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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Critical Thinking: Allegory

So, we’re driving across Kansas yesterday (Oh, come on. It’s not that bad! You’ve obviously never driven through Wyoming.) and we’re listening to a radio dramatization that the Creature got me for Mother’s Day. We’ll, they’re listening. I’m trying to read the National Geographic. Every once in a while, Maj Tom looks over at me and says, “What does that mean?” I stare at him blankly in a less-than-polite attempt to remind him I’m not listening, I’m trying to read, and the radio’s on too loud. He turns back to the road, and I continue learning about whale fossils in the Egyptian desert.

He says it one last time, and I finally realize what he’s really saying. We’re listening to the Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Of course many people, creatures, and events in the Narnia books are metaphors, and he’s asking what the metaphor is in a particular scene. Since I’m not listening, I can’t really tell him, and we go on to the ends of our respective stories.

Some say that life cannot be understood by dry facts, but only through story. If that’s the case, metaphor goes a long way in developing and revealing that story. The dawn of an empire; the rising tide of a movement; the death of a civilization are metaphors that compare one thing (an empire or a movement) to something seemingly different (a dawn and a tide) but which hold hidden similarities.

Calling Jesus “the Lion of Judah” is a metaphor. If that image were to be extended, say by creating a lion who has many Christ-like features over the course of seven books and naming him Aslan, that’s an allegory. Allegories have a way of revealing truth without being quite so obnoxious about it. They can inspire, scold, and provide insight that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. And they are very, very popular in religious writing.

When I first heard about the book Thirsty, I was intrigued. Nina Parker is a recently divorced woman who has just been released from rehab for her out-of-control drinking. She returns home to live with her sister and meets her sister’s new neighbor—a vampire.

I grew up around the specter of alcoholism, and I was interested to see how Tracey Bateman would compare the two. Eh. As my friend says, it was a good try. And it was a great idea. To take a market buster like vampires and try to tie them into a serious societal ill was genius, I think. I think the problem was actually too much real world and not enough allegory. Maybe you could do better?

Away We Go is the story of Verona and Burt and their coming baby. They’ve moved closer to Burt’s parents to have the support of family as they raise their new child. Months before the due date, his parents decide to move to Belgium. Verona’s parents died many years before in a car crash, and both her and Burt’s jobs can be done anywhere. So they decide to travel the country to visit friends and see where the best place is to raise their growing family.

They visit Verona’s former boss in Arizona who yells at her kids and acts like life is one big party. Burt’s old family friend lives in Wisconsin where her husband spends all day in a huge family bed with the kids and they don’t use strollers because “why would you want to push your baby away from you?” Friends in Canada have a warm, loving, rainbow of a family and still find time to have a warm, loving relationship. In their inability to conceive, they’ve adopted several children, but she still longs to have a child naturally and lives in regret. Down in Florida, Burt’s brother barely hangs on as he raises his daughter after his wife’s sudden departure.

I think it was about here that I realized this movie isn’t about Verona and Burt deciding if they want to live in Phoenix or Madison or Montreal. It was about deciding how they want to raise their family. What kind of parents they want to be. Their final decision is based on a memory that allows them to follow an ideal while molding their future to their own individuality. Very sweet movie; two thumbs up.

There are a million and a half allegorical stories out there, many of which fly right over my head and hover somewhere around the ceiling fan. The Catcher in the Rye. The Last Unicorn. The Road. But there are also stories out there that seem like allegory but aren’t. Richard Adams didn't write Watership Down to be anything more than the stories he told his girls. The Lord of the Rings touches on environmentalism and the horrors of war, but Tolkien was adamant that it was not allegory for either of the world wars. Parts may have been inspired by his time in the trenches, but he did not mean for Hitler to be equated with Sauron.

I’ve attempted a couple of allegories. “Gael of Drey L” originated with the challenge we did a while back on “The Heart of Darkness.” I was trying to show that we have a bit of all Joseph Conrad’s characters in us—the money-maker, the altruist, the adventurer, the scheming executive. In “Holy Cats” I was trying to get at how only the approval of our Maker can free us from the desperate search for meaning. I don’t know how successful either of them were.

And that’s a big thing about allegory. Any story is a partnership between the storyteller and the audience. Especially in allegory, the audience is liable to read into it things the author may not have intended. But that’s the nature of any communication and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If your story gives personal meaning to the reader—that’s what you’re going for.

What’s your favorite allegorical story? Have you tried to write one? How did it turn out? If you have a link to it, go ahead and post it so we can check it out.

And remember: writing is like the fields of Kansas. You must plow through your fertile imagination to nourish the kernel of inspiration that’s violently harvested then turned into the creamed corn of your readers’ personal experience.

Or not.

Kersley Fitzgerald appologizes for the lateness of the article. And is really craving creamed corn right now.
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