“Oop! A Metaphor!” … or Accidental Allegories That Aren’t

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.

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8 Responses to ““Oop! A Metaphor!” … or Accidental Allegories That Aren’t”

  1. Oshun says:

    I have the attention span of a gnat. I am already losing patience with debunking the theory that Tolkien’s work is allegory. I think he wanted to write a ripping good story. He claimed he wanted to create a mythology. I think the stuff is Epic (and not in the classroom definition of the term) but in the aspect that it has inspired so many people to re-think fantasy writing and has influenced thousands of derivative works in last few decades.

    What was considered a guilty pleasure (reading Tolkien) and not quite respectable, when I was studying literature at the university level has become for your generation something to be studied and argued about. That’s quite an amazing leap in terms of academia.

    My little corner of that world is Tolkien fandom. There is a lot more I would like to write about and re-create from the perspective of my own worldview and particular interests. What never ceases to amaze/annoy me is that so many people chose in that environment to claim that among the different ways the author may have influenced individual writers’ imaginations, some are kosher and others just wrong.

    When I started my first major LotR fanfic novel (more than two years in the writing and still a WIP), I set it at the end of the Ring war and beginning of the Fourth Age and was greatly influenced by the social and cultural changes in the immediate post-WWI world (from Victorianism into the Jazz Age). I would say that what I was interested in examining, flew right in the face of Tolkien’s intent. While he looked back longingly to the past, I looked forward to examining a new world similar to the one where changes escalated beyond the fantastic for my grandparents.

    However, taking on a long novel, using a large number of Tolkien’s major characters, although I often call it dramedy or soap opera, forced me to want to learn the history of the world I was working in and to take a step back and really learn The Silmarillion and related unpublished works in order to feel more comfortable with my own heretical and wildly speculative extrapolations.

    How would Tolkien feel about that? Probably uncomfortable with what I am writing as result of taking his work so seriously and finding so much inspiration there. I quoted Mark Twain recently in a related discussion in another venue about how I approach Tolkien fanfiction. And it fits for me here: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” I think as much as anything that irritates me about the discussions of Tolkien’s work and what he meant by them, is how often the people who want to argue them most vociferously haven’t bothered to seriously study them.

  2. Dawn says:

    Oshun, I agree with you 100%. (As I’m sure you know. 😉 )

    It is often illustrative to me the sort of responses I get when I ask for clarification of different critiques of my stories. When people criticize the canon on which my writing is based, I usually justify my choice and then ask them for any evidence they have to nullify my interpretation in favor of their own. I’m really not trying to be passive-aggressive: I’ve been studying Tolkien’s world for four years now, pretty intensively, but I still don’t know everything! If something is truly wrong in one of my stories, I want to know.

    How many people have replied to these requests?

    Absolutely none.

    And these are not the Homers of the world either, on ff.net. I received some canon critique on the first chapters of AMC from well-respected writers and–being an absolute newbie at the time–asked from where their information came and got utter silence. Why? Because, doing my own research later, I discovered that the “facts” they were quoting me didn’t exist in canon.

    I know that people make mistakes. I have been on the verge of similarly embarassing myself in the past with canon critiques, except that I have a personal rule about offering canon critique without a quote to back up what I’m saying. It’s not unreasonable, given the amount of material with which we work, that we get mixed up as to what is canon, fanon, or simply personal interpretation. I think that what’s notable is the way people respond: viciously, as though there was something more at stake than a mere unpublishable story based on a fantasy novel, as though it must be their personal mission in life to convert all others who hold a different view to the “correct” way.

    I think, for me, what is the most frustrating about this is the way this sort of behavior in fandom bears such a strong resemblence to unchecked fervor and intolerance such as we see in “real life.” (And sometimes I do believe there is a connection.)

    As for how Tolkien would have viewed those of us writing in his world, I’m sure he would have seen us as part of–how did he say it?–the “deplorable cult” that grew up around his work. At the same time, if he did indeed aim to create a myth that would be developed collectively by other writers and artists after him, then I think he would have understood that not all who followed him in this task would have made the same choices that he did. I think that people who claim Tolkien is “spinning in his grave” over something done to one of his characters fail to understand that he studied medieval literature, and if anyone understood the modes by which stories are transmitted and retold and reshaped among people, then he would. As sure as they cite the fact that he was a Christian as justification for their own intolerance, that quickly they forget that he was also a scholar and, as some of the later revisions to his world suggest, at times a brutal realist.

  3. MithLuin says:

    I agree that the idea that Tolkien was ‘lying’ is pretty silly. That he knew his story was “really” about WWII or Christianity or whatever, but tried to hide or disguise that fact seems to be a very facile reading of the book he eventually wrote. And if so…he hid it really well! Generally, allegory jumps out more to someone for whom that world view is jarring, *not* to someone who agrees with it already. Most Christian children do not see any allegory in the Narnia stories, nor see the connection between Aslan and Jesus…until they are much older. Whereas non-Christian children catch on a bit faster, because certain parts of the story stick out.

    Like you, I am more comfortable with drawing comparisons than with blatant allegory. Meaning, you can say that Christ was priest, prophet, and king, and then show how Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn all are Christ-figures in a way…without suggesting that Tolkien sat down to create those characters to fit this model. The model is applied to the story, it doesn’t spring naturally from it (let alone form it). So, yes, you can get some pretty profound things out of how Frodo’s journey through Mordor is, in a way, like a Christian pilgrim learning to let go of more and more along the way. But all you can say is explicit in the text is that Tolkien made that journey *spiritual* by the way he wrote it. The comments on waybread, and the ideas Sam wrestles with point at more than just enduring hardship and privation. But in a general way, not a specific-enough-to-be-allegorical way.

    George Macdonald, C. S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien all used the imagery of bread and wine as spiritual food and drink in their works…but in different ways. In “The Princess and Curdie”, the sick king is taken off the poisonous diet his corrupt councillors are feeding him, and put on a much ‘healthier’ diet of fresh-baked bread and wine. The parallel to Christian communion is hardly difficult to make. I enjoy Macdonald very much, and don’t see his work as terribly moralizing or anything, but this particular element is clearly lifted from his religious beliefs. Its role in the story seems allegorical to me.

    Lewis feeds the same diet to Ransom after his return from Venus in ‘That Hideous Strength,’ but here it is allusion to the book I just mentioned! Ransom mentions the ‘Curdie’ books when explaining why he can’t eat normal food any more. So, while Lewis clearly intended to give this choice religious overtones, he got to it rather indirectly.

    And then there is Tolkien, who gifts his Fellowship with lembas from Lothlorien and miruvor from Rivendell, to strengthen the weary travellers on their way. While he was well aware of what ‘bread and wine’ would mean (and included that phrase in ‘On Fairy-stories’), he separated them here. First one, then the other. They are clearly ‘spiritual’ in that they represent the goodness of the elves (Gollum cannot eat lembas). But…is this merely a ‘communion is good for you’ message? Is it a simple cut-and-dry lifting of a symbol from one part of life (religion) and plopping it into another (this story)? No. Tolkien himself found communion very important, and I am sure he was…comfortable…with lembas taking on a spiritual dimension. But in reality, it fit a needed role in the story – how was he going to feed these people for months on end on a long journey when they couldn’t realistically carry that much food on their backs? It’s a much more integral part of his story, and can be explained from within without any reference to Christianity.

    *That* is why it is not allegory. Not to mention that he would be *horrified* if anyone were to draw an explicit parallel between lembas and the body of Christ (which is what communion is to Catholics). [I know you’ve just finished saying that claiming I know what this guy thinks about something isn’t exactly fair…but in this case…well, I think it is a somewhat-fair assertion.] So, yes, you can draw a comparison, and talk about how elvish waybread is a ‘spiritual’ food because it refreshes the spirit while satisfying hunger, and is more potent alone….but you can’t honestly say that ‘lembas is really just communion’ because that wouldn’t really fit.

    For the war stuff…there are supposedly tearstains on the part of the manuscript where he describes the Dead Marshes, and this has been taken as evidence that the description was based on his personal experience of the Somme. That may very well be the case, but it doesn’t make the book an allegory for any particular war. It’s allowed to have illusions and references to various battles, and that makes his battle descriptions better. But I will not address the idea of the Ring as the atom bomb, because I think anyone who sees it as that (and only that) is missing the whole point of the story. Yes, yes, it’s a powerful weapon. But it’s never used as one, and what makes it interesting has a lot more to do with revealing personal lust and other such things. I was much more comfortable with the movie interpretation of the Ring as a drug and Gollum as a junkie.

  4. Dawn says:

    Mithluin … *applauds* That was a wonderful comment that has said so much that I have been trying (less successfully) to say. As I was reading, I was thinking, “This should be a Heretic Loremaster post, not just a comment!”

    I liked your idea on allegory appearing more obvious to those who aren’t expecting it (like the Christian allegory of Narnia seeming obvious to non-Christians while just a comfortable familiarity to Christians). This is an interesting thought and seems to reflect my experiences, certainly. Certain aspects of the most recent Narnia movie jarred me pretty hard because, as a non-Christian, they seemed really blatant. I still enjoyed the movie as a fantasy fan, but those allegorical moments really jumped out at me.

    And thank you for reiterating the point that a deeply moving personal experience might reflect in one’s writing without being allegory. Another Man’s Cage–which I’d say has probably moved more people than any of my stories–was terribly personal in places. I worked out a lot of my personal demons on that story. That doesn’t make it allegory; that makes me human and it the artistic creation of a human mind.

  5. Doc Bushwell/pandemonium_213 says:

    Dropping in late to the party here. I have meant to comment on this entry for some time now.

    I know when I am bested in experience and knowledge.

    Heh. OK, this made me snort. Yes, bested by Norton. Worship it and despair! :^D

    You hit the metaphorical nail on the head when you note that allegory is not the same thing as theme and how important inspiration and life experience are in what an author writes. Certainly my life experience colors how I read Tolkien these days.

    Without going into specifics, I noticed a couple of reviews of Trinity in which the reader interpreted my fic as stating that the One Ring was an allegory for the atomic bomb. Although readers are free to interpret what they will through the lenses of their experience, that was not my intent as the author. Rather, I used Tolkien icons and contemporary icons (both man and device) to examine both the sublime and the horror of technology and the responsibilities that inventors must bear — a far more complex issue that simply the One Ring = the atomic bomb.

    Certainly, Tolkien’s attitudes toward technology are abundantly clear in his work. The Ring is the Ring and the Silmarilli are the Silmarilli, but the themes of power and “delving too deeply into knowledge” are as applicable to these artefacts of JRRT’s world as they are to Oppenheimer’s magnum opus.

    I really should not have made the “highly allegorical” comment in the story’s intro since that is misleading and semantically inaccurate.

    MithLuin’s discourse on lembas is excellent!

    But yes, back to the point…it strikes me as having more than a bit of chutzpah to state that JRRT was misleading in stating that his story was not to be read as allegory. He did allow the applicability interpretation and that I can happily buy into.

  6. MithLuin says:

    *blushes*

    Thanks, you two!

    Obviously, the lembas-stuff was something I’ve written about before, in various messageboard discussions. I was just distilling it here. Tolkien had a rich understanding of symbols and language, and that is why so many people learn a love for trees and stars just by reading his stories. But this means that the stuff he writes about is real in and of itself, without merely ‘standing’ for something in the primary world.

    I’m not sure how I would feel being an honorary ‘Heretic Loremaster’ – after reading the blurb at the top, I like the connotation, but I’ve generally enjoyed being Orthodox and sticking to canon ;).

  7. Dawn says:

    Pandemonium: At the peril of becoming to analytical ;), I read “Trinity” as being about the creators of the items in question and not about the items themselves: the responsibility and guilt one bears at having his or her work turn into a blight upon his or her people. Limiting it to allegory as simple as “One Ring = atomic bomb” ruins much of what is best about that story, which is its complexity in terms of human experience and, from that, the ability to empathize with such creators and gain a greater understanding of them beyond the black-and-white “he did it ’cause he’s evil” explanation that people seem to like.

    A simple allegory is flat; it allows no reader interaction with the story beyond connecting dots to reveal the author’s intent. Imho, of course.

    I think the greatest chutzpah comes from those who argue that Tolkien lied about constructing a Christian allegory. That’s a lesser form of “killing for Jesus.”

    MithLuin: You’re very welcome!

    If the Heretic Loremaster isn’t your cup of tea, you’re always welcome to write about lembas (or whatever) for the SWG …

    (Yes, I am shameless! ;))

  8. Doc Bushwell/pandemonium_213 says:

    I read “Trinity” as being about the creators of the items in question and not about the items themselves

    But of course! The author might just have intended that. :^D

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