At the end of January I finished a couple of books I’ve had on the go for ages – Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard, and a collection of stories by the Victorian author George MacDonald entitled Evenor. Both books contain allegories: Hind’s Feet is a Christian allegory from first to last, and of the three stories in Evenor the last – The Golden Key – is also an allegory. I’ve read quite a few allegories by now, and so I thought I’d make them the subject of a post.
The start of the adventure
Allegories are stories that an author intends to be readable in two ways: the action in an allegory makes sense by itself, so an allegory can be read as “just a story”. At the same time, the events and characters stand in for real-world events or concepts, and if you know what these events and concepts are the allegory can be read with a second meaning. So, to use perhaps the best known example, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is an excellent children’s fantasy adventure. And, at the same time, C.S. Lewis wrote it so that if you identify Aslan the lion with Jesus (and so on) it tells a Christian story involving themes of atonement, forgiveness and redemption.
When starting this post I drew up a list of allegories I’ve read and was surprised by the number. It wasn’t always easy to decide which books to include – is it an allegory, or not? Here are the “definites”:
- The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) – John Bunyan
- The Golden Key (1867) – George MacDonald (in Evenor)
- The Space Trilogy (1938-1945) – C.S. Lewis (3 books* in total, a.k.a. The Cosmic Trilogy)
- The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) – C. S. Lewis (7 books in total)
- Hind’s Feet on High Places (1955) – Hannah Hurnard
- Starforce Red Alert (1983) – Chris Spencer (a children’s sci-fi allegory)
(*The first two books – Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra aka. Voyage to Venus (1943) – use allegory, while the third – That Hideous Strength (1945) – does not.)
With one exception, the allegorical nature of all of these books is explicitly Christian. The degree to which the dual nature of the stories is maintained varies a lot from book to book. In The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hind’s Feet the spiritual message is dominant and made obvious to the reader (for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress follows “Christian” who meets “Evangelist” and leaves the “City of Destruction” for the “Celestial City”.) Both of these books are about setting out on a journey, and these journeys are a metaphor for becoming and/or maturing as a Christian. In contrast, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the balance between the two types of story is about even: it can be read without realising there is a Christian message, but the spiritual message is not difficult to interpret once you know it is there.
The exception in the above list is The Golden Key, which I think is harder to pin down. While the second meaning is broadly in sympathy with a Christian perspective, I don’t think there is anything that forces it to be read this way. The Golden Key follows the adventures of a boy who finds a golden key at the end of a rainbow and leaves home in an effort to find the lock which the key opens. [Strong spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph!] The journey is again a metaphor for journeying through life and becoming older and wiser. Interestingly, the boy and his girl travelling companion age and die before the end of the story – but “death” is not something they notice. They undergo a change: their new form is continuous with their old form, but better, and it has to be explained to them that they have actually died.
The Golden Key is beautifully written, and becomes more beautiful as it gets towards the end. It is very short (only about 30 pages), and I was on an allegory-reading high after finishing Hind’s Feet the same afternoon. I would recommend it, and in fact it can be found in full online here on the Project Gutenberg Australia website.
Getting sidetracked on a little literary branchline
The copy of Evenor next to me came from a second-hand sale thirty years ago. I can’t remember hearing of the author, George MacDonald, elsewhere. However, the introduction to the book explains that he was one of the most celebrated writers of the mid-nineteenth century:
At the height of his career, say around 1865, MacDonald was one of the most celebrated writers of his age, and he knew everyone in the literary world. There exists a … photograph (undated, but taken sometime before 1859) which shows a roomful of bearded gentlemen. Their names are rather famous – Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Carlyle, Macaulay, Bulwer-Lytton, and George Macdonald.Lin Carter, “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.x-xi
The introduction goes on to explain that MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on C.S. Lewis:
I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.C.S. Lewis writing about George MacDonald. “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.xiii
The style of fantasy in MacDonald’s stories in Evenor is different to the kind of fantasy that is popular in films such as The Lord of the Rings or TV series like Game of Thrones. It isn’t about knights and wizards, or battles between medieval-esque kingdoms. It is much more local and connected to folk beliefs. For example, The Carasoyn is a story about fairies, and powerful “wise woman” characters are a common thread linking the tales. The origin of these characters is never explained, and their power is never challenged. The focus of the stories is on the life and development of the protagonist, and the wise women and other powerful characters are a fixed part of the world with which the protagonist learns to interact.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis in Oxford. I don’t know for certain that he was also a fan of MacDonald’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The style of parts of the first half of The Lord of the Rings is reminiscent of MacDonald’s work. Specifically, the parts of The Lord of the Rings that got cut when making the recent films!
[Spoiler warnings for this paragraph!] I am thinking here primarily of Tom Bombadil: he is a mysterious, never-fully-explained character that Frodo and his companions meet near the start of their journey, and who helps them out a time or two. Tom Bombadil often talks and sings in nature-centred verse. He is effectively immortal, and impervious to harm from the central antagonist. He tries on the “One Ring” and… it does nothing to him. At all. He just laughs and takes it off again. He is like MacDonald’s wise women, and is a point of connection between MacDonald’s style of fantasy and the kind of fantasy that is dominant today. When Frodo and his friends leave Tom Bombadil behind it feels, to me, as if one style is waving goodbye to the other.
Getting back on course – Tolkien and allegories
C.S. Lewis and Tolkien knew one another well. However, while C.S. Lewis used both fantasy and science fiction to write allegories, Tolkien did something different. The following quotations are from a letter Tolkien wrote in 1951 to a friend and an editor at Harper-Collins named Milton Waldman (the letter is reprinted at the start of The Silmarillion):
But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio [= from the beginning] was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite.”
Also… I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil)… Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing… For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.
For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”
I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)
As the quotations above show, Tolkien didn’t set out to write allegories. His two best-known books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are stories through and through. Nonetheless, Tolkien, a devout Catholic, still regarded The Lord of the Rings as in a sense a heavily religious work. I’m not sure, but my best guess is that the idea he was getting at might be something like the following: in a work on which an author spends a lot of time and care their personal reflections on life and faith show through, and one doesn’t have to make explicit parallels between real life and events in the book to have something valuable to say about life and faith. There is something intrinsically valuable about a story that contains this kind of reflection. In a deliberate allegory, to use a metaphor, “the spell is broken”. The intrinsic value of the story is to some extent compromised: to the extent that the author talks to the reader directly, the story becomes second fiddle – it is a dressing for the true communication, the “sermon”. The value inherent in the reflective story itself becomes lost.
As I say, that’s my guess at what Tolkien was saying. However, I’m not a Tolkien expert, so I might well be wrong. (If you know more about Tolkien and his writing, I would love it if you left a comment below!) Personally I think there is space for both Lewis and Tolkien. I like allegories as I like their narrative approach to learning from the life experiences of the author; in other words, I like the dual meanings, but I’m reading for the spiritual one. And I love Tolkien’s stories of Middle Earth.
Although Tolkien avoided allegory, there is still an interesting comparison to be made between his book The Silmarillion and the Bible. Tolkien originally intended for The Silmarillion to be published alongside The Lord of the Rings as a companion volume. In the end this did not happen. The Silmarillion was only published posthumously in 1977, after his son Christopher Tolkien took his father’s stories and synthesised them into a complete narrative (it’s a great book – though the language and structure make it much harder going than The Lord of the Rings.)
The Silmarillion tells the story of the events before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. It starts with Eru (God, in the Middle Earth universe), who creates spiritual beings, who go on to take part in shaping the world according to Eru’s design. The foremost of the spiritual beings rebels, and goes on to mar the world and become an evil, deceiving influence…
If you are familiar with the Bible, several parallels stand out while reading The Silmarillion. There are parallels with major early events in the Bible. And, more interestingly, there are parallels between the structure and style of the book as whole and the structure and style of the Old Testament. To give one example, and speaking very roughly, both move from God creating the world at the start; through stories which involve direct interactions between men* and spiritual figures; to stories where interactions are between men, and the actions of spiritual beings are often only seen indirectly in the outcomes of men’s actions, and the outcomes of world events.
(*Or in the case of The Silmarillion elves… )
That’s a VERY broad-brushstrokes description! The point is, the structure and style of The Silmarillion to some extent mirrors that of the Bible. It is interesting that in devising a new myth Tolkien still stuck in some ways so closely to the Biblical text. (If you are interested to find out a bit more about this, Tolkien goes on to discuss this later in the letter previously quoted from.)
Finally, we reach Germany!
The title of this blog post is “Allegories, Fantasies and… Passenger to Frankfurt?” Those of you who know your Agatha Christie might have spotted the odd one out! I had better make my case for mentioning it…
Agatha Christie is best known as an author of murder mystery novels, and for two of her detectives: Poirot and Miss Marple. However, she also wrote other books, including a number of thrillers. She was at her peak as an author in the 1930s, but continued to write on into the 1970s. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) is one of her later books. It is regarded as one of her weaker novels, though it still gets 2.9/5 stars on Goodreads.
The book starts off promisingly: Sir Stafford Nye is waiting for a connecting flight at the airport in Frankfurt. When a woman comes up to him and says that she will be killed unless she can travel on the next plane, he switches place with her, and a train of events is set in motion. However, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to the early promise. [Spoiler warning for the rest of this section!] It is a thriller in which there are in a sense… no thrills. There is lots of talking about what is going to happen. Then the protagonist goes somewhere else, where they talk about what is going to happen. Then they travel to another place and talk about… guess what? Yep! There is almost no action!
So why am I mentioning this book in this post? As I read through the book, it seemed to me that Christie’s writing style here has more in common with an allegory than with a typical thriller. The theme of the book is the fear that something is rotten in Europe. It is hard to pin down what exactly, or who is responsible, but there is a growing fear for the future and of another (a third, in Christie’s context) war. This point is made again… and again… and again… . It felt as if Christie is talking through the pages of the book about her reflections on this subject, with the story somewhat in the background as the vehicle.
Without knowing more about Christie, or politics in 1970, I don’t know the extent to which the book actually portrays Christie’s views or those of people at the time. Passenger to Frankfurt isn’t an allegory, but to me the reading experience felt like it, and I found this interesting as it was an unexpected place to find myself thinking about “allegory as a genre”.
In one long post I’ve talked about a good number of my favourite books in one go. I hope that you might have come across something along the way which you are tempted to read. If you would like a recommendation of an allegory with which to start – I think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the most available and accessible, and from there others of the Narnia books are great (I have had a soft spot since childhood for the character of Reepicheep the mouse, particularly in Voyage of the Dawntreader.) The Golden Key is short, and definitely something a bit different. For those after something in a Christian direction, Hind’s Feet on High Places is very good for its theme of spiritual development and maturity and I think it’s easier to read than The Pilgrim’s Progress. (The Pilgrim’s Progress can be found for free here on the U.S. Project Gutenberg website).
Catch you in the next post!