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John Amos Comenius was known to have been a writing phenom, having more than 140 published works and 40 more unfinished. It is a serious question as to why he chose allegory as his first major writing project. This art form is challenging to pull off in long-form, such as Labyrinth, and he was a relatively young author.
Allegories use fictional stories to communicate understanding that the narrative might only hint at. Characters and imagery become symbolisms that often have meaning on more than one level. In Comenius’s allegory, labyrinth, is a dystopian, semi-biographical allegory. His story is not a mere concoction of creativity but rather the sharing of harrowing personal experiences in ways that communicate profound meaning in both real-life aspects and to the story in which these personal experienced were depicted.
The importance of any allegory, especially Comenius’s, is that the writer uses the device of allegory to make a complex subject, such as morality or politics, easier to understand and more approachable. Labyrinth takes on all of these subjects. In the classical world, allegory was a much more common experience. Cicero (The Republic) and Plato (The Cave) worked in this form. Aesop’s Fables and the teachings of Christ remain in common use in our day. That said, allegory is becoming less common as a modern art form, so says Laura Miller in a 2016 piece.
Comenius’s use of a labyrinth is quite telling. The term instantly harkens to Greek Mythology’s Cretan Labyrinth of King Minos, fashioned by Daedalus. However, the labyrinth was not foreign to other stories of antiquity. 1 Comenius kept the concept of an “intricate combination of paths or passages in which it is difficult to find one’s way” 2 because it was a great vehicle to convey his point. If one seriously wishes to live a good and positive life, the world is confusing. Because it is what it is, the world makes it impossible to live a good life without directly contributing to its vanity, violence, and despair.
Fate as Symbology
Fate is another allegorization that could be confusing to Christians. Christians embrace the notion of destiny 3 rather than fate because the word is pregnant with a God purpose. Comenius was not advocating the godless vacuous notion Christians often associate with fate—such as pagan ancients believed. Under Comenius’s pen, Fate is both a person and dynamic. Fate, the character, is gruff in appearance but surprising at one point. In the other sense, fate illustrates the seeming capriciousness of how life happens.
While politics was one of the furthest things from Comenius’s mind, his allegory is fundamentally a political statement. The contrast between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God as a lived reality is a political statement. The kingdom of the world is allegorized by sin, destruction, and lack of redeemability within the world’s system and ideals. The kingdom of God is a contrast to the world is allegorized in salvation, taking on the concept of total transformation from the darkness into the light as spoken of by Apostle Peter (see: 1 Peter 2:9).
There are many other allegorizations under the pen of Comenius. Labyrinth, fate, and the political statement made by the interplay between the two kingdoms are significant features in this story. These are the three legs of the stool this book is built upon.
By Comenius’s time, allegory had long been a vehicle to tell a cautionary tale. This is perhaps the leading reason as to why he would use this form. Additionally, he sought to communicate so delicate ideas, where “lying it between the lines” was perhaps the best way to share such thoughts that people who want to get it would. However, Labyrinth of the World was banded as “dangerous and forbidden” in 1749 according to the introduction 4 to the very first English edition in 1901. This fact, along with being first published in Latin and Czech, both less accessible languages, put the story on the back shelf for most of the reading public. Even so, Comenius’s work is considered by scholars to be one of the top allegories of the modern era and well worth consideration.
- Count Franz Graf von Lützow, The Labyrinth of the World and The Paradise of the Heart, London, Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Paternoster Square E.C. pg. 12