Reply To: Allegory vs symbolism

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

Martin Detwiler

@daeus-lamb @kate I definitely think that we should make distinctions within the genre of fantasy, and I like the ones that you have mentioned. The genre is so broad that saying, “This story is fantasy” is about as meaningless as saying, “This chair is furniture that you can sit in”. It’s true, but not very informative. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

[Sci-fi has begun to have subgenres (military, space opera, dystopian); there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same for fantasy.]

Personally, I like four subgenres:

1. Fairy-tales. I think we should put this under the umbrella of fantasy as a sort of fairy god-mother. In this category I would put things like the fairy-tale collection of the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Anderson’s retellings of fairy-tales. I think that this genre contains the stories that are the ‘Aesopian’ versions of mythic fantasy. They are short, to the point, and vary in mood from lighthearted to potentially quite dark. I say this sub-genre is the fairy god-mother of fantasy because it is the kind of literature that pre-dated fantasy and sparked it into existence, in a way; it continues to provide rich and fertile ground in which fantasy can grow. The Chronicles of Narnia fits into this genre, but not very squarely. It has elements of mythic and realist fantasy, in my opinion; but there is something about the overall mood that puts it within this genre.

2. Mythic fantasy (I like to use the term high fantasy as a nod to the fact that this is how the entire genre of fantasy began). This genre has been well defined by both of you. 🙂

3. Realist fantasy (what you called alternate reality). Within this category I would make even further divisions:

a. Alternate reality: Sandersonian worlds. A magic system is nearly always present; usually integral to the plot as well. This is the most popular kind of fantasy we see today, I think. And it deserves pointing out, because I think there is something in mythic fantasy that you can never get with this kind of fantasy; so it’s important to understand the difference between them.

b. Urban/historical: These stories take place within “the real world”, but a ‘real world’ in which magic has always been a part of history. Urban fantasy is often gritty, veering towards the darker side of fantasy; but it doesn’t have to. For example, I would put the Harry Potter series within this sub-genre. These stories often bring a freshness to fantasy in the way that they mix the familiar with the strange and fantastic.

c. Pure realist: No magic systems, but these stories exist within an internally consistent alternate reality. I would call this low fantasy, because these stories are basically novels that are set in a different reality.

d. Paranormal: This deserves a mention under the umbrella of fantasy, but oftentimes stories like these fit more neatly within the horror/suspense genre.

4. Grim fantasy. This sub-genre imagines a world where human depravity has reached an all-time low; it is always gritty, dark, and usually contains mature content because it confronts the depths of inhumanity. For Christian writers, it is a very debatable genre. However, one strength of the genre is that it allows the author to force readers to viscerally and intellectually confront the reality and nature of evil. When done well, it can sensitize the reader to the true horror of evil (which we so often refuse to fully confront and come face to face with), rather than desensitizing the reader, as we would suppose. There are other strengths to the genre, but the drawbacks may very well outweigh any potential benefits. The jury is still out as far as I am concerned. There may be a place for this kind of fantasy, but it is very small.

I see unique strengths to each of the four categories.

1. Fairy-tales: These often encapsulate a facet of truth and tease it out in the form of a relatively simple story. The strengths of this sub-genre are simplicity and brevity (usually).

2. Mythic fantasy: These kinds of stories are often cosmic in proportion and in the best of cases confront metaphysical and/or philosophical questions about the basic nature of reality (e.g. in tLotR good always wins in the end, therefore hope/faith is justified; evil isn’t a thing in itself, but the twisting of something originally good; nothing happens on accident (idea of sovereignty, though latent), and I could go on…). They also have a lot of potential to address the question of what it means to be human in a cosmos populated with gods and myths and legends. Mythic fantasy is larger than life, and yet remains one of the most perennially relevant, timeless aspects of the fantasy genre.

3. Realist fantasy: Because of the broad range of categories that I put under this subgenre, it’s hard to pinpoint it’s strengths. However, if you forced me to say one thing, I think this sub-genre most frequently addresses the question of what it means to be human by inserting realistic characters into settings and worlds that are fundamentally foreign to us. The juxtaposition of strange and familiar allows us to come face to face with aspects of humanity/reality that we might otherwise never think about. This is true of most speculative fiction (and a lot of sci-fi as well). The journey into the, “What if?” often sparks a new or fresh appreciation of the real. Although there is plenty of room within this genre to bring up metaphysical/philosophical questions, they are usually addressed via the human element (vis. the struggle or experience of the characters themselves), rather than being woven into the symbolism and elements of the story itself (as with mythic fantasy).

4. Grim fantasy. I said pretty much all I have to say about this subgenre when I introduced it above, so I won’t add anything here. 🙂

Those are my thoughts on the subject, and the only reason they may appear put-together is because they are so confused in my own head that I had to force myself into some kind of structured approach. XD I’d love to pursue this discussion further; it fascinates me.


When it comes to the Allegory v. Symbolism spectrum, I thought further about that and would like to add a few points on the spectrum and see what you all think about them.

Starting from the Allegory side of the spectrum, I have:

Allegory stories.

The best representation of this point on the spectrum is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegory stories can be understood/interpreted quite easily because every allegory in the story is basically labeled. There is a one-for-one connection between the elements/characters in the story and the elements of truth being illustrated. A little further down the spectrum, we come across:

Parabolic stories.

Parables are narrative illustrations of one specific truth/point. Each element or character in the parable corresponds to something in the real world. Parables do not stand alone, but are part of a larger discourse. Viewed within that larger context, the allegory is explicit and easily understood. I would view them as extended figures of speech – metaphors with a narrative structure. Examples: The parables of Jesus. Further down the spectrum, on the road to symbolism, we have:

Allegorical stories.

Slightly different from allegory stories, this kind of story could be seen as the expansion of the parable into a fully self-contained narrative that mirrors historical/biblical/theological events. There is no one-for-one connection, but the overall connection between the truth/event being ‘allegorized’ is clear and understood to an informed reader. The Chronicles of Narnia often contains this kind of allegorical storytelling. Next on the spectrum, getting very close to symbolic stories, are:


Fables are short, to the point, and almost parabolic in nature. However, what separates them from parables is that they come in a self-contained narrative structure, illustrate general truths/axioms/proverbs, and the elements/characters within a fable cannot be traced to any specific elements in the real world, but are there to drive the point home. The only reason these stories feel so much like allegories is because the truth being illustrated is always provided very clearly at the end. But we still haven’t gotten to the symbolic end of the spectrum. That’s our next and last stop:

Symbolic stories.

Imagine taking five different fables, removing the pithy proverbs at the end, and combining them all together into one coherent story that explores the truths of those fables in a much larger storytelling format. That is the essence of symbolic storytelling. The themes and truths being explored in the story are not explicitly stated, but every element of the story has been woven into a tapestry that draws the themes out in different ways and either poses or answers questions about that theme or principle of truth. A discerning reader can approach these kinds of stories and come away with pithy, proverb-like truths (good always triumphs over evil; neither emotion nor intellect should rule our lives, but both in tandem; and etc…). Like a beautiful jewel, different hues will shine forth to the reader depending on the angle from which the story is viewed.

What do you think of this expansion of the spectrum? Helpful, or not helpful?

myths don't die

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