An incidental remark about allegories reminded me of this little volume by R.A. Lafferty. In many ways, I think it is his finest, although all of his efforts are remarkable. Whatever your preference, 'Fourth Mansions' remains the most unusual of its genre, an allegory that refuses to take itself seriously.
When Freddy Foley, newspaperman and innocent, discovers that certain people seem to reappear at irregular intervals he insists on investigating and soon finds himself hip deep in a metaphysical odyssey. He discovers that there is not one, but four separate subcultures that share the world with humanity. The best of these are the badgers that guard the entrances of the human domain. The worst are the toads, the ones who sleep and are reborn. These are dedicated to keeping the world from evolving to the next level. Every time things get better they make sure they really get worse.
Then there are the snakes whose wild mental energy runs out of control. For them the rest of us are toys to play with, energy to use up. Finally, there are the unfledged falcons. Well intentioned, they are the premature warriors, champions of violent solutions. Best to worst they spell little good for Freddy, whose truth seeking will lead him to the tops of mountains and the cells of asylums. 'Goof gloriously,' the snakes order poor Freddy, and so he does.
Lafferty performs an unexpected deconstruction of the mythology of man's progress, and creates an entirely unique narrative for inner progress. Foley is Everyman (Foley = The Fool) on a journey towards a higher plane of being, impeded by creatures that symbolize his own weaknesses. The tale is told tongue-in-cheek, a burlesque parody of one pilgrim's progress. Filled with more mad characters than all of 'Canterbury Tales,' the reader is often left unsure whether to laugh or take notes.
Of course, this is the great flaw of allegory; it never loses the taint of lecture. Plot serves message unforgivingly. 'Fourth Mansions' is only partly fiction as we progress from lesson to lesson. The good news is that Lafferty refuses to fall into the trap of being tedious, and, instead, allows the allegory to parody itself. Still, this is unusual entertainment, and not meant for everyone. Full of mind games and obscure symbolism made garish, it is a child of the late 60's, although I think it's intent is more valid now then it was then. Nowadays I sometimes wonder if the toads have managed to win after all.