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Allegory is a literary device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely throughout the histories of all forms of art; a major reason for this is its immense power to illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily digestible and tangible to its viewers, readers, or listeners. An allegory conveys its hidden message through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, and/or events. Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric; a rhetorical allegory is a demonstrative form of representation conveying meaning other than the words that are spoken.
As a literary device, an allegory in its most general sense is an extended metaphor. One of the best known examples is Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." In this allegory, there are a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to the allegory, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
First attested in English in 1382, the word allegory comes from Latin allegoria, the latinisation of the Greek ἀλληγορία (allegoria), "veiled language, figurative", from ἄλλος (allos), "another, different" + ἀγορεύω (agoreuo), "to harangue, to speak in the assembly" and that from ἀγορά (agora), "assembly."
Northrop Frye discussed what he termed a "continuum of allegory", a spectrum that ranges 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.
In classical literature two of the best-known allegories are the Cave in Plato's Republic (Book VII) and the story of the stomach and its members in the speech of Menenius Agrippa (Livy ii. 32). In Late Antiquity Martianus Capella organized all the information a fifth-century upper-class male needed to know into an allegory of the wedding of Mercury and Philologia, with the seven liberal arts as guests; Capella's allegory was widely read through the Middle Ages.
Medieval thinking accepted allegory as having a reality underlying any rhetorical or fictional uses. The allegory was as true as the 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 facts on which is based a demonstration with 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" (complete text).
In the late 15th 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.
The denial of medieval allegory as found in the 11th-century works of Hugh of St Victor and Edward Topsell's Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1653) and its replacement in the study of nature with methods of categorization and mathematics by such figures as naturalist John Ray and the astronomer Galileo is thought to mark the beginnings of early modern science.
Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues, allegories may be read into many stories, sometimes misinterpreting their author's intent. For instance, many people have suggested that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the World Wars. If the requirement of realism is set aside, allegory can often be easily seen. Some examples of this are:
Not every resonant work of modern fiction is an allegory. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is plot-driven fantasy narrative in an extended fable with talking animals and broadly-sketched characters. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another example of a work sometimes seen as allegorical, yet, as the author explained, it is not – rather it is an example of what he referred to as applicability.
Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the following works, arranged in approximate chronological order:
Jan van Kessel, Allegory of Hearing (17th century): Diverse sources of sound, especially instruments serve as allegorical symbols.
An allegorical story is a narrative having a second meaning beneath the surface one. An allegorical poem has two meanings – a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. Some unique specimens of allegory in poetry can be found in the following works:
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