Tolkien, Allegory, and the Maddening Perseverance of Denial

I am currently taking a course on modern epic fantasy literature and, of course, the core of it is a study of Tolkien. This week’s topic is allegory in Tolkien’s works: Is there or isn’t there?

The course has been pretty tame so far, mostly looking at the literary influences on Tolkien’s work, his biography, and so on. But this? This is a can of worms.

I made myself some rules before embarking on this discussion (for, to make matters even worse, the assignment for this particular topic is participation in an online discussion). I will not–I promised myself–argue with anyone who insists despite Tolkien’s dozens of assertions to the contrary that his stories are allegory. I will make my point once (always a challenge for me) and I will allow myself to agree with people who make a similar point, but I will not attempt to convert anyone else in the class to my line of thinking beyond simply presenting my opinion (once!). It’s just plain mean to foist my passionate views on this subject on someone just beginning to study the material. And everyone must draw their own conclusions; I believe in this. If a newcomer to Middle-earth continues his or her studies beyond this course, I’m sure he or she will eventually formulate an informed opinion on allegory in Tolkien’s works. Then, we can debate to our hearts’ contents.

So I’ve behaved. But that doesn’t mean I can’t rant about it in my blog, right?

Tolkien couldn’t make himself any plainer on the fact of allegory and whether or not it is present in his stories. Open up a digital copy of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and search “allegor,” which nicely covers mention of both allegory and allegorical. He’s pretty definitive. I’m not one who likes to break out what I call the “Ouija board” argument of canon–that whiny, self-superior “because Tolkien wouldn’t have wanted it that way” argument that is used to defend all manner of intolerance in the Tolkien fandom–because Tolkien was dust in his grave before I was even born. I have no way of knowing what he would or would not have wanted had he lived to 2008 to see what we’ve all done with his stories. But really. I don’t need a Ouija board. The guy couldn’t make it any clearer.

“I dislike Allegory”–Letter 131 to Milton Waldman

Yet anyone who’s been discussing Tolkien online for more than five minutes knows that someone will inevitably insist that Tolkien’s work is allegory. How do they overcome the clear statement of authorial intent, you might ask? My text for my epic fantasy course, Michael Graham’s Tolkien and Makers of Modern Epic Fantasy, (1) provides an insight into that: “It is fashionable for authors whose intentions are premeditated to suggest that their readers are putting too much in to the work. This is a luxury enjoyed by authors, since it permits them to play a deep game with their readers–a game upon which they and the reader (particularly the academician who lives on analysis) thrive.”

I wholly agree with the idea of approaching a work skeptically in all regards. But, at the same time, I find the blatant denial of an author’s stated intentions a little disrespectful.

“Oh, he couldn’t have meant that!” Oh no, sure, he didn’t! He only stated it how many times in letters to various individuals?

And let me be clear on something (because I can already hear the cries of “Hypocrite!” on the tongues of those with whom I tend not to see eye to eye): There is a huge difference between reading and interpreting a story in a way that makes sense and is meaningful for you and claiming that this particular view, unique to you, is really what the author meant all along.

In other words, if a reader picks up LotR for the first time and comes away overawed by the depth of the allegory presented therein, and this perceived allegory is what the reader finds beautiful and moving about the story, then who am I to argue with that? I’m not one to advocate for any “right” way to read a story. For that reader, there is allegory in the novel. However, it is another matter entirely for that reader to say, “Oh, yes, Tolkien carefully constructed that allegory!” and to insist on this despite evidence to the contrary. It’s rather cocky, actually. I may not always agree with an author on how her or his work should be interpreted and I reserve the right to see the story however it best makes sense to me, but I draw the line at insisting that my reading of the story trumps the author’s intentions. As an author myself, that just bugs me.

Furthermore, I find it ironic when Christian readers insist that Tolkien presented this grand allegorical call to the fold of Christianity through …


Even this agnostic knows the line, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” This agnostic didn’t know the Catholic catechisms on the subject, but I suspect that Tolkien might have been familiar with them. To suggest that Tolkien witnessed for Christ and then lied about it is simply absurd.

More realistic is exactly what Tolkien said he did: He created his stories as a philological playground for himself and achieved a depth to those stories that touched readers in a way he didn’t expect. Those readers took myriad meanings from his work, including allegory. But that doesn’t mean that he wrote the stories to be read that way.

I suspect, at times, that certain extreme factions of that broad and diverse (and not altogether intolerable) creature called Christianity simply cannot understand how Tolkien could have been so devoutly religious and, yet, that religion did not influence every last choice that he made in his fiction. Did it influence the values he advocated? Of course it did. Did it cause him to construct Frodo as a parallel to Christ? Not necessarily.

The wonderful thing about Tolkien’s stories–where C.S. Lewis and his blatant allegory often fall short for me–is that they appeal not to a Christian but to a human audience. In describing The Silmarillion to Milton Waldman (Letter 131), Tolkien says,

In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.

There, I think, explains the power of Tolkien’s stories to a human audience: He devoted his life to studying the stories of human history and so gained an intimate understanding of those founding truths that transform fiction from merely entertaining to profound and moving. His selection and shaping of those truths reflects his Christianity, no doubt, but they also speak to a wider audience in a way that stories confined by creed tend not to.

This issue is too complicated to cover in its entirety in a single post. Next up, how nuances of Tolkien’s fiction might get mistaken for allegory and a summary and debunking of common allegorical connections made.

Notes and Other Such

1. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, this text isn’t available outside of this course, since it was authored by the professor and printed and bound by the university. However, if anyone is desperate for it, I can inquire.


9 Responses to “Tolkien, Allegory, and the Maddening Perseverance of Denial”

  1. Oshun says:

    The question annoys me, but then I spent the greater part of daughter’s undergraduate years being annoyed. Poor kid made the mistake of majoring in the same area as her Mom!

    Apparently, the instructor wants you to argue about this? If that is true I hate that as a method: I’ll let you argue for days and make asses out of yourselves and then I will tell you what I have learned by studying the works in more detail than you have.

    How is allegory being defined? I would define allegory as an extended metaphor inserted into a story by the author. Things like people or actions or objects have meanings that are not explicitly expressed within the narrative. Allegory is conscious, unlike influences, cultural bias, or what the writer may or may not presume are commonly shared assumptions which might be present in either case.

    Are Tolkien’s letters part of the readings for the class? If not, then the question is a bogus setup from the get-go.

    Sorry you hit a nerve with me. I automatically mistrust teachers having shephered two kids through school in my recent past.

  2. Dawn says:

    The set-up (luckily!) was not to argue the point but to write a thoughtful summary of the reading. We are, of course, welcome to reply to other students’ postings, but in the course so far, only one student has made a habit of replying to other students’ postings. *innocent look*

    The text Tolkien and Modern Epic Fantasy covers a lot of what is discussed in texts beyond TH and LotR; the course is only eight weeks long and is undergrad, so delving into the Silm, HoMe, and Letters would be impossible. But I believe (and I doubt you’d disagree! :) that all of these are really necessary to understand Tolkien’s works. So far, I find that the text gives good coverage of those sources for understanding in full TH and LotR. The allegory chapter does mention Tolkien’s insistence that his stories are not intended as allegory and doesn’t really take one side or the other but presents arguments for both.

    The definition of allegory given is pretty much what you said. However, one complaint I have about the text is that, while it defines allegory “a systematic symbolism which is a form of extended metaphor,” it frequently points to instances of “allegory” that I’d sooner define as allusion, symbolism, or theme. For example, the “allegory of good versus evil.” Say what? It defies its own definition. I’ve found this rather odd and off-putting.

    In fact, I think that one of the reasons that people remain so bloody insistent that there is allegory in Tolkien’s stories is because they are mistaking other things for allegory. Tolkien admits that much of the construction of his mythos was based on his Catholic faith, but this doesn’t mean that the story is allegory. But I’m getting ahead of myself … that is the subject for my next post! :)

  3. Doc Bushwell/pandemonium_213 says:

    First, let me say I am so pleased to see your blog’s debut, and of course the tag “heretical loremaster” immediately drew me in.

    I’m home for lunch and a bit pressed for time since I have an FDA submission (FDA = a true bastion of Pharma-dûr, the “Watchers” if you will ;^)) hovering around my desk for this afternoon’s work, but allow me to pull out this quote from JRRT’s foreward of the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:

    “Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or view of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    Back later, but thought I’d toss that up as an addition to this excellent post. His comments on applicability absolutely ring true.

    Oh, and if you want any contributions from my usual screechy and heretical viewpoint (I’m sure people are sick of that by now), please let me know. :^)

  4. French Pony says:

    Well, let’s see if this will work with me using your e-mail address. Thank you for not minding about that — it’s not that I don’t love you, but you know my thing about not sharing my real name and e-mail (which contains at least part of my real name) with people I haven’t met in person.

    Anyway, on the subject of Tolkien and allegory.

    One of the things that is most wonderful about literary interpretation — or any interpretation, for that matter — is that you can look at works from so many different angles. The more angles you can use, the better the work. People find new meaning in texts all the time, throughout the ages, and their commentary, in turn, becomes another source of inspiring ideas. That’s how Torah begat Talmud, for instance.

    Tolkien certainly never intended any explicit allegory in his works, that’s for certain. But I think it was disingenuous of him to state categorically that there is no allegory there. That’s really not something that the author gets to decide. It’s the readers who look at the text and make connections. That’s part and parcel of engaging with the text, and it’s what makes readers want to come back to the text, the promise of new layers of meaning to be discovered there. Because each layer of meaning is reader-generated, there will never be any shortage of meanings, and the text will continue to have a life, in the sense that it will still engage readers.

    Tolkien’s comment that allegory lies in “the purposed domination of the author” is too simplistic. For simple and blunt allegory, he’s correct — John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm work this way. Bunyan and Orwell both had a specific point they wanted to make, and they used utterly transparent allegory to do it. But when works get more complex, then allegory becomes open to readers and other interpreters. What to make of 1930s operas such as The Emperor of Atlantis or Brundibar, for instance? Those works have agendas, but the allegory cannot be obvious — even veiled as it is, The Emperor of Atlantis was censored, and Brundibar was not performed outside of Terezin until many years after the war.

    Brundibar is an especially interesting case, because of its performance history. Opera companies have chosen to intensify the allegory, especially in the set design, by including Nazi imagery that the story itself doesn’t support, but is totally valid to anyone who knows the first thing about the work’s history. And yet, Maurice Sendak’s illustrations of the character of Brundibar conjure up more than just Hitler — there’s Napoleon in there as well, and also a childhood bully, and the old Austro-Hungarian emperors. The allegory works for each figure, precisely because so much of allegory depends on “the freedom of the reader” over “the purposed domination of the author.”

    I think it’s useless to look at a work and say, “the author did not insert purposeful allegory, and therefore there is none to be found here.” Allegory is a type of interpretation, and interpretation happens when readers bring their own imaginations to an active engagement with the text. People will find allegories, and so the chain of imagination will continue.

  5. Rhapsody says:

    I always would like to think (and perhaps I am wrong) that your personal background, beliefs you know will always colour what you read and process, but it also influences what you create (be it in well an athlete, artists ect ect.) The quote from Michael Graham is most true, it is an honour but for those writers still writing with a set of characters, honouring or allowing fanfic puts them in legal danger (think of Terry Pratchett being sued by a fan). What most certainly appeals to me as an author is what he says about connecting with readers in a different level. AS a reader I do take delight in discovering layers in a work of another and its great to get responses back going like: I am so glad you notice this and that.

    I may not always agree with an author on how her or his work should be interpreted and I reserve the right to see the story however it best makes sense to me, but I draw the line at insisting that my reading of the story trumps the author’s intentions. As an author myself, that just bugs me.

    I am so relieved to read this to be honest because it is something as a ff writer for relaxation mostly, is still something I don’t find that easy when it comes down to my own works. I can see why writers will feel annoyed when people will make such claims, however at the same time I can also see how my own background makes me look at things differently. For example when it comes down to allegory’s, I find it easier to see them based on old European myths than Christian allegory’s, but that has to do with my personal backpack. This is a great blog, much in nodding here :)

  6. Dawn says:

    Doc Bushwell–I thought you’d like the title! 😉 Thank you for the LotR quote; it is extremely apt and I, too, think his point on applicability is particularly relevant. As I noted in my reply to Oshun, I will likely be spending the next post rambling about the ways that I think allegory gets confused with other things that are probably more appropriately applied to Tolkien’s work.

    This also resonated with me: “Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or view of those who like allegory or topical reference.” This hearkens back to my point that an allegorical interpretation is not necessarily invalid; if a reader sees allegory then, to that reader at least, allegory is there. But claiming that the author is trying to deceive readers is, to me, disrespectful to that author and also very funny when the allegory that is being lied about is Christian.

    I would love to have your screeching on here whenever you feel the need to screed coming on. 😉 If ever you want me to toss something up here, please let me know. I will be creating a guest account for this purpose. If you’d like to post on a more regular basis, I can create an account for you.

    French Pony–You’re welcome regarding the email issue. Having the emails of commenters is not something I think I’ll need, but it’s part of the WordPress software, and I’m too incompetent where PHP/MySQL is concerned to chance taking it out and not collapsing the whole thing. 😉 I respect your views on sharing your email and always love your contributions to discussions, so I’m glad it could be worked out! :)

    I agree with you that it is not the author’s place to claim that there is no way for allegory (or any interpretation!) to be found in his or her writings. I’m not sure if Tolkien ever says this, per se; I really need to build a collection of his quotes on allegory since there are so many and this topic inevitably comes up. But, as a matter of satire and proving a point, I am trying to turn Tolkien’s writings into an allegory of Egyptian mythology. It’s meant as a joke, but someone for whom those myths formed the basis of their belief system, who saw great profundity in them, might really see a connection between green!Osiris and Gandalf the White. Surely, Tolkien didn’t intend this, but it doesn’t mean that, for that person at least, it’s not there.

    I do see Tolkien’s point on the allegory involving the “purposed domination of the author” if that allegory is intended by the author. By my understanding of allegory as a story that operates on two parallel levels–as a coherent story and also as an extended metaphor–than I don’t see how it couldn’t be purposeful and how the author isn’t choosing an interpretation that she or he hopes readers will see. But I also think that, in the “freedom of the reader” that he also notes in the same sentence, it is possible to find allegory where the author did not intend it. I don’t think it’s possible to allow that “freedom of the reader” in totality and also exclude finding allegory; allegory is a perfectly valid interpretation. To want to do otherwise is definitely, imho, an instance of having one’s cake and eating it too.

    Rhapsody–I completely agree with you that a reader brings his or her background into a story and that background colors that person’s interpretation of the story. I see Tolkien’s world through an agnostic’s eyes; someone for whom Christian mythology is the most moving story s/he knows is going to want to see reflections of that in the writings of someone who s/he knows shares the same beliefs.

    For me, this is part of what makes discussing literature so much fun. Talking about stories with people who see everything the way that I do is no fun at all! 😉

    But I do draw the line at confusing my own personal interpretations with the author’s intent. Lack of intent on the author’s part doesn’t make my interpretations any less valid, but I sometimes feel like readers believe their interpretations of a text less worthy if they do not come with a rubber stamp of approval from the author.

    I do see this matter coming into play with regards to fanfic as well. Authors that decry fanfic writers, in my opinion, do so in part because they don’t like to see interpretations other than their own taking hold. I’m sorry but, if you share your writing with an audience, this is cheating. :) If ever my work is good enough to be published and good enough to have fanfic written about it, I don’t doubt that there will be stories and interpretations that make me gnash my teeth, much as Tolkien gnashed his teeth whenever a reader found allegory in his stories. But, in the end, in turning my stories over to a readership, as you said in the start of your post, I am inviting them to come to my world with their own personal beliefs and experiences governing how they see my world. If I can’t stand that idea, I should keep my stories to myself where they can remain “pure” in interpretation forever.

  7. Lois says:

    I was almost put off reading LoTR by my year 7 english teacher telling us (upon completing The Hobbit as a set book) that it was an allegory of WWII with the ring as the atomic bomb.

  8. Dawn says:

    I’m finding it interesting to see replies from Europeans saying that the allegory attributed to LotR in their experience is historical/political while, in the US, it is religious. Hmmm … I see another post coming on! :)

  9. […] This is the second part of a continuing series on Tolkien and allegory. Part 1 can be found here. […]

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