What is an Allegory?

What is an allegory? And what examples of allegory are there in English literature? An allegory is, put simply, a story that has a double meaning: as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory puts it, an allegory has a primary or surface meaning, but it also has a secondary or under-the-surface meaning. The word ‘allegory’ is derived from the ancient Greek meaning ‘speaking otherwise’, which makes sense, given the meaning of the term. To write or speak allegorically is to write or speak about something through referring to something else, which stands as an extended symbol for that original topic. But there’s a bit more to unpack here, so let’s press on with the introduction…

So, now we know what an allegory is, let’s consider some examples. Let’s start with a couple of early examples: one from the world of epic poetry and one from prose (indeed, a work often regarded as the first English novel). In the 1590s, Edmund Spenser wrote his vast epic poem The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s ambitious, unfinished work is an example of allegory because the characters in the poem represent particular virtues or vices: the Red-Cross Knight (pictured below right with Una) represents Holiness, for instance, while Archimago represents Hypocrisy. So Spenser’s characters are allegorical because they have two meanings: their surface meaning (the Red-Cross Knight is a knight on a quest) and their secondary meaning (this knight represents the quality of holiness or religious virtue).

Then, in the 1670s, the Baptist preacher and writer John Bunyan published a work which is in some ways the prose response to Spenser’s allegory: The Pilgrim’s Progress. Sometimes called the first novel in English, The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most famous examples of allegory in all of English literature. Christian, the protagonist of the book, represents the average Christian, as his name implies. The book charts Christian’s journey, or pilgrimage, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, via such locales as the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, and Vanity Fair. The allegorical meaning of all this is clear: each Christian must overcome a series of obstacles or tests before being ready for heaven, and such vices or challenges as religious doubt (allegorically represented by the castle) and vanity (given physical embodiment at Vanity Fair – which, of course, gave its name to a Thackeray novel and a US magazine). As with Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, each of these features in Bunyan’s book carries a double meaning or significance: Christian is both a character in the book and every Christian man.

Curiously, though, perhaps one of the most famous examples of ‘allegory’ in English literature isn’t allegory at all – at least, not according to its author. Say ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ or ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and many people will say, ‘Oh, the C. S. Lewis book(s) that are Christian allegory, right?’ But C. S. Lewis didn’t regard them as allegory: ‘In reality,’ he wrote, Aslan ‘is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all.’ In short, Lewis rejects the idea that his Narnia books are allegory because, for them to qualify as allegorical, Aslan would have to ‘represent’ Jesus. But he doesn’t: he is Jesus, if Narnia existed and a deity decided to walk among the people of that world. We might think of this as something like the distinction between simile and metaphor: simile is like allegory, because one thing is like something else, whereas in metaphor, one thing is the other thing. Aslan is not like Jesus (allegory): he is Jesus’ equivalent in Narnia. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference to many readers, but it’s worth bearing in mind that if anyone should know what allegory is, it’s C. S. Lewis: he wrote a whole scholarly work, The Allegory of Love, about medieval and Renaissance allegory.

Readers might quibble over Lewis’s categorisation here, and decide that what he is outlining is a distinction without a difference (perhaps clouded by his Christianity, and his unwillingness to see his children’s books as ‘mere’ allegory for Christianity, but instead as something more direct and powerful). But if we stick with mid-twentieth-century fiction and animals for a moment, we can find an example of unequivocal allegory: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). Certainly, there are subtle differences between Orwell’s novel in which animal characters ‘stand in’ for human counterparts, and what Lewis is doing with Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia. In Animal Farm, of course, each of the major characters represents a specific political figure: the pig Napoleon represents Stalin, Snowball represents Trotsky (in the main), and the farmer Mr Jones, who is overthrown by the animals, stands in for Tsar Nicholas II, who was assassinated during the Russian Revolution. Here, the animals are clearly approximate parallels for the political leaders they represent. Thus the book is an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, where Communism decreed that everyone was equal. But the problem was that inequalities persisted, those in power got drunk on it, and the revolutionaries who had sought to overthrow a corrupt and unequal regime had ended up simply replacing it with another, as summed up in the commandment in Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

But we shouldn’t view allegory as a narrow genre limited to famous examples like these. Many ancient Greek and Roman myths are allegories: the story of Narcissus is an allegory for the dangers of self-love, the story of Icarus is an allegory about the dangers of over-reaching oneself, and so on. Allegory is among the earliest literary modes in existence. What is an allegory? It is, if not the bedrock of literature itself, a key stone, or building-block, in the development of literature as we know it.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Paul Connolly

    The Plague (La Peste) by Camus (1947) is a sadly topical allegory of the effect of an epidemic on a typical community.

    Perhaps not a novel to read in the present climate

    The plague itself is apparently symbolic of Nazism taking a grip in France during WW2.

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  3. I am grateful to this chronicle that keeps the spark of literature alive in me. This particular instalment carried me away to college days when I used to live in the planes and downs of worlds of yore through those tomes.

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