Like it or not, this is true. Stories, from the Bible to the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the Brothers Grimm to Spider-Man and Star Wars, are the most primal and most effective ways human beings pass down our values. As such, many literary devices have come into play to do this, including allegory.
Allegory . . . the word might send paroxysms of disgust through the “Keep your politics out of my entertainment!” crowd. It conjures images of replacing a male character with a female because female empowerment! Or making ham-handed comments mocking religion or certain political viewpoints in a manner that seems gratuitous, intended to insult, and worst of all not serving the story,and most often actively detracting from it.
My question is: Is allegory always bad? Look at William Shakespeare: Why did he write plays about ancient Roman Emperors and former English kinds, if not to draw lessons for his audience to learn from? Look at the Bible: Jesus Christ spoke in parables, and often used Old Testament stories to teach his followers . .. and the hard-hearted Pharisees. Look at Aesop: His stories are all symbolic, with things like animals and the actions they take clearly intended to represent things other than the animal.
Allegory doesn’t have to be political. Allegory doesn’t have to harm. When done well, allegory doesn’t have to be propaganda.
But what is the dividing line between “allegory” and “propaganda”?
As always, the dictionary is helpful here. Merriam-Webster defines “allegory” as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Keep the words “truths or generalizations about human existence” in the back of your mind.
Next, Merriam-Webster defines “propaganda” as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” and “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” The key words here are “the purpose of helping or injuring” and “to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”
What jumps out at me is how much overlap there is between the two definitions. Can making “truths or generalizations about human existence” not “further one’s cause” or “damage an opposing cause”?
So I ask again: is allegory in stories always bad?
I come down on the side of no. I’m going to get lawyerly on you, but as with many things in life, the answer to this question is “it depends.”
- It depends on the skill of the storyteller.
- It depends on the story.
- It depends on how the story is told.
- It depends on if the story is insulting or not.
A story that comes down on one side of an issue doesn’t necessarily have to be insulting or deliberately injurious to one group of people or one cause. I mean, it can be. And sometimes that’s a good thing. If your story is opposed to, say, Satan, or to pedophiles, then by all means be as insulting and mocking as you want. If your story is intended to be insulting or mocking to, say, a specific race of people who are just minding their own business and not hurting anyone . . . then maybe you’ve got a problem deeper than the tasteful use of allegory.
Nobody likes to read socio-political harangues. Witness the financial and readership troubles facing the comic book industry for examples of this. And yet, a story can be a political allegory–some may say propaganda–and still speak to those “truths or generalizations about human existence.” George Orwell jumps out as an obvious example of a writer who could do this. What are Animal Farm and 1984 but anti-communist propaganda wrapped in allegorical writing? Both books are brilliant in that they speak to eternal truths about human nature by exposing how communism runs directly counter to them.
Contrast Orwell with another anti-communist fiction author, Ayn Rand. I have read her four novels, and save for We the Living, I had serious troubles getting through most of them. To be fair, Anthem is short and is explicit in its allegorical nature. The Fountainhead has many good parts. And the big one, Atlas Shrugged, has some great allegorical points, where Rand expertly skewers the same postmodern mindset that infected the 1950s just as much as it infects the 21st century. But I found the book to be a slog, because she hammers her political points over and over, culminating in what, if I recall correctly, is a 70-page monologue by the book’s central character.
Fantasy can be clearly allegorical, and still be good. Look at The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, or his lesser-known but also excellent Space Trilogy. The third Space Trilogy book, That Hideous Strength, is eerie in how much it echoes what we see today. Both works are explicitly Christian and explicitly allegorical, absolutely coming down on the side of Jesus Christ against Islam (in the case of The Chronicles of Narnia–don’t believe me? Read the entire series and then we’ll talk) and satanism, atheism, and secular humanism (in the case of The Space Trilogy).
Friend of the blog James Pyles recently reviewed The Fifth Season by who we are constantly told is the greatest living science-fiction author, N. K. Jemisin. There are clearly allegorical and political themes going on in the book, although Pyles struggles to figure out what the point of them are. He also, hilariously, got blocked by Jemisin on Twitter for his at worst mildly critical review. The point is, Pyles makes a great point in his review:
Later in the novel, sexuality and gender takes a different turn, with three-partner sex being much more preferable (and pleasurable) than traditional cisgender encounters. However, I’m still trying to figure out how her single (apparently) transsexual/transgender character serves the plot. I have to imagine that this will be revealed in the subsequent novels, otherwise, said-character was included only for the purposes of social expediency and expectation (because, as far as I can tell, the role of this character in the novel did not require the person to be anything other than female).
If you can’t figure out the point of a character, event, or other insertion of current socio-political issues into a work of sci-fi or fantasy, then it’s probably pure propaganda.
Let’s go back to my reading of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I noticed early that he used a very loathsome character to insult Christianity and practicing Christians in a gross way that only incredibly thinly serves to develop plot points about the story’s future setting, and one plot point that could have been served by nearly anyone else. And naturally, the main characters we’re supposed to care about are smart atheists who know the Bible better than the stupid, racist, and fat actual Christian, who also, naturally, suffers from poor hygiene habits. I summed up that book and it’s author’s view of Christians and Christianity (NOTE: due to some recent confusion, I want to make it clear the following paragraph is me quoting myself and NOT John Scalzi):
So you see, smart people who aren’t believers understand the Bible better than churchgoers. Because they’re smart. And while they can “appreciate” the Sermon on the Mount, they don’t actually believe all that other silly stuff. Because they’re smart. And good, decent people. Because they’re not religious. Because they’re smart.
Again, this depiction of a practicing Christian could have been left out entirely and the book would have gained from its absence. The only conclusion is that Scalzi took a swipe at Christians because he doesn’t like Christianity or its adherents, and wants to subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) nudge his readers into being a “smart” and “cool” fedora-tipping atheist edgelord like him.
Allegory and propaganda. The Venn diagram of the two concepts has some overlap. Use it or not as is your want. Me? I’m a fan of allegory. I think it can add thematic richness to a story and speak to deeper truths. It takes a deft touch to avoid traveling into the realm of propaganda, but sometimes your allegory by necessity comes down on one side–the side of those “truths or generalizations about human existence” that have to oppose or injure an opposite viewpoint, because Truths are diametrically opposed certain harmful ideas propagating throughout society these days.
For a story chock full of deeper human truths that doesn’t insult or preach, you’ll love my debut novel A Traitor to Dreams, back on sale for a $0.99 eBook download, though paperbacks are also available. The sale won’t last forever, so download it and enjoy, and please leave a review on Amazon.