Anyone familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s thoughts on C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books knows one of this complaints about them were they were too overtly allegorical. What he meant by that are the obvious references to Christian people and themes in a didactic manner. An obvious example is that Aslan represents Christ, and how Aslan gives his life up to save Edmund from the White Witch is an obvious allegory of the penal-substitutionary understanding of the atonement of Christ on the cross.
It should be noted that Lewis didn’t see these things strictly as allegory. Louis A. Markos explains what Lewis meant by this statement:
According to his creator, Aslan is not an allegory for Christ but the Christ of Narnia. The distinction is vital. Were Aslan only an allegory, a mere stand-in for the hero of the Gospels, he would not engage the reader as he does. In fact, as Lewis explained, Aslan is what the second person of the Trinity (God the Son) might have been like had he been incarnated in a magical world of talking animals and living trees.
Of course that does nothing to address Tolkien’s concerns about the overtness of the subject matter. Tolkien preferred to bury his analogies deeper into the story, or to put it in modern terms, that such overt analogies to Christian persons or theologies makes the story too preachy. In essence, Tolkien and Lewis were having the same debate we’ve seen in our day between overt Gospel stories in fiction as opposed to subtle Christian world-view influence.
So How Does a Reader Evaluate the Quality of an Allegory?
First, I’ll attempt to define the word allegory so that we’re on the same page.
Allegory is a complex metaphor.
In my Biblical Interpretation class in seminary, the following distinctions were made.
- A simile is comparison of one thing to another in order to use that which is familiar to understand the less familiar. The key phrase often used in a simile is X is like Y. A biblical example would be Jesus’ statement, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Usually they are to make a specific point or illustrate a truth.
- A parable is an extended and more complex simile. You have the simpler ones like “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who upon finding a pearl of great price, goes and sells all he has to buy it.” It isn’t that the elements of the parable are meant to represent other people, things, or ideas, but to make a point. A more complex parable is the Sower. This is not to say an allegorical interpretation cannot be made of it, only that as literature, it is not an allegory.
- A metaphor is when one thing is stated to be another in order to illustrate the relationships of something unfamiliar by using that which is familiar. It is usually stated in terms of X is Y. A biblical example would be Jesus saying, “I am the gate.” He of course did not mean He was literally a gate with hinges, but that as a gate provides entrance to the pasture and protection for the sheep, so He is the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Likewise, an allegory is an extended and more complex series of metaphors. It is designed to show the various interconnected relationships of the unfamiliar using familiar relationships. The most famous being Jesus’ allegory of the vine and the branches in John 15. Christ is the vine, we are the branches, God the Father is the vine dresser. It reveals the relationships between the Father, the Son, us, and each other by how the vine, branches, and vine dresser relate to each other. Truths are brought to light about each one, but through how they relate to one another rather than how they are like one another.
These are good distinctions when it comes to understanding the type of literature of a particular biblical passage, but perhaps needs more distinctions when we apply it to fiction. All the above forms fall into the general category of an analogy, which is simply comparing one thing to another. It is the usage of the analogy that distinguishes them. In that light, I’d like to provide my own breakdown of types of what we call allegory. Remember, we’re talking allegory as literature, not allegory as an interpretation method. Two different things. The former is intended by the author. The latter by the recipient.
These distinctions illustrate a common misconception of which Lewis’ definition of allegory falls into. An allegory proper doesn’t have a character representing a real-life character, but they are that character in that world. Lewis didn’t intend for Aslan to represent Christ, but to be Christ in that story. Which fits into the definition of what an allegory is. To say that Aslan represents Christ is to say that Aslan is like Christ in our world for the purposes of saying truths about who Christ is. Then it becomes more about simile and parable in intent.
That distinction can, however, help us to see what is a true allegory as opposed to other types of analogies. When it is obvious the author wants you to understand that something is something as it is in our world, it is an element of allegory. When it is clear it is like something else in our world, it is more akin to a simile or parable in order to illustrate a truth or moral.
Speculative fiction uses allegory in three main degrees.
- Full Allegory – The story as a whole is allegorical. An example of that would be Pilgrim’s Progress which in its entirety is meant to be an allegory of the Christian life and salvation.
- Integral Allegory – The story contains allegorical elements as a major component of its storyline. I would classify Lewis’s Narnia series more into that level. While some characters and events are meant to be allegorically understood, not all parts are. That doesn’t preclude an overall correlation like The Magician’s Nephew being illustrative of the Creation narrative, only that Lewis didn’t intend for every aspect and character of that story to be in Narnia what it is in our world, despite the attempts of some to interpret it that way.
- Incidental Allegory – The story contains scattered allegorical elements, often not fully correlating to the real thing, but enough to illustrate relational truths. Some of these at times can border more on simile than metaphor. An example would be Gandalf’s sacrificing himself to save the company from the Balrog, dying, and then resurrecting back to life in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien didn’t intend to say that Gandalf was Christ in his world or that this event was a one-to-one correlation to the death and resurrection of Christ, but is allegorical in what the resurrection of Christ means emotionally to Christians. Or should, I might say. Even then, it is obvious that while providing a key turning point in the story, it doesn’t equate to the same level of importance in our salvation history as Jesus’ death and resurrection. So it is only part allegorical, part simile (Gandalf’s death and resurrection is like or a type of Christ’s). There are several of these types of incidental allegories in Lord of the Rings that even Tolkien himself pointed out.
The last type tends to not be so overt. Unlike Narnia, Middle Earth has no one character that is obviously Christ or God in the story, even if you can find some incidental allegories within the events of certain characters, like Frodo’s climbing of Mt. Doom being allegorical of Jesus’ assent to Golgotha, and Sam being allegorically like the man who carried Christ’s cross for Him when His physical body faltered. Only those familiar with the Gospel story would likely see that correlation and illustration of the relationships. For most people, it passes over as just part of the story.
How Allegorical Should Allegory Be?
There is a problem in using allegory. That is, if your goal is to slip the Gospel story in unnoticed by the masses. If the allegory is overt enough, like Lewis’, it is hardly slipping in the Gospel unnoticed save for those with no knowledge of the Gospel story. The allegories hit us over the head with the subtlety of a freight train approaching an intersection.
Likewise, if the allegory isn’t overt enough, the reader will not pick up on it enough to discern the message. In which case it becomes like a tree falling in a forest when no one is around to hear it. Is there a purpose to the allegory if no one gets the message?
As an author who has used allegory, I’ve asked myself the same questions. My Reality Chronicles series is like type #2 above, integral allegory. Not that I have a character in that world who is Christ, but there are intentional allegorical elements in the story (the steam house and the ring, primarily) that I suspect very few have picked up on. There are also incidental allegories, like the events toward the end of book three, Reality’s Fire, that are scattered through the books. Those are probably noticed more by Christians at least. But I fear if people don’t pick up on the clues enough to realize what the steam house and ring are allegorizing, all the other relationship it points to will be lost to most people, or they’ll see allegories I didn’t intend, perhaps even non-Christian ones.
Part of the risk, I suppose, of this writing endeavor. I comfort myself that Christ had the same issues, and trusted that those who had ears to hear would get His points in the parables. If the questions of the disciples were any indication, not a lot of them did get His point.
But perhaps that is the true value of a good allegory. Those who are in a place to receive the message will discover it and it will have its intended impact as God uses it. Those who don’t will just see them as simple morality tales, or fairy tales of interest.
As a reader, what type of allegory do you find most compelling? Are there some you can point to that have had a profound influence upon your walk with God?