Tuesday, March 21, 2017

25 Days of LOTR - Day 21

Priest, Prophet, King

It's time for me to drag out the two quotes I basically have memorized because I always bring them up whenever I write anything Tolkien related!  Yay!

“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.”  -Forward to the Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

"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's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth by Bradley Birzer

Person Wearing Orange Holding Pen and Book 

Do these quotes seem contradictory to you?  How can Lord of the Rings have Catholic themes if it's not an allegory?  How can Tolkien not have written an allegory?

There are two misconceptions readers get about Tolkien and allegory.  Either a) his stories really have no meaning and are just long tales, or b) it is completely an allegory.

It is my position that both of these ideas are wrong.

First of all, it is possible for a story to have themes and morals and not be an allegory.

I think Tolkien's point is that for a story to be an allegory, there is going to be one way to interpret it.  Once you figure out the key or crack the code, you completely understand the story.

It's like the author buried the meaning underneath some dirt and once you dig through enough dirt, you will hit the moral.

Green Leafy Plant Starting to Grow on Beige Racks

The problem with this is that you cast all the dirt aside as you dig.  Once you are all the way down to the moral, the story itself has been tossed by the wayside and really is not important anymore.

I think what Professor Tolkien attempted to do, was, rather than bury something a reader must dig up, he planted a seed deep within his story that would entwine its roots all around the soil.

You can no longer tear up the soil, or story, and cast it away, because it would mean throwing away the plant--or the themes--with it.

Similarly, you cannot extract the theme from the story and set it apart because taking it from the soil would kill it.

 Both the story and the message, as the soil and the plant, are inextricable from each other and must exist together.

hands, macro, plant

The Lord of the Rings is also different from many allegories because there is not a one to one substitution.  It used to be very popular to just think of The Lord of the Rings as a thinly veiled reference to WWII.  When people read with this strict idea, the actual story sort of got tossed out.  Suddenly, the One Ring of Power = Nuclear energy and Hitler = Sauron, or whatever comparisons people made.

This is a great misfortune, because once you assume that this is the only intended meaning, you will miss out on so many more levels buried in the story.  You effectively are pulling out the plant and leaving the soil of the story behind.

Not only that, but this theory chooses to ignore whatever parts of the story do not work with the original idea.  It's like ripping out parts of the plant and leaving bits and pieces behind.  No bueno!

So what do I believe is the correct way to read Tolkien?

adult, blur, book

I will use the particular examples from what Tolkien said about it being a fundamentally Catholic work to elaborate on my theory.

The first step is to acknowledge that there are themes to be had.  Tolkien has many layered and rich themes in his stories that we should pay attention.

The second step is to realize that there is no one to one substitution.  Some elements of the story might point one way, others may show something else.  Be careful not to over simplify!  For this specific example, that means that we are probably not going to look for a one to one representation of Christ or anything like that, but we can look for Christ-like themes and ideas.

The three main characters that show Christ-like aspects are Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf.

This is a fairly common observation that has been commented on many times, so I will just briefly summarize it here.

Brown Jesus Artwork

Frodo shows Christ's priest like attributes.  The priest is someone who offers up a sacrifice, just as Frodo offers up the Ring as a great sacrifice at Mt. Doom.

Gandalf highlights Christ's prophet like attributes.  He comes to Middle-earth with the good news that if they choose to do good, they can save Middle-earth from it's impending doom.  Like the prophets, he is not met with hospitality all the times, and is always on the road going from one place to another.  He must rely on his counterparts in the West to take care of him, just as Christ calls on us to do when he speaks of the birds of the air whose heavenly Father takes care of.

Aragorn shows Christ's role of king.  He finally reclaims his throne and brings peace to his realm as a loving and respected man.

So none of these characters provide a one to one substitution for Christ, but each of them have Christ like elements we can learn about.

The fact is that since there is no direct comparison, we cannot throw out the story because it is all important.  But there are still themes and messages to be found within the soil.

agriculture, backyard, blur


  1. I don't think of it as Allegory at all (for one thing, I shouldn't dare to contradict Tolkien on the subject of his own work). Really, there is only one story to be told, and so everything will have 'allegorical' elements. There's going to be a villain, and all villains are, in the end, modelled after Lucifer himself. There are going to be good guys, and the good guys will sacrifice something (whether it's their life, or something more trivial). And war between good and evil, is going to be a retelling of THE war between good and evil. Any created universe, must have some sort of creator.
    As Tolkien said "many confuse applicability with allegory". Any hero is going to bear similarities to THE Hero. Any sacrifice will look like His sacrifice. That does not make it an allegory. Tolkien wanted to create a mythology, and he came pretty close. But the thing is that mythology (in so much as it concerned 'the gods) was TRYING to explain things; there was a mystery. After Christ, these things have been explained. There is no mystery. But Tolkien created the closest approximation he could (ahem, the Silmarillion). He even got a bunch of conflicting stories and different translations that confused all of us poor fools trying to figure it all out...which is one thing that mythology is known for.

    1. Interesting ideas there, thanks for sharing.

  2. Good article! You might enjoy this one as well - it doesn't specifically concern Tolkien but it does get at the heart of the relationship between allegory and fantasy.


  3. I love your analogy about the seed with its roots intertwined with the soil! That's the most vivid and effective description of the relationship between Tolkien's themes and his story that I've ever heard.

    - Ellen