Have you ever heard a book where there was a blatant “moral of the story”, and you were really turned off by it? It could have been the lack of subtlety, you may have felt like you were being preached to, or perhaps you just wanted to appreciate a story for its own sake. These are all - at least in my mind - reasons why allegory sucks.
Allegory is a story with a definite meaning behind it, where the author constructs the characters and the plot after a deliberate fashion because he wants to convey an idea, or a philosophy.
Allegory is, in a sense, fake literature. Real literature is, like all art forms, motivated by its own inner beauty. An author is a real artist when he is inspired purely by the attraction of his story. Notice how almost all authors say that they didn’t feel as though they invented their story, but discovered it, it “came to them” in a moment of inspiration.
This kind of writing echoes the human process of understanding reality. Reality is a curious mix of ideas and real things. Men have been trying to understand this dynamic for many years, it is called the problem of universals: two different physical objects are also the same thing, they have the same idea behind them, like trees. This problem will always remain mysterious, however it is impossible to deny there is a component of being which is not just material but which can be apprehended by human intellects, allowing them to see patterns, and form systems of thought.
The goal of human apprehension is to properly understand the ideas that are incarnated in the world around us. And yet, too often we get caught up with the ideas and opinions that we already have in our head. We want to know more than we actually know and so we try to interpret reality by what we already know instead of letting it present itself to us, instead of giving reality priority over our own ideas (which are supposed to come from reality). In this sense, we are actually falsely prioritizing our ideas. This is the case with scientists who try to interpret human consciousness as nothing but electromagnetic impulses in our brain, or selfless love as nothing but the manifestation of the urge to reproduction. They ignore the phenomena at hand, the ideas which are actually real, and instead favor their own ways of interpreting things, they adhere to their own arbitrary philosophy. Instead of letting their philosophy be influenced by their most fundamental experiences.
That which is real has priority over our own interpretations and ideas. Which is precisely why real literature is always better than allegory. Allegory is, again, creating a story or a reality to match an idea, a philosophy. It places priority on the idea in the mind over the real incarnate idea.Genuine literature allows oneself to be inspired by that which has the character of goodness or beauty. That which the author understands as real, and good. Genuine literature respects that which is prior; the author writes that which he is inspired by. As Peter Kreeft says, “In an allegory the philosophical frame becomes the story. The plot and the characters are only there for that reason: they are used as means to illustrate the philosophy, that is why we do not love the characters or care about them much as individuals. They are lost in their archetypes. In non-allegorical stories, the philosophy serves the story as a frame serves a picture.” (3)
It isn’t that genuine literature has no philosophy in it, it is that philosophy must be derived from genuine literature just as ideas are derived from reality. Real literature, incarnates ideas the same way ideas are incarnate in reality. As Kreeft says again, “All literature incarnates some philosophy. Thus all literature teaches. In allegory, the philosophy is taught by the conscious and calculating part of the mind, while in great literature it is done by the unconscious and contemplative part of the mind which is deeper and wiser and has more power to persuade and move the reader.” (4)
Thus I can actually learn more from a genuine work of art than from an allegory, because the author or artist presents us with a kind of reality from which I can derive ideas, instead of yelling ideas at us through the allegory.
It isn’t that allegory has no use, it certainly can be useful, Jesus used parables in the Gospel after all. But, I wouldn’t call it art, and I personally find that I can learn more from a good work of fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, than from any amount of moral anecdotes.
It’s very important that human persons never get too caught up in their own heads, a perennial error of the fool and the philosopher alike. Life is more real than any of our systematic attempts to organize and interpret it in our minds. The theories of the philosopher, the microscope of the scientist, the blueprint of an architect, and even the calloused hands of the manual laborer can all be worldviews, lenses through which a person sees reality. Everyman has a philosophy, ideas that they use to understand the world around them, but it becomes problematic if the ideas in our mind ever occupy a more prominent spot than the reality they are formed off of. I find that reading real literature is a fantastic way to maintain an appreciation for the real, as opposed to the artificial.
(3) Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 24
(4) Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 23