Occasionally I’ll be sitting and pondering English literature (to little end), when an end will suddenly come, an intrigue: the question of authorial intent. The thoughts will start to flow, and just like that, I’ll be the host of an internal debate. The central question of the debate is the following: Should we attempt to interpret meaning from literature beyond what the author intended for, or stay rooted in their original intention? If, like Tolkien, they dislike allegory, should we steer clear of applying allegory to their work, or should we go ahead and do as we please? This is the question I aim to answer here today. Please consider that I do have my personal biases, and, as the answer to this is inherently subjective, those will be present here. I hope you’ll learn something from this post, or at least find it interesting. I hope I can inspire you to do some thinking of your own.
Now, this is a difficult question, and one we can’t begin to answer without first going over a few things related to authorial intent. Parallel is the concept of allegory, which describes the author’s symbolic justification for what is included in a given text. The question heavily involves allegory, and so we will first consider its meaning.
Ah, allegory. When attempting to define allegory, we are faced with more than a simple challenge. We must look back to its foundations in literature; we must compare and contrast its various uses in religion, philosophy, and beyond. Additionally, we should stay rooted in the authors’ views on the subject, as they are the primary contributors to the world of lessons within literature. Objectively, allegory should not be defined using the reader’s interpretation, but rather the writer’s intention. This is what makes the allegorical fable true: that purposeful inclusion of real-world concepts into a fictional story.
Before we begin contemplating the necessity for allegory and comparing it to parallel concepts, we must first provide a brief definition of “allegory,” for the argument’s sake. When attempting to define the term, there are a few key ideas to keep in mind. Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines allegory as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence,” whereas Britanica (2019) defines an allegorical tale as “a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative.” While these both seem sufficient definitions, we can still delve further in our study.
First, let’s take a step back and look at parables—similar in concept to allegorical tales. A parable is usually concerned with demonstrating a spiritual or moral lesson not expressly mentioned in the story. While parables tend to be more religious in nature, allegory usually applies to the greater scope of poetry and fiction. However, these specific implications are loose. It can be argued that neither has a concrete definition, and that they both simply strive to demonstrate hidden lessons through fiction.
Let’s take a look at some popular allegories. Leo Tolstoy’s The Three Hermits can perhaps be better called a parable; it deals most thoroughly in religious allegory. However, as it does not serve to promote a religion, it is significantly different than many. The short tale features a priest attempting to teach hermits of a more simplistic life how to pray, the obviously misaligned character teaching that there is only one method of prayer. The tale’s allegory is in religious choice and simplicity: it teaches a religious and moral lesson. Let’s compare it with that of another impactful piece of literature: Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This short tale features the eternal suffering of a young child for the sustained Utopia and benefit of the many. Its allegory leans more political, focusing on socio economic struggles as well as moral. This is similar to the allegory of the famous fable Animal Farm by George Orwell, which takes on a heavy economic lean in its analogy. According to Somers (2019), “Orwell frames his story as a political allegory; every character represents a figure from the Russian Revolution.” This is but a single example of such tales serving as allegories for political corruption; this allegorical motivation is common.
For our purposes, let’s define allegory as “a fictional narrative created with the intention of demonstrating a moral, political, or religious lesson.” This flexible definition allows us to progress our arguments for subsequent points, and compare allegory to related terms.
Thoughts from the Authors
When examining the role of allegory within literature, it is important to touch on the views of perhaps the most influential contributors to the topic: authors. The ideas of the writers are too often neglected when attempting to define and measure the importance of allegory. Here we’ll be examining two different authors’ approaches.
English writer and poet J.R.R. Tolkien was well known for his opposition to allegory and hidden moral lessons in literature. He preferred escapism, going so far as to say that escapism, as an opposite to allegory, is what glorifies the fantasy genre (Tolkien, 1979). While arguments can be made in terms of defining escapism in other ways, his general point is clear: literature intended for entertainment should not attempt to keep the reader grounded in the real world.
This opinion is manifested in an earlier quote. According to Tolkien (1966), “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” Continuing, he presents an alternative to that which he dislikes: “I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” It is now made clear what exactly Tolkien disliked about allegory. He thought that allegory was inherently an attempt made to control the reader’s mind, forcing bias into a tale advertised as allowing them some measure of escape from the real world. To an extent, this measures up to our definition. The vast majority of moral, political, and religious lessons are intentionally biased and controversial, bias not being something Tolkien wanted to see in fiction. He wished for the fantasy tale—in which many allegories are grounded—to be thought-provoking and present applicable ideas, rather than single-minded ones. Before considering this opinion and forming one of our own, it will be better to compare the idea to that of another author.
First, though, we’ll consider a quote in which Tolkien somewhat submits to the idea of allegory. The popular author states, “I dislike Allegory—the conscious and intentional allegory—yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131, 1951). In this letter, Tolkien is sure to disconnect the definition of the “myth” from that of the “allegory,” yet in this instance he admits that the language concerned with allegory must be used in a myth. He goes on to say that this language gives more life to a story when open to allegorical interpretation, reinforcing the idea that he prefers applicability to deliberate allegory.
Philip Pullman, another influential fantasy author and one who has also spoken on the topic, has surprisingly similar ideas. Despite being known as one who encourages allegory in the fantasy genre, his ideas coincide with those of Tolkien. According to Pullman in a 2007 interview with James Mustich, “It seems to me that some critics of mine, from the religious point of view, are treating my novel as if it were an allegory and they had the key to it. It is not an allegory, and they don’t have the key to it, because there is no key apart from the sympathetic and open-minded understanding of the reader” (Pullman, 2007). Here, Pullman openly states that he prefers the applicability of the reader to the dominating message of the author. Similar to Tolkien, he seems happy to see his allegorical language be interpreted in any number of ways. Thus, their views on the topic have remarkably similar roots.
The Dangers of Assuming Intention
Now that we have finished defining allegory and discovering a common idea among the opinions of authors, it is time to move on to examining the roots of allegorical significance within a text. Here we can identify two common roots: authorial intent and reader interpretation. Before we can argue that either point has more substance, let’s look back at our definition of allegory. We called it “a fictional narrative created with the intention of demonstrating a moral, political, or religious lesson.” When defining the term, we neglected to include the reader’s interpretation, instead focusing our definition solely on the author’s intention. While interpretation can help one to understand the allegory that the author has put forth, I hold firm to the argument that allegory is based, more or less, upon the intention of the writer alone.
Why would I assume such a preposterous thing? So much of life—emotion, reaction, and art—is based upon interpretation and subsequent action. However, there is a unique danger in assuming the intention of an artist. Often, they will not intend for allegory to be present in their work. Other times, it is difficult or impossible to try and pry intention from the artist. According to Johnson from The Great Courses Daily (2021), “the intentions of the authors of many works are unknown; often the author is unknown. […] Another problem with asking the author for his intention is that the authors sometimes refuse to play ball. For example, the author may not want to tell others what their intention was.” Another obvious challenge here is the fact of when the artist lived; they may be dead. More than often, an artist will leave their intention up for interpretation, and this is where interpretation shines. If the artist means for you to take the art as you like, there is no shame in doing so. However, one should not attempt to publicly assume the intention of an author without their consent. It is a dangerous game to ascribe agency to an artist. Even if this may seem like a harmless task at first, there is bound to be a collective opinion that will be offended by your interpretation. Someone of influence doing this has a chance of damaging the author’s career; we as people are drawn to that which offends us, and when told that we are being insulted, we are prone to believing it. Therefore, substantial allegory in a text should not be determined by the reader’s interpretation, but rather by the author’s intention.
Applicability and Intentional Fallacy
Perhaps the reason there are so many arguments in defense and in favor of interpretation is because the defender is talking about applicability, rather than interpretation, which we have discovered to be potentially dangerous. Rather than being the act of ascribing allegory to a piece of art, applicability is the tool with which one can take the intended allegory (or lack thereof) and apply it to existing ideas. In this way, the reader does not create the allegory, but instead introduces its relevance to the real world.
As Tolkien once stated, “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory,” going on to compare the two, asserting that “one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the proposed domination of the author” (Tolkien, 1966). This is another quote in which Tolkien denounces the act of purposefully including allegory. He introduces the alternative idea of applicability, a concept that involves giving the reader essentials which they can mold to suit real-world situations. The essentials are numerous, and no tale lacks them: they are composed of messages present in dialogue and thought, ideas presented by characters or the narrator (or, in the case of nonfiction, by the writer), and intended allegories. They are clear-cut lessons the author has included in the text, which can be examined and applied; but, as we have discussed, never created.
Before closing, it’s important to touch on the concept of intentional fallacy, which we have been dancing around for the latter half of our exploration. Intentional fallacy is an asset of literary criticism that addresses the issues with judging a work of art by assuming the purpose or intent of the artist (Britannica, 2016). It defines the problem we have been addressing: that danger of wrongly interpreting an author’s work, rather than taking what is given and applying it to real-world thought. To keep writers—and artists of all forms—in business, this is something we must always keep in mind.
Allegory in Alternative Genres
To touch back on the original topic of bare allegory and its uses, it is important not to neglect to mention all the possible genres in which it may be defined. While many associate allegory with the surreal, its capacity should not be limited to the fantasy genre. Animal Farm, one of the most famous of allegories, represents a realistic location, despite its time period being undisclosed. This brings up another question: Just to what extent can allegory exist in a story expressly grounded in reality? Notable here are the literary genres of historical and science fiction, whose narratives portray realistic or futuristic settings. This begs a new question: Does our definition of allegory apply to realistic fiction, or only folklore?
While it can be argued that any form of fiction can serve as a vessel for allegory, perhaps there are alternative terms better used in other genres. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale certainly teaches us important lessons and warns about the future, but it is not an allegory. The alternative, then, is a cautionary tale. It warns us about what we are doing, and what we may become. Instead of offering a concrete message behind a veil of surrealism (for even in Animal Farm, the animals openly speak), the cautionary tale offers a glimpse into a version of reality. The Macmillan Dictionary (n.d.) defines the cautionary tale as “a story or series of events in which something bad happens that you can use as a warning for the future.”
Historical fiction is more complicated. Usually taking place in the historical past, this genre presents the reader with a narrative that uses realistic events as a catalyst for its fiction. It is rooted in evidence—rather than portraying the opinion always present in allegory, historical fiction seeks to depict factual information. The allegorical tale is, as we have found, grounded in that which we cannot fully comprehend. This is done purposefully so the reader is aware that they should not take the story literally. Historical fiction is the opposite: because it is meant to portray life as we know it, it is unlikely that a historical tale will ever hold what we have called allegory.
The allegorical tale—a fictional narrative created with the intention of demonstrating a moral, political, or religious lesson—is, as evidence has suggested, defined by the writer’s intention in creating the work. It is identified by its surreal nature and connection to real-world problems, and it addresses these issues in an accessible manner. Put simply, it is something that means to imply something else. It knows no ceiling; by no means is it limited to literature. All throughout art, allegory is known; however there are dangers in assuming it is inherent. It exists most prominently in stories of folklore; in other genres, alternatives such as the cautionary tale can teach important lessons just as well.
Allegory is a useful tool for writers, but is not by any means a necessity in writing. Either way, it’s important to understand the roots of the concept: you have to know the rules before you break them. For the better or the worse, allegory can be used in a number of ways, and to represent a number of beliefs. As writers, let’s try to remember that.
You’ve finished my essay on Allegory and Authorial Intent—thanks for reading! Most of this was originally written as part of a literary assignment in which I chose to focus on a question that had been nagging me for some time, the main query present here. I thought it would be nice to include it here on the site as well. Below are my sources for this essay, recorded in APA 7. Many of theses sources are great for further reading.
If, like me, you have interest in this subject, you may also enjoy a short series of posts I made awhile back talking about it. In these posts, I delve further into the opinions of authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman.
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