This is the second part of a continuing series on Tolkien and allegory. Part 1 can be found here.
A lot of times, when people talk about allegory and Tolkien, I suspect they are talking about something different from how I see allegory and probably how Tolkien saw it too. To be fair, even the experts have a hard time agreeing on what constitutes an allegory. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an allegory is “The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.” According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 1, 8th edition), allegory is
saying one thing … and meaning another. … Allegories may be momentary aspects of a work, as in metaphor (“John is a lion”), or, through extended metaphor, may constitute the basis of a narrative, as in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; the second meaning is the dominant one.
“But there it is!” I can hear my detractors cry. “Right there in Norton! ‘Allegories may be momentary aspects of a work.’ Surely, even she won’t argue with Norton!”
And they’re right; I won’t. I know when I am bested in experience and knowledge. But it’s a non-issue: Momentary aspects of a work aren’t what I am questioning here. When someone says that The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory or an allegory to World War II, she or he does not mean that The Lord of the Rings contains metaphors. This is simply ridiculous. Nearly all creative works contain metaphors yet all creative works, as a whole, are not allegories. Tolkien’s famous line from The Fellowship of the Ring–“The dragon passed like an express train”–may be a metaphor, or a “momentary allegory,” if you will, but it does not make Fellowship as a whole an allegory about mid-20th century advancements in transportation.
No, when people talk about Tolkien’s stories acting as allegories–and when Tolkien denies this–they are talking about the second definition Norton gives: “extended metaphor … the basis of a narrative.” They are alleging that Tolkien’s stories as a whole have either Christian or historical parallels and act as extended metaphors to express them. This is what I am debating.
Yet, in the discussion of Tolkien and allegory, I frequently see people making points that hit rather off the mark from this definition of allegory. Many times, they bring up valid points in defending Tolkien’s works as allegories … except that the points they bring up have nothing to do with allegory!
First, allegory is not the same thing as theme. “Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring may be read as an allegory about the struggle between good and evil,” I read recently. Not at all. One of the major themes of all of Tolkien’s works is, of course, the struggle of good versus evil (and, ultimately, the triumph of good), but Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring is hardly a metaphor for that. No, it is a direct example of how forces of good and evil work in Tolkien’s world, much in the same way that dropping an apple isn’t an allegory for gravity but a demonstration of it.
Much like the point I made about “momentary allegory,” all creative works have a theme. That does not make all creative works into allegories.
Perhaps more importantly, though, and the more challenging distinction: inspiration is not allegory. Tolkien was a Christian and a veteran of World War I. It takes a Tolkien ignoramus indeed to assert that 1) Tolkien’s religious beliefs didn’t influence the construction of his world and 2) his brutal portrayal of war can’t be explained at least in part by his combat experiences. But neither is the question here.
In Letter 142 to Robert Murray, Tolkien writes, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” But does this mean that it is an allegory? No. It means that the morals and values the work glorifies are in keeping with the Christian–and particularly the Catholic–faith. The actions of characters like Frodo champion sacrifice and forgiveness, both tenets of mainstream Christianity. His villains and antiheroes alike are often brought low by their wrath, pride, and envy, sins against which Christians are cautioned in Christian teachings.
Or, to put it differently, we do not see Tolkien advocating for values not prescribed by Christian teachings. We don’t see him making an argument that satisfaction of one’s lusts is acceptable and that it is really the influence of our culture that causes jealousy and pressures us to accept monogamy. We don’t see him arguing that brilliant, strong-willed characters like Sauron and Fëanor should be allowed to pursue their studies to whatever ends they take and that, ultimately, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is itself virtuous. No, the lessons one takes from Tolkien’s stories fit nicely within what Tolkien believed as a Christian. If it would have been controversial to bring up in church, it isn’t in his stories.
Later, in the same letter to Robert Murray, Tolkien writes, “For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know.” In other words, it is the depth of his belief in the Christian faith that led him to create a story glorfying its ideals and values without conscious realization. The lack of realization alone disqualifies allegory. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oops, I’ve created a metaphor!” … at least not on the grand scale necessary to maintain an allegory across a whole work.
Through this, though, I would like to reemphasize a point that I made in Tolkien, Allegory, and the Maddening Perseverance of Denial that came up in the comments there as well. I am not denying you your right to read Tolkien’s works as an allegory if this explanation makes sense of those works for you. Nor am I saying that an interpretation of Tolkien’s writings as allegory is wrong. I don’t believe that there is any “right” or “wrong” interpretation where literature is concerned, even if that interpretation is in direct conflict with what the author says she or he intended. What I do debate is the idea that Tolkien intended his works to serve as an allegory and reader insistence that his denial of this fact is deliberate deception on his part.
Next time, I’ll debunk some popular Tolkien “allegories.” One of my theories regarding Tolkien and allegory is that what appears to a reader not well-versed in his canon to be a clear allegory often has a better explanation in Tolkien’s own canon or Legendarium. In the meantime, if you have any ideas for allegories to debunk, feel free to suggest them in a comment.