As of this Saturday, I’ve been reviewing submissions at Kingdom Pen for four years. During this time, I have seen several trends in content that’s submitted for publication.
Few are as prevalent as allegories.
Roughly half our fiction submissions are allegories of some form. But I can count on one hand the number of allegories I’ve approved to be published over the past four years.
Simply put, most modern Christian allegories are terrible. Somewhere along the road, it seems that Christian writers began to believe that traditional rules of writing compelling, three-dimensional characters and subtle, non-preachy themes don’t apply to allegories. As a result, most modern allegories I’ve read follow the same blatant retelling of the Gospel story centered around a conversion narrative with flat characters and a predictable storyline. Bonus points if Christ literally shows up in the story or it’s set in a generic fantasy environment.
This problem largely stems from our culture’s general ignorance of what constitutes a true allegory. If you ask people to name some allegories, Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia are usually the first (and possibly only) allegories they list. Lewis and Bunyan both wrote magnificent allegories, but they wrote specific types of allegory. The genre of allegory is more expansive than Lewis and Bunyan’s take on it.
Writing good allegories requires learning that the genre surpasses Lewis and Bunyan. Studying other authors will reveal the secret to why most modern allegories fail, and how we can do better.
Before we plunge into this, it’s important to define our terms. The Cambridge Dictionary describes an allegory as “a story, play, poem, picture, or other work in which the characters and events represent particular moral, religious, or political qualities or ideas.”
However, we need to distinguish between two different types of stories: those in the genre of allegory and those containing elements of allegory. As our Theme Mastery students will attest, most characters will embody ideas or worldviews of some sort in great works of literature. Thus, one could argue that these literary works comprise allegorical elements even if they aren’t in the actual genre of allegory.
This is the difference between works like Pilgrim’s Progress and The Divine Comedy as opposed to Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice. In all four works, different characters embody different worldviews. However, the former two are clearly set in an allegorical genre with deeper symbols while the latter two are not.
In this article I’ll concentrate on the allegory genre—where the story itself, not just its meaning, deals with transcendent realities.
Debunking a Central Misconception about Allegories
I’ve noticed that a certain myth is widespread in allegories I’ve read. Few authors explicitly tout this myth, but many infer it through their writing.
So let’s get this straight: allegories are NOT simply retellings of the Gospel with switched names.
Most of the allegories submitted to Kingdom Pen feature a character named “the Son,” “the Prince,” “the Knight,” or other Christlike figure who dies for the characters in the story before being raised from the dead. Many people have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I suspect they write this kind of allegory to imitate Lewis.
But The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is only one variant of allegory.
If you examine other allegories, you’ll see that no one else replicates Lewis. The great Medieval allegorists—men like Dante, Langland, Boethius, and Spenser—didn’t retell the Gospel with their allegories. They assumed the Gospel to be true and took their allegories in very different directions.
Or, you could peruse the greatest allegory of all.
I’m of course referring to the Old Testament.
Most (if not all) of the Old Testament points to Christ in veiled images. We have the tabernacle, the Temple, and the whole sacrificial system, all of which foreshadow Christ’s sacrifice. We have figures like Moses, Jonah, and Melchizedek, who were types of Christ. The flood prefigures baptism, Jacob’s ladder epitomizes the reunion between heaven and earth that would be accomplished through Christ, and so on.
All these examples allude to the Gospel, but without being simplistic retellings. The symbols are deep, the stories complex, and the purpose is not immediately apparent. As it should be.
Readers have already heard a Gospel retelling from another author. Give them something new.
The Central Rule of Writing Allegories
This leads us to the core rule I would like to propose on writing allegories. It’s short and sweet but requires a lot of work to implement—as all writing does. Ninety percent of the allegories I reject disregard this basic principle:
Allegories must present realities in a new light.
This is why most Gospel retellings flop. I haven’t glimpsed anything in a new light—I’ve only been reminded of facts I already know or have seen in other allegories. Contrast this to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which personalizes the redemptive narrative of the Gospel, or The Divine Comedy, which reimagines heaven and hell to show readers the true nature of sin and virtue. These works introduce new symbols and meanings that invite readers to look at familiar objects in a revelatory way.
Allegories are founded on symbols. And symbols work like metaphors: the more they’re used, the less effective they become. To write a solid allegory, you need to create distinct, intriguing symbols that revitalize familiar topics. If you can’t do this, ask yourself why you’re writing an allegory in the first place.
More than most other genres, allegories can’t be derivative. You can’t rely on other people’s symbols. When Lewis situated the Gospel story in a fantasy realm, it was fresh and original and caused readers to think about the story in a new light. But when writers today try to mimic his allegorical style, they often fail because it’s already been done. That’s not to say you can’t ever place the Gospel story in a fantasy realm. But if it will be the focus of your story, it needs to be unique like Narnia was.
The Basic Rules of Storytelling Still Apply
A second myth that many authors seem to implicitly believe about allegory is that it operates from rules divergent to normal storytelling. Subtlety is considered unnecessary and characters only need to represent a certain ideology instead of also being well rounded and fascinating.
Just to clear the table, let’s quickly review four pertinent rules of storytelling:
- Preachiness is still bad. As I’ve emphasized before, fiction works best if its message is unobtrusive and subtly moves the emotions. Sometimes authors think it’s permissible to be blatant with message and symbolism in allegories, but that isn’t the case. If you want to influence readers to view an issue differently, subtlety is the best method.
- Characters still need to be complex. Just because they represent an ideology or worldview does not excuse them being flat or boring. If you survey all the great allegories, you’ll observe that the characters have as much personality as the characters in other works of literature. Characterization is important regardless of genre.
- The plot still needs to be surprising. Like I mentioned above, I can often foresee an allegory’s conclusion from a mile off. Since most Christian allegories are tied to the Gospel narrative, the authors feel the need to close with the culmination of the Gospel as well. This makes a story predictable and dull. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a Gospel narrative. But you need to make the story unique and suspenseful—like you should with any other type of story. Don’t presume that a Gospel narrative alone will generate a captivating plot. Give the reader something original.
- You still need to write difficult Focusing Questions. This is perhaps most relevant to my Theme Mastery students. As I explain in the course, exceptional novels are built around tough questions about morality and reality that are complicated to answer. The same concept relates to allegories. An allegory will be weak if it’s constructed around a simple question of whether Christianity is right or wrong, or if good will triumph over evil. (Although these questions certainly can be and are challenging to resolve in the real world, modern allegories often don’t explore them with much depth.) Instead, great allegories delve into enigmas like: “What are we created to be?” (The Divine Comedy), “How do you pursue holiness in a corrupt world?” (The Faerie Queene, book one), or “How do you find the power to achieve your desires?” (The Magician’s Nephew).
Examples of Good Allegories
After spending most of this article expounding the faults of modern allegories, I’ll now direct you to allegories that are worth studying to understand the genre. Two are Medieval, one is modern.
The first is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Written in the thirteenth century, it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to literary perfection achieved this side of heaven. Although I had to read the epic three times to comprehend it, the story is a breathtakingly brilliant examination of what sin turns us into and what we can become if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the love of God.
The second is book one of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. This work explores the hardships of pursuing holiness in a fallen, complicated world and has a ton of symbolic depth. As fair warning, however, this is a difficult book to read as Spenser intentionally uses archaic language. If you’re going to read this book, pick up the Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves edition, which is much easier to understand.
Finally, the last allegory I recommend is the film The Song, directed by Richard Ramsey. This straddles the line of being in the genre of allegory or merely having strong allegorical elements, but it retells the story of Solomon in a modern context that powerfully puts viewers in Solomon’s shoes and leads them to consider the tensions between fame and family.
The Need for Well-Written Allegories
I think Christian authors tend to resort to writing allegory because it’s the only way they know to weave their faith effectively into their stories. (Hint: it’s not. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, check out our Theme Mastery course to learn a better approach to infusing faith in your writing.) If this is your reason for writing allegory, you probably should question your decision.
However, I’m not suggesting that allegories should be discarded. We need them—and that’s why I wrote this article. Many of the greatest works of literature are allegories and I believe the genre has immense potential. But you need to learn how to write one first. View allegories as a sub-genre of storytelling, use them to shed a new perspective on familiar concepts, and you’ll have taken the first steps toward writing an engaging allegory.