You get two book recommendations from two different friends. The first one says, “You should read this great novel I just finished.” The second one says, “You should read this great allegory I just finished.”
Which one would you read? Most of us would probably choose the novel over the allegory. “Novel” sounds fun and interesting—a story that will whisk you off into an adventure. “Allegory” sounds like hard work—you have to think deeply to dig out the hidden meaning beneath the words.
I just finished reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, a classic text of Christian fiction. It’s the story of a man named Christian who leaves his home, family, and all his worldly possessions to seek the king’s Celestial City, and be freed of the heavy burden on his back. Published in 1678, it’s full of “Thee” and “Thou” and “must needs be.” I enjoyed reading the work, but came away with a question of categorization: is it a novel or an allegory? What’s the difference between the two?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “allegory” comes from the Middle French word allegorie, which first popped up in the seventeenth century—about the same time The Pilgrim’s Progress was written. This word originally referred to “a narrative which has a hidden or ulterior meaning.”
This definition includes works such as Jesus’ famous parables. These stories contain symbolism and a hidden meaning meant for those who, if they have ears, can properly “hear.” (The words “parable” and “allegory,” according to the OED, can be interchangeable.)
For example, in the parable of the sower, a man goes out to sow his crop, and the seeds are scattered in different types of soil. The story is full of symbolism: the seed represents the Gospel, and the different kinds of soil represent the hearers’ reactions to the news. Other famous allegories include Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This definition also includes The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Two questions naturally follow this categorization:
1. Is an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress worth reading? After all, a novel will be more fun to read than a 330-year-old book.
The short answer is, Of course it’s worth reading. We wouldn’t still be talking about it 330 years later if it wasn’t. It’s considered a classic Christian text (which is a reason in itself), but it’s also useful for instruction in the believer’s life. Just because allegories aren’t trendy to write in the 21st century doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress as an inspiration for believers to stay on the path of righteousness, and as a practical guide for avoiding pitfalls and errors on the way. We can still use the story to serve these purposes.
2. How do we go about reading an allegory? It’s not a devotional, but it’s also not fiction written for the sake of entertainment, like Harry Potter or a mystery by Sue Grafton.
Bunyan was writing at a time when almost all written work was created for the sake of teaching or argumentation, not for pleasure. “Novels” as we understand them today, didn’t exist. We might even consider The Pilgrim’s Progress as a kind of precursor to the modern novel.
As an allegory, we can’t read Pilgrim’s Progress as we would read a devotional or a novel. It’s fiction, so we need to follow the characters’ stories, but we also need to find the second, deeper meaning, which is even more important than the first.
Thankfully for us modern folk who aren’t used to reading allegories, Bunyan is very clear about his symbolism. The people Christian meets along the way include Hypocrisy, Faithful, Hopeful, and Mr. Worldly Wise. Christian journeys through places such as the Hill of Difficulty and the Plain of Ease. This kind of symbolism is easy to follow.
With an allegory, it’s helpful to and try to see both the text’s meanings at once. Allegories are a good hybrid because they provide a certain amount of entertainment, but also invite the reader to dig into the deeper meaning of the text.
A two-in-one package: entertainment and theological lessons. Sounds like a bargain to me.