The Canary in the Coal Mine? Thoughts on Allegory

Teaching allegory is always a bit of an uphill battle. I used to think that allegory was difficult for students because they simply weren’t used to reading complex texts; this was certainly the case for most of my undergraduates. But now I teach literature in the context of cultural apologetics courses, at the master’s level – and it’s almost as difficult. A few of my graduate students ‘get it’ immediately, but many of them find allegory to be alien and bewildering. They laboriously try to pin down A=1, B=2 between the two levels of the narrative, but it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Why is the author doing this to us? Why can’t he just tell a story, or give us a theological discourse?

This difficulty is precisely why allegory is important to teach. My students’ struggle points to something so big that it’s easy to lose sight of: the fact that we, in the modern day, have inherited a compartmentalized, fragmented view of the world. Facts and values, science and theology, reason and imagination, are all too often held to be in conflict, or at best are considered to be ‘true’ in different ways (which usually turns out to mean that morality, theology, and imagination are not considered really true the way science and math are true). We are dis-integrated.

Insofar as we can come to appreciate allegory as a literary form, we’re one small step closer to seeing the world differently.

Allegory was once a popular form, as a browse through medieval literature will show: The Romance of the Rose, Everyman, The Quest of the Holy Grail… Today, though, it has nearly vanished, except for some instances of political allegory, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s not just that the form has gone out of fashion, the way epistolary novels have; rather, readers today tend not to understand how allegory works. If we use the word at all, it’s usually in a broad and highly inaccurate way, such as calling The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings allegories (they aren’t: applicability isn’t allegory.).

For medieval Christians, the situation was different. Reason and imagination were not at odds with each other in the way they are now. The medieval ‘image’ of the cosmos with its seven heavens provided a system that was both rationally significant and imaginatively resonant. Certainly, as CS Lewis notes in The Discarded Image, the medieval ‘image’ cannot be adopted wholesale today, for the simple reason that we know now that as a physical model it is not true.

But the modern ‘model’ that replaced the medieval one is not entirely satisfactory. It may account for more of the facts, but it does not account for the meaning of the facts. Or rather, the standard ‘image’ of the cosmos today is one of mere matter in motion, started by chance, developing by chance, with no purpose, no telos – in short, the modern ‘image’ is a system without a meaning. Even Christians are affected by this prevailing image, with its division between body and mind, reason and imagination, human beings and the rest of the cosmos. All too often the Christian view of the world is little more than the modern view plus a few add-ons (God; heaven).

How does all this relate to allegory? This literary form is a canary in the coal-mine. To enjoy allegory, one must be able to simultaneously appreciate both the rational and the imaginative components of it: to hold together the story as a story and the message as a message, not switching between one and the other, but allowing each to enrich the other. If a reader has a highly compartmentalized mind, then all literature is difficult to read, but allegory most of all.

And I would suggest, as a teacher of literature, that the thoughtful reading of allegory helps to develop certain useful capacities. My students who read “Pearl,” the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress in their apologetics classes are stretching and strengthening their imaginative muscles in concert with their reason, like good athletes doing comprehensive training.

Literary styles change; medieval allegories are strange because they are medieval, as well as because they are allegories. We shouldn’t try to repeat the medieval style in the present day, but the literary form may be worth recovering – and we do have some hints of what that might look like.

CS Lewis’s first book after his conversion to Christianity was the allegory Pilgrim’s Regress; Tolkien, despite a claimed ‘cordial dislike of allegory,’ wrote a very good one in his story “Leaf by Niggle.” Could they do this only because they were self-proclaimed “dinosaurs,” living in the medieval world? Hardly. Neither Lewis nor Tolkien were isolated from the modern world; they had lived through the upheavals of two World Wars and they were teachers as well as writers. They knew and loved medieval literature, but they also knew how to tell a story to a modern audience, as the resounding success of their writings has demonstrated.

What’s more, both Lewis and Tolkien also took on the larger challenges of imaginative and rational integration in literature, producing non-allegorical stories that, in different ways, were resonant of meaning – Lewis most notably in the Narnia Chronicles (see Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia) and Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

It may be that allegory as a strict form will remain, like Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, as something in our literary past, but the Inklings have shown that the deeper imaginative issues can be approached in other forms, in ways that are compelling for a modern audience.

Is allegory due for a revival? What would a robust literary tradition of 21st century allegory look like? I, for one, would be interested to see.


  • Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; she holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius, 2014) and Imaginative Apologetics (Emmaus Road, 2017). Her current book project is Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Kent State University Press, 2019).

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