about the story, make it more interesting and show you themes and concepts the author fit into the story.

For example, Gaston Leroux’s book The Phantom of the Opera includes many references to the underworld, Hades or Hell.

When the Phantom’s pupil Christine gives an acclaimed performance, one music critic says:

“Where on earth did she get the glorious voice she has today? If it did not float down from heaven on the wings of love, I can only conclude that it rose from hell.” (22)

Later, readers learn the Phantom lives in the opera house’s cellars, an area filled with dark and seemingly demonic things.

A rat catcher carries a lantern through the cellars and makes his head look like a burning head.

A watchman, whose name no one knows and is only described as a shadow, prowls the cellars to find people who’ve entered and forcefully send them back upstairs.

When Christine visits the cellars, she describes it this way:

“I’d stopped at the third level … down there are demons, black from head to foot, who feed boilers, wield shovels and forks, stoke braziers, fan flames, and, if you go near them, frighten you suddenly by opening the red-hot fire-holes of the furnaces!” (130)

Readers learn even later that the Phantom has a subterranean home surrounded by a lake, which he reaches in a boat with a pole (like Charon, the Underworld’s ferryman).

All of these details compare the Phantom to Satan or Hades, and that’s precisely the point.

The Phantom is symbolically Hades, which means Christine is symbolically Persephone. The story about how the Phantom tries to romance Christine becomes so much more poignant once you understand these symbols.

If this gives us an idea was a symbol is, then what is an allegory? What sets them apart?

Find out in Part 2.

8 thoughts on “What’s a Symbol? (Allegory Pt 1)

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