Story Rant Part 2: What does all this mean?

Okay. So this is about the fifth or sixth version that I have sat down to write about this subject. By that I don’t mean the fifth or sixth draft, I mean five versions with a few drafts a piece – fun times. Can you say endless digression into a literary black hole?

Book tunnelSo anyway, back on task, I want to talk about what story is and what it can be and do. First let’s talk about what it can be. This is a very broad topic (hence the numerous versions & drafts and the literary black hole) and can become very convoluted. Again, let us go back to school so that we can talk about allegory and metaphor.

According to one of the many Oxford dictionaries, an allegory is “A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” The key phrase in this definition is “a hidden meaning,” which means that there is one meaning to glean from the “story, poem, or picture…” While a metaphor is, “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them… figurative language,” according to Merriam-Webster.

To make this easier to understand let’s simplify things. The best way to think of allegory is that something is something else. Let’s say I’m writing a story that centers around two kids who grow up playing on a tree in the woods. They grow up and the tree continues to grow along with them. They grow old and the tree begins to wilt along with them. The tree has become an allegory for the two people’s lives – fairly simple, a one to one ratio. The best way to think of a metaphor, as a literary device, is a little more vague. In the previous example, the tree could be a metaphor of the two people, but the two people could be a metaphor of the tree. The tree could be a metaphor of life, in general, or even the Tree of Life, in particular. These two devices are the sole responsibility of the author. They choose and we are along for the ride. But is there another point of view?

There is a term that is not widely known, but was coined over sixty years ago by a British professor that is gaining popularity – even if no one knows it. The term is “applicability” and it was the literary choice of none other than John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He stated in the Foreword to the second edition to The Lord of the Rings:


“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect it’s presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers.”


Interestingly put, I think – however, Tolkien saw in his lifetime what I’m talking about in the very next sentence, “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.” Quite existential, wouldn’t you agree.

In many ways, this twentieth century ideal in art is probably the most important for the artist, but not in the philosophical way you might think. I’ll get into this more in Part 3, but not to leave you hanging I’ll talk about it in a practical way.

A few years after The Lord of the Rings was first published, another book was released to the world that plagued the author for the rest of her life, Atlas Shrugged. The author was of course Ayn Rand. Known for her philosophy, Objectivism, as much for her writing, Mrs. Rand wrote books that tried to tell allegorical stories to explain her beliefs. The problem was that the reading public either didn’t get it or didn’t really know what to make of it – and many still don’t even thirty years after her death. She spent her whole life defending this philosophy that she stopped writing to focus her efforts on making sure people understood. You see, Atlas Shrugged is a complicated allegory that needs for the reader to get the “hidden meaning,” while The Lord of the Rings is a story that you draw meaning from.

I think at this point I’m starting to repeat myself so I’ll bring things to a close. In the final rant I’m going to show the applicability of… applicability, (sorry about that) and show you the fun stuff that I promised in the first rant. Until then…

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