Academic journal article Mythlore

The Pearl Maiden's Psyche: The Middle English Pearl and the Allegorical-Visionary Impulse in till We Have Faces

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Pearl Maiden's Psyche: The Middle English Pearl and the Allegorical-Visionary Impulse in till We Have Faces

Article excerpt

"Don't give that book another thought. It isn't an allegory. I was trying to tell a story."

--C.S. Lewis, Letter to Father Peter Milward, SJ, 24 Sept. 1959 (Collected Letters III 1090)

Much like his friend and colleague J.R.R Tolkien, who famously claimed to avoid allegory in his fiction in favor of the even vaguer concept of "applicability," (1) C.S. Lewis habitually denied the allegorical character of his many fantastic fictions, including both his overtly Christian science fiction trilogy and the Narnia series. The obvious exceptions to Lewis's antipathy towards allegory include his self-consciously Bunyanesque first novel, The Pilgrim's Regress (1933)--which bears the unambiguous subtitle "An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism"--and also The Great Divorce (1945), a somewhat more novelistic work that nevertheless belongs to the ancient genre of the dream vision, itself the major locus of allegorical narrative in the Middle Ages (Boethius's Consolatio, Alain de Lille's De planctu naturae, the Roman de la Rose, Dante's Commedia, Piers Plowman). According to Lewis, however, his other novels operate more on a principle of "supposition" than pure allegory (see Companion 423-9), and the majority of critics have been more than willing to accept this distinction, perhaps out of a desire to defend Lewis against accusations of clumsy didacticism or formal conservatism, or perhaps simply out of deference to Lewis's own expertise on literary allegory; after all, Lewis literally wrote the book on the subject in The Allegory of Love (1936). Yet I would suggest that we revisit the question of Lewis's seemingly self-denied debt to allegory not in spite of his own magisterial familiarity with its history, but because of it: several features of medieval allegory may lurk in Lewis's fiction where critics eager to brush aside the problem of allegory have overlooked them (we should remember that Lewis himself, in maintaining that Narnia was not an allegorical landscape, would invariably use the post-medieval Bunyan as his baseline for allegory). In particular, Lewis's last novel, Till We Have Faces (1956), betrays what we might describe as an allegorical impulse, especially when we read it alongside a text Lewis knew intimately, the Middle English dream vision Pearl. By "allegorical impulse" I mean a desire to overload a seemingly straightforward narrative with multiple levels of meaning that can coexist within it, not some tendency to regress towards a simple system of correspondence-figuration, in which an element like a pearl might "stand for" or indeed stand in for something else and only that something. I will not, of course, attempt to apply the four levels of medieval allegoresis to produce an allegorical reading of Faces; with sufficient ingenuity, one could perform such an exercise with any text, medieval or modern. Instead, I will argue that Lewis's novel resembles medieval allegorical writing in that both deliberately incorporate multiple dimensions of figuration set in specific relation to one another: Lewis's novel does not rely on a concept of transcendent Romantic "symbolism" privileged over clunky allegory, but on the co-presence and complex co-interaction of several different figurative senses, some even analogous to the categories that medieval exegetes would term, for instance, the "typological" and the "anagogical," figuring Christ and the life to come, respectively.

This essay does not, of course, aim to reopen the tired debate about whether or not we should classify Till We Have Faces as an allegory, (2) but rather to tease out the traces of the allegorical dream poem that persist in this most thoroughly novelized, historicized vision. My central contention is that the resistance to the category of "allegory" conceived as a limiting concept or a text that operates on a principle of simple one-to-one correspondence--present in both Lewis's own writings and the later criticism of his work--has obscured the debt of novels like Till We Have Faces to medieval allegorical narrative, one way or another, and often several ways. …

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