J.R.R Tolkien didn’t like the Narnia books. He made this fairly clear. He and C.S. Lewis were pretty good friends, and they were both members of this group called the Inklings which, to be quite honest, is an AWESOME name. They used to read their work out loud and discuss it. But Tolkien got so fed up that he said he wouldn’t come any more until Lewis stopped reading the Narnia stories.
He felt they were ‘tainted by allegory’. Basically, he felt that stories should be stories … not lessons or sermons or whatever.
(Now I’m doing all this from memory from a book I once read about Tolkein and Lewis so bear with me and my lack of direct quotes, ‘kay?)
However, as Brave’s Merida would emphatically remind us, “Legends are lessons.” Stories all tell us things, whether or not it was intentional. Which, of course, can have unintended consequences: a reader may take away from a book an idea that the author hadn’t even thought about it, and in fact doesn’t agree with, but something they wrote appeared to endorse it and so that reader has assumed that’s what they meant to say.
Maggie Stiefvater had a post on this today, actually, and as she is infinitely more awesome than me, you should all read it. The essence of it was that you’re going to be sending a message with what you write. There’s no avoiding that. So make sure it’s the message you want to send.
So with the knowledge that everything you write is probably going to be taken apart by readers and made to mean something, what exactly are you saying when you write?
Recently, I’ve been working on a second draft of my novel Returning, which I initially wrote in 2011. There’s a scene where one of my characters is having an emotional crisis of a sort that I’d never experienced at the time — and never will, given that I don’t actually have magical powers, much to my disappointment. However, reading it over in the last couple of weeks and rewriting it slightly, I realised how similar it was to an emotional crisis I had had about a totally different issue, and how encouraging the other character’s response was to me, even though it wasn’t magical powers I was thinking about.
In other words, these gifts had turned into an allegory for an aspect of my own life, and accurately depicted my own crisis, though I wrote it some time before and had no idea what it felt like, and had never been expecting to have struggles of the sort. (I’m clearly pretty good at imagining feelings. I’m just not good at them in real life.)
And I looked back at the trilogy as a whole, and the depiction of each of my characters’ struggles with their gifts — as well as how others reacted to them — and realised the whole thing could feasibly be an allegory for a totally different type of identity crisis. Even though it wasn’t. Even though that was never my intention.
But I didn’t set out to write something that represented something out. I didn’t set out to write something that could be analysed and have essays written about it. In short, I didn’t set out to write something Literary, but to write young adult fiction that people like me would want to read. And yet looking at it, I’m thinking, “If I were reading this for the first time at the stage in my life I’m currently at, would I see it the way I’ve been thinking about it? Would it encourage me? What message would it send?”
What would the powers represent to the casual reader? Would it be straightforward — kid has magic, what do they do? Or would it be a little more complicated — what am I trying to say about people who are different from society’s norms?
I think both. I would be happy with both.
But in becoming aware of how certain scenes seem allegorical, though it might have been purely unintentional, I’ve also become aware of the message I am sending. I need to make sure that it’s one I agree with. I need to make sure that what a reader would take away from that book would be something that would be of benefit to them, rather than harmful. I don’t want to glorify things that aren’t constructive, and I want to encourage things that are positive.
How can I do that through a book without making it sound preachy?
Merida tells us that legends are lessons. Perhaps we should start accepting that — because it’s not a bad thing. Books open our eyes and teach us to see things from another’s perspective. They allow us to live a thousand lives at once and never leave our own, and that, I think, is where message is crucial.
Let the life your readers live through your book be a significant one. Let it change them.