These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
An allegory is a piece of writing in which the characters and the events have symbolic meanings. Often, the characters represent spiritual, moral, philosophical, or political concepts. It’s common (but not absolutely necessary) for an allegory to feature elements of fantasy: talking animals, unearthly locations and the like.
However, not every story with fantasy elements or talking animals is an allegory. The distinction is that in an allegory, these elements have symbolic meaning. Also, allegories should not be confused with children's literature, which also may feature fantasy and talking animals. The audience for an allegory is adults, who will be able to understand the symbolism and appreciate the take-away lesson. Allegories should not be written like fairy tales.
You may be familiar with C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Although Lewis disliked referring to those books as allegorical, they fit the definition. Aslan is symbolic of Christ, many of the events of The Magician’s Nephew correspond with the biblical creation account, and many of the events of The Last Battle correspond with the book of Revelation. Other events throughout the series have counterparts in the Bible or in the life of a Christian. There’s not a one-to-one correspondence, though—not everything in Narnia has a counterpoint in Christendom.
If you ever had to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, you’ll remember its talking animals and its obvious political agenda.
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress follows the path of a character named Christian as he travels to the Celestial City. Along the way, he encounters places like The Slough of Despond and the Hill of Difficulty, and characters like Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
Recently, The Shack, by William P. Young, was an allegory that reached the top of the best-selling charts. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that a Christian allegory had a huge impact in the publishing world and that it was read by many, many non-Christians.
Why is it important to have an understanding of allegory? I can think of several reasons:
1. It will help you to be a better reader. If you know ahead of time that the novel or short story you’re about to read is an allegory, you can read more critically, working to determine the symbolic meanings of the characters and the events you encounter. If you don’t know ahead of time, you’ll be delighted at the aha! moment when you realize that a symbolic character has a counterpoint in the real world.
2. It will help you to be a better writer. Not too many people write allegory, so an exercise in writing allegorically will stretch you as a writer. You want to tread softly—your symbolism should not be heavy-handed or obvious; neither should it be so thin as to be un-figure-out-able. Get creative with your characters—you can make them fantastical, outrageous, ridiculous, exaggerated.
3. If you write allegory for the Writing Challenge, your writing is likely to stand out; it’s not a category of writing that we frequently get.
4. Writing allegory is a painless and non-preachy way to convey spiritual truth to non-Christians. In fact, if a non-Christian reader experiences that aha! moment when reading an allegory, it’s likely to stick with him, while he might have quit reading a more straightforward piece at the first mention of God.
When I was writing for the challenge, I wrote a few allegorical pieces, and they were always great fun to write. I’m going to link to them here—not because my writing is any better than anyone else’s, but because I’m familiar with my own work, and could find them quickly. If you’ve written an allegory and you want to link to it, feel free to do so in a response to this post.
I’ve linked to these so that you can read a few quick allegories—especially if this is a newish concept for you and you don’t want to commit to a full-length novel (or a whole set of them!).
Lance Goodbody, Lifeguard Extraordinaire (If you read some of the comments to this one, you'll see that I probably did a poor job, because clearly some commentators took it literally.)
Alfie Sells a Widget
HOMEWORK: You have several choices this week. Choose one (or more) and respond on this thread. I’ll respond to every commenter as quickly as I can.
1. Read one or more of the linked stories. They all have the same theme, but approached in different ways. Comment on the use of symbolism, and why you think allegory was effective.
2. Tell about another allegory that I didn’t mention here. What were the allegorical elements?
3. Tell why you like (or do not like) to read allegory. OR tell why you like (or do not like) to write allegory.
4. If you’ve written an allegory for the challenge, link to it, and tell why you used allegory for that week’s topic.
5. Ask a question, comment on something I’ve said, correct me, or just toss something out for us to consider.
6. Write a short allegorical story (no more than 200 words) or the first few paragraphs of a larger one, and post it here for critique.
By the way, if you’re new to this forum, the homework is entirely optional—but I’d love to hear from you. I promise I won’t be a mean old teacher-with-a-ruler. I’ll do everything I can to answer your questions and encourage you in your writing—and if I don’t know an answer (happens all the time), I’ll work hard to find it. Don’t hesitate to jump in. No one is judging you here (unless you ask for it).
Also, if you read this forum, but are shy about contributing, would you please just check in with an "I'm here" message? I just want to know if anyone's out there besides my loyal dozen or so.
When the Challenge topic was 'encouragement' I thought using the article linked below would cover a few aspects of what encouragement meant.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=19510
Jesus’ love is constant and never wavers.
I had to laugh when I just re-read this, Colin. I thought, I think I've read this one before, and sure enough...I'd written "Super allegory!" on it.
Do you have anything else you'd like to add to this discussion?
Just that I like writing allegories although I don't think I'm an expert.
Maybe you can't remember this one:
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=24998
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=19774
Jesus’ love is constant and never wavers.
Thanks for sharing these two additional allegories, Colin. Maybe by reading yours and mine (and a few others, I hope), other FaithWriters will be inspired to try their hands at an allegory. I think they're lots of fun, and a great way to be quite creative. After all, you can make up whatever you wish to be symbolic characters or events.
Jan, I wrote this challenge entry several years ago meaning for it to be an allegory. Nobody ever commented on it as an allegory and I was just wondering if I missed the point. Was it too obvious? Too vague? Not fantastical? Just wondering. The story is called "Steps".
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=22056
Thanks for helping me understand.
Jay, this seems more like a parable to me--a short story meant to teach a lesson. The difference, I think, is that your characters didn't seem to be metaphorical; they don't seem to symbolize OTHER concepts. The poor old lady, in other words, doesn't symbolize something else--she's poor, and she helps to teach a lesson about how the church should be open to all of God's people.
But in an allegory, some person or character with some OTHER characteristic would cause the reader to make a cognitive leap: Aha! The church turned away all purple Dinglebugs because they weren't the right color. The church should accept everyone!
Jan, your allegories about sharing Christ were a joy to read, and the point of each story came through loud and clear. I love reading and writing spiritual allegories because through them I picture and experience important truths at an emotional level that drives them home and makes them stick. Images form Pilgrim's Progress often arise to match my circumstances and cheer me on my way.
I have enjoyed writing allegories for our Kids Club at church to act out in special programs for their parents, most of whom are unsaved. By teaching from the allegory throughout the several months of rehearsals the children come to have a firm grip on the message, while the actual production then provides a non-threatening platform for sharing the gospel to the parents without preaching at them. Included in the printed program (or other materials we hand out--sometimes the script, rewritten into story form) is an explanation of the symbolism or a "matching fact with fiction" section which includes applicable Scriptures. Medieval settings are exceptionally well-suited for illustrating the conflict between the dominion of darkness and the kingdom of light (Colossians 1), and the kids love everything from the cardboard dragons to the White Knight who gets to carry a sword and rescue the maiden.
I'd love to have one of my allegories critiqued since I have no idea if they are really any good or not, but they are way too long to post here. I tried to figure out if posting a part of one would work, but couldn't find a piece that would reveal the allegory aspect of the story and still make sense.
Thanks for the lesson, Jan. I'm looking forward to the ones to come!
Becky, thanks for sharing the ways in which you've put allegories to good use!
If you ever write one for the challenge, be sure to link to it here. I'd love to read it!
Thanks for stopping by--love "meeting" new people here.
Okay, I think I know what makes an allegory allegorical. I have another entry that was for the topic "seasons" where I used a tree to represent our lives, from birth to old age. Would that be allegory or symbolism? Come to think of it, is symbolism an inseparable part of allegory?
"The Tree" http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=38161
Jay, symbolism is one of the defining characteristics of an allegory. I should say, though, that although all allegory has symbolism, that doesn't mean that everything that has symbolism is an allegory.
However, although your lovely tree story has beautiful examples of symbolism, I don't think it quite fits the definition of allegory, either. In your story, the narrator describes the seasons of life, and observations of the tree at each season. The human life and the life of the tree have parallels, but it's not really an allegory because the parallels are pretty much laid out for the reader; there's nothing to puzzle out or to discover. And there's not really a story there in the sense of a plot, characters, a climax, that sort of thing.
But take the example of the story called "Flames" in my original post. The man with his head on fire represents the unsaved sinner. The beautiful watery mansion represents the church. Each person who approached the burning man represents a different kind of ineffective witnesser: the man who pours water on his own head represents someone who thinks they can save "by example." The woman with the cell phone represents Christians who think that someone else will do the job. The guy with the pamphlet represents Christians who pass out "The 4 spiritual laws" or some other tract and think that will do the trick. The final girl represents a Christian who witnesses by befriending, by leading a person into a friendship with Jesus, and by sharing her own healed scars.
Both of the stories you've shared are fine stories--the fact that they're not really allegories doesn't take away from their value. I really encourage you to keep working at an allegory, maybe for an upcoming challenge. You're a good writer, and this will be a superb exercise for you.
Thanks for your comments Jan - you are very diplomatic, as I feel 2 of my examples may not have fallen strictly into allegory category but you must have been too kind to deflate my ego.
Jesus’ love is constant and never wavers.
I have several that were meant to be allegories but flopped profoundly. This one was meant to show that some people even while in the presence of Jesus himself may not "get" it, but as you can tell by the comments that the readers didn't get it either. Even though we may call ourselves Christians, we may not always have Jesus in hearts. The fact that I had to explain it so much shows how I missed the mark.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=44143
This is one of my favorites that I ever wrote, but people didn't even begin to understand it. Looking back, I think I tried to hard to have a twist or a surprise ending. I love it when I'm surprised at the end so I do try to do it probably more often than I should. I won't tell you who and what the story is about to see if you get it, though if you do, I think you'll be the first one.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=45343
This one was another flop. Again, I don't people got it and I tried for the twist angle. Maybe I need to separate my twists and allegories, yet isn't that the whole point of an allegory? I was told that this came off as way too preachy and literal which is why it didn't do well. I would definitely tweak it more if I were to write it today, yet I still would keep the twist. My point was thatr once someone writes on the internet the words are out there forever and you never know when they might come back and hurt someone.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=41089
This last one I don't think is an allegory. It's definitely meant to make people think. Again it was one I really liked, but others didn't seem to get where I was going with it. Mainly But for the grace of God, there go I.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=42668
My last remark is more of an observation. I often wonder how many times great allegories were written by mistake. There have been times were I've seen something in a story and left a comment about how brilliant it was and the person wrote back and said I wasn't even thinking of that. It has happened a few times with me too. I was just writing a story and people saw a Bible verse in it that I didn't even intend. I'm not even sure with my memory problems that I knew what Bible story people were talking about. I'm not sure if I can find the said story or not, but do you think the allegories are ever accidental or people read more into them than the author intended? It almost sounds that Lewis felt that way, but I'm not knowledgable enough about it to form a concise opinion one way or another.
Sometimes God calms the storm; Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child
Shann, I don't think the "twist" ending really works for an allegory. It seems to me that one of the things that makes an allegory effective is the connection that the reader makes between the characters or events and what they represent. And that should occur throughout the story, not just at the end. And I think I also stated that the main audience for an allegory should be adults.
So while your stories are charming, they don't really work as allegories.
I'll bet that you could come up with a fine allegory, and I look forward to reading it!
Colin, you're partially right, I think. The pulpit story is probably not an allegory, but rather a case of extended personification. I plead exhaustion; when I read them the first time, I had just flown 1200 miles to care for my granddaughter who kept me up most of the night.
Upon re-reading--they're still fine stories!
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