There has always been controversy whenever the word allegory is mentioned around the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien didn't like any form of allegory being associated with this work, especially that of World War II or the allegory of nuclear weapons and their power.
He said so;
"As for any inner meaning or message, it has in the intention of the author, none. It is neither allegorical nor topical." [LotR p.2 preface to 2nd edition],
"There is no 'allegory', moral, political or contemporary in the work at all." [Letters p.232]
In fact one of his criticisms of C.S. Lewis's work upon reading it for the first time was that the; "...message was too obvious."
But at the same time, Tolkien referred to the masterpiece of the Lord of the Rings as;
"...a fundamentally Catholic and Religious work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." [Letters p.172]
This isn't a contradiction, and is important.
After writing that the story has no inner meaning, Tolkien explains in a variety of different sources that certain aspects of his life did indeed find its way by default into his writing. In one particular letter he points out himself;
"My 'Sam Gamgee' is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as far superior to myself." [J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography p.89]
And in another text he mentions that;
"...the Shire is based on rural England." [Letters p.250]
In addition to this he points out that Treebeard's 'hrum, hroom' was modelled on C.S. Lewis' style of talking. [J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography p.198]
So certainly, elements of his own life are in the story. No author creates out of null-experience. But just how much is in there?
He mentioned that in the revision he became aware of the religious nature of the work, which would lead one to believe that any parallelism [parallelism is not allegory] of Catholicism in the Lord of the Rings was at first unintentional and came from the fact that he was writing from his soul [heart, mind, will & passions] which had all been deeply informed by his Catholic formation. He could not deny nor betray his underlying morals and beliefs in anything he created or wrote, which speaks volumes for the responsibility and faith of the man.
He has poured out much of who he is in the Lord of the Rings, and as a result, Catholicism, with its faith, values, and imagery, which was a major contributing factor is his life, has found itself embedded into the story.
Joseph Pearce, [author of 'Tolkien - Man and Myth], interviewed George Sayer, a personal friend of Tolkien, who said;
"...the Lord of the Rings would have been very different and the writing of it very different if Tolkien hadn't been a Christian. He thought it a profoundly Christian book."
One admission to this is found in a response to a letter a priest-friend had written Tolkien upon proofing the Lord of the Rings before publication. Joseph Pearce in his biography writes;
"At Tolkien's request Murray had read part of the Lord of the Rings in typescript and galley-proofs, and had responded with both comments and criticism. He wrote that the book left him with a strong sense of a 'positive compatibility with the order of Grace', and compared the image of Galadriel with that of the Virgin Mary." [M&M p.101]
Tolkien's reply was thus;
"I have been cheered especially by what you have said ...because you are more perceptive, especially in some directions than anyone else, and have revealed to me more clearly some things about my work. I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace and of course your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity, is founded." [Letters p.172]
Not only did he come to 'see' the religious nature of the work, but Tolkien credited divine forces for it. Once again George Sayer relates;
"He wrote to me years later, a letter in which he stated that he attributed anything good or beautiful in his writing to the influence of Our Lady, 'the greatest influence in my life'. He meant it." [Celebration p.10-11]
But was it as unintentional as it seems? Certainly direct allegories were steered away from by Tolkien, but as discussed later, from Tolkien's own words, the underlying themes and truths seem to have been deliberately layered in. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Certainly Tolkien didn't like allegory...
At some point during his revision process Tolkien made a deliberate decision to remove any overt references to religious practices of the peoples in Middle-earth so the story would remain in line with orthodox Catholic teaching and so that the story would fall within the bounds of 'True Myth' which will be discussed further on;
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally Catholic and Religious work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references [Ed. though not all] to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism." [Letters p. 172]
In the Lord of the Rings, almost the only reference to any religious practice in Middle-earth is when Frodo and Sam are present at the Gondorian custom of facing the West, towards the Blessed Realm [Undying Lands] before eating. They do this in Heneth Annun, in the hidden refuge of Faramir. [LotR p.661] & [Letters p.281& p.189]
Without any overt religious practices, certainly Middle-earth it is not a Christian society or system. But for the inhabitants that know the truth about its creation, they do give reverence to the existence of Eru [Father of All], the One God and to the Blessed Realm, as shown by the Elves and the Numenoreans.
As pointed out by Joseph Pearce, [author of 'Tolkien - Man and Myth], another reason for the removal of any clear and direct reference to religion could also be found in his comment;
"...the Incarnation of God is an Infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write." [Letters p.237]
Tolkien described the 'mythology' and fabric of the world of Middle-earth as;
"...a monotheistic world of natural theology." A world created by One God. [Letter p.220]
He also added; "...the 'Third Age' is not a Christian world." [Letters p.220]
Tolkien's rejection of an inner message could be linked to his dislike of the amateur psychology critics applied to his writing and life. He preferred the work to stand on its own and be interpreted as such; without the necessity of knowing the faults, qualities or facts of the author's life; and without allowing them to alter the reception of the story.
Tolkien's own words are to the point;
"I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author's work...and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one's guardian angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author's works. Not the author himself [though he knows more than any investigator], and certainly not the so called 'psychologists'." [Celebration p.104]
Tolkien became tired of the analogies drawn with World War II and the Ring as a metaphor for Nuclear weapons and decided to make it clear that the story had no link to these historical happenings. He was also frustrated by the inaccuracies of biographical reports about himself and the deliberate desire of certain media organizations to paint him with a particular brush to fit their exposés; as is shown in his comment,
"The producer, a very nice, very young man and personally equipped with some intelligence and insight, was nonetheless already so muddled and confused by BBCism that the last thing in the world he wished to show was me as I am/or was, let alone 'human or life size'. I was lost in a world of gimmickry and nonsense, as far as it had any design, seemed simply to fix the image of a fuddy not to say duddy, old fireside hobbit-like boozer. Protests were in vain, so I gave it up, & being tied to the stake stayed the course as best I could." [Letters p.390]
Here we see Tolkien's understandable dislike of misrepresentation but also misunderstanding, in his life and in his works.
The rejection of 'allegory' can also be found in Tolkien's understanding of true myth and how he clearly understood what he was trying to achieve in writing a mythic saga. Myth, Tolkien argued shouldn't carry allegory but should carry Truth. [this is discussed in depth on the next page Truth and Myth.]
In terms of 'allegory' and Tolkien's dislike of it, one would say that the Lord of the Rings is, not a direct attempt at a Christian metaphor, but one could say that it is a story steeped in deep Christian and Catholic ideas and values.
Father Murray and Tolkien himself were not the only ones to recognize Christian elements in the Lord of the Rings; Ann Atkins of the BBC once wrote of Tolkien,
"...and his Christianity shines through every page. He understands evil, for instance, and the way it seduces us, the way it seduced Gollum with its promise of goodness. How eventually, if we give in to it, it corrodes our freedom and will and individuality... Tolkien was a truly Christian novelist, who wrote a great Christian myth... Tolkien's Christian faith informed all his writing and all his heroes were based on a greater hero still. One who wasn't flawed, and didn't give way to evil. One who didn't have A-levels either, but who is the perfect role model." [M&M p.10]
A book reviewer of the New York Times, Chad Walsh wrote that Tolkien had,
"...renewed the sense of magic and enchantment and assimilated it into the contemporary Christian sensibility."[M&M p.80-81]
Many within the Catholic Church have understood or written about the imagery behind the great story. Recently a writer for L'Osservatore Romano [the official newspaper for the Vatican] said that Tolkien's work shows;
"...a sort of theology... the Lord of the Rings speaks through images and signs ... and when faith inspires one's thought and one's life, there is no need to call attention to it; it shines through everything." [edition of 2002]
Regarding his story, Tolkien also wrote at one point;
"It is about God, and his sole right to Divine Honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in the One..." [Letters p.243]
Whether deliberate or not many believe Tolkien's faith has been embedded into his work [as will be shown without doubt further on], but it's important to point out that this article is not trying to apply a metaphor or allegory to the entity of Tolkien's writing. But it will explore the values, and undercurrents which have been infused into Middle-earth and lend themselves to the tradition and theology of the Catholic faith.
And in explaining some of this imagery and parallelism, this does not mean that one has to read the Lord of the Rings in this light hence forth. This is the original beauty of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. He has created [or sub-created as he referred to it] a story in its own right and entirety, as part of his love of languages and myth, literature and writing; and his desire to give England a mythic back-history.
Tolkien has brought about of beautiful tale that can be appreciated by anyone, no matter what their faith.
He has not created a world and epic quest as a metaphor to be painted on top of the Christian Salvation plan, so that the characters and plot become subject to that end. But what he has done is create a beautifully woven, intricate world and history unto itself, which never departs from the truths of Christian salvation, understanding and life.
His characters are not exact biblical personages in disguise, but some do reflect and point us to them; and at times even rise to be somewhat partial expressions of them. Tolkien has taken the truths of his faith and woven them into his romantic saga; which in this way, renders glory to God through the 'talent' of writing the Lord bestowed in him.
Tolkien's epic is permeated with a depth of virtue and hope [even behind the sadness and nostalgia], that echoes much of his experience as a devout Catholic, in a very imperfect world of suffering, war and loss; which will ultimately end in Paradise. He has welded together his love of Norse myth and saga with his understanding of morality and life as it should be.
Yes, he wanted to re-invent folk-lore for England, but in this pursuit, his invented folk-lore has a distinctive Christian flavour; even though much of the source material is of pagan origin.
He has drawn on his devastating experience of war and loss to give his story an emotional truth and believability which at times rises to the heroic and descends to the tragic.
As we will discuss later, Tolkien had a specific understanding of the nature of myth, its power in the written word and how Truth, Objective Truth, and hope, can be transmitted through it.
To end this section it is worth quoting in full, a succinct and accurate passage from Stephen R. Lawhead, a best selling Fantasy writer, who discovered Tolkien's work. [excerpt from Tolkien: Man and Myth] His comments are as follows...
"Having enjoyed Tolkien's books, I tracked down and read the work of the other Inklings, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams especially. I enjoyed the books but in the end it wasn't the Inklings work that moved me. It was the informing spirit of their work, a spirit which I began to sense they all shared the lessons I learned from Lewis and
Tolkien penetrated deep into my psyche - deeper than emulation, deeper than imitation. In short it was not Tolkien's subject matter that influenced me; it was the integrity of the work itself."
"I found this same integrity in Lewis's space tales. Taken together these books possessed an inner worth that far exceeded the narrative skills of their authors. Perelandra and the Lord of the Rings seemed to me to be more in total than the sum of their parts. These books, I concluded, derived their value chiefly from their inner worth, this integrity that lay behind the stories themselves. But what was it? It was of course the Christian faith of the authors shining through the fabric of their work. I saw that faith informed the story, and infused it with value and meaning, lifting the tale above the ordinary expressions of the genre. Even though the stories of Lewis, Tolkien or other Inklings like Charles Williams, were not explicitly promoting Christianity, nevertheless the books were ripe with it."
"What an extraordinary thing, I thought; though Tolkien never makes so much as a glancing reference to Jesus Christ in a single paragraph of all The Lord of the Rings thick volumes, His face is glimpsed on virtually every page. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the furthest thing from a religious tract, yet it proclaims a clear and winning gospel. In my narrow experience, I had never before encountered such a thing." [M&M p.82]
[Note: the Inklings were a group of predominantly Christian academics interested in Myth from Oxford university that included Tolkien, Lewis, Williams and Chesterton]
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