The Sci Fi Christian Classroom, Week 2: Quests and Defense of Allegory

September 22, 2013

… in which contributor Adam Pracht and host Ben DeBono discuss allegory and symbolism, Quests and how neither of them have enough time…


Adam: First, a small announcement to make: Taking a page from Ben’s book to not overdo it, I’ve decided to cancel one of the sessions of the Sci Fi Christian Classroom – the one on comic books that starts next week. We’ve decided that the quality will suffer if we try to do two of them overlapping. The good news is that popular courses tend to have repeated offerings. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have another session down the road, and this one will top our priority list. A reminder that our current class is here:
OK, this week covered book 2 of “The Fellowship of the Ring” and Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” (For real this time…) The prof also talked more about Tolkien and his background, what allegory is and Tolkien’s take on it, and the concept of the “Quest.”
Ben, I honestly haven’t had time yet this week to do the distinguished track (involving the MMO), so I’m going to start off talking about the readings and the video lectures, then maybe partway through I’ll have the distinguished done-ish and we can address that aspect.

Ben: I haven’t done anything with the distinguished track all semester so you’re doing better than me! Besides, it’s that time in the school year where all good students start to slack off. No reason we should be any different.

A: I want to start off talking about one of my favorite quotes early on in the video lectures: “Myth is invention about truth.” I really like this idea – that it’s a fiction, but that it points to true things. I think this really encapsulates a lot of what we were talking about last week – that invented worlds help us view God tangentally – from a different angle.

B: I like that quote about myth too – though I do have one quibble I’ll bring up momentarily. I think the word myth tends to get a bad rap these days. It’s almost become synonymous with untruth. This seems especially relevant when using it in a religious context since our minds tend to instantly jump to Egyptian and Roman mythologies. Since Christians don’t believe in those religions – and in the case of Roman mythology we were historically a religious rival – myth gets associated with false religion, untruth and sin.

But that’s really not fair! Myth is simply another way of speaking about truth. Indeed, it’s essential to the human discovery of truth and – I say this at risk of getting myself in trouble – to all religious experience, including Christianity. Consider our Catholic heritage, Adam. Pull out any Lives of Saints and what you’re holding in your hands is a form of religious mythology. That’s not to say there aren’t historical events in there. It’s simply to say that truth is being communicated to us in the form of story. Our iconography is another form of myth.

One could say the same about Jesus’ parables or the creation narratives in Genesis. If we get stuck on whether or not the prodigal son was a real figure or the earth was created ex nihilo in six 24 hour days, we’re missing the point. These stories are communicating truth to us at a far deeper level.

Now here’s my one quibble. I’m not crazy about the word invention in the definition as it seems to imply a deliberate movement away from historicity. I would rather say that when it comes to myth historicity is irrelevant. Going back to the Lives of Saints, many of the stories are historically accurate and some have been embellished over time, yet both categories are equally true. Invention or non invention is irrelevant. So I might redefine myth as a historical truth in the form of story.

A: Very much in agreement with you there, though I know that we Catholics do have something of a different take about the nature of scripture in relation to other Christians. Namely, that it’s not (all) literal – in that we take into account the genre, context, history, etc. – but it is all from God.

I would possibly add a caveat that I think myth doesn’t have to be about history. I think it’s perfectly valid to write about more modern topics in the form of myth, too. I’ll have to think about that one.

I’d like to move on to talking about a concept they discussed across a couple videos – that of allegory vs. symbolism. Basically, they define allegory as something in a story that points to something else completely external to that very story (Think, for example, “Pilgrim’s Progress” or “Animal Farm.”) Symbols, however, always “inhabit” the same world that they point to and enlighten. Using the most proximate example, the One Ring could be a symbol of both evil and of the Dark Lord. It points to something else, but it is still integral to the story, rather than being “laid atop” some other reality as in an allegory.

I kind of feel like everyone here (Tolkien, the professor, the students) was unfairly hard on allegory. Yeah, the method is a little more “one to one” – as one of the students amusingly put it “One Meaning to Rule Them All” – it is, to me, a valid and interesting method of storytelling. It’s not “better” or “worse.” It just has a different purpose and form.

I also, surprisingly, feel I need to give a little bit of a “shame on you” to Tolkien for his opinions on allegory. If his opinion is that allegory is too controlling of the meaning a reader will apply to it, then he really had no room to complain that his own work was being interpreted in ways he didn’t intend. If you’re an author and you publish (or other creative, for that matter) – especially if you subscribe to the “symbolic is better” philosophy – then I think you let go of your “right” to then dictate how others interpret it. Sure, it might not be what you meant and what you were thinking, but that’s also the symbolist’s argument for why that technique is superior. Everyone can apply it to their own lives. It’s like sending your son or daughter off to college – at some point you have to give up your hold and realize they’re going to find their own path. You just hope that you filled them with everything for them to end up where you’d hoped they’d go. Given that Christopher Tolkien seems to have continued and amplified his father’s need for controlling interpretation, maybe my critique is more directed at him.

B: I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of allegory. For every Narnia it seems like there’s 100 allegories that come out more like Atlas Shrugged. I think my biggest problem with allegory is that it tends to be largely ineffective. It has a preaching to the choir quality to it where it does a great job reinforcing the beliefs of those who share its worldview but a bad job making converts. If you’re predisposed to agree with a more libertarian economic model, you’ll probably be on board with what Ayn Rand says in her novels. If you’re more liberal in your leanings, there’s not a chance she’s going to convince you.

Myth, on the other hand, by its very nature moves past those preconceptions. It forces its audience to consider truth and think about the issues it raises regardless of whether or not they’re predisposed to agree with it or not.

That said, I do agree that this part of the discussion in the videos was lacking. Regardless of my qualms, allegory is a significant part of storytelling and one that anyone who wants to think seriously about stories needs to deal with. I would actually be most critical with the way they looked at myth in Lord of the Rings. In trying to set it up as a counterpart to allegory, I thought they went too far in making it appear to be too thematically relative. It’s important to remember that myths have a worldview – indeed, one could argue they ARE worldviews in their entirety. In the case of Tolkien he was very open about the way his Catholic faith influenced his mythology. That’s not to say we should ignore the subjective side of reading, but I thought they went a bit too far in that direction with their discussion

A: I did appreciate that they brought up Tolkien’s faith and that they mentioned his quote that it is an essentially Catholic work. I was afraid they were going to largely ignore faith.
OK, fair enough. It’s easy to do allegory badly. But I’d still argue that’s not the fault of the form… it’s the fault of the author. The oil paintings that were in our current home when we first visited it as prospective buyers (scary clowns and Jesus watching over a semi from the heavens… really…) are proof that many forms of are are easy to do badly. To me, if the author chooses to use that form, then they’d better be sure they’re up to do it well. Like how you work up to a marathon.
And for the record I can’t stand Ayn Rand. If I find it later, I’ll add in the comments a link to my rant about “Anthem” for my “Cheapskates” review on a recent StarShipSofa podcast. [Listener warning, there’s a bit of cursing, though I do bleep myself on one of the two].

On the topic of “Mission… Quest… Thing…” to quote Pippin: I think it was interesting to talk about what makes a quest into a Quest (capital “Q”). Namely – the feeling of there being a burden to complete the quest and a sense of fate to the mission. It leads me to ask – is a Quest that is optional (such as the epic quests in LOTRO) truly be considered a Quest, then? Or is it just a goal or a mission? In other words, is “predestination” an essential aspect of “Quest” or is there still an element of free will and choice?

B: That’s a very fascinating question. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth in Hero of 1,000 Faces. It’s basically an attempt to discover what the overarching pattern of heroic narratives is in world mythology. In the book he charts out several key points that appear in nearly every heroic narrative. Among them is the hero initially refusing the offered quest before eventually choosing (or being forced into) to accept it.

Think Luke’s initial refusal of Obi-Wan in A New Hope. After they receive the message from Princess Leia, Obi-Wan tells Luke he is to come to Alderaan. Luke refuses, yet circumstances soon force him to change his mind. Scenes like that appear constantly in heroic narratives.

What’s fascinating about that is that within the story-world we have the appearance of free will – Obi-Wan seems to accept, and even affirm, Luke’s decision (“You must do what you feel is right, of course”), yet this freedom is ultimately appears to be an illusion.

A similar tension occurs in many masculine initiation rites – events that bear a near perfect overlap to the monomyth. The young men are brought into the initiation tests with no guarantee that they will succeed. The potential for failure is an essential feature of initiation. Yet, their guides are their to walk with them to ensure they don’t fail. It’s the age old tension between free will and predestination played out in an incredibly tangible form.

So my answer would be – yes. Quests are optional and quests are destiny. In theology, a great many heresies have resulted from trying to resolve that tension, likely because it’s not our job to do so. Whether it be in faith, life or stories, our better course of action is to accept and embrace it.


[Adam’s side note… he never did get around to the distinguished track assignment, so… there you go. You got intelligent discussion instead. *Tbbbt!* 🙂 ]

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