Allegory – or even symbolism for that matter – is a tricky thing. Too obvious and people ask why fiction? Not clear enough and you risk confusion and readers missing the point. I wrestled with this fine line as I was reading Between Two Kingdoms by Joe Boyd.
Here is the synopsis from the publisher:
There is a land of two kingdoms, but only one true King. A living land, where foundations grow in trees and rivers sing and breathe. A dying land, where the darkness of a false prince threatens to swallow everything in its shadow.
Enter Between Two Kingdoms with Tommy, an eternally seven-year-old child of the Great King, as he and his friends accept the challenge of the Good Prince to live as grown men and women in the Lower Kingdom—where hope is hidden, vision is clouded, and pride twists truth into a beautiful yet deadly deception.
As the synopsis eludes to above, the basic story line follows Tommy as he accepts a mission into the lower kingdom. Setting out he knows very little about what lies ahead. Once there, however, it is revealed that the assignment involves stopping a plot to cover the entire lower kingdom in darkness and smoke in order to control and enslave the frightened population. Tommy and his friends must protect as many people as they can and then find a way to destroy the machine that is creating the smog like smoke that begins to cover the kingdom.
You can get an idea of what the author was trying to portray and flush out in this short video.
To me the book felt either too simple or incomplete. It had the feel of a story you might write to experiment with ideas and symbols (and characters) – a sort of thought experiment in the form of a novella. And in this way it had some interesting aspects.
But as a work of literature taken as a whole it fell flat for me.
The story has some elements that are interesting: the basic concept of the two kingdoms; the river as a living interactive force; the phantom messengers who can’t bear to see themselves in a mirror. These elements are interesting ways to express ideas about our spiritual lives and interactions. (The Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of earth; the role of the Holy Spirit; and the way our souls can be corrupted by evil or neglect.)
But other elements made little sense to me either as part of the story or as elements in the allegory. Why would everybody be seven years old? Why did they seemingly eat only cookies and ice cream in the upper kingdom? Why tree houses? You could attempt to come up with spiritual ideas behind these concepts (the faith of children, etc.) but the story didn’t really present them in such a way as to propmt that sort of thinking. Rather it was difficult to understand what was fantastical background and what was meant as something deeper – at least outside of the obvious elements.
The characters of the King and Good Prince were clearly God and Christ (with the River as the Holy Spirit) but they too seemed rather one dimensional. All powerful, wise, loving, etc. This made them appear a little too sentimental – at least to my taste.
Allegories can sacrifice three dimensional characters in order to delve more into the philosophical questions they address – using characters and events as symbols to tell a story but to make an argument or illustrate ideas in more lively and persuasive way because of the artfulness involved.
If the insights offered or the emotional depth involved are not there, however, attempts at allegory can fall flat. I think this is what happened here. The ideas were not enough to fully bring the story alive and the story was too simple to stand on its own.
Between Two Kingdoms is a quick and easy read. And as I noted above, it has some interesting – creative and thought-provoking – visual and literary elements. But as a whole it just seems unfinished. Not quite polished enough nor deep enough to do more than just suggest symbols and concepts.
It struck me as an interesting experiment but, in the end, not a successful one.