What’s So Wrong With Allegory?

May I ask what in the heck is so wrong with allegory? I feel like it’s a bad word nowadays in the publishing world. Oh, no! There’s an allegory! Keep away!

I’ve known for some time that there’s a certain prejudice against allegory. Apparently, writers are not allowed to teach any morals or lessons when writing. They’re only supposed to write to tell a story.

While I agree that storytelling, alone, should be the basis for writing, I have absolutely no problem with allegory. I think that hidden meanings and subtexts and morals should be explored. Not trodden on like it was a piece of trash.

Am I too upset about this? Probably. But I’ll warn you right now, my writing is allegorical. It almost always has a hidden meaning or is metaphorical or teaches a lesson.

Part of what got me on this rant is watching this documentary about J.R.R. Tolkien. For those of you who’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know he’s one of my favorite authors, not just for the stories he wrote, but in how influential he’s been for me as a writer.

So when one of his sons and a couple professors began talking about how Tolkien intended no allegory in his writings, and then proceeded to speak as if allegory was a terrible thing, I got a little het up.

Tolkien speaks of allegory as if the author is trying to force his opinions down your throat. Really? I didn’t know allegory could be so… violent. Are writers, if they use allegory, attempting to dominate you by their own opinions? Aren’t people able enough to make their own choices (whether or not they agree with the author’s intentions)?

I think every book has allegory of some kind. Intentional or not. Even in my own writings, I see allegory where I never intended it to be.

I understand Tolkien’s opinion about allegory, but I can’t say I agree with his rather pessimistic view on it.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Are you pro- or anti-allegory? Do enjoy reading or writing allegory, or do you avoid it like the plague? I’m hoping for a good debate on this one.

Happy writing!

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring

“The two things that came out clearly were the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggestincipient allegories to the reader.
[C.S. Lewis writes to J.R.R. Tolkien on December 7, 1929]”
― C.S. Lewis
“No story can be devised by the wit of man which cannot be interpreted allegorically by the wit of some other man.”
― C.S. LewisOn Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

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31 thoughts on “What’s So Wrong With Allegory?

  1. I feel like it’s hard to completely avoid it. I mean as characters grow and learn from their mistakes, isn’t that providing the reader with a lesson as well? I can see someone not setting out to provide a certain lesson with their writing, but I feel like its inevitable that the readers will take something away from it, it doesn’t have to be the same thing, but there will be something. I mean, life is allegorical, so how would stories avoid that?

  2. Is this a real thing? I can’t recall ever reading anything specifically against allegory in literature. I mean, I know some people are against certain topics in children’s books, but I don’t know if that’s the same. Hm.

  3. The real question is, “What’s wrong with those people?” There are only 7 reasonable rules for the Art of writing:
    1. Excellent spelling.
    2. Good grammar.
    3. Sufficient correct punctuation for signage on the path to meaning.
    4. Thorough research.
    5. Understanding of literary conventions.
    6. Love for language and loyalty to its complete lexicon.
    7. Writing by inspiration, rather than controlling the performance of the tale.

    Anything else is subjective, an individual reader’s personal preference or taste.

    • Yes! Thank you for the validation. I couldn’t understand their animosity about it, either. Your rules for writing are always a good reminder for me. Thanks for sharing them again!

      • I, too, was unaware of the bias against allegory, not that it would have made any difference to my writing, if I had known about it. Heck, my first novel includes a character’s interpretation of another writer’s allegory. When writing Gesamtkunstwerk, that’s what happens. Je ne regrette rien (http://wp.me/p30cCH-Yy).

        Those quotations you supplied are rather funny, to me. Tolkien seems to have his knickers in a twist, perhaps because he was sick to the back teeth of being asked what his writing “meant” and who and what it was “based” on. Lewis seems to be hinting to Tolkien (and others like him) that despite one’s intentions, you can’t get away from allegory. Of course, that’s just my interpretation. 😉

        That’s one of the points of Rule #7. Anything we write is subject to interpretation. Worrying about that – like trying to adhere to a pre-writing outline after the story gets started – just leads to creative paralysis, and the loss of one’s unique voice.

  4. I guess it depends on how broad your definition of allegory is. I mean, when I think of allegory, I think of Pilgrim’s Progress or The Princess and the Goblin or other blatant sermons told as stories. And while I don’t think these works are bad at all (I quite enjoyed The Princess and the Goblin), I can see why people would have a problem with them. They are rather preachy, and there’s not a lot of room for individual interpretation outside of what the author intended it to mean. HOWEVER, allegory defined as simply a story from which a message can be extrapolated–that’s life, yo. That’s what story IS. To claim that you “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”? Tosh. That means that you hate literature. I’m all about learning life lessons from authors. That’s why I read.

    • I agree. I think allegory is applied too liberally nowadays. I don’t think my writing is blatantly preachy. At least, not in the phantom books. I don’t know about other writings. Sometimes I can’t tell. But I feel like every little bit of a lesson learned or a metaphor written into a book is looked at as allegory. Especially in kids’ books. How dare we teach kids a lesson!

  5. As a child I loved allegory: it gave me a second level on which to simultaneously experience the text, giving depth to the reading experience and instilled literacy skills as well as a love of puns. I am thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia and the like. That said, I can understand now that the Pilgrim’s Progress style of allegory effectively directs the reader down one and only one pathway, and from that perspective stifles active involvement in the book , active choices by the reader, and the emotional and intellectual growth that could otherwise arise. Even when I read Bunyan as a child it was a very closed experience: I understood the allegory but felt no desire to seek out further writings by him. Maybe the problem with the current debate is that the word allegory is being used to describe wide range of fiction whereas during the original debate the word was restricted to a sub-set–one the perhaps typified by Bunyan …ann

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