Symbols and Allegory

February 14, 2020 James

Occasionally, I receive emails from fans interpreting the “meaning” of various characters or situations in my books. Or someone will ask me: “What did you mean when you wrote . . .” I always find this perplexing, because I don’t always know what I mean when I write something. A writer’s mind, at least in my case, is a pool of pictures and ideas, both emotional and rational. Scenes in a book often begin as a mental picture, and when I write I am often creeping toward some goal I may not be able to reach. This is both the exciting and frightening part of writing.

That may sound a bit mystical, and I’m not trying to be—there is a definite process going on, but a novel, unless it’s extremely simple, cannot be conceived or mentally contained as a whole—a writer has to deal with its parts, working to lock them together to create a story, sometimes also creating unconscious symbolism.

So when someone tells me that Jormungand, the dinosaur imprisoned in the attic of the High House, is incarnate evil or the disasters that happen to us in life, I can only reply that I understand what they’re saying, because to that reader, Jormungand represents those things. But to me, he represents exactly what I wrote about him, as he himself said: “I am . . . the Last Dinosaur, destroyer, devourer, ravager of kingdoms and epochs, all greed and covetness, brooding loneliness.” The consummate narcissist, Jormungand talks about himself a lot over the three books, and I’ve learned in writing them that he is evil, chaotic, sarcastic, and devious. But more than anything, I know he is a symbol—and though I have my suspicions—I can’t tell you exactly what he’s a symbol of.

I like what Ursula LeGuin said in her essay, Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction: “. . . a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible except symbolically.” She further states that people confuse symbols with allegory, the latter being an exact equivalence, such as in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, where one can say: “The author intended for this to mean that.” So when our hero reaches the Slough of Despond, we know what it is even before we look up the word slough.

I read The Lord of the Rings around age fourteen and found it a Whopping Good Story. Shortly thereafter, I read a critic’s explanation that Gandalf and Frodo were both types of Christ, the wizard for his death and return to life, the hobbit, for his suffering. My teenage self found this irreconcilable, because I thought the critic was saying that Tolkien intended Gandalf and Frodo to have those roles. Saying they represented a certain thing confused me, because the rest of their story did not mirror Christ’s life. Frodo didn’t die at Mount Doom, Gandalf returned to Middle Earth momentarily disoriented rather than triumphant.

So it was a relief to learn that Tolkien despised allegory and never intended the LOTR to be one. For me, reading that turned Gandalf and Frodo back into the wizard and the hobbit that I loved. Later, during a terribly difficult time in my life requiring my protecting someone against a dangerous situation, part of my inspiration was Frodo trudging toward Mount Doom, a symbol of perseverance in a hard place. I didn’t need allegory; I needed his mysterious, indefinable symbol—his story to help carry me through. It was, thankfully, not my only resource, but it was an important one.

LeGuin, in another essay, The Child and the Shadow, says: “The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious—symbol and archetype.”

Likewise, George MacDonald, in The Fantastic Imagination, tells us: “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean . . . He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.” In the same essay, his imaginary reader states, “But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!” To which MacDonald replies, “Not what he please, but what he can . . . If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not?”

In an Amazon review, one reader once stated that after reading The High House, he felt he had learned a valuable lesson; he just wasn’t sure what it was. It is perhaps my favorite review of all time.

My favorite “meaning” that anyone ever attached to my books came from a woman who said she loved that my villain, the Bobby, had no face because: “so much of the evil we meet in the world is faceless.” I don’t remember my reply, but what ran through my mind was: “That’s brilliant! I wish I had thought of it.” But if I had thought of it when writing the book, I would have made too much of it. Symbols speak for themselves, even when the writer doesn’t understand their meaning.

It’s one reason why some books stay with us long after they’re read.