Allegory and Applicability

Tolkien's Cover Designs for the First Edition ...
Image via Wikipedia

Watching the Lord of the Rings movies has renewed my interest in a topic I ponder and flirt with, every few years.   The question is, “In what sense is Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

There is a huge debate on this topic.  People who get excited about these things tend to have pretty polarized answers to the question.

Knowing that he fought in World War I, and wrote much of the trilogy through World War II, who could deny that the author’s experience didn’t shape them:  War is central to the books.  It’s hard to imagine that these experiences wouldn’t shape the books.  But as I thought about this, the thing that occured to me is that niether side of the debate has any reason to deny that Tolkien’s experiences shaped the book.

The most famous quote from the author himself seems to fly in the face of those who want the series to be an allegory.  Tolkien said: 

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.

I think the whole debate is answered in these couple sentences.  It’s all about a wider question: What is allegory?

Tolkien views allegory as something intended by the author; a thorough and consistent way of understanding symbols through out a series with the intent of controlling how the reader understands the story.

If we use the strict, narrow definition of Tolkien, it seems tough to make the case that it is an allegory.

First off, the most obfious symbols seem to paint a picture of atleast 2 (maybe 3) different stories.  There are elements of the Christian story lurking in the books.  But there are also elements of World War I.  And then again, there is maybe even some World War II.

And even these three stories don’t mantain a lot of consistency.  For example: Who is the Christ figure in the books?  Is it Gandalf, who comes back from the dead to lead the heroes?  Is it Frodo, who takes on the sin of the world (i.e. the ring) to destroy it?  Is it Aragon, a king returning to his throne, blessed with healing powers?  Is it Sam, the silently suffering servant? 

World War I, Camp Meade, MD, 1917-1918
Image by Center for Jewish History, NYC via Flickr

If one calls Lord of The Rings an allegory in the strictest sense, it’s a problem that there are multiple Jesus figures.  It’s also a problem that Frodo, Sam, Aragon, and Gandalf all make errors and sometimes behave in un-Christlike ways: Not only does LOTR contain multiple Christ figures, it also lacks a single figure who consistently acts as a Christ figure.

This is a marked contrast with, for example, the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Aslan is consistently a Jesus figure.  And really, he’s the only Jesus figures.  The whole series seems designed to be a microcosm of the biblical account of the world.  

It doesn’t drift too far from what we often mean by allegory, though, to define an allegory as a work where nearly every element stands for something else, in some other account or story.  Understanding the historical details of an author’s life often helps to untangle what these things might be.

World War I, for example, was the first war ever fought on this scale.  It was the first to cause wide-spread environmental devestation.  It was the first with any meaningful air combat.  Knowing these things gives us reason to see the combat in the books differently.  In the book, the whole world is pulled in.  Massive environmental damage is wrought.  Death reigns down from the skies.

It seems to me the Elves often represent the United States: a distant country, possed of superior might, considering isolating itself for ever.   Even while Frodo and Sam might be at least two representations of Jesus, the Hobbits as a whole might represent the common person, whose importance in WWI and WWII was established by virtue of the need for such tremendous number of troops.

Tolkien, I think, is calling all these representations of other things applicability.  He doesn’t seem to care much about whether or not these were intended.   There is wisdom in that position.   How could Tolkien avoid writing, on some level, about World War I, whether he intended to be writing about it or not?

I think that the people who deny that the series is an allegory are responding to the idea that one consistent story quiet specifically intended by the author does not live underneath the story.  People who assert that the stories are allegorical are reacting to the idea that the books are crammed full with what Tolkien calls applicabalitiy.  Though they don’t form a single consistent narrative, the most obvious readings all fold nicely together into a fairly small number of stories. 

Both groups are right, I think; and in the end it all comes down to what we mean by allegory.




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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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