Welcome explorers! Today we’re going on a little rant about applicability and allegory in reading, why each have their place, and why I personally tend to gravitate more to applicability when I’m reading for meaning.
First, some definitions:
- a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
- the quality of being relevant or appropriate.
Often, when teaching literature or even just studying it, there’s an instinct to try and find the allegory or ‘real meaning’ of a text. That nebulous idea that was embedded in its inception that, if we could just wrap our heads around it, would allow us to understand it in the most perfect way.
I think it’s because of the education system most of us went through; there is either one right answer (math and science) or there is an answer that you must justify with a lot of evidence (history and humanities). We’re trained to think in terms of correct or incorrect, or – if we do not have the correct answer – to at least come up with something that is as close to objectively correct as possible. Allegory and authorial intent are a good way to make that happen.
In the preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says that his book is not allegorical or topical and it contains no deliberate reference to any modern-day events.
“I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” (xvii Forward to the Second Edition LR)
Now, I don’t think anyone who has read Lord of the Rings can walk away without acknowledging the heavy themes of war and friendship in the book – themes that were central to Tolkien’s own life. I don’t think anyone who knows about Tolkien’s childhood can fail to see the comparisons between the Shire and Sarehole, near Birmingham, where he spent his idyllic youth. Whether intentional or not, Tolkien’s work borrowed heavily from his own experience (in a roundabout way, it must be said, and I like that he never tried to shove theology down our throats).
But there’s a difference between biological flavour and intentional allegory.
I also don’t want to understate how interesting it is to read a book knowing what it might have meant to readers when it was first published. Recently, I found a paper that talked about how, at the time that Dickens was doing much of his writing, there was a massive, Crown-sanctioned shift in education towards pushing out disabled teachers (who’d fallen into teaching as a way to earn an income without intense physical labour) in favour of able-bodied, state-educated career teachers. That creates an incredible nuance when reading about the various – often extremely poorly represented – teacher characters with physical deformities in Dickens’s work.
Reading for allegory has its place, particularly in religious and spiritual studies. Allegorical meaning can have deep and more significant ramifications for some readers. The great thing about reader-oriented theories is that the reader can choose how much of the author’s intent to take into account when they’re making meaning.
For me, I don’t like to focus too hard on what the ‘real’ or intended meaning of a text is, especially if that comes to the detriment of other, perhaps more interesting (or more contextually relevant) interpretations. I don’t like devoting too much energy to finding the one, true meaning that the text is designed to impart.
To me, that puts too much emphasis on authorial intent. Outside fan studies (where, I think, the intentions of fans who create work is actually crucial to understanding it) I try not to worry too much about what I think the author might have meant in a text.
The intentions of the author are difficult to know for absolute certain, and even if we know their intention there is no guarantee that the author succeeded in getting their intentions across. My own recent experience with traditional publishing can confirm that. Far from the author have complete creative control over a story, modern books are often a negotiation between what the author thinks they mean and what editors, publishers, and reviewers think they mean. Many of the creative choices that I have made in recent months have been out of necessity, and occasionally in direct contradiction to my intentions when I started writing the book. So there’s really no way that the ‘author’ as the creator of the work can be looked to for any sort of final authority over a text’s meaning.
The author is just a person. A flawed human with ideas and a laptop, doing their best and sometimes succeeding.
That’s why I think applicability is a better tool for understanding texts.
For me, reading for applicability comes from looking at a text and asking “What does this mean to me, right now?” ‘Right now’ being the current political or social climate, the current stage in my personal growth, or the current state of my knowledge. Learning new things about the world, for me, brings a richer understanding to the books I read, even if those understandings, meanings, and themes were not available to the author or reading audience at the time. Even if those understandings, meanings, and themes were not available to me the first time I read those books – rereading over the years is always interesting because I’m bringing more to the table.
So much excellent scholarship comes when we examine old texts with new information in mind. That’s how we have brilliant works that argue that Sir Galahad was able to retrieve the Holy Grail because he was asexual (a term that did not exist at the time, but absolutely accounts for his characterisation in the legends). That’s how we are able to examine medieval texts from a fandom and fan studies perspective (an academic discipline that is only in its teens and certainly wasn’t around when medieval scribes were at work), and how we can recontextualise representations of race and disability in Victorian works.
If we deliberately look for allegory – particularly allegory that the author intended to create – then we lose the chance to explore and play in the spaces that narratives create for us. We lose the opportunity to find new meaning in old worlds. We lose the chance to apply what we learn in stories to the world around us, and vice versa.
Also, there’s the fact that the allegories that authors meant might actually be completely irrelevant to me as a contemporary reader – or even just a reader from a different background to the text’s intended audience.
I am not religious, so reading the Narnian Chronicles as a Christian allegory is… fine, I guess. But I find its ecocritical, gender, and colonial themes to be more applicable to me. I’m more invested in those themes because they matter to me and my situation, whereas the Christian allegory actually went completely over my head as a kid and still doesn’t really resonate as much as I think Lewis would have wanted.
I’m just more interested in other things, and that doesn’t have to mean that the book loses its meaning, or that I’m reading it ‘wrong’.
Allegories can also be a good way to contextualise what I’m reading. When I did my PhD, I wrote about how the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can be applied to Harry Potter’s one-foot-in, one-foot-out brush with death in the seventh book. But – and I want to make this very clear – I don’t think that Rowling intended for that allegory to be present. I made the connection based on my own reading. I thought that the Cave Allegory was a good way to understand what Harry must have been feeling, and contextualise his actions following that scene. It helped me understand why he focused so hard on making sure Voldemort knew all the facts before the final fight.
I also think that applicability can work in tandem with authorial intent – to an extent. I don’t think, for example, that Rowling was ever intentionally trans-exclusionary in her writing. There is, however, a sudden new meaning to the fact that she described Rita Skeeter as square-jawed with mannish hands, sneaking around children and pretending to be something she’s not; or the way that girls are allowed in boys dorms but not the other way around. Understanding the author’s context, their opinions, and their beliefs, can give us insight into the world they’re consciously and unconsciously creating*. We can apply that knowledge – if we like – to make meaning.
Knowing that CS Lewis was a staunch atheist before a swift heel-turn into all-in Christianity makes it easier to understand why he was so salty about Susan’s lack of faith in the Narnia stories. Knowing that Dickens’s society was going through a discipline-changing overhaul of the education system explains the less-than-stellar representation of educators in his early works. Knowing that Tolkien’s mum died after she switched faiths and her family abandoned her, and that her last days were spent in the beautiful Birmingham countryside that was Tolkien’s favourite place, gives more depth to the way that Hobbits and their home are idealised are in his books.
But, if I want to read Tolkien’s description of Dwarvish mining practices as a type of geological agriculture, then I can do that, too. Even if Tolkien didn’t mean it, I found the way he told his story to be applicable to my situation, and drew meaning from the story provided in order to make it more relevant to my world. It gave me a unique connection with the story. One that is truer to my personal context than the potentially problematic readings others have found, or whatever meaning Tolkien intended for me to get out of it. I’m not pulling this meaning out of thin air, or making up new evidence to support my conclusions; I’m taking the evidence from the book and examining it from a different perspective.
I have a friend who applied numerology to Rowling’s naming conventions of her characters – probably not Rowling’s intention, but damn if it isn’t a really cool way to think about things! My friend didn’t make anything up; she just read the books and came to conclusions based on evidence.
These meanings may not be the ‘real’ meaning, but they’re real to us.
And as Dumbledore (famously retconned queer, but we’re not here to talk about that) once said “Of course it’s all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
*To an extent. Remember, authors don’t have complete control over their books. I just think that these points in the Harry Potter narratives hit different now that we know what we know about Rowling’s TERF leanings.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂