24

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?

7
  • 3
    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
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 10:40
  • 9
    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
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 11:00
  • 3
    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
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 9:03
  • 3
    It sounds to me like a question of degree. Perhaps Tolkien meant that he disliked a story intended as an argument, in which this element of the story stands for this element of reality and so on, so that the author is taking sides in a real-world debate. Of course interesting stories usually bear some general analogy to real moral choices, or real emotional conflicts, for example.
    – Chaim
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 15:11
  • 2
    He specifically does not say that he "hates" allegory, but that he "dislikes" it. Despite that, some of his work, such as "Leaf by Niggle" is clearly allegorical.
    – TRiG
    Commented Aug 21, 2021 at 18:50

6 Answers 6

35

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.

1
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 19:00
10

You're confusing allegory with applicability. Allegory implies authorial intent while applicability is up to the reader. Tolkien understood that applicability was out of his control. Readers can see things in writings that the author maybe never considered. But he was annoyed when people tried to read into his work and make out what kind of person he was.

1
  • 1
    Of course, but at the same time Tolkien clearly saw his work as an allegory: he says as much in the opening quote from the accepted answer. So there's clearly more to unpack here.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 9:54
6

There are different types or "levels" of allegory. Some are stricter, and others are looser.

A frequently cited example of the strict type of allegory is The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678).

The Pilgrim's Progress is a story about a man named Christian who is trying to get to the Celestial City. He takes directions from a man named Evangelist, is almost led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman, teams up with Faithful and Hopeful, gets captured by the giant Despair who traps him in the Doubting Castle for a while, etc., etc.

Every person and event in the book is a stand-in for one particular thing or concept, and nothing else. It's like one of those political cartoons where everything is labeled. Bunyan wants the readers to know exactly what he is getting at in every scene, no more and no less.

This, I believe, is the kind of "purposed domination of the author" that Tolkien rejected.

Certainly, you can draw connections between the Lord of the Rings and, say, Christianity or the World Wars. There are parallels: some were conscious on Tolkien's part, some were presumably unconscious, and some were completely accidental. But the story can stand on its own two feet without them. Gandalf may be like Jesus, in that he sacrifices himself and is resurrected, but he is not a stand-in for Jesus; the Ring might be like an atom bomb, in the sense that it is a unique and dangerous weapon that could turn the tide of a war, but it is not meant to represent The Bomb and nothing else. (Actually, it wasn't meant to represent The Bomb at all. That's one of the accidental ones.)

The point is that you don't have to be "in on the joke", so to speak, to appreciate Tolkien's work.

I prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.

History doesn't demand you read it in one particular way, even if the people living it out had some very definite interpretations in mind. It is complex enough to allow for analysis and debate and multiple interpretations, as opposed to a dreary game of "Oh, X is meant to represent Y." The Lord of the Rings is very much a "feigned history", which is what makes it so enduring. With a work like Pilgrim's Progress, the reader gets the distinct impression that nothing exists, or can exist, outside the immediate demands of the author's symbolic scheme. The Lord of the Rings, quite simply, feels more real than that.

4

The Lord of the Rings is only an allegory in the eyes of (some) readers and critics; JRRT himself set out to write an adventure, a sequel to The Hobbit, in fact, a story for children. This is still very visible in the early chapters "An Unexpected Party" and "Three's Company" - that damn fox is a prime example.

But, as he himself wrote, the "tale grew in the telling," and became the masterpiece we have today. But at no point did he intend anything specific the Third Age of Middle-earth to "stand for" anything in specific in the modern age (which he referred to as the Sixth or Seventh in his correspondence).

As someone who believes that the Author has no privileged position in interpreting a text, I hold that anything a reader in good faith finds in the text is a legitimate interpretation.

But it is only an interpretation, and should not be confused with the text itself, or with the Author's intentions.

-2

After listening to Jordan B. Peterson’s critique of later Disney movies I wonder if the answer is allegory is necessary but mustn’t be intensed or propaganda. For example he lives and breathes Catholicism so it comes out of his writing but maybe he wasn’t writing it with the purpose of convincing people to believe or do certain things. He didn’t write it to manipulate but to inspire. Maybe it is kind of a paradox. For in theology of the Body the purpose is freedom and redemption of the body but it’s not to manipulate or control or even tell people what to do with their bodies but to free them so that they may choose to love with the love that God intends. Maybe his stories too are not to tell us what to do but inspire reveal the deeper meaning of life... meaning that we will only discover by living the adventure.

1
  • 1
    Hello, and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange! Could you perhaps add some sources to support your theories? Thanks!
    – auden
    Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 3:12
-2

I think it is clear that Tolkien did not dislike allegory at all. It follows that the comment in a later foreword was made after pressure from his publishers because, of course, German people were great fans of the trilogy and he needed to be distanced from been seen as criticizing their culture.

2
  • 3
    It doesn't seem clear to me. Could you edit to add sources that would support your take?
    – CDR
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 16:15
  • Your answer as it stands is asserting and unfounded opinion without the proof 1.Regarding your first sentence: the question justifies Tolkien's qualified dislike of allegory.So you would need to justify your position with backing up proof for your claim.2.Likewise saying 'it follows' in the next sentence needs justification by appropriate evidence not just another unsupported claim about pressure from publishers and German fans' appreciation of the trilogy .
    – schweppz
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 8:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.