Allegory: Thoughts I've had for a while.

Some time ago, I was talking to a friend about Quentin Tarentino’s movie “Kill Bill, volume 2” Remember the poignant scene in which Bill discusses with Kiddo and BB the nature of death, and BB’s fish? For those who have not watched the movie, BB has a fish, who, at one point, she scooped out of its bowl, and watched it flapping on the floor. Then she stomped on it. When asked what this resulted in, BB replies, “He stopped flapping.” My friend’s question was “What does this mean? Is it showing that she’s already a messed up kid?” I told him no, and I will tell you why.

Tarentino’s work, as best as I can tell, is not an allegory. The figures and actions in its stories have nothing to do with concepts or figures that one would easily recognize coming from an outside system of thought. However, to think of BB’s action as having such a narrow range of interpretation, essentially, to use it alone as the proof for or against whether BB is psychologically damaged by her relationship with Bill, is not only short-sighted, it is asking something of the movie it was never meant to do.

Allegory has been popular in many social groups, and is, essentially, an expanded method of parable. A parable is basically an expanded metaphor. When we create a metaphor, we say “this thing is like this thing in this way.” When we create a parable we say “this thing is like this thing in this story” essentially, a way of further focusing the metaphor’s usage, so that a law is thought of as a rock not in that it melts in a volcano, but in that it’s one of the most solid things we encounter from day to day. An allegory takes the parable to another level, by mixing a number of metaphors, to place a larger metaphoric structure upon the work as a whole.

The use of Allegory has been especially popular within the Christian church. Jesus used many parables, and it only makes sense that the descendants of his thought would make use of allegory. Dante’s Divine Comedy is, essentially, twisted allegory, as Dante’s pilgrim is brought through various punishments and rewards which reveal the nature of the crimes of the deceased. These deceased function as a metaphor for a certain type of people. In the sixteenth century, one of the most popular English Christians, Edmund Spenser, wrote part of a massively extended allegory of the Christian life called “The Fairie Queene” And today, perhaps one of the most well-known of Christian allegories is C.S. Lewis’ tremendously popular Chronicles of Narnia series.

When an allegory operates, it creates a language. One who has read the Chronicles of Narnia might relate Aslan, which would be a sound indecipherable to the uninitiated, to any lion they saw thereafter. In relating two unrelated things, allegory creates language, in the same way as the English language produces the meaning “meaning” whatever it may mean out of an essentially chaotic set of symbols on a page, or vibrations the air molecules.

Allegory says “this means this” and “that means that” “Aslan means Christ” “Bleeding tree means suicide” “Beatrice means heaven” and “Red Crosse Knight means Christian, patriot, Englishman, chivalrous lover, among other things” please excuse the rather erudite in-joke.

Quite possibly through the Christian usage, allegory as the only form of storytelling has infiltrated our entire educational system. Be it Huckleberry Finn or Shakespeare, the first question asked of the students is “What does it mean?” To improperly ask this question is to misunderstand the very heart and soul of storytelling its self. Storytelling is an experience, even when it is allegory. Even as allegory, storytelling provides an experience, an experience of meaning, possibly even emotional meaning beyond rational meaning, if it is a very well-told allegory. Yet, not all meaning can be located in words, and the moment we open our mouths to identify them meaning, we demean the meaning, at least to some extent. At this point, a story in which the meaning is found in the experience, and not in the interpretation, is destroyed.

This is the primary difference between normal storytelling and allegory. Normal storytelling provides experience, and allows the reader to interpret or leave uninterpreted. Allegory forces an interpretation upon the reader, and gives them an easily explainable meaning, and leaves it at that. Storytelling is no issue so simple. It provides an experience. Whether this experience is believable or not depends upon the skill of the artist. Whether this story should be believable or not depends upon the skill and discernment of the audience. However, it will do no good to combat improper storytelling with allegory. To say that Tolkien’s fantastic work of myth and magic was, in fact, allegory, is not to properly represent Tolkien. To say it is completely true is not to properly represent Tolkein. To say you are Gandalf, and can shoot fireworks with the end of your stick, is to misrepresent Tolkein, yourself, and very possibly invite a Darwin Award.

Such an over interpretation may be blamed, logically, though perhaps not completely factually, upon the over usage of allegory. My train of logic is this: Allegory teaches that the elements of a story are, in fact, present in the rhyme and reason of the everyday world. It ignores the fact that the everyday world rarely has a rhyme or reason it can explain. The ancient allegories, blind cupid and blind justice, both serve to illustrate this fact. When the person raised on a purely allegorical understanding, rather than an experiential understanding of literature encounters a work of fiction which is not allegory, that person attempts to treat that literature as allegory. This leads to the over interpretation. If nothing is found that can be related back to life in an allegorical sense, say, Gandalf’s magic having no relation to life as we know it either in a physical or a intellectual way, we immediately think that it must be true in some way. This is illustrated by the violent reaction by some parties against Harry Potter, and the violent reaction in some cases for magic, which feeds the former reaction.

In the end, neither Tolkien nor Rowling have, to the best of my knowledge, meant that magic is accessible to the normal person today, at least in the extent of turning a bully into a pig or making friends with a dragon. However, because the children are constantly pestered with the question “what does it mean?” rather than simply being allowed to grow in experience through imaginative literature, they attempt to create a meaning that is not there, and so do we.

This is not to say that eliminating the allegoric will in some way make a better world. I think, personally, that the allegory is a dumb way of writing literature. In many cases, it destroys the brevity and clarity of the lesson, and destroys the beauty and veracity of the story its self. Even a storyteller like C S Lewis can not escape this. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were both criticized for their flat writing (albeit, unfairly) and they were, in may ways, writing allegorical works, especially in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Yet, all the same, the interpretation of literature is necessary, as is the interpretation of experience. Even though allegory still has the reprehensible fault of pointing directly to its own interpretation. This does not teach proper interpretation, it weakens the powers of one to interpret on their own, using the faculties of previous experience. Interpretation, however, is still necessary, and even vital, and must not be sacrificed for experience. That, however, is for another essay. For now, think, and let think.

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