Allegory: For Mythcon

I have been thinking about allegory recently, in no particularly rigorous way. Allegory is what I’d have talked about at Mythcon, and though the venue here might be a bit inadequate I will make some remarks that I hope are suggestive, or at least not upsetting.

Some definitions are in order. Allegory in some ways resembles symbolism, and symbolism reflects metaphor but isn’t the same . Symbols can have actuality, can even have recorded histories. Lots of symbols live with us in our world: flags, monuments, uniforms, advertising icons, cemetery sculptures – symbols of resurrection, mourning, consolation. Literary symbols refer to matters within the story they furnish. In Michael Arlen’s novel The Green Hat the hat is a symbol for racy young people throwing off the previous generation’s rules and prejudices. Metaphors illuminate moments in stories, but refer to nothing but that illumination. Allegories are stories that exist only in their attachments to other stories, or to realities beyond story: moral commandments, the practice of justice and mercy, truths that are at a remove from and “higher” than the allegory that points to them. Often those higher things too are embodied in stories, so that an allegory is actually doubled, two stories with different linguistic content, one story pointing to the other, more urgent or important story, usually one the reader knows in another context. Think Pilgrim’s Progress.

Allegory is likely the least loved of all literary forms, and even when the two tracks of the allegory are gripping in some way, the obviousness of the enterprise is always a little annoying. The writer needs to create an interesting and challenging story on the base level, while constantly admitting pointers to the true matter the writer wants to convey.

A key moment in the reading of an allegory that’s not presented as an allegory is the reader’s sudden awareness of what is being allegorized. When I was in high school, sixty years ago, I read a couple of Lewis’s planetary romances: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra. Lewis was even then admired and even cherished by Catholics, lay and clerical, and though my family was Catholic, I read the novels because they were science fiction, though it turned out they actually weren’t. When I realized that they were actually allegories – though likely I didn’t know much then about the category – I was deeply annoyed. What value was there in undercutting the aesthetics of SF, which in both books were striking and compelling, to produce what any Christian could easily decode as allegory? I knew the story of Adam and Eve, I understood the battle of the angels; I needed no lessons in the matter of original sin.

Much later on I read Lewis’s great book The Allegory of Love, and then I could understand the attraction the SF project held for Lewis: the novels were what Lewis labelled “the marvellous- nown-to-be-fiction:” As he explains: “For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth. For this to come about, the old marvellous …must be stored up somewhere. Such a sleeping-place was provided for the gods by allegory … for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.” The pagan gods and the stories told of them are mostly allegories of nature – astral objects, the oceans, vegetation, strife, death, sex – “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” as Yeats says. In time the allegorical gods come to be replaced (or at least sidelined) by growing monastic theology: by abstractions, named concepts like Mens, Natura, Pietas, Amor, etc. But those named concepts, when painted by Giotto, or called on to speak in medieval writings, take on the allegorical functions that the gods were forced to relinquish when they went to sleep. In effect this removal or purge is the allegory of an allegory.

The Christian belief that nature is “fallen” and that our natures are not only implicated in the fall of nature but somehow brought about by our own fall into disobedience. The story events – snake, apple, fig leaf – can be understood as an allegory of that spiritual fall. Once in an ethics class in college, taught by a Jewish refugee professor and biblical scholar, I disputed the value or force of that story; I did not believe we humans had been exiled from or deprived of a unified realm where all the other animals remained.

But we had, he said; we were self-exiled. We came down out of the trees (!) and over time lost our original innocence, or ignorance; we came to know that we would die – all animals die, but other animals almost certainly don’t envision it; the knowledge has been a vast force in human life on earth. We can’t return to a place or time where we don’t know we will die, or don’t know we are naked. It might be said that the Biblical story allegorizes the division of human consciousness from animal consciousness in the growing understanding that we are not in nature, in the sense of putting nature to our own uses, thus corrupting an original perfection or “innocence”of which we were once a part, but also in our knowledge that we are born to die.

These two qualities of allegory – the story told and the matter or other story that it indicates – makes allegory both powerful and weak when it’s deployed in fiction. Don’t you think that what Lewis terms “the marvellous known to be fiction” – what Northrop Frye called “the secular scripture” – has gained immense power lately, partly due to advancing technologies of entertainment, but possibly also perhaps for more spiritual reasons? A lot of what appears in film, especially fantasy films deploying CGI and animation to create obvious versions of dozens of ancient stories, can be called allegorical – but allegorical of what? Adam and Eve certainly turn up with some frequency in the new storytelling, as do battles of good angels and evil angels, God and Satan, dark and light, Heaven and Hell, in a thousand forms, some using those old signifiers directly, some not, but insofar as they are versions of the Christian or Biblical stories, the new stories can also be seen as allegories of an allegory.

I’ve often thought that while realist fictions are full of struggles between persons whose moral and spiritual parts are mostly hidden or unfixed, and liable to change as plots evolve, fantasy fiction gets to embody those same moral or spiritual energies in things – not only weapons, a big category, but magic helpers, recovered ancestral gifts, journeys of courage, all of it shown on the surface: in fantasy things the inside is made outside, and outside actions and powers allegorize inside. Allegory in this sense is easy to use to use but hard to make new. Superheroes who sin and lose their powers and become ordinary mortals (for a time) are instantly interpretable: we get it.

Divine or supernatural beings and their activities and operations are commonly encountered not in themselves but in stories that restate, in more obvious or accessible forms, things and events that abide in a primary realm of their own, where they can’t be seen or fully grasped. Over time, such a belief system can lose its grip on the imagination as a set of actualities and in effect become immured in the sleeping-place of the gods that Lewis defined. Linguistic or artistic allegories that were at first adopted solely as pointers or codes to aspects of divinity can in the end comprise all there is of the system. What is interesting to me is that when a realm of divine beings, laws, activities, and judgments, passes away, the emotional power of the allegory, which now points to nothing but itself, doesn’t necessarily lose its spiritual power.

Take Gnosticism, which comes in many flavors, and offers more than one example of this process. Central to many gnostic systems is the belief that we humans are divine beings who once inhabited a realm of light outside the physical cosmos. We suffered a fall or an eviction from that realm (different gnostic sects give different reasons for this fall) and were cast into the dark and cold realm of the physical, and the physical body. Mandaean gnosticism, for instance, posits numerous worlds into which the fallen soul can sink, getting ever farther from “the house of my parents”.

I was very moved by the Mandean system when I learned about it. I turned what I got from it and similar gnostic teachings not only into the underlying affective structure of a book, but the source for a comic strip that a character in that book follows: Little Enosh, Lost Among the Worlds. The Mandaean cast of characters became characters in the strip: Enosh (sometimes Anosh or Enoch in the original texts) is a spaceman, appearing to be a young boy who wanders in worlds where he is never at home. On these planets Enosh is caught and imprisoned over and over (as he is in Gnostic imagining) by Rutha, an evil queen, sometimes Ruha in the texts, and her bad-guy gang, the Uthras, who aren’t exactly bad-guys in the original myth. Rutha wants above all for imprisoned Enosh to admit she is his mother, but he won’t because she isn’t. Enosh is rescued from the Inn of the Worlds (an actual Mandaean term for the dark and confining universe we live in, or have been “thrown” into as the texts have it) by his actual mother, Amanda d’Haye, whom I derived from the Mandaean figure Manda d’Hayye, who is personified knowledge from the Worlds of Light. I pictured her as resembling Olive Oyl. Enosh in his spaceship is reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes’s Spaceman Spliff. But it wasn’t a spoof. In effect my comic was an allegory of the Mandaean story and events, which was itself an allegory of Mandaean deep truths. I’ve never had more fun in writing than I did in creating Little Enosh.

Not all allegory is religious, but it does seem to require a certain seriousness, at least for its original readers (or viewers; pictorial art can be allegorical in some ways more easily than story can). Nor does allegory have to be extensive. An example would be the Owl of Minerva. Hegel, whose conception it is, says that the Owl of Minerva takes wing only at dusk. What he intends to express (almost all allegories need explication) is that only in its decline can we understand the true nature of a society or an age or an epoch, especially the one we inhabit. “Minerva’s owl” allegorizes Minerva’s attributes of wisdom, logos, reason, memory. Its flight in the grey dusk is used not only to understand the decline and conceive the fall of an age, but also to perceive the qualities of the epoch or age to come. Minerva’s owl flies at a time when an old age is dying and a new age is struggling to be born. Minerva’s owl could be called a metaphor, but it seems to express too complex an idea to be simply that. It’s an allegory: it wakes, it perceives the dusk, it flies, it knows the night and is certain of the dawn.

I recently read a long and fascinating piece in the New York Times. It tells of an unmarried, “spiritual but not religious” professional in her early 30s, who moved out of her communal house and into a convent of the Sisters of Mercy. A bunch of friends went with her. They called the project Nuns and Nones, and they were the “nones” — progressive millennials, not practicing Catholics, most interested in some form of social justice work. As I’m sure you know, millennials are the least religious group in America – only 27% attend religious services weekly. These young people, mostly women and a few men, were seeking ways to live radical activist lives, lives of devotion to their causes. The sisters began to see that the millennials wanted a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system. On one of the first nights, Sister Judy Carle said, one of the young people casually asked the sisters not what they believed but “What’s your spiritual practice?” Ritual, story, commitments to practice, spiritual friendship meant more than dogma, even when some of the Nones turned seriously to Catholicism, even if not – in some sense – to belief.

Two things struck me about this story. First and most obvious was its resemblance to, or reproduction of, early monasticism: the Benedictine joining of prayer and work (“laborare est orare”, to work is to pray) and the retreat of so many men and women from a collapsing world into safety and sense as much as into prayer and worship. There’s evidence that millennials are less interested in, or occupied by, prospects of love, offspring, the family unit, the good job, than any similar population before them. And I had also begun to wonder if the “believed religion” (Lewis’s term) of most of the West in the last 2000 years is itself now becoming the “old marvellous that knows itself as myth” (as Lewis says of paganism) and will itself have to undergo the same resurrection: it may have to die to live. The central stories, practices, arts, of what might be called “ceremonial Christianity” (as opposed to the bare Christianity of, say, Unitarianism or Quakerism) might survive the religion itself, while the belief-system and the cosmos it expresses will revert to Lewis’s “sleeping-place provided by allegory.” Terry Eagleton, former Marxist literary critic, now Christian thinker, has said that “A sacrament is a sign that accomplishes what it signifies.” I am thinking that an allegory – particularly the allegory that points to something no longer stable or powerful – might be regarded as a story which produces what it tells.


  • Sherwood Smith
    August 6, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Hi–we shared a panel at the recent Readercon (on animals in fantasy) and met briefly afterward. I was sorry you were not in San Diego, but enjoyed the video, which they put up on three screens so that everyone at the Sunday evening banquet could see it.

    There is so much good stuff in this for reading online. I’ve printed out the talk for possible questions/comments. Thank you for putting that together!

    Sherwood Smith

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