Allegory vs symbolism

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  • #41034
    Daeus Lamb
    @daeus-lamb

    Hey guys, it’s me.

    Time to make a splash. I want y’all’s opinions on allegory vs symbolism.

    Here’s what happened recently. I noticed a while ago that Tolkien and Sanderson had something in common. They both took years to develop their masterpieces before they even sat down to write them. So two days ago I decided to actually start on what I’ve been thinking of doing for some time. I’m planning to spend a decade or more developing a fantasy world for a series I’ll write in the future.

    The first thing that popped into my mind very strongly is that I want this series to adhere to the mythic tradition of fantasy. In other words, slightly un-realistic but grand worlds, heroic journeys, legendary obstacles, soft magic, strange wise or mysterious strangers, etc. Tolkienesque, basically.

    Now, I really only have a very basic grasp on what I want to write as of yet, but I found myself leaning toward a less allegorical world. I want a worldlier, grimer sort of setting, honestly and I also have this sense that the plot I’m going to concoct isn’t going to lean toward allegory, at least not in the forefront in any way.

    This poses a problem though since I definitely want to engrain my world with a strong Christian worldview. The obvious alternative is symbolism.

    For those of you less familiar with these distinctions, Tolkien wrote primarily symbolism, and Lewis better represents the allegorical end of the spectrum. Symbolism represents aspects of Christianity without trying to mimic specific events. The ring and its destruction are great examples.

    I love symbolism, but my question is how much to rely on it. I’ve always been of the opinion that Tolkien relied just a little too much on symbolism. The one thing that stands out to me is that there is no true form of worship in his world and no salvation. I’ve always felt that’s something that shouldn’t have been left out entirely. Still, I may be wrong. I don’t believe every novel has to include the gospel, so is it okay for a fantasy world to have no gospel (if its purpose is to communicate symbolic truths)? I’m skeptical, but open and curious.

    Basically, my goal is to be as little allegorical as possible while still providing the right worldview context. I mean, I don’t want moral relativism or confusion over the truth. I also don’t want to hold back with a half answer when I could provide a full answer. Hopefully that makes sense.

    Here’s what I’m thinking so far. I’ll have a creation and a fall and God will be theistic not deistic. I’ll probably consider this an “old testament” era story, as in there is no Messiah yet, but there is still a “true form of worship”. I’ll probably have the true worshipers be rare, and important but not common in the story. I may have one prophet character. I’m thinking of having religion slowly take on a more important role throughout the series. I may even have the messiah character come at the very end of the last book, though that is not decided.

    SO! With all that long explanation, how much allegory do you think a fantasy world needs and how much can it rely on just symbolism?

    Also, any thoughts you have about symbolism would be great.


    @karthmin
    @kate @ethryndal @ohter-people Who else do I tag?

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    #41043
    Warden
    @nuetrobolt

    @daeus-lamb, I cannot answer your question about allegory versus symbolism. Sorry. I do think that Lord of the Rings is kind of depressing since there is no salvation. After death, there is nothing, and I didn’t like that particularly.

    There is a lot of symbolism in LOTR, from the ring representing sin to Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo representing Jesus as King, Prophet, and Priest.

    I have been planning out books I hope to write for… I can’t even remember how long. I have re-imagined my stories hundreds of times, slowly developing them in my head.

    Your story is yours and no one else's. Each sunset is different, depending where you stand. -A. Peterson

    #41056

    @Daeus-lamb I think the big problem with Middle Earth is that most of the symbolism isn’t tied to any obvious standard/picture within its world. The interpretation of decisions, arcs, and outcomes is left largely to the reader’s imagination and worldview, and is likely to be skewed if the reader doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth’s history or everything that led up to Frodo’s quest.

    Middle Earth has a history, and the history explains the symbolism— but in the trilogy, which is what everyone reads first, there’s no trace of that. Even the people who believe in it trust more in ‘what their heart tells them’ than they deliberately turn to the standard for guidance.

    So it sounds like the system you have set up fixes that nicely, with nods to the standard/picture and threads of it that are relevant to your stories and characters. The world is held up against that standard and asked to conform to it, instead of just spinning merrily on in the way it was started and slowly getting farther and farther away while no one notices. My gut instinct says you’ll do fine.

    Honestly my definition of allegory is probably pretty loose. I consider my entire series one enormous allegory of human history, but there are several books (Valiant and Uncharted are the two most obvious, but there are books between the allegories of the Fall, the Tower of Babel, the giving of the Law, and the coming of Christ) that are complete in themselves and if you never read the rest of the series you would hardly guess they were allegorical at all. It’s harder to label a series allegorical or not allegorical by reckoning up individual books. Does your whole series build up towards the Messiah’s coming? Not necessarily in an obvious way, but would you consider that the crowning moment that ties the whole series together? If so, you have an allegory.

    If not, it’s probably all symbolism. In this case it would be a lot less important for obvious ties to Christianity such as the appearance of a Messiah figure, but God’s law should still be one hundred percent necessary and theologically sound, and the world should definitely be measured up to it.

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41073
    Daeus Lamb
    @daeus-lamb

    @kate That’s true. I’ve almost felt The Silmarillion and LOTR should have been one book because the context is so important.

    I honestly don’t know much about how my story is going to work — I’ve only thought about it for three days. 😛

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    #41074
    Daeus Lamb
    @daeus-lamb

    @nuetrobolt Actually, according to The Silmarillion, there is something after death. I think it was verified that the Elves would be judged and all or a lot of them were going to live in a sort of paradise. Don’t quote me on that though. I might be mistaken. I know at least for men it said that the God figure in the story had a plan for them after they died, but it wasn’t revealed exactly what that plan would be.

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    #41080

    @Daeus-lamb @Neutrobolt yes, there’s a ‘heaven’ for elves and for men, though Tolkien was needlessly cryptic about it. You have to really dig deep into his more obscure Middle Earth works to find it. And I was always rather miffed that there wasn’t one for the dwarves— their souls either turn back to stone or go and sit and wait forever in cold halls with their ancestors until the world ends and the Valar who created them (against Iluvatar’s wishes) manages to convince Iluvatar that the dwarves deserve to be counted with men and elves as well. *wrinkles nose* It was vague and more than a bit theologically sketchy.

    Oooh, so this is a really new idea Daeus? *grins* Sweet. I thought you were talking about your current trilogy and the sequels. Does it take place in this world, or are you building an entirely new one?

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41081

    Whoops, @nuetrobolt

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41085
    Warden
    @nuetrobolt

    @kate and @daeus-lamb I guess I should read The Silmarrilion. I started it, but what a challenging read!

    Your story is yours and no one else's. Each sunset is different, depending where you stand. -A. Peterson

    #41087

    @nuetrobolt heh. I feel ya buddy. 😛

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41093
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    @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.

    Beauty.

    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.


    @daeus-lamb
    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

    #41094
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    @daeus-lamb @Neutrobolt yes, there’s a ‘heaven’ for elves and for men, though Tolkien was needlessly cryptic about it. You have to really dig deep into his more obscure Middle Earth works to find it. And I was always rather miffed that there wasn’t one for the dwarves— their souls either turn back to stone or go and sit and wait forever in cold halls with their ancestors until the world ends and the Valar who created them (against Iluvatar’s wishes) manages to convince Iluvatar that the dwarves deserve to be counted with men and elves as well. *wrinkles nose* It was vague and more than a bit theologically sketchy.

    Sorry, @kate ! I took so long to write my thing that I didn’t see your new posts! I ended up saying basically the same thing as you did here (barring that bit about the dwarves, which I completely forgot about). O.o It’s cool to find a fellow Tolkien nerd, though. 😛

    myths don't die

    #41100

    @Karthmin whoa, not at all. 😛 You were a lot more thorough than I was. I totally agree with everything you said.

    Yesssss, Tolkienites unite! *high five*

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41101
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    @kate Thanks 😀

    *high fives* I was questioning whether to use Tolkienites and decided against it, lol! But now that I see it in writing, I like it better than ‘Tolkien nerds’. XD

    myths don't die

    #41103

    @Karthmin lol, totally. XD

    INFP-A. If you can't be brilliant, odd will do.

    #41107
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    @kate btw, completely unrelated, but I’m also INFP… seems like a LOT of the people I meet are INFP. O.O

    Also unrelated, but your grandparents (Ovid and Betty Need) are members at my church! They’ve adopted a whole bunch of the young’uns at church as their grandkids and are the sweetest people ever. When they found out that I’m a writer, they mentioned you/your stories, and your grandma basically started fangirling about them. XD

    So I say hail, friend. Well met!

    myths don't die

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