Many people who read look for symbolism. This is a natural way of interpreting literature – to look for how books relate to real life. In many cases, the author encourages this use of symbolism. In other cases, readers view all symbols as allegory – e.g., Aslan, Harry Potter, Meg, and Frodo are all Christ-like figures who must sacrifice themselves to save others. Yet, while many authors seem comfortable in having their works described as allegory, it was a description that J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected while at the same time acknowledging there were certain symbolic parallels of his faith in the myth he created.
As I noted in my last article, I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an avid letter-writer, and it is here, rather than in his fiction, that he explains his religious and literary ideas. For many people, one of his most surprising views is that he detested allegory and chafed whenever anyone described Lord of the Rings as allegorical. “I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” he plainly stated in 1951 when shopping LOTR to several publishers. Most likely, he was thinking of the very specific definition of allegory as used in Medieval literature, in which everything in a story represents something else. Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the best-known allegory, although it dates after the Middle Ages. The point Tolkien makes may be a fine one, but it reflects his strict use of literary terms and his view of intentionality. People today use the term allegorical to mean anything written with any message in mind expressed as symbols, but in Tolkien’s time the more formal definition was more common. In any case, Tolkien repeatedly said he did not write the books to make a religious or political point. For those who believed the book was about World War II, he was quick to point out that he started planning LOTR some three years before the war started. While he did not deny certain innate elements of his belief came through, he intentionally avoided the topic of religion. There are no temples among the denizens of Middle Earth because God exists mainly in the background.
Tolkien was more comfortable describing LOTR as myth or fairy story, which he argued were also important for adults as for children. “Fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism,’ and in some way more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale,” he wrote a magazine editor in 1956. He wished to create a story with a history and background so realistic (what he called “mythopoeic”) that the truth it reflected would not be readily apparent. At the same time, Tolkien himself had earlier acknowledged that the use of allegorical language and symbols were unavoidable, and that, the better a story, “the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations,” and the better allegory is written, “the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.” In this sense, Tolkien accepted that his stories did have a meaning that related to the real world, which crept in despite no intent on his part to do so. In short, he did not deny that his mythical world reflected his personal views, but the fact he did not try to make this a point is what made it so effective.
When asked what he thought was the meaning of LOTR, Tolkien acknowledged three issues in which his story reflected reality: Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. The idea of a fall was perhaps most prominent. Decline of peoples due to a moral failure is a frequent theme in history, from Atlantis to Rome. It is also a biblical theme harkening back to Eden. The mythos of the Valar, the corruption of the Elves by Morgoth and then Sauron, and the corruption of Numenor by Sauron are all examples of deception of people resulting in the destruction and fall of nations living in veritable paradise. In LOTR, the corruption of Saruman, of Theoden, and of Denethor follow this theme. A major part of the drama was trying to prevent a fall and then how to address a fall.
Another area that greatly concerned Tolkien was the overarching concern with mortality. He created two different categories of peoples with different timelines – elves and mayar, who are both eternal; and man, hobbits, and dwarves, who are not. For man, the great temptation was always to gain immortality; for the elves, the focus was preventing the passage of time and death of the mortal world and beings. This also reflects Eden, since the original temptation was for man to become like God. This remained the great temptation throughout the LOTR and its myth and is the subject of considerable commentary. Is it worth Arwen giving up immortality to marry Aragorn? Do the eternal people wish to pass to the West or remain and keep a hold on Middle Earth? Elven realms, such as Imladris and Lothlorien, existed as strongholds where nothing ever changed. In the end, however, they all passed to the West, leaving only mortal men, for this was their destiny.
Finally, Tolkien saw a great struggle of machinery against nature. For Tolkien, the machinery of Sauron and Saruman tried to change nature to give them advantage, but they ended up destroying everything that made fighting worthwhile. He likewise argued that magic was a type of machinery, for it sought to change the natural order to gain dominance of others. This was not the case with what some called elven magic, for they were simply using their natural abilities to create things of beauty consistent with nature. It was the use of power to dominate that defined magic. Thus, many saw the machinery of Sauron and Saruman as magic, while Tolkien saw it as a type of machinery because it tried to achieve the same purpose. For example, use of rings to maintain life unnaturally or control others was the type of machinery against which Tolkien fought. So also in the real world, where people use science to unnaturally extend life, technology to create an artificial world, and political manipulation to control others. Tolkien condemned these as heartily as he did the magic of the enemy in LOTR.
Thus, while Tolkien denied that the LOTR was an allegory, he admitted that it reflected his views in specific areas, such as his view of fall, of the temptation of immortality, and the desire to use nature instead of working within it. In fact, all fairy tales and myths reflect a certain reality, which is that there are powers greater than us that work all things together for our good. Despite his protestations that his tale had any allegorical meaning, it nevertheless reflected his views. All art reflects the views of its creator – it is impossible for it not to, for what we create naturally contains an imprint of ourselves. Such is the nature of art, creation, and literature.
© 2021 J.D. Manders