There is a famous quote from J.R.R. Tolkien in which he states his hatred of allegorical writing.

"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."

Yet many people have found The Lord of the Rings to be a very obvious allegory for the First World War, or less obviously for the industrial revolution, the atomic age or for the Christian faith.

It's possible that people may be putting a meaning onto the work that was not in the author's intention. But this seems unlikely given Tolkien's level of learning and the very clear parallels with the world war. Did he really not intend it as an allegory? If so, how does this square with his dislike of allegory?

  • 1
    There is also a debate of which we have questions about, which would claim that there is nothing wrong with seeing meaning not intended by the author. – Benjamin Jan 26 '17 at 10:40
  • Isn't this a common phenomenon - critics reading into a work a lot of allegorical meaning which wasn't intended by the author at all? – Rand al'Thor Jan 26 '17 at 11:00
  • @Randal'Thor the parallels between LotR and the second world war are so strong that it's very hard to believe they were not deliberate. Especially given Tolkien's academic status. Perhaps the question would be better phrased if I included the first part of my answer, making the contradiction clear? – Matt Thrower Jan 26 '17 at 11:08
  • The key to understanding Tolkien is this quote: The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. - J. R. R. Tolkien in Letter 142. The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of World War I or World War II but is rather a Roman Catholic allegory. – leekonghian Oct 25 '17 at 7:14
  • In the question you mention "a very obvious allegory for the First World War" but in a comment you mention "the parallels between LotR and the second world war". Which is it? – user14111 Oct 25 '17 at 9:03
up vote 22 down vote accepted

It was an allegory because, in spite of his dislike, Tolkien felt it was necessary and inevitable that it should be one.

In several lesser-known quotes, the author freely admits that the tale is allegorical. Most clearly he states:

"Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power."

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #186

He also claims it is a religious work which, given that it has no connection to any real-life religion, can only be true if it can be read as an allegory of religion.

"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #142

So how do we square this circle?

The first is that another quote from Tolkien shows that he believed all myth was fundamentally allegorical in nature. Since one of his key purposes in constructing the legendarium around Lord of the Rings was to rebuild a lost English mythology it would be difficult for him not to write an allegory if this was his belief.

"I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language."

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131

He also believed that it was, to some extent, inevitable in the work of any author because it would surface through the subconscious. Or to put it another way, that allegory in literature was a failure only if it was created deliberately.

"The only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory. And one finds, even in imperfect human 'literature', that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easily it can be read 'just as a story'; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it."

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #109

So what are we to make of this in relation to The Lord of the Rings? His admission that the book was an allegory of power, while denying that it is one of atomic power offers a clue. In stating his dislike of allegory, he is using the term to mean a literal reading: that he dislikes stories which offer only a single, specific political or moral interpretation.

So, The Lord of the Rings can be read vaguely as an allegory of power, but not specifically of atomic power. Similarly, it can be read as an allegory of warfare, or of the struggle against evil, but not specifically of one of the World Wars. He wants his readers to relate to wide themes of human experience and not to narrow lessons on distinct events.

  • But those letters don't necessarily equate to it being allegory intentionally and directly. As he notes also it can be applied to many other things. And since the relevant chapter was written well before the Second World War and what it would show the world it absolutely isn't to do with said war. It's known that The Dead Marshes is inspired by his time at the Battle of Somme but that doesn't mean it's truly allegory. Now maybe that's what you're saying with 'vaguely' but what it comes down to is you can interpret it many different ways which is what he was saying with applicability. – Pryftan Jan 11 at 19:00

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