14.20: Allegory in Fiction

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

What is an allegory, anyway? This episode probably won’t settle that question, but we did manage a discussion on how to use our stories to teach things, or be stand-ins for things, and to do it in the ways that allegories and/or parables might.

We talk about some famous allegories, some things whose authors insisted were not allegorical, and the possible pitfalls of didacticism.

Credits: This episode was engineered by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Take a famous fable and retell it as an allegory.

11 thoughts on “14.20: Allegory in Fiction”

  1. Great episode!

    I think one way to distinguish allegory from regular symbolism is that allegory contains symbols that are directly applicable to something external to the story’s world, not all symbols function that way. So Animal Farm is allegorical, because it’s directly representing the rise of Communism in Russia. On the other hand, the Glass Menagerie is not allegorical, even though it makes extensive use of symbols. Those symbols, like the unicorn = Laura, directly represent characters and situations within the narrative, rather than something external to the story.

  2. On the symbolism front, it’s not an allegory but in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens there is a direct connection between red wine and blood.

    And a classic allegory in Science Fiction is “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Heinlein. You have to be pretty dense not to notice that it the life of Michael has a lot in common with the life of Christ.

  3. Do you think a meaningful distinction can be drawn between an allegory where a fictional story parallels a real timeline of events and a story which simply uses symbols that relate to real-world things?

  4. I think a lot of the reason why allegory has such a bad reputation is because it has such a tendency to be done very, very poorly. For example, Brandon mentioned The Sword of Truth, which is (rightfully) widely reviled as such a work. It doesn’t work particularly well as either an allegory (oh no! Beware the evil communist Christian crusaders!) or as a consistent story in its own right (religion and faith are evil, there is no God, atheism and reason are good, and then when Richard gets poisoned, the way he works out the cure (immediately after, and as a direct result of, figuring out and correcting the problem in his morality!) has nothing whatsoever to do with reason and logic, but rather looks exactly like traditional depictions of divine revelation.)

    Or, on the other end of the political extremism spectrum, we have the latest season of Supergirl, where they eschewed any and all thoughts of subtlety or nuance in favor of painting any and every person who disagrees with any point of the doctrine of the farthest-left wing of the contemporary Democratic party, for any reason at all, as an evil bigot. The main focus was on immigration, and this is where their allegory completely breaks down: by having (extraterrestrial) aliens stand in for illegal aliens and their controversial place in contemporary US political debate, they somehow managed to actually create a story in which the evil racists were right, by ignoring the fact that real-world immigrants do not have superhuman powers! They gave us example after example of people who put humans in danger simply by existing alongside of them, (the guy whose instinctual “biological defense mechanism” went off when he got spooked by someone, and injured the wrong person to boot, certainly comes to mind,) and then loudly proclaimed that anyone who saw that as a problem that needed to be fixed is an evil bigot.

    Well… no. Anyone who sees that as a problem that needs to be fixed is a rational, well-adjusted human being. And so is anyone who realizes that this is a purely fictitious scenario that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real-world scenario they were trying ever-so-anviliciously to draw parallels to.

    Advice for would-be writers of allegory: make sure your story actually makes sense. Of course that one step in and of itself won’t make the difference between a bad allegory and a good one, but it goes a long, long way towards that goal.

  5. Is it just me, or is the iTunes podcast completely borked?

    It stopped updating a year ago, when I try to subscribe (again), it gives me two! additional podcasts of Writing Excuses- but I can’t download or cloud stream episodes on any of them, even if I manually try to download from the iTunes store.

  6. I’ve never realized it until now, but the fear of accidental allegory has been a major road block to me. I haven’t written a complete story yet, partially because of this fear, as I have made some unfortunate parrallels to the real world in my mind.
    In addition, I often feel that allegories tend to oversimplify. For example, the Chronicles of Narnia have a rather simple deffinition of good and evil.
    That said, I did try to incorporate an allegory into my writing, but it didn’t even get into page one–mostly because the story went in a different direction.

    Last week’s description of Robert Jordan’s view on Good/Evil’s relationship with religion remined me of the Narnia portrayl of the same relationship.

  7. Speaking of Tolkien, have you ever read “Leaf by Niggle”?

    If that isn’t an allegory, then I have the wrong definition of the word. It is entirely about the creative process and Tolkien’s world builder’s disease. For good measure, he threw in a bonus Christian allegory. Niggle spent time in a place that was clearly limbo and, if I remember right, a shepherd escorted him to his final destination at the end.

  8. This week, the fabulous foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard, talked about the allegories in the writing swamp. Fables, the moral of the story, messages, parables, stories that are trying to teach something with inserted intentional symbols. Satire? Headaches? As Brandon points out, it’s a fun episode because it rambles where the allegories roam… Read all about it in the transcript available now in the archives.

  9. I have read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion many times since HS. Since then I have read histories of Ancient Iraq and ancient Turkey. I have to wonder if Tolkien knew these as well. His use of Scandinavian mythology is well known but I wonder how many are aware of the use of ancient oriental history. The Elves can be identified as Watcher Angels and the Orcs (Uruks) and Uruk Hai are obviously Biblical Nephylim. The Tower of Babel was in the city of Uruk (Biblical Erech) in Iraq. The mansions of Khazad Dum have a parallel in the cave cities of Cappadocia, Turkey. “Gondor, between the mountains and the sea” has a parallel in the Hellenic civilization that existed along the coastal plains in Turkey, between the mountains and the sea, and in the Aegean islands. A friend once told me that she studied the LotR as Biblical Allegory in a religion class.

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