Something personal happened to me about this time last year that blew my mind. As it relates to allegory and so the novel, I Am Not Gog, I feel it is appropriate to share it with you here, and I feel it is worth sharing because it is so astonishing. I’ll take this opportunity to give a brief primer about the use of allegory in literature and how it is pitched in the novel I Am Not Gog, which I intended to do sometime here, anyway.
From its most basic definition as ‘symbol’, the word ‘allegory’ can describe all art and its perceivable component parts. But that renders the word useless, so, we all agree that we are talking about a conscious use of symbology by an artist or writer to convey a more or less hidden meaning. We use a story about one thing to tell a story about, or rather interrogate, something else. Much literary fiction does this in a very light and general sense.
In literature, allegory is defined as ‘extended metaphor’, so, just using a single symbol or metaphor for a local purpose does not an allegory make – it has to be related to or developed by later symbols, weaving a thread throughout the work. The surface story is called the ‘source’, and the hidden meaning is called the ‘target’. Any given allegorical work will stand somewhere on several different spectra in relation to all other allegories. Here are the three main spectra:
The spectrum of degree and complexity. An artistic work may have just a faint gesture of allegory or be crammed with a multitude of symbols, themes, strands, and levels.
The spectrum of particularity. The allegorical target may be vague and gestural (eg, of death), or precise and particular (eg, historical events).
The spectrum of apparentness. The allegory may be so subtle that it is overlooked by all but the most perceptive reader, or so naive and obvious the artist may as well ditch the source story and just talk directly about the target meaning. The most famous allegorical novel of all time, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), is at the naive end of the spectrum. It’s not a perfect work, there are a couple of morally problematic moments and its preachiness is over the top for most tastes, but I have huge respect for it and the author. He is the reason I took to allegory for I Am Not Gog.
So, the writer has to make all these judgements when handling allegory. It’s very tricky, and the source, target, cultural context, intended audience, and personal taste of the writer all influence those choices.
A word about that mysterious concept ‘intended audience’: the best intended audience is the writer himself. I write things I would want to read and just try to avoid unnecessarily alienating others in the process. I don’t think Bunyan cared about not alienating readers, just the same as the vast majority of people today do not care about allegory one bit. They just want to be entertained.
I also want to be entertained, but I had an important mission (in my mind) to deliver the allegory, something rich with meaning, meaning that actually matters. So, I needed to pitch the allegory in such a way as to make sure the allegory was subtle enough that the surface story could be enjoyed on its own merit and readers with no interest in the allegory or its target could get their literary jollies regardless and remain unalienated.
But, for my own satisfaction, I wanted also to develop a grand allegorical tapestry for the stimulation and edification of both those who like the challenge of unraveling a meaningful puzzle (as I do) and those who are familiar with the allegorical target and themes (as I am) and would readily see and decipher the meaning behind it all. From that last demographic, the aim is to elicit a quiet, ‘Oh yeah. I get you, brother.’ If that is you, please use the contact form to send me a brief message to that effect, because it would make my day.
Now, to that astonishing personal event that very much made my day. To make ends meet, I work as a part-time postman in the mornings, which leaves me time in the afternoon to write. One of the people to whom I post mail has a very rare but very familiar surname. One day, the woman was by her gate, stretching-down after her run. I was compelled to finally satisfy my curiosity by asking her if she was by any chance related to the historic allegorist John Bunyan. She said she was one of his great-great-great-granddaughters (I think she said there were now just three extant descendants, all female and so the chances are that they would be the last generation to bear the name).
I explained that I was also a published allegorist and that it would be a great honour for me to shake her hand, which she graciously allowed. My mind was blown. I delivered mail to John Bunyan’s great-great-great-granddaughter 340 years after The Pilgrim’s Progress was published. I still do, in fact. I shook her writing-hand (I presume) with my writing-hand.
That is not the only coincidence. I bought this vintage copy of Pilgrim's Progress (pictured above) long before I had ever dreamed of writing I Am Not Gog. The designer of the current and final cover for I Am Not Gog, designed a couple of years ago, has never before, until today, seen my copy of Pilgrim's. Look at the similarities between the two covers, both depicting silhouettes in profile with a red/pink highlight.