Guest Post: Recovering Allegory

27 March 2015

Suzannah Rowntree, reigning mind behind the insightful blog Vintage Novels, has now released her debut novel, Pendragon's Heir, a new spin on classic Arthurian romance. The book just hit cyber shelves yesterday, so you're not too late to follow along with Suzannah's celebratory blog hop! (Just click the link to her blog to stay in the loop.) I'm pleased to welcome her to Literary Lane this morning to speak on a topic that has grown sadly unfashionable in the past few decades. Suzannah, as you might have guessed, has quite another way of viewing it...

recovering allegory
by suzannah rowntree

The Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, my favourite book, which was written by my favourite author, JRR Tolkien, is a small classic, and contains the following words:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”

In younger years, I accepted this—as I am still prone to accept anything Tolkien says—quite uncritically. I think a lot of my friends actually accepted this opinion in the same way, and certainly nothing in the wider world of modernist storytelling disposed me to be any more charitable to allegory than Tolkien was. One does tend to think of allegory as being inartistic and contrived, and resent it when it intrudes upon fiction.

No doubt Tolkien had good reason to be exasperated by all the critics attempting to straitjacket his wonderful story into various ridiculous interpretive frameworks. But in more recent years, as I’ve studied history and literature in more depth, I’ve come to realise that allegory is by no means the simple and childish genre I first thought it. Rather, allegory has a very long and indeed a very noble history. For centuries during medieval Christendom, it occupied pride of place in every author’s literary arsenal.

A Short History of Allegory
From earliest times, people have used stories to illustrate truth. In fact, “parable” is a synonym for “allegory”, and the parables of Jesus Christ are an excellent place to begin any defence of allegory. Later, the apostles themselves set the tone for later medieval allegories, interpreting the redemptive history of the Old Testament as allegory of things in the New. In Galatians, Paul explains that Abraham’s concubine Hagar is an allegory of the Old Covenant, and his wife Sarah is an allegory of the New. Later, Peter, in one of his epistles, interprets Noah’s ark as an allegory of baptism.

These are just two of many New Testament examples. By the time St Augustine wrote The City of God in the early 400s AD, this allegorical mode of interpretation was widely accepted. As Augustine argues in his magnum opus, to interpret history allegorically does not mean denying that it literally happened. Rather, these church fathers were eager to follow the apostolic example in reading their history with the eyes of faith, discerning the deeper meanings beneath the historical events.

By the high Middle Ages, this hermeneutical approach had reached a high-water mark of sophistication and complexity. There were two major interpretive modes—the literal and the allegorical—but allegory itself was divided into three further modes. To John Cassian and other medieval thinkers, Scripture spoke in four different senses, summarised in a Latin lyric:

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.

According to Peter Leithart’s translation in Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, this may roughly be translated as:

The literal teaches past deeds, the allegorical what you are to believe,
The moral [tropological] what you are to do, the anagogical what you hope to achieve.

According to Cassian, the literal or historical sense simply tells us what happened. The allegorical sense tells us something about current spiritual reality on a collective/macrocosmic scale. The moral or tropological sense applies to our own personal spiritual life, and the anagogical looks forward to an eschatalogical consummation.

Thus, for the medievals, the story of the Jews’ journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land might have been interpreted, literally, as the history of the Jewish nation; allegorically, as a picture of the Church’s quest to inherit the earth in the New Covenant era; morally, as a picture of the believer’s sojourn in the world on his way to heaven; and anagogically, as a yearning for the consummation of history in which the Church will for all time reach its Promised Land at the Second Coming.

Likewise, the parable of the Good Samaritan could be, and was, interpreted literally, as a story of travel in first-century Judaea; allegorically, as a picture of the church’s mission to the world (the church being represented by the innkeeper who cares for the wounded man); morally, as a picture of our lost and sin-sick condition, incapable of being assisted by the Law and the Prophets in the persons of the priest and the Levite; anagogically, as a forward look to the time when our Good Samaritan will return to repay His church (the innkeeper) and take believers to his home.

Still with me?

Given this intense focus on allegorical interpretation of Scripture, also known as interpretive maximalism, it’s no surprise that the medievals came to view allegory very highly, incorporating it into much of their fiction. Not until the Enlightenment in the 1600s and 1700s did allegory and symbolism finally fall from grace, giving way to the more rational and literal mind of modernism.

The Potential of Allegory
This historical framework gives us three important keys for unlocking the potential of allegory. 
First, we see that for the medievals, allegory was primarily a way of understanding actual history, via Scripture. Where we see it primarily as a way of inserting meaning into narrative, they saw it primarily as a way of extracting meaning from narrative. It’s important to note that for the medievals, the literal sense of the history was still important. The Garden of Eden had a symbolic meaning, but that didn’t mean it had no literal being. This, I believe, translated into a form of allegory in which the meaning did not tend to overwhelm the story on the literal, surface level. CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, is much more typical of medieval allegory than is The Pilgrim’s Progress in that the story is fully engaging even if the deeper meaning evades the reader.

Second, allegory itself was capable of operating on many levels at once. We see this multilayered meaning in what may be the most magnificent allegorical work of all, Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene. On the literal level, the Faerie Queene is a thrilling tale of questing knights, but the symbolism is wonderfully complex; if you drill down a level into one layer of meaning, you discover another layer lurking beneath. One character, literally a villainous witch, also symbolises a whole slew of things: Falsehood, the Roman church, and Mary, Queen of Scots, to begin with. (And yep—if you’re guessing Spenser was Protestant, you’d be correct.)

Again, our lack of familiarity with allegory outside The Pilgrim’s Progress has, I think, prevented us from recognising allegory as the highly complex artform it could be. The allegory in Bunyan’s work, as edifying and gloriously well-written as it is, operates on one fairly obvious level; it does not exactly rise to heights of artistic sophistication.

Third, in reading enough medieval romances, one begins to see that allegory was not usually treated as a genre in itself. Rather, it was often used as a literary device like metaphor, foreshadowing, or dramatic irony—just another tool in the author’s toolbox, used and then set aside to strengthen a particular effect. It is not unusual in medieval literature for the characters, whose adventures have until now been fairly free of allegorical symbolism, to experience some analogue of Bunyan’s Interpreter’s House at some point in the plot. This happens, for instance in Le Morte D’Arthur, where the warriors of the Round Table set out on the Quest for the Holy Grail and immediately find themselves in a series of surreal adventures which later turn out to have allegorical meaning. 

Allegory for the Twenty-First Century
As you may know, I’m the author of a novel based on Arthurian legend, Pendragon’s Heir. A few months ago I heard from a friend and advance reader who told me, “In addition to being my new favorite Arthur legend, I think it might be my favorite allegory, partly because it's not really all that allegorical.” That surprised me a little, because I had not consciously written the novel as an allegory.

But as I think it over, I realise that I did write the book, as near as I could manage it, from a medieval perspective on allegory and storytelling. I am never perfectly satisfied when a book comes with no meanings swimming, like watery leviathans, below the surface. Accordingly, some passages and devices in Pendragon’s Heir are intentionally highly symbolic. Sometimes this is because I borrowed freely from Malory and his Le Morte D’Arthur, and the allegory was inherent in that original material. And sometimes, it’s because an idea occurred to me which fitted perfectly into the themes and flavour of the rest of the book. But there is no overarching, coherent symbolic scheme in the novel: just glimpses of allegory, rising to the surface, throwing off a glint of gold, and fading back into the depths.

I’m still not sure exactly what Tolkien’s objection to allegory was. But he is the man who caused me to fall in love with medievalism, and medievalism is what caused me to fall in love with allegory, so I will trust that he had good reasons. All the same, I think it’s high time we gave allegory another look. True, it’s been out of favour as a literary device for centuries. But today, I wonder if it is making a comeback. Certainly more Christian authors seem to be picking it up and adding it to their toolboxes, perhaps under the influence of CS Lewis. I think this is an exciting development. I have found allegory capable of astonishing maturity, variety, poignancy, and beauty. Let it be a lost art no longer.

. . .

all about pendragon's heir

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

Available for purchase on Createspace (paperback) and Smashwords (e-book) // Read reviews and add the book on Goodreads // Check out the Pinterest board!

all about suzannah rowntree

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26 on Kindle and in paperback.

2 epistles:

  1. Wow, Suzannah.
    To be honest, I always thought there was a difference between a story with meanings behind it and an allegory, namely that allegory is a much more obvious way of doing the same thing the story tried to do. My distaste for allegory wasn't as distinct as Tolkien's, but I did consider it a lesser form of storytelling--not necessarily bad, just not as good as it might be. This article, though, has really given me lots to think about concerning what allegory is and how it works. Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for hosting me, Chloe!

    Hanna, Tolkien would probably have drawn a distinction between mythopoeic applicability and allegory, which I think is a useful distinction, but I do wonder if the medievals might not have seen those two things as existing on a sliding scale of allegory-more-generally-speaking. I still have a lot of learning to do on this topic :).

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