Allegory in Fantasy: A Discussion

Chances are, you are familiar with the idea of a parable: a simple tale used to demonstrate a spiritual or moral lesson not expressly mentioned in the story. This is prominent in religion, especially in Christianity and Islam. Allegory has a similar definition, but usually applies to the greater scope of poetry and fiction. In fantasy, this is especially apparent. 

It is easy to assume that fantasy, out of all the literary genres, would have perhaps the least potential for allegory. In looking to teach a lesson about the world around us, why not point to historical fiction, which can accurately detail events? Why not look at dystopian fiction, with its warnings about what the future may hold? Why even bother with fiction, when you could learn the lesson outright from a self-help book? 

And yet, religious parables are not retellings of historical events. They are not futuristic. They are usually not seen as true stories. 

The same goes for fantasy. While the genre is not usually associated with allegory—nor, in my opinion, does it need it—fantasy can be a subtle outlet for some of the best lessons in character, morality, and philosophy. But how does this play into the formal definition and associations we have with allegory? Is the term really so strict, and is it popular amongst authors?

Last week, I spoke about J.R.R. Tolkien and his views on escapism. Now I’ll be addressing his various views on allegory, as well as those of one of my favorite fantasy writers, Philip Pullman. 

A popular quote from Tolkien states:

“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 proposed domination of the author.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien

And we are immediately led to believe that Tolkien dislikes allegory—defining the term for our purposes as “a work of fiction that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a political or moral one.” However, less popular quotes suggest otherwise. In one letter, he writes,

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.”

— The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131

So here he has openly admitted to the need for allegorical language. Additionally, he stated rather firmly that The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Catholic work. So, the idea that he only included applicability (which he is unable to control) and left allegory behind altogether falls short. Instead, it seems that he sees allegory as something inherent in fantasy, and while he doesn’t try to push his own political or moral beliefs onto the reader, he makes no effort to remove that intrinsic allegory either. 

Now let’s compare that to the views of fantasy author Philip Pullman, best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy. While his series isn’t explicitly presented as an allegory, its themes do raise some interesting philosophical questions. He is known for his views supporting rational lessons taught throughout fiction. He also has less popular views concerning the fantasy genre and its degree of usefulness, views I myself don’t agree with. However, there are certainly things to be learned from his stories. A select quote by him states:  

It seems to me that some critics of mine, from the religious point of view, are treating my novel as if it were an allegory and they had the key to it. It is not an allegory, and they don’t have the key to it, because there is no key apart from the sympathetic and open-minded understanding of the reader.”

Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman: 9781841593425: Amazon.com: Books

Here he seems to denounce allegory just as Tolkien did. While I doubt the two would agree on much, their views on the topic have remarkably similar roots. In supporting the reader’s own open-minded interpretation, Pullman leans toward applicability as a better alternative to allegory. This reflects the very thing that Tolkien said in an earlier quote—”the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the proposed domination of the author” (referring to applicability and allegory, respectively).

Conclusion

There seems to be a general consensus, budding from Tolkien and with subtle insertions from Pullman and other authors, that a writer should not attempt to inject their political beliefs into a fantasy. Instead, they can touch on basic philosophical principles, provide commentary on the human experience, provoke questions… anything to help the reader better understand the world or understand it from a different perspective. This is something I myself can find peace with, agreeing with both authors in full.

This is the conclusion to my two-part analysis of escapism and allegory in the fantasy genre. While there are many other authors and examples to pull from, I wanted to keep it brief and accessible. Thank you very much for exploring this subject with me. I inquire again: Where do you stand in the debate? Is allegory necessary, or should fiction’s primary goal always be to help the reader escape from life? Do you stand somewhere in between? I believe I do, but everyone has their own ways of seeing the world.

“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”

Philip Pullman

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

-J.

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