Is Allegory Always Bad?

Allegory of the Cave

So asks author Alexander Hellene in this thoughtful piece on the relationship between allegory and propaganda.
My question is: Is allegory always bad? Look at William Shakespeare: Why did he write plays about ancient Roman Emperors and former English kinds, if not to draw lessons for his audience to learn from? Look at the Bible: Jesus Christ spoke in parables, and often used Old Testament stories to teach his followers . .. and the hard-hearted Pharisees. Look at Aesop: His stories are all symbolic, with things like animals and the actions they take clearly intended to represent things other than the animal.
Allegory doesn’t have to be political. Allegory doesn’t have to harm. When done well, allegory doesn’t have to be propaganda.
Tolkien notoriously disliked allegory in fiction. The matter even caused a deep disagreement between him and C.S. Lewis. But should authors consider the word of the master binding?

Theological side note: Jesus' parables cannot properly be called allegories, since an allegory admits of only one correct interpretation, and a single Scripture can contain multitudinous meanings.

Back to Alex.
I come down on the side of no. I’m going to get lawyerly on you, but as with many things in life, the answer to this question is “it depends.”
  • It depends on the skill of the storyteller.
  • It depends on the story.
  • It depends on how the story is told.
  • It depends on if the story is insulting or not.

In classic lawyer fashion, Alex exhibits a prime allegory fail in his accurate summation of John Scalzi's caricature of Christians in Old Man's War.
So you see, smart people who aren’t believers understand the Bible better than churchgoers. Because they’re smart. And while they can “appreciate” the Sermon on the Mount, they don’t actually believe all that other silly stuff. Because they’re smart. And good, decent people. Because they’re not religious. Because they’re smart.
Can't believe I forgot to include OMW in my post on Smrt Stories. Let it be added to the Bright Pink List!
Again, this depiction of a practicing Christian could have been left out entirely and the book would have gained from its absence. The only conclusion is that Scalzi took a swipe at Christians because he doesn’t like Christianity or its adherents, and wants to subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) nudge his readers into being a “smart” and “cool” fedora-tipping atheist edgelord like him.
Let me take a shot at squaring the allegory vs. propaganda circle. Fiction is storytelling in service to truth for the primary aim of entertainment. Propaganda is storytelling in service to an agenda regardless of truth content with the primary aim of persuasion. A thing's purpose proceeds from its nature. Therefore, science fiction and propaganda are two different and mutually exclusive entities.

For an action-packed sci fi story that uses projections of current trends to entertain instead of lecture, check out the first book in my hot new mecha series Combat Frame XSeed:

Combat Frame XSeed


  1. So you're saying that a work of art cannot be simultaneously entertaining and persuasive? I think most artists would be surprised to hear that.

    1. Pro editing tip time. Before posting your comment:
      1. Read the whole post.
      2. Read your comment.
      3. If your comment begins with, "So you're saying," go back to 1.

    2. I apologize for the snark. Nonetheless, it does seem like the logic set out in the post commits the fallacy of the excluded middle, at least as immediately defined.

      Since it's obviously true that works can be both entertaining and persuasive, I was curious if you had any ideas about how to define the point at which something tips over the edge between the two to its detriment. Is it wholly subjective? Does it depend on whether the reader agrees with the message already? Is it merely a matter of objective skill? What examples would you suggest of works which successfully deliver advocacy without compromising entertainment value, and which fail at it? And so on.

    3. Absolvo te.

      To quote myself:
      "Fiction is storytelling in service to truth for the primary aim of entertainment. Propaganda is storytelling in service to an agenda regardless of truth content with the primary aim of persuasion."

      They key word is "primary". The defining criterion is author intent.