J.R.R. Tolkien often said, “I dislike allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” and C.S. Lewis denied that the Chronicles of Narnia were allegorical. Those who see these authors as writers of religion- or morality-tinged fantasy are often surprised by this, yet most artists throughout time have been opposed to overtly ideological works. Despite this, many modern authors, publishers, and producers appear to have accepted that it is their job to evangelize their views through storytelling. As a result, the quality of these works as stories continue to decline.
In the minds of Tolkien and Lewis, using fiction to make ideological, moral, or religious points was a sure sign of poor writing. Tolkien said “explicit” inclusion of “moral and religious truth (and error)” is “fatal.” It was fine when someone applied his writings to support certain views, but this was not the same as intentionally including ideology. “One resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Lewis, meanwhile, believed writing in this way would result in a story that was more a form letter than fiction. “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children…then collected information about child psychology… then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all purse moonshine. I couldn’t write that way at all.” This appears to be how certain authors and publishers seem to approach writing – determine your target audience and write stories that carry a specific ideological message rather than trying to tell a good story that gives pleasure to readers.
This does not mean that it is impossible to determine an author’s viewpoint from his writing. “There is a ‘moral’, I suppose, in any tale worth telling,” Tolkien wrote. There are patterns, universal truths, and beliefs that are always apparent. We can find examples of hubris in the elves, greed in the dwarves, and avoiding death among men. However, this is not a matter of “didactic purpose,” but arises naturally from Tolkien’s belief in good and evil (for example). Likewise, Lewis has explained that he did not intentionally include Christian elements in in the Chronicles of Narnia. “At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” Rather, all of his writings began as images or scenes that became connected as he fleshed them out in his writings. In the case of both, their Christian views are easy to see, but this was not due to any conscious decision on their part. Rather, they simply sought to tell a good story. “They start out from opposite ends,” Tolkien said. The same ought to be true whether the author is a Christian or atheist, a liberal or conservative. Let their beliefs come forth but let them focus on writing an interesting story rather than forcing on readers a lot of boring ideology. Believe me, readers, and especially children, can see the difference.
At the same time, we ought to point out that much of the appeal of Tolkien and Lewis compared to modern authors is because their underlying viewpoints leads to characters who are more interesting and relatable to most people. Tolkien added that “the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life” and “the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it.” For Tolkien, it was a world in which those with valor stand up against evils such as domination of others, in which fate guides ordinary people to make a difference in the world’s struggle, and in which evil corrupts and good drives others to liberty. In the case of Lewis, he created a world (Narnia) that needed redemption from evil just the same as ours, in which children play just as important a part in defeating evil as adults. Such themes are universal and appeal to the experience and beliefs of ordinary people more consistently than the political dribble that seems to be dominating modern fiction.
There are important uses for allegory and for more overtly ideological writing. I have told stories in which I recognized the religious elements in them before starting, but I always came to a point where the story and characters moved past my intent. They had to if I were to remain faithful to my art and continue to attract readers. Whatever instruction they get comes out naturally because the stories reflect my own values. I generally find most people just want to read a good tale, and my preference is to tell a story that appeals to as many people as possible. Sadly, too many modern authors and publishers will only recognize this when their readership declines to include only those of the same mind. The rest of us will go on reading tales to which we can relate.
© 2022 J.D. Manders