An allegory (from αλλος, allos, "other", and αγορευειν, agoreuein, "to speak in public") is a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning other than the literal. Fictions with several possible interpretations are not allegories in the true sense. Not every fiction with general application is an allegory.
Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric, but an allegory does not have to be expressed in language: it may be addressed to the eye, and is often found in realistic painting, sculpture or some other form of mimetic, or representative art.
The etymological meaning of the word is broader than the common use of the word. Though it is similar to other rhetorical comparisons, an allegory is sustained longer and more fully in its details than a metaphor, and appeals to imagination, while an analogy appeals to reason or logic. The fable or parable is a short allegory with one definite moral.
Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories, sometimes distorting their author's overt meaning. For instance, many people have suggested that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the World Wars, though it was written well before the outbreak of World War II and in spite of J. R. R. Tolkien's emphatic statement in the introduction to the second edition "It is neither allegorical nor topical....I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."
Northrop Frye discussed what he termed a "continuum of allegory", ranging from what he termed the "naive allegory" of The Faerie Queene, to the more private allegories of modern paradox literature. In this perspective, the characters in a "naive" allegory are not fully three-dimensional, for each aspect of their individual personalities and the events that befall them embodies some moral quality or other abstraction; the allegory has been selected first, and the details merely flesh it out.
Medieval thinking accepted allegory as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses. The allegory was as true as su facts of surface appearances. Thus, the bull Unam Sanctam (1302) presents themes of the unity of Christendom with the pope as its head in which the allegorical details of the metaphors are adduced as actual facts which take the place of a logical demonstration, yet employing the vocabulary of logic: "Therefore of this one and only Church there is one body and one head—not two heads as if it were a monster... If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ" Unam sanctam.
In the late fifteenth century, the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia, with its elaborate woodcut illustrations, shows the influence of themed pageants and masques on contemporary allegorical representation, as humanist dialectic conveyed them.
Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the following works, arranged in the approximate chronological order:
Modern allegories in fiction tend to operate under constraints of modern requirements for verisimilitude within conventional expectations of realism. Works of fiction with strong allegorical overtones include:
Where some requirements of "realism", in its flexible meanings, are set aside, allegory can come more strongly to the surface, as in the work of Bertold Brecht or Franz Kafka on one hand, or on the other in science fiction and fantasy, where an element of universal application and allegorical overtones are common, as with Dune.
Fictions that are not allegories may help define the genre by contrast:
Allegorical films include:
In some films, allegorical interpretations may be applied after the fact:
Some allegorical works of art include: