Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Allegory in Fiction, Part One: Fantasy & Romance

I'm starting a new short series on the techniques of writing and how they're employed across genre. I'm going to start with allegory, and today I'll focus on common claims of allegory in Fantasy and Romance.

But the original edition as carved on slate!
Allegory, we all know the term, essentially we can break it down to mean the "hidden story behind the story". Meaning that the characters and plot of the story as it is, are designed to symbolize greater truths and philosophies into an easily digestible format for people to understand. Often times these are the focus of conspiracy theories about how something is secretly an allegory for some secret society like the Illuminati. Most of the time Allegories tend to be religious or philosophical in nature with the most famous being The Allegory of the Cave, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Faerie Queene, Animal Farm, and The Pilgrim's Regress.

Often times when a piece of fiction has a profound resonance with the population, some people try to find a "hidden allegory" within the story to explain why this might be so. Nowhere else but Fantasy does this seem to happen more frequently. And that's what I'm here to talk about today. In most cases of fantasy that I've studied allegories are something that the readers read into the stories, but the authors are usually vehement were not intended.

For example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is often in many circles brought up as an example for World War II with the "one ring" designed to parallel the atomic bomb. Hearing such speculation Tolkien had a rather harsh reply:

"It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

What Tolkien did in three, Wagner did in four... the show off.
Digging a bit deeper into the source material one can find the foundations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with strong roots in Tolkien's love of Dark Age and Medieval culture (especially of Anglo-Saxon culture--the Rohan are Anglo-Saxons with horses, so as to be Norman-proof), with added touches of Germanic, Norse, and Celtic mythologies. You find the same "one ring" idea in the Wagnerian "Ring Cycle" operas based on the same Germanic mythology. A magical ring is passed from story to story bringing nothing but misfortune in its wake.

Another oft quoted example of an allegory in the Fantasy genre (though technically it is considered Children's Fantasy) is that of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For those unfamiliar with the allegory, a brief overview is as follows: In the original story Dorothy's shoes were silver (and not ruby like in the film), and Dorothy's journey (the American people's journey) was allegorical for traveling down the Yellow Brick Road (the Gold Standard) and solving the problems of just having the Gold Standard by including an additional "Silver Standard" alongside it. The scarecrow represented the uneducated farmers who could benefit from such a scheme, the tin woodsman the industrial factory laborers who could benefit from such a scheme, and the cowardly lion represented William Jennings Bryan who was the 1896 Democratic party favorite who championed the idea in that election. There's more to the theory but that's the bare bones basics.

The problem is that this allegory for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn't crop up until over sixty some years AFTER the publication, and was more of an economics teacher's attempt to make the economics of the period "interesting" to his students (instead of say having them read William J. Bryan's Cross of Gold speech, I presume, which if read correctly can be quite riveting). If it had been allegorical one would think that the people of the period would've made commentary on all the "supposed allegorical connections" in the children's story, even in passing.  But no one did--which is odd considering most other allegories are usually recognized near to their publication for what they are. One has to assume that the allegory went unrecognized and was supposedly "secret". That just seems unlikely that it would've gone completely unnoticed for sixty years by the people of the day who were surrounded by such arguments for Free Silver at the time. Then there's the fact that in a lot of respects the allegory theory simply falls flat.  especially when you take into consideration the rest of Baum's work. When he does reference politics, such as in the 1902 stage play version (which was more for adults) of the same story he has a tendency to be rather blunt, referencing President Roosevelt and other political celebrities of the day:

 The Tin Woodman wonders what he would do if he ran out of oil. "You wouldn't be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller," the Scarecrow responds, "He'd lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened."

And some of the symbols for the allegory don't really make sense if you think about it--like Toto representing those 'tea totaling" Prohibitionists. I mean beyond the name borrowing the first syllable of "toh" from totaler--it doesn't really make sense. And then there's the winged monkeys which are supposed to represent the Native Americans according to some--which clearly ignores that Baum favored total genocide of all natives--not "freedom" for them.

Another thing, Oz is a colored land world--where everything
in that land is one color, what do all the colors of the lands
mean in this allegory?
And if you take Baum and his wife's accounts of how the story came to be written, it was done in piecemeal over many many years, being inspired randomly by people and places Baum visited while trying to hold down many jobs in many different prairie towns. Baum comes across as a writer who barely can keep a story together. What he does best is in describing the strange and marvelous land and coming up with creative and imaginative characters--where he falls flat usually is in his plot--as the first Wizard of Oz story shows as it doesn't end after Dorothy's defeat of the Wicked Witch and the Wizard's reveal--instead Dorothy has to journey South to get to Glinda's palace (in the Book, Glinda is the Good Witch of the South--not the North--the witch of the North appears in the beginning as a separate witch entirely). And the plot is drug out a bit longer as Dorothy and her friends have minor encounters before they get to Glinda's palace. His best written story in terms of plot, characters, and description--which he also considered his best story--in fact I wouldn't even say is one of the Oz books, but in fact would be the story: "Sky Island", which didn't do well in book sales. Where Baum does his best work is in describing the land and in creating imaginative characters, beyond that his skills as a writer begin to sour (the plot of the first two Oz books aren't written that great, and in fact it isn't until you get to the third book that you can actually tell Baum is trying--book two suffered tremendously from simply writing a sequel to satisfy the children who wrote to him begging for another story, and you can tell Baum didn't really have his heart in the story as much as both the first and the third). Another thing which kills the allegory theory for me is it doesn't take into account all the rest of the material from sequel books either. What does the Nome King mean? How about the Deadly Desert which surrounds Oz? How about the Kingdom of IX and its head collecting princess? So to cut all that short, I doubt that Baum could've consciously written any allegory into the Oz story--and if he had it would've been painfully obvious to the point of it being rather bad, and when you consider what happens over the course of the rest of the Oz books the allegory falls silent on any explanation of what they're all supposed to mean. And the fact that the people of the day didn't recognize any kind of hints of allegory in them, further sinks the theory for me.

The War of the Roses began as a gardening dispute
on where to put the white and red roses. One side decided to
kill the other for having planted the red bush where the white
bush was supposed to have gone, and that's how you start a
Civil War fighting for the throne, according to Shakespeare. ;-)
Some other theories about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series--better known as "Game of Thrones" is suggested by some to be a political allegory. And while I won't completely disagree that the petty bickering and jealousies of that fantasy world don't hold some lessons for us, Martin's been rather clear on where this is coming from: a historical period where petty bickering and jealousies led to a massive civil war in an all out fight for the English crown. Essentially Martin is giving you a novelized and fantasied version of Shakespearean history plays (specifically the War of the Roses & the Hundred Years War periods) from English & Scottish history, which he admits as much. In fact I could go down the majority of the major characters and point to their inspirations (House of Lannister = House of Lancaster, House of Stark = House of York, The original Tygareon conquerors = William the Conqueror, etc.) Only he takes the inspiration from history and does his own thing with it and isn't a slave to what actually happened, which I appreciate. If anything the lessons of petty bickering and jealousies are universal lessons one can as easily learn from history as well as from a novel.

All this interest by readers to impose an "allegory" onto the world of Fantasy and Romance proves that the past still has lessons that we in the present can learn. We try to justify such lessons by supposing the author intended them, but that often turns out to not be the case. When I run into these arguments time and again, no one seems to take the lesson that perhaps what they're responding to isn't so much an individual author's lesson but instead is the lessons of history or of archetypes.

The fantasy writer frequently points to the past as inspiration and where their heart truly lies. Having studied all the genres in length--read essays upon essays and analyzed them to death, I really think a lot of readers read too much into these stories at times. Romance/Fantasy concerns itself with a lot of things, about how to reconcile us to the idea of death, being stories of escapist wish-fulfillment (or else why most Fantasy/Romance protagonists are like white bread--so the reader/author can enter into the character), being the pinnacle example of heroism, and much more to be sure.

When you go back, just keep in mind that most 1950s families
waxed nostalgically about going back to the 1910s or 1920s--
at least if their TV and movie stories are to be trusted.
Are there important lessons that could be important for today contained within them? Most definitely yes, but the past has a lot to teach us, if we'd only pay attention. Fantasy is often just a way of dressing up the past or escaping into it because the present is "unbearable" from its perspective. Fantasy is in search of that long lost golden age which has since passed away and how we can either return to it or escape into it. It is a conservative genre, looking to return to a better time, or perhaps into a world that never existed that is set in a "simpler" time or lifestyle. It seeks refuge and escape away from the problems of today because the present sucks and the future looks worse still, but the past... oh the past... it was a beautiful Golden Age! Nostalgia is persistent in Fantasy and Romance, in fact it is its main diet. It wants to return to a proverbial sense of "home". In fact the best modern political mindset comparison would be to those people who feel the 1950s was the modern "golden age" of America.

I'd say that of all the genres out there, the one most of all that's least concerned with expressing the "problems of today" allegorically would have to be Romance/Fantasy. Such a story is usually concerned with how this is a fake life and how the afterlife is going to be so much better when we die--so that we completely withdraw from being concerned about "real life" and loose ourselves in another "reality" that we ultimately consider to be better than the one we currently live in and ultimately worth more than actual reality. "Today" is more of an annoyance, an irritation, something sick, or something horrible or boring to escape from to the Romantic/Fantastic mindset. When Romance/Fantasy does try to consider earthly reality it's far too busy living in the past or getting back to the past to be concerned about the present--let alone the future. Romance/Fantasy is far too busy thinking about how life should be, to consider what life is like, or will be.

When fantasy/romance does lend itself to allegory (it doesn't always happen, but on some occasions it will--and it'll tend hit you over the head when it does) it will typically reveal itself to be elitist propaganda, the story of how the present elite in the past vanquished those who stood in their way to their becoming the present rulers & presented challenges to their values. Even when Romance/Fantasy does go the allegory route, it's an allegory about past events and is usually presented as a story about "why the status quo is good, and why it shouldn't be questioned". It's a rather black and white genre taking the opinion that there's little to no middle ground--unless you're an earth elemental like a fairy or a dryad, those are the only beings in a fantasy/romance typically allowed not to "choose sides"--so you're either for or against the allegorical elite values in ascendancy. Even the smallest questioning will be painted with a tar brush into the most wicked of villainies. For example, look to something like The Pilgrim's Progress, a slightly fantastical allegory which tells the 17th Century man's struggle with the Christian religion and why one should stick with faith and not question it.

Satire is Fantasy's natural enemy, it points out its faults and flaws using its own fantastical terms. That's why something like Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Midnight in Paris, or Don Quixote eviscerate those who have the "Romance/Fantasy" mindset--most especially Don Quixote, which shows the folly in what escaping into the past can lead to: denying the reality of the situation around you. Alice in Wonderland is a story about a satirist who gets trapped in a fantasy world and starts to dissect and analyze this strange world and wants nothing more in both cases to escape the fantasy worlds she's fallen into and go home back to the "normal world" which is where things make sense--an actual Romance would depict the reverse of the "fantasy world" being the "sane world" and the "real world" being the "insane" one. Gulliver's Travels shows the folly in how people who value the supposed wisdom of the ancients over the modern--as well as many other follies in addition. Midnight in Paris shows that nostalgia is an unending trip--that when you finally do get back to that past, that you find they were nostalgic for an even greater distant past and so on and so forth, tearing apart this notion that "Golden Ages" ever really existed. Satire thus is the "common man's" rebuttal to the "elitist propaganda" of Fantasy/Romance--poking holes in it and showing where its assumptions take horrible turns. And looking forward into the future to comment on the problems of today is much more the realm of Dystopian literature, Satire, and Ironic art forms. Other forms have smaller amounts of interest on commenting on "today" or the future, but it truly belongs to the arc of Irony.

The Sorcerer scene from Gulliver's Travels (1996),
which critiques deifying the "ancients".

Star Wars was probably the first successful attempt I've seen to combine Science Fiction with Romance/Fantasy. Because while it is set in a "future tech" galaxy "far far away", we must also remember that the story also happened "long ago", such a distant past that has long since ended, and is ultimately about how we need to return to the Republic that was before it turned into an Empire--turning back the clock so to speak.

If anything, the persistence in readers to find these "allegories" in romance/fantasy stories speaks of how human nature hasn't changed much over history and how we consistently and easily forget the lessons of the past, and need to find ways of reminding ourselves of those lessons that we've forgot as a society. We can find a lot to learn from the past, but keep in mind the lesson from the section of Gulliver's Travels where the sorcerer obsesses with bringing back the ancient world's "great men of history", while they may have lessons more often they're lessons in what "not to do" more often than they're solutions to our modern woes.