A closely woven story

“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.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

Let’s start with the etymological roots of the word allegory. One definition suggests it originally meant the “figurative treatment of an unmentioned subject under the guise of another similar to it in some way” — in other words a fictional narrative which gave the nod to another without necessarily being specific. Via Old French and Latin we take the form of the word from Greek ἀλληγορία, allegoría when it referred to the use of figurative language. Its literal meaning — from ἄλλος “different” and ἀγορεύω “speak in public, in the agora” — thus means to say something while really alluding to something else.

In this respect allegory has a lot in common with concepts like symbol (a sign standing fro something else), parable (where a fiction has an explicit moral meaning) and fable (a story with animals standing in for humans, also with an explicit moral pupose). But the problem is that while some narratives which are often labelled thus by others are obviously so, others mayn’t have been planned as such a thing — the crucial issue is authorial intent. Thus in The Adventures of Pinocchio the author Carlo Collodi makes the moral intent (that Pinocchio must behave in order to become a real boy) fairly clear, reinforcing the message by borrowing biblical themes such as Jonah and the Whale, and the Descent into Hell; Tolkien, on the other hand, states that his work had no such authorial intent.

Meanwhile, there are certain allegories which are absolutely explicit in stating that they’re about something else: for instance, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come can’t be more clear in indicating its religious theme, whether in its title, a protagonist called Christian, or in its placenames. So too is C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: Tolkien’s disapproval of his friend’s fairly explicit indication that Aslan was an allegory of God is well known: “The incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write,” he declared in letter 237.

In letter 131 he reiterated “I dislike Allegory,” especially what he called conscious and intentional allegory, though he acknowledged that “any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language”; in other words, myth (in its broadest sense, one must assume) and fairytale have aspects of allegory about them, in that, like all fiction, they talk about something while alluding to something else: real life.

How do we make sense of Tolkien’s notion of the fantasy trilogy’s relationship to allegory? Perhaps a look at how medieval theologians viewed the interpretation of sacred texts might help, because when faced with those texts — the Bible especially, but other spiritual writings too — scholars saw them as operating in four areas.

  • A literal or historical interpretation would see a text in a past context — David defeating Goliath, say, or Jesus healing someone physically afflicted.
  • But there could also be a metaphor or figure of speech, a trope, to be drawn out, the function of which would be to stress an inherent moral meaning — the cockerel crowing thrice paralleling Peter’s denials, for instance.
  • A third dimension involves typology, defined as the study of symbolic representation in respect of the origin and meaning of types, particularly in sacred writings — this is true allegory, as when Christian’s pilgrimage is emlematic of Everyman’s journey through life en route to the Promised Land.
  • Finally we come to the anagogical interpretation, where the text is examined for its purely spiritual meaning, quite separate from any literal, allegorical or moral meaning.

Tolkien as a conscientious Catholic scholar would naturally have known of these four approaches but, as far as I can see, he was not always clear in his statements, especially where allegory was concerned. In letter 142 he wrote “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” This seems to imply that at its core the work was anagogical, and that this — while different in kind from Lewis’s Narnian allegory — means Tolkien was always aware at some level that his grand mythopoeic opus, of which the trilogy was part, spoke to his theological urge.

But then what are to make of this statement in letter 186? “Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power.” Here he is to some extent reiterating his stance in the 1966 Foreword while simultaneously contradicting his “cordial dislike” of allegory: the story of the Ring is not about the atom bomb or a specific global conflict, he suggests, for the saga itself is an allegory of power and who would wield it — whether Sauron, or Saruman, or Denethor, or even Frodo.

In his 1893 essay ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ George MacDonald famously emphasised that “a fairy tale is not an allegory,” though one could argue the case that it could be exactly this in the most general of senses, for fairytale protagonists to some extent are symbolic of any human being faced with dilemmas to overcome. But many fairytales have in fact an implicit morality, an assertion that righteous behaviour — moral courage, compassion, altruism and so on — brings equitable resolutions if not rewards. In just such a sense The Lord of the Rings can be regarded as a fairytale, and not just because of its magic: Frodo has to show those virtues that will impel him to travel to Mount Doom, show pity to Gollum, undertake the task that no one else will.

But for me, and doubtless for many other readers, what comes through — more than spirituality, morality or allegory — is the impression of an expansive saga with heroes and villains, hardship and delights, wonder and suspense. I’m talking of The Lord of the Rings as a pseudohistory set in a legendary past, much as we might regard the Odyssey, the Nibelungenlied or the Arthurian cycle. Along with the author we perhaps “much prefer history, true or feigned” to being told that the story should be interpreted as something other than it appears.

But note Tolkien’s subordinate phrase: to that true or feigned history is attached a “varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” I’m here referring to what’s called reader response theory, which proposes that the ultimate meaning of a text exists in the mind of the reader, not the author. Potentially this is, of course, a slippery slope, but it leaves the way open for the reader to interpret the text how it suits them, whether as a cracking story, a morality tale, an allegory or a work for spiritual contemplation. Tolkien was well aware of this seeming paradox, so it’s perhaps fitting to leave the final word with him, with thoughts from letter 109.

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.

Part of Talking Tolkien, ‘A closely woven story’ is a reflection on Tolkien’s 1966 Foreword to the one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings. Next, I want to put down some thoughts about the Prologue.

14 thoughts on “A closely woven story

    1. ‘A cracking story’ is also how I think of it, first and foremost, Sandra — and even though I’m going to be commenting a lot on my progress, book by book, I shall always bear in mind that the story’s the thing to focus on! I’m pausing at Rivendell at the moment while I take stock, discuss themes and review published commentaries.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart—like most academics he was able to hold contradictory ideas about literature (his own included) because nothing in creation is ever clear-cut, is it? 🙂 Even if you’re the demiurge of your own created world!

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  1. I’m a fan of reader response theory and want to mention that it doesn’t allow for any idiosyncratic reading of a text; an important part of it is the interpretive community–showing someone else the evidence that led you to draw your conclusions.

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    1. I clearly have misunderstood the collective nature of this response, so thanks for pointing this out. I hope however that my personal response isn’t / wasn’t too idiosyncratic, Jeanne, and had at least some evidence to back it up. 🙂

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  2. Akylina

    Wonderful article, as always, Chris! I find myself leaning towards allegorical interpretations of certain fantasy works more often than not, perhaps because I’ve always tried to convince others that fantasy works DO have merit and are actually discussing and challenging quite important topics. The readers response theory is certainly appealing, as it allows for a variety of interpretations. Each person, in the end, can have an entirely different takeaway from the same story.

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    1. Thanks, Akylina, I’m pleased you liked it! I think the term ‘allegory’ as a descriptor is a fraught one, with not as clear cut boundaries as the evident differences between, say, simile and metaphor.

      I think then that we all come to fiction — whether as readers or writers — with an expectation of a message of some sort. That message may be as trite as those picture memes that litter social media, or more subtle (too subtle?) that you have to think really hard to figure it out.

      In general I see allegory more as a sledgehammer to crack a nut — Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, for example, or Spencer’s The Fairie Queene. But I agree that each of us has our own take on a story; if, as Jeanne suggests above, my notion of reader response theory is too broad to be useful, such a response does need to be justified I guess otherwise we end up with “meh” being as valid a judgement as a closely argued thesis.

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  3. Really interesting post. I always read Tolkien (and at one point I read nothing but LOTR over and over) as an epic story which is wonderful at transporting you somewhere else. However, I do think there are elements of perhaps unconscious allegory – without wanting to give SPOILERS, The Scouring of the Shire seemed very much an anti-progress chapter. Look forward to your continuing posts!

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    1. I agree with you, Karen, that the Scouring of the Shire very much illustrates Tolkien’s reaction to change, a change he saw as being for the worse. But as allegory I’m less sure: within the story arc of the saga the Scouring is equivalent to Bilbo’s house being ransacked when he returns home in The Hobbit, and it’s generally accepted that Tolkien (consciously or unconsciously I have no idea!) patterned LOTR on its predecessor’s arc. But I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise!

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    1. I read several letters after borrowing a copy from the library, Beth, but I don’t have my own copy. Luckily relevant extracts appear online which I’ve used here. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography also has much of interest though research since that was published has added a lot more than I’m ever going to get acquainted with.

      I’m also ploughing my way through the first volume of The History of the Lord of the Rings in tandem with my reread, meaning it’s interesting to see how he chopped and changed his mind as he composed the narrative. But, as I say, I’m no Tolkien scholar so any comments I make will be impressionistic rather than deep analysis of primary sources!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek

    Well argued, I agree and I’m looking forward to reading your future posts on Tolkien… that’s a proper re-read!
    Tolkien was not as annoying as Rowling in her attempts to control her “canon”, but he clearly found it hard to accept that readers have the deciding vote…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad my arguments have passed muster, Piotrek! I’ve stopped temporarily at the end of Book I, halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, to take stock, do a couple of reviews and discussions, before moving on. Frodo’s (like Bilbo’s) journey took essentially a whole year, and that may well be how long my reread will take me this time! As for the allegor controversy, I don’t think I’ll have much to add in future — thank goodness. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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