Reply To: Allegory vs symbolism

Forums Fiction Themes Allegory vs symbolism Reply To: Allegory vs symbolism

Martin Detwiler

@nuetrobolt @daeus-lamb The elves, upon their death, go to the Halls of Mandos, where they will be judged. The afterlife is quite fuzzy in Tolkien’s descriptions, but it is present. What happens to the souls of men, however (like you said, @daeus-lamb), is not revealed to anyone. From this, the Ainur deduce that it is a very special thing.

As for the symbolism within Middle-Earth, it is my personal theory that because one of Tolkien’s original goals was to create a mythic background for England (i.e. to fabricate a heritage of myths and legends that was akin to the mythologies developed by other countries), it could be said that we are living in the Fourth Age, which we know from the Appendix to the Lord of the Rings is known as the Age of Men, and was ushered in by way of the War of the Ring. Within this world, then, perhaps there is no Gospel and no way of salvation prior to the Fourth Age because it is still in the earliest of stages. Remember, the plans which Eru had for the souls of men were still in shadow. Perhaps the Gospel was a part of that special secret which Eru kept to himself and told no one else, not even the greatest of the Ainur?

I admit that making that claim dogmatically is a bit of a stretch; but I think you have to see the creative space for such a possibility – without breaking the internal consistency of Middle-Earth.

Personally, I don’t need to believe that the Fourth Age would have brought about the revealing of the Gospel in order to enjoy and benefit from the symbolic power and imagery that Tolkien wove into his world. It’s great just the way it is; not perfect, but very good. And I think all of you who have spoken up agree.

However, I take a slightly different stand because of how I define symbolism vs. allegory. To me, if Tolkien had included a gospel/law dynamic and a way of salvation, then the story would have become allegory. At that point, you would be able to make direct one-for-one connections between elements within the story and elements within orthodox Christian truth (as we can do with Lewis: Aslan is Jesus, the White Witch is Satan, etc…). Because of this ability to make one-for-one connections, I am more wary of allegory than I am of symbolism, because my readers are far more likely to step outside of the truth if the implications of my story are interpreted allegorically. Every image and symbol must then reflect the truth almost didactically. Otherwise, people will draw connections that present a skewed perspective of the truth. At the other hand, however, when using symbolism, you run the risk of becoming too vague, thus stripping the truth of it’s potential power to change people.

When it comes to sub-creating, however, I personally like symbolism far more than allegory because it gives me the freedom to tell a wonderful story that is infused with meaning greater than itself (pointing to the Truth) without worrying that people will draw false conclusions about what I am saying concerning the nature of God, the Gospel, or the Christian life. It allows me to dance on the line between fiction (the subcreated story) and reality (the Truth), fusing the two together into an experience of God’s reality that becomes a part of the reader’s consciousness to some degree or another.

I lean towards using symbolism rather than allegory because when it comes to the Gospel, I believe that we should first and foremost be straight-up didactic. I believe that within Scripture, the weight of evidence leans heavily in the direction of preaching and teaching as the main ways by which we share and spread the Gospel. The clarity and simplicity of the Gospel message is then maintained, and not muddied by images and symbols that I have personally come up with.

However, when it comes to living our daily lives, I believe that we are called to illuminate the Gospel: that is, to fill it out in full color. If you think back to old texts that were transcribed by hand, the first letter of each chapter (or page, I’m not sure if there was only one way they did it) was blown up much bigger than the rest and intertwined with patterns and images. This was called illumination.

In a similar way, I like to think of our lives as an illumination of the Gospel; it is equal parts interpretation and expression of the Truth. We do this through our worldview, lifestyle, daily interactions, and vocation. And within that broad spectrum of daily life, we have art.

Pictures. Stories.


My storytelling, as an extension of my life as a Christian, is an illumination of the Gospel. Not a didactic exploration of it, but fleshing out the beauty and value and necessity of the truth.

I see nothing wrong with weaving the Gospel into stories, or even with having a promised Messiah figure. In fact, there is something that feels very off about creating a world in which there is no Gospel, no Jesus, and no salvation.

But at the same time, I think there is definitely room for creating worlds in which there is no Gospel present (as such), no Messiah figure, and no way of salvation. I don’t think it is the job of our art to teach the Gospel; it is to illuminate it and point to it – and in my mind, an exaltation of the truth via a symbolic approach is completely legitimate to that end.

I don’t really want my readers to come away from my stories having gone through a conversion experience and come to Christ. If that happened, I would be unspeakably grateful and would praise God with immense joy. But that’s not my primary goal.

My primary goal is for my readers to come away from my stories with a little nugget of truth stuck inside them, a little nugget of truth that points to something far bigger and far better, something real and True in the best sense of those words. Something that leaves them wondering and questioning and searching – in short, I want my readers to leave my books wanting to know God better. I want my stories to push and influence readers towards the Gospel if they are not saved, and if they are saved, to know God and His truth better.

I think that is the most that art can do.

It is only the Gospel – the Word of God – that can save; so I want to write stories that drive people to it, but doesn’t try to become it. To my mind, using symbolism allows an author the greatest storytelling freedom without raising the limits and obstacles that I find crop up when trying to use allegory.

I think we all have the same goal in mind when we write stories, and to be completely honest, both allegory and symbolism are excellent platforms to use. I simply mean to explain why I think both mediums are equally valid for Christian storytellers.

They both have their unique advantages and drawbacks. If I get symbolism right, people will enjoy a great story and be stirred to explore the truth because of it! If I get it wrong, people will be confused about the truth and not exactly understand what I mean – but they will still read a (hopefully!) good story.

If I get allegory right, people will have a basic understanding of the Gospel/Jesus/salvation and enjoy a good story! And that’s really awesome. But if I get it wrong, I confuse people about the Gospel/Jesus/salvation itself. And while it might be a good story, that’s too high of a cost for me.

That went long. Much longer than I planned when I first sat down. Haha!

But anyway – I applaud your long-term goal! I think a well-simmered stew is going to come out with far richer flavors and much greater potential than a half-baked potato. In other words, go for it! I am in a somewhat similar position with my own high fantasy world, and I have to say that long-term projects are a lot of fun – even if you don’t have any story actually written down! Connections and plot points and characters and themes seem to come together out of nowhere when it stays on the back burner for long enough.

myths don't die

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