Monday, September 29, 2014

A Word on the Subject of Allegory

Continuing this Q&A series with this great question: "What is your advice about allegorical works? That is, is it a genre you recommend writers pursue? If not, why not?"

Bearing in mind that I do not consider myself an expert on this topic--that these are simply my opinions which should be considered alongside other opinions--here's what I have to say on the subject of allegory.

I think it is unwise for authors to pursue the genre of allegorical fiction.

Does this surprise you? It might, particularly considering my first published novel was an overt allegory of Christ's love for the Church. Not to mention the truth that allegory has a long, lovely literary history that is always fascinating to study and pursue. The problem with allegory, however, is that it so quickly devolves from beautiful story-telling into agenda-pushing. This is true with all forms of allegory, from Christian to secular.

Yes, keep in mind that allegory does not necessarily mean Christian allegory. The definition of the word "allegory" is simply this: A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

Allegory is symbolic; like most symbolic work, it is best when done subtly. But subtlety and allegory do not often go hand-in-hand!

I read an allegorical book recently: Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper. It is a secular allegory on the topic of beauty in the modern world. Tepper has a point she desperately wants to make and she hammers it home through the course of her novel. And it's a wonderful novel, and Tepper expresses her allegory unashamedly and with skill. However, the preachy tone of the book is often extremely off-putting. One cannot help while reading it wondering how much better the book might have been had she sometimes let the characters and events speak for themselves.

Heartless, my own debut novel, has received criticism of a similar sort time and again. And while some readers would argue that the overt allegory is what makes the book special, others would just as vehemently argue that the allegory gets in the way of the story. I tend to fall somewhere between those two camps. It is difficult for me to envision Heartless without its allegorical themes simply because, as a young novelist, that's what I thought I was supposed to do. A good Christian novelist who wants to write fantasy must write fantasy-allegory.

These days--and quite a few novels later--I don't think so anymore.While allegorical themes and plenty of symbolism run through my work, I rarely write overt allegory anymore. The closest I came to returning to overt allegory was the scene of Eanrin's rescue from the Netherworld in Starflower. That story trod close to the same sort of allegorical overtness to be found in Heartless.

As a rule, however, I don't directly attempt allegory anymore. Instead I try to write books about people. Real people in fantastical situations who react to those situations as real people would react. This in itself provides me with opportunities to write about truth, grace, forgiveness, sin. Sometimes I write about them in a symbolic manner--Daylily's "wolf in her mind" from Shadow Hand for instance. There is plenty of allegorical significance in that theme, but it's not a symbol that can be easily pinpointed and explained away in simplistic Evangelical terms. Daylily is a person. Her sin and her struggle is simultaneously unique and universal.

This is the truth of people--our sins and struggles are always unique and yet always universal.

I have mentioned him many times before, but I'll go ahead and mention him again. One of my favorite modern novelists if Sir Terry Pratchett. I disagree with him on many levels theologically and philosophically. But what I absolutely love about his work is his ability to make a point, to give a message or "preach a sermon," without the reader ever feeling like that is what's happening. Because Sir Terry's purpose is always the people involved in his stories. Not the message. The message comes through the characters; the characters don't act out the message. Is his work allegorical (in the secular sense)? Often it is, yes. Absolutely. Does the reader ever feel as though she is reading an allegory? Rarely!

So that is always my urging to novelists who think they want to write allegory. Focus on the characters. Focus on making them as real as possible. Do you want to include symbolism? That's good. Study the great writers, both novelists and poets, who have handled it well, ingrain their secrets into your brain--and then go back to focusing on those characters.

And pray. If God has a message He wants to communicate through your work, He is more than capable of handling that Himself. But that's not your job. Your job is to write real . . . whether your genre is fantasy, sci fi, contemporary, romance, or whatever. Your job is to write with authenticity. Your job is to write with barefaced honesty. Don't hide behind masks of allegory or symbolism, for that was never the intended purpose of those literary devices!

A skilled writer can use allegorical symbolism to augment her honest portrayal of people. But the goal is ultimately not the allegory but the honesty.

What are your thoughts on the subject of allegory? Are you for or against it? Have you attempted to write it or do you avoid it as a rule?


Unknown said...

Wow. That was pretty amazing, especially coming from you. I think that allegory can go many different ways. Usually, I am more accepting of allegory if it is a view with which I agree. But having read more preachy books than I'd like to think, and other books heavy with symbolism that never have a purpose for lack of characters, they (along with your post) make me wonder where the line is drawn between the allegory and the preachiness.

Your post reminds me of the first time I read the Lord of the Rings. A few years later, I attended a lecture on the Christian meaning in it, and I was stunned. I had never thought about what Tolkien meant by the books. I had only been swept away by the story.

Unknown said...

Also: what would you consider the difference between allegory and symbolism? I tentatively think that symbolism is allegory without a specified direction, but I'd love to hear your opinion of it.

Meredith said...

This is such a phenomenal post. Thank you. I'm extremely guilty of "preachiness" in my work, and I honestly didn't realize this until this year when I began having others read some old stories and give constructive criticism. I asked only for honesty. It's very humbling and, frankly, embarrassing to have the lapses in logic and deliberate molding of the story to drive home a messagepointed out to you. I didn't realize my mistakes were as glaring as they obviously were. I've learned so much and, hopefully am improving in this regard. It's been such fun trying to focus mostly on the characters of recent works and not worrying as much about the message. Not that wanting to convey the gospel in some way is wrong, (I believe that that's what God wants, for us to use the talents He gives us for His glory), but I really appreciate your thought that He'll enable us to convey what He wants. We don't have to second-guess ourselves or try to force our stories into something they're not intended to be.

Personally, I love allegorical works. However, I think that the lack of availability in an accessible format might be the reason I rely on preachiness. I've read as many classical allegories as I could get my hands on, and many of them are preachy. The first allegory I ever read was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. He was a preacher, and his imagery is good, so that story always sticks with me. Also, the Narnia books are my favorites, but, if I'm honest, they can be preachy, too. I think Tolkien never intended The Lord of the Rings to be allegorical, and thus his works are much more subtle. I have to say that I loved Heartless, and I never felt it was preachy. Una was so very real to me as was Aethelbald and the other characters. I guess it's up to individual readers.

Thank you again for this extremely enlightening post.

ghost ryter said...

This was such a fantastic post and such a big help!!!

Suzannah said...

Hello, Anne! I haven't had the opportunity to read any of your work yet, but your book HEARTLESS is on my to-read list. I blog on books at Vintage Novels (, and I tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with you for a series I ran in early June on Home Educated Authors. So, hello at last :).

Allegory is an interest of mine, especially since it has such a fine Christian tradition behind it. I think we can trace the origins of Christian allegory all the way back to the "Alexandrian" or interpretive maximalist school of Bible hermeneutics in the early church. St Augustine's CITY OF GOD features a long section where he interprets redemptive history through an allegorical lens. This principle of Bible hermeneutics was influenced by the Apostles' allegorical interpretations of Old Testament events--eg, Galations 4:22-26 which reveals Abraham's marriage to Hagar and Sarah as analogues of the Old and New Covenants.

Medieval Christendom carried on this tradition of allegory. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan was understood as an allegory of salvation: the priest (formal religion) and the lawyer (obedience to the Law) is unable to save the traveller, but the Good Samaritan (Jesus, the rejected cornerstone) can. However, the medievals did not limit the interpretation of Scripture to allegory alone. They believed that Scripture and other writings could be interpreted in four modes simultaneously: the literal, the allegorical, the topological, and the anagogical.

As a result, their own writings are heavily allegorical and can usually be read allegorically--*as well as* literally (and topological and anagogical). The Protestant Reformation carried on this tradition of simultaneous literal and symbolic meaning, although the emergence of humanist thought and finally the Enlightenment put a stop to this, creating what I believe is an unnatural split between the purely literal and the purely allegorical. Modernism was hostile to metaphor, and favoured brute facts and brute literalism.

I"m sorry for the history lesson. All this is to say that history has convinced me that allegory is a good Christian artistic tool which should not be viewed with suspicion (and any tool can be used badly). However, I think we also make a mistake when we view allegory as something necessarily opposed to literalism, or unable to function within in. As you point out yourself, allegorical strains can be used to enrich any story. There's even allegory in Austen's MANSFIELD PARK.

I'd encourage people to read more of the great literature of Christendom to see exactly how our fathers in the faith did use allegory. For example, Edmund Spenser's THE FAERIE QUEENE is an amazing mix of allegory with literalism. Everything is heavily symbolic, but the characters have very definite personalities and lives of their own. Additionally, the symbol operates on several different levels at once. Allegory turns out to be a much more complex and sophisticated artform than we imagined, if our only experience of the genre has been THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS or ANIMAL FARM.

Yes, it can be done badly, and I absolutely agree that it works best as an underlying meaning to a story with fully developed characters and settings. But I'm pro-allegory. It's a beautiful thing if done well.

J:-)mi said...

Oh this makes me sad! Why? Why? Why? When did preaching become a sin? When did standing out and shouting the truth from the rooftops become something all Christians must avoid at all cost? I don't understand! Yes people get "turned off" but they did in Jesus' day, in the apostles' day! They killed people for speaking the truth! Why aren't we being killed for what we believe in? Because we don't think we should say it! Consider these verses:
Matthew 4:17 - From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
Mark 3:14 - He appointed twelve--designating them apostles--that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.
Mark 16:15 NIV
He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.
Luke 9:2 - and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Acts 10:42 - He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
Acts 20:20 - You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.
1 Corinthians 9:16 - Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
2 Timothy 4:2 - Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.
Romans 10:13-15 - for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Anonymous said...

that was inspirering!

Hannah said...

I think the more obvious allegory is more for the person who already believes. It is enjoyed and deeply appreciated by them (assuming it's done well). However, secular readers will avoid it like a PLAGUE. If an author is truly skilled (like you, Anne Elisabeth) they can sneak in the Truth in the reader's heart without them realizing it. There are those, however, who will recoil at even the slightest hint of the Truth.

Um...J:-)mi, I think you need to read the last few paragraphs again. Her point is to write from the heart, and if the heart is in tune with God, it will reflect his truth. She just isn't for allegory simply for the sake of allegory. Read Anne Elisabeth's books to understand. She will blow you away with the depth of her display of the Word. It's just...subtle. Or not. She literally had me in tears by her portrayal of the majesty, love, and power of God in her book, Golden Daughter.

By the way, Anne Elisabeth, I really enjoyed the parallel to a certain Bible story in Golden Daughter. I didn't even catch until I was finished with the book!

Meredith said...

There's a difference between hammering a theme home to the point of insulting a reader's intelligence and weaving it into a story so that it speaks for itself. One of my favorite quotes is from a lady named Hannah Arendt, "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it". Also, it is important to bear in mind that Jesus Himself related numerous parables in His teaching, even stating that certain people would not understand them. Others would understand, for their hearts were attuned to His Word. I have to remind myself of this when I start writing a story. So many symbols bombard my mind, and if I'm not careful, I forget the characters entirely.
But, to the commentor above, by all means convey the Gospel any way you can. Whether your medium is singing, artistry or preaching, God will use you as, hopefully, He uses us all. I don't think Mrs. Anne Elisabeth was telling us we shouldn't convey Christ's redemption for us.

And, Hannah, so glad you got to read Golden Daughter already! Actually, I am seething with envy, but I'm equally ecstatic, for it means that the waiting will be richly rewarded. So excited to see which Bible story is subtly alluded to. God bless.

BrynS. said...

When a writer blends allegory into their work of fiction, I believe it enhances the story, not detracts.

We are all most comfortable with things that are familiar. So allgorical and symbolic references give us a sure footing, a way to settle in and get the picture the writer intended. I don't know who many fantasy books I have tossed aside because the author was so busy trying to make his world different and singular that I had no idea where I was or was supposed to be going. To me, the most frustrating waste of money in the world is a fantasy book with no point but for me to be impressed with the author's wild imagination. Sorry, humans (especially Christians) want something a little deeper than that.

I believe using allegory in Heartless gave the series the best push forward it could have had. We found a world and themes that were familiar and yet still tantalizing to our imaginations..

Just because some critized this aspect of Heartless does not mean you should ditch such flavorings entirely. Remember, advice is golden but it is not sacred.

As humans we may say that we don't want to be preached to and that we want 'real' characters. This is true but what we really want are characters we can relate to but then we want them to go above and beyond us, like a beacon saying, "I'm just like you but here is the way out or up."

Keep putting spiritual truths in Goldstone and we will keep coming back for more...and we'll come back for Eanrin and Imraldera too, but that's another story for another time, lol.

Jill Stengl said...

Anne Elisabeth doesn't have Internet at their new house yet so can't join in the discussion. But if you read her post more closely, you will see that she LOVES allegory and fully intends to glorify God with her writing. That isn't going to change.

From HEARTLESS on, this series has been criticized from both sides--largely by Christians, mind you. To some it is "beat-it-over-your-head allegory," while to others it is "entirely lacking a Christian message." But to still others, God speaks through the honest stories of broken people in need of grace. He is the one who touches hearts and brings His message alive.

And never fear--as Hannah said, when you read GOLDEN DAUGHTER, you will see that the allegory is as powerful as ever.

Christa McKane said...

When it comes to Heartless, I'm in the "Allegory-Makes-It-Very-Special" camp. Let me give you a bit of the story of how I got into the book and the series. See, a friend of mine had bought Heartless from a bookstore that was closing down, and she gave it to me to borrow. I read the synopsis on the back cover (which I still think doesn't do the book justice) and was like, "Okay, I'll give it a try." I read the prologue and I enjoyed it. So I was reading the first few chapters, intrigued by everything from the Wood to Oriana Palace to the Twelve Year Market. Then I got to the part in Torkom's tent, with Una holding the dragon scale and the Dragon saying he was looking for the Beloved of his Enemy. And I thought, "Wait! Is this Christian allegory!? Is this REALLY Christian allegory!?" Then next chapter I read about Aethelbald and I think, "Oh, that's so much like Jesus!! I REALLY hope it's allegory!!" After a while I took a look at the back cover again and where the bar code is it said, "TNFI Fantasy/Allegory" and I was like "YESSS!!!" So that made me enjoy the book even more. When I finished the book I read the last few pages where it said there were more stories to come and I knew I had to buy the newest books. So, that's how I got into the Tales of Goldstone Wood. And that is why Heartless will always be special to me.

Christa McKane said...

Also, I have the feeling that J:-)mi is just a troll.