How does Allegory Work?
In Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) the protagonist named “Christian” flees the “City of Destruction” and travels through the various literal places in the narrative that also carries symbolic meaning. He trudges through a slough called the Slough of Despond. While in the slough, Christian experiences despondency. Later, he travels to a city called Vanity Fair and encounters garish and vain citizens; he visits a Doubting Castle, and (you guessed it), he doubts. The culmination of his journey occurs when he finally arrives at the Celestial City. The entire narrative is a representation of the human soul's pilgrimage through temptation and doubt to reach salvation in heaven.
In an allegory, the various elements of the story systematically parallel other events on a spiritual, historic or literary level. This differs from allusions or symbolism. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, makes many allusions to mythological archetypes evident in the Christian story. Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo are all Christ-figures, but the LOTR is not an allegory. The allusions and symbolism are not systematic, nor are they intended to reflect a hidden Christian message. Providence is not only symbolically but literally present in the story.
Harry Potter is also a Christ-figure, as is Neo from the Matrix and Superman in the current film Superman Returns. Although these works carry symbolic weight, they are not allegories. Harry Potter does not represent Christ on a spiritual level; he is merely an archetype of Christ. Even the many Christ-allusions in Superman Returns do not make it a Christian Allegory. Here’s a few interesting allusions… Superman was “sent to earth by his father” to be a “light to humanity” and act as a “saviour”—Superman is beaten and humiliated by Lex and his gang is a bloodless homage to Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Superman “dies” saving the world from the new kryptonite continent… as he hurls the rock into outer space, Superman descends to earth is a brief crucifixion pose. After his death, he is resurrected. All this does not make Superman an allegory. Ironically, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is also NOT an allegory. More on that next time.
Next blog: Why Narnia is not Allegory