The Power of Allegories

A side note: I always thought Vincalis was an environmentalist allegory.

Good. I could have hoped for no better outcome than that you found your own meaning in it.

I’m reminded of the lyrics of a song.

You can’t always get what you want
But sometimes …. you get what you need.

Once upon a time, you see, I wrote Bones of the Past. Like most of the rest of the books I’ve written, it was about the story, but it was also about something, a dark, real-world issue that ate at me and gave me nightmares and still does, frankly (but not so much since I wrote that book). I sank myself in the story, the theme, the characters and issue that obsessed me, and I wrote my third book (second solo), and when I was done, I could see a little too clearly what it was really about, so I buried the allegory deeper. Sent it out. Let it go.

And a friend of mine read it. She was a little older than me and had been married to a man a little younger than me, and he had died of cancer. She was devastated. She’d crawled into herself and was having a hell of a time clawing her way back out. She read Bones of the Past, and she told me she got it, and better than that, it had helped her. She found in that story an allegory about cancer, about how it destroys, about how it could be fought, about how those who survived picked up the pieces of their lives and moved on.

It had been the book she needed at the time, because it was about something deep and dark and scary, and how to come to grips with that terror and pain. It had mattered to her.

Thing is, cancer never crossed my mind when I was writing the thing. I got what I needed out of the book by writing it, but if I had pushed to force everyone else to take my message from it, the book would have been worthless to her. By being willing to bury my message behind allegory (and bury it deep), the book still had deep meaning, and layers. It still had a passion to it that reached her, because allegories ring true on a lot of levels, and can be viewed in a hundred shades of meaning, and applied to a thousand different situations.

For you writers, here’s a writing recommendation. Put your heart and soul and self into your story, give it everything you’ve got, and rip out any bit of writing that clearly tells the reader what your story means. Accept that you will be the only person who ever knows the true meaning of your story, and give your readers permission to find their own meanings, knowing when you do this that they will take away from it a hundred things you did not mean, and that fifty of those hundred will be things with which you vehemently disagree. Write your issues out on the page just for yourself, then give up control, and let the story go, and hope that someone out there will get what he needs. The best thing you can do as a writer of fiction is to allow your readers to meet their own needs with your work, rather than attempting to force them to meet yours.

For readers, take what you need from the stories you read, but understand that what you found there may not be what the writer created, but what you created. When you read, you are collaborating with the writer, and what the two of you come up with will be something neither of you may have expected or intended.

And for those of you who have read some of my books, here’s a little game. To the first three of you who correctly guess my allegory (that is, what I meant when I wrote it) for any of my books listed in the essay linked above, I’ll send you an autographed copy of TALYN (or another book that I have copies of, if you already have an autographed copy of that one).

Those of you to whom I have privately confessed meanings of a particular book may not guess on that book, of course, but you’re welcome to guess on any others. This game will be open until there are three winners. NOTE: Make sure your e-mail address in your blog account here actually works, because while I’ll announce when all three winners have been selected, I won’t publicly name who they were. It’s important to me that readers get what they need from the stories, and that means not telling them what I want.


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35 responses to “The Power of Allegories”

  1. orangemike Avatar

    Third winner–allegory deleted to prevent spoilers.

  2. Holly Avatar

    Jim and Jaye—you’ve hit a lot of the themes, but neither of you have landed the allegories.

    Jim—you and I never actually discussed the allegory in TALYN (Jean is the only one disqualified from that particular book), so you’re good to play.

    Alastair—no, not genocide.

    The allegories are (I’m trying to think of an exception to this, and can’t) little secondary stories, complete with conflict and a resolution, and in every case I can think of right now, the resolution is a positive thing—it offers a solution that would heal the conflict or save something that could otherwise be lost. The VINCALIS allegory is the example, and it’s the only one that goes negative, in that it suggests that the only way to fix a government that survives by sucking the life and souls out of its people is to replace that government.

  3. Alastair Bridgewater Avatar

    I don’t know how to ask this, but… Is the SECRET TEXTS about Genocide?

  4. Jaye Patrick Avatar

    In Sympathy for the Devil I figured that the first part of the story was ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ – re: the doctor – ‘as everything you do has consequences’ (the atom bomb, for example).

    As for the secondary story, I thought it might be that ‘everyone deserves a second chance’, (if I was Christian, I might be compelled to say that prayer is a powerful thing indeed, but the same could be said about magic). However, not everyone uses that chance to the betterment of themselves or others.

    Actually, now that I think about it, there were a lot of consequences in this book, the good, the bad, and the downright funny.

    I could, of course, be blowing a lot of smoke too, but that’s how I saw the book. (Still a favourite, too, just fyi.)

  5. Jim Avatar

    I know you were working on Talyn far too early for it to be seriously considered as a reflection of the Iraqi war per se, but it certainly brought some of those issues to mind after the fact.

    The most profound allegory I found in Talyn — and I still fell this is at a surface level — is that a people who have, for whatever reason, lost the will to defend their homeland, have traded their warrior/patriotic heritage for security and comfort –they will be conquered. And the conqueror may be somoene who appears as a friend, rather than an enemy. And that honorable enemies can have more in common that false friends.

    (I don’t immediately recall discussing any of this earier, but if it happens to be accurate but falls under the exception noted, I’m fine with that.)

    In Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood, there is a surface allegory that the ultra-rich and power-hungry can be like vampires, sucking the life out of the people who work and with them. (That’s from my memory of the novel from reading it when it first came out. I’m sure that again you are looking for something deeper.

    Sympathy for the Devil? Anyone can be redeemed if they can find love in their hearts.

  6. Holly Avatar

    Anders—Interesting allegory, but a million miles from mine.

  7. Anders Avatar

    Talyn is an allegory about the War in Iraq. The Eastil Republic, with its diverse cultures and imperialistic history, is the United States, and the Tonk realm, closely knit and culturally unified (and with a subterranean network of tunnels similar to the network of caves in the Middle East which make guerilla warfare so successful) is Iraq. The Feegash are those — perhaps the UN, only more competent — who would seek to ignore the serious differences between Western and Middle Eastern culture and throw them together in a perilous peace.

  8. Holly Avatar

    Firelight, I love your read on Bones of the Past. You’re a million miles from my allegory, but yours is wonderful. And I’m glad you got something that helped from the story.

  9. firelight Avatar

    Actually, I kind of agree with your friend who thought Bones of the Past was about cancer.

    To me, Bones of the Past is about learning to let go of the past, not allowing the things in the past to poison your life. Because something bad that happened to you in the past could eat away at you and destroy your life, but the book tells you how you can fight it, how you can move on and not let it take over your life. Some time ago, I just found out someone close to me had been enduring years of abuse by a parent, which lead her to do something awful and drastic. Reading this book made me think of her situation – how her past had poisoned her future. And now reading what you wrote about your friend, I think cancer and child abuse are very similar things. They are both insidious things that can destroy you and the people you love. And because I saw child abuse mirrored in your book, I’m not surprised your friend saw an allegory about cancer in it.

    I’m probably waaaay off here, because I’m reading such a personal situation into the book! But that’s the beauty of it. And I also want to thank you for writing this book, because it helped my friend and I deal with a very difficult time in our lives.

  10. Holly Avatar

    Since I gave this one away anyhow, here’s the complete allegory hidden in Vincalis the Agitator.

    Wraith is the kid from the ghetto who sees a way out. The folks he leaves behind are trapped by government welfare, which allows them to subsist, but chains them in place and cripples them with poverty and walls (lack of training and opportunity), and tainted food and worse entertainment that keep them placid, make them slow, and suck the life and the very souls out of them, because what the government does with welfare is keep people it doesn’t value from competing for jobs and good lives with those it does. (Those who found jobs lost their welfare at the time I wrote Vincalis, so were encouraged by the state not to seek work. The book was written prior to welfare reform.)

    In the allegory as in the main story, you never get something for nothing. The government’s power is built on the backs of the welfare folks, —in the story, literally, by using their life energy and eventually their souls as a source of renewable powe; in the allegory, by using them as a voting bloc—so pretty much the same thing. In exchange for their horrible, subsistance lives, which the government initially sold to them as a gift from itself, something to which they were entitled, the government uses them to keep itself in power.

    In order to save his people, Wraith ends up crashing the whole government, because the government that is built on the backs of the disenfranchised cannot survive if its victims are set free.

    So when I say there’s an allegory in each of the books I’ve listed, THAT’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

  11. Holly Avatar

    You have a lot of the themes. The allegory, though, is a buried second story relating to a current issue, with both a problem and a solution included.

  12. Alastair Bridgewater Avatar

    Okay, obvious themes for FitM:
    The use, abuse, and responsibility of power (magic or otherwise).
    The importance of doing certain things on your own terms.
    The importance of doing what you know to be right.
    The potential ramifications of genetic engineering.
    The difference in approach between a largely self-taught individual and what is taught in an academic environment for a given skill set.
    There are also comments about the hypocrisy of certain “open” societies, the nature of happiness, rebellion against authority, and more.

    Somewhat more subtle:
    The use of religious arguments to reinforce aspects of the state. (The specific case would be contraceptives in Ariss. The religious argument was mentioned about halfway through the book, and the “real” rationale, a birth/child tax, was mentioned in the glossary) This doesn’t feel like it’s the right answer either, and not just because it’s stated far more directly in Vengance of Dragons.

    I’m still drawing a blank on the allegory, but it’s certainly an interesting excersize. Thank you.

  13. Holly Avatar

    Alaistair—you’re exactly right in both instances. The communication issue was top-level, not allegorical.

  14. Alastair Bridgewater Avatar

    I see Fire in the Mist as being a story about honest communication being a crucial part of the healing of a dysfunctional family or relationship (or a long-standing disagreement). But I also see that as being too obvious to be the “real” meaning.

    Which means that I should find my copy and read it again.

  15. Holly Avatar

    Zoe, while the story does contain those ideas (though not by any means exclusively related to Islamofascism), that isn’t the allegory. To get the allegory, you’ll have to look to Hyre and its people.

  16. Zoe Avatar

    I re-read Talyn recently, and wondered if it related to your views on Islamofascism. I started wondering this even more strongly when I read your recent post about how Muslims have come into our countries and lulled us into submission, and will attack when the time is right. This seems very similar to what happened in Talyn. Am I close here? Did you already have these ideas when you wrote Talyn?

  17. Holly Avatar

    Cheryl—I’m sorry. Your interpretation of the medical storyline in there is correct, and I intended everything you got from it, but that’s top-level stuff. The actual allegory is buried much deeper.

  18. cherylp Avatar

    Last try for me. It’s on Sympathy for the Devil. Allegory about what’s wrong with our current health system–how the heart is removed from the process because the bottom line is about profit.

  19. PJ Avatar

    What I perceived from Talyn was -at least to put it
    into modern terms- that peace settlements
    inflicted on warring nations from either the U.N. or
    Europe or the U.S. ultimately only serve the body
    or country imposing them. Many times the “peace”
    really isn’t embraced so much as enforced – and
    many times the backlash from “peace” is worse
    than if the fighting had simply continued.

    And yes, other entities are just as guilty of that as
    the U.S. is.

    And no – I couldn’t really find a shorter way to say it.

    ๐Ÿ˜‰ I hope I’m close to the mark. Talyn is one of
    my favorite H.L. stories.

  20. eitje Avatar

    well, good then.

    my next guess is that all of your books are actually about puppies. ๐Ÿ˜€

  21. Holly Avatar

    Eitje—So that you can sleep at night, let me say that the good guys in THE WORLD GATES novels are genuinely good. I like your analogy, but you’re definitely a million miles from where I was when writing that series.

    From the worldbuilding I did, all magic in the WORLD GATES universe begins in a downworld and flows to an upworld. All worlds have magic, but those worlds’ magic is not accessible to them. Magic users draw magic from downworld and send something equally valuable downworld by doing so. I’m going to keep what that is exactly under my hat, but the relationship is pure physics, and utterly and implacably equal.

  22. eitje Avatar

    final note: it bothered me that Lauren takes the magic from the downworlds without asking anyone for it. ๐Ÿ˜› It feels like stealing, even though it’s for the good of her world. Very “Les Mis”…

  23. eitje Avatar

    i slept on this, and woke up with a possibility.

    But it’s for the whole of the World Gate series, not just a single book… and, once I fully woke up, and kind of thought about it, I feel like the “good guys” might not be so good anymore. Also, recognize that I’m brand new, and haven’t even been a lurker here, so I might be way off the mark – I have no idea what your politics are. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I think that the relationship of the upworlders and downworlders is similar to the relationship between 1st world and 3rd world countries. there’s an exploitative nature to everything the upworlds do in regards to the downworlds – old god & dark god alike.

    i liken the fleeing and cowardly old gods to retirees that are sick of the strife and chaos caused by the dark god governments & multi-national corporations, and so head to the sunny shores of Panama or Costa Rica.

    The dark gods are, of course, the greedy and all-consuming big businesses, given a high hand to do whatever they’d like in the 3rd world. they trick the leaders of those countries into thinking that the technology they’re getting is for their own good, when all it does is actually tie their purse strings around off-shore organizations’ grubby fingers.

    But then… even the “good guys”, the immortals and the Sentinels… well, aren’t they taking from the downworlds too? and, while they’re not feeding on the deaths of the worlds… they ARE taking a resource that might not be renewable. There’s not a lot of information that indicates where magic comes from, and whether or not magic begets more magic.

    So, I’m probably going to be bothered by that all day at work. ๐Ÿ˜› And, whether or not that’s THE answer, I’ve found it’s MY answer… one of them, at least. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. ajackson Avatar

    Comment cut to prevent spoilers for other readers. Won second autographed TALYN, plus one other signed book.—Holly

  25. Nandini Avatar

    Talyn is about immigration, isn’t it? Maybe this isn’t your “deeper” meaning, because it certainly seemed obvious to numbskull!me, but I LOVED how you handled the theme. There is sometimes such a comfort in drawing boundaries and saying, “This is me and mine, you’re not allowed inside.”

  26. Holly Avatar

    So far, everything suggested is still “top layer” story. All good stuff. But the hidden, “bottom layer” story is going to be something as specific as, well, welfare reform. Something that is a current, modern-day issue.

  27. unxplaindfires Avatar

    Hey Holly,

    I have to tell you that I really loved reading “Fire in the Mist”. I thought it was an amazing story, and I was happy to find a proud, strong, and intelligent woman as the protagonist. Anyway, one of the allegories that I took from the story was about a woman’s body and her right to choose. Not the choice of pro-life/pro-choice, but of physical and sexual freedom bound by the consequence of expressing said freedom – i.e. pregnacy. I felt that you were saying that it is okay for a woman to be a sexual being without fear of being viewed as a whore, but given her anatomy she has to be aware of the result of praticing such freedoms unwisely. I don’t mean to say women do it alone, us men certainly have a um…hand in it, but we have the ability to walk away if a pregnacy occurs (which I feel is wrong but still true).
    I do not think I stated that as clearly as possible, but that is the best I can do at the moment.

  28. cherylp Avatar

    I’ve always thought the allegory in the Secret Texts was that love is stronger than hate and fear, and even stronger than death. That good will triumph over evil, because the good find their strength through love, but the evil find their strength through fear.

  29. shay Avatar

    So is Talyn about how people can manipulate others through love and how they can end up freeing you from things that made you a captive?

  30. shawna Avatar

    that’s the thing I’ve always hated about English classes… all these people who believe they know what a story/scene/setting/item means… and are certain they are correct. And even if the author chooses to share that information, there is no certainty that is the whole of it, or even the truth of it… and heaven forbid an author write a story just to be enjoyed with no deliberate deeper meaning.

    Ah, now I get why writers write- to get back at the analyzers!

  31. Jim Avatar


    you have given your readers a nugget of truth and meaning, those writers who look to you for inspiration one of the secrets of great fiction…

    and ten thousand future generations of English Ph.D. candidates heartburn and ulcers as they try to piece together your “real” meaning. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you.

  32. rixshep Avatar

    Very nice, Ms. Lisle! I believe your approach is definitely a strength. I find that even when I agree with an author, preaching in the story and making it too obvious is rarely enjoyable.

    It puts you in good company too, imo. Tolkien has some obvious points in his works, but most of what his works are about are rarely perceived by the typical readers. They just know there is something important buried in there, to fire their imagination.

    Great stuff, ma’am!


  33. shay Avatar

    I always thought that Talyn was about the after effects of war and how it doesn’t always go back to a peaceful situation and leaders will try to take over and try to mould it into their own liking.
    Like when Skirmig used Talyn for her magical abilities he was using her so that he could gain the knowledge to pass onto his collegues (I guess you’d call them) so that they could learn how to control the people of Hyre.
    This reflects modern day as a number of governments are trying to reform the middle east into their own view of a democracy, perhaps not by using the people there but they are trying to change it to suit their own needs and I believe that this is what Talyn was trying to show.
    I could be wrong however, it has been a while since I read it *puts it on my to re-read pile*

  34. shawna Avatar

    Aaaaagh. I’ve been puzzling over the Secret Texts since I finished them a few weeks ago, and even more so, since the “rant” post. Still haven’t come to any answers, because I think the things I’ve thought of are far too obvious to be what you were writing into it, lol.

    I see the possibility that the Wizard’s Circles are bombed areas… and want to draw parallels to WW2 and Hiroshima and Nagazaki…

    There’s also some pretty definite images, in my mind, of the Scarred and racial issues… but which minorities?

    One could even say that the long time with hidden magic would be akin to the Cold War… or that the whole scenario is what might result after a nuclear war… or that the Scarred aren’t representative of a racial minority at all, but for the disabled…

    Ugh, I just thought of something else even. Perhaps the circles are not bombed at all, but are areas of some kind of chemical contaminant, and the Scarred are the resultant mutations in the neighboring communitites.

    And I think I’ll just give up now, before I get dizzy going around in circles.

  35. lohengrin Avatar

    And this is why I enjoy your fantasy novels much more than the romantic suspense ones–you don’t bury anything very deeply in the latter, at all. Sometimes, you seem to use a sledgehammer, instead. ^^; But yes, several meanings CAN be taken from your fantasy novels, and this is a great strength.

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