Using conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) and possible worlds theory, we examine J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) to explain how conceptual metaphors, especially the war metaphor, are central to the novel's thematics and to the fictional "staging" of debates concerning politics, history, society, ethics, and the very fiction of the writer. The war metaphor, for instance, functions on two levels of the private and public within the textual actual world (TAW) and discourse worlds—which rhetorically mirror TAW. The public discourse of war, introduced by Joll, is conducted through the LIFE IS A PLAY metaphor and strengthened through reinscribing colonial distinctions and interpellating SOCIETY AS A BODY. The magistrate's framing narrative, however, constantly challenges the war narrative by exposing imperial strategies through ARGUMENT IS WAR in private and public discourse worlds with Joll. Thus, a cognitive poetic reading of the novel with a focus on CMT reveals the cognitive complexity of an apparently simple allegory of colonialism.