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.