Archive for the ‘Allegory vs Application’ Category

I’m gradually delving into the world of Tolkien scholarship: what people have written about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium.  I previously read one of Matthew Dickerson’s books, Following Gandalf, a good introduction to treatment of themes found in Tolkien’s writing.  Now I’m reading through the essays in Tolkien: A Celebration, essays published shortly after the centenary of Tolkien’s birth (1992, 100 years after his birth), a good sampling of different ideas and directions that people have taken in academic study of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Indeed the possibilities seem endless, with what different people find to relate to in Tolkien’s writings.  Podcast episodes also provide introduction to various authors in this field, such as this Amon Sul podcast I recently listened to; the author, Dr. Lisa Coutras (Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-Earth mentions that Tolkien: A Celebration was her introduction to Tolkien scholarship.

Tolkien, as is so well known, “cordially disliked” allegory, and distinguished formal allegory from application — preferring the latter, in the imagination and application of the reader, instead of the single, particular meaning dictated by the author (as in formal allegories).  The essays in this volume certainly expand on the area of application; as generally the case with essay collections, some of these are more helpful than others.

The second essay in this volume, “Over the Chasm of Fire: Christian Heroism in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings,” by Stratford Caldecott, includes basic summary of events in The Silmarillion (for those who may not be familiar or have forgotten these stories), and offers insights regarding the loss of Beren’s hand:

Beren must lose his hand before Luthien can put hers in its place.  That is the way grace works: our own hand, our own ability to grasp and act, can only take us so far.  In reality as in story, life itself must be renounced, every sacrifice accepted, for the sake of love, before love can finally conquer even death, and man be united with grace beyond the grave.

and then, relating this to the account of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom:

The desire to grasp is finally renounced; the grasping Shadow falls into the Fire and is forgiven.  Frodo has lost a finger, and humble Sam may see him as the great hero, but by that remark and the spirit it reveals it is Sam himself who is conformed to Beren One-Hand; Sam, not Frodo, whose touch will bring the Shire back to life in a golden age.

The next essay, “Modernity in Middle Earth,” is actually about how Tolkien expressed a concern that so many of us resonate with, getting to the heart of the things of most value, versus the progressive values of moderns and post-moderns.  The essay points out what is behind the most common criticism of Lord of the Rings: the dominant charge against Tolkien has been that of escapism and/or reaction; and the overwhelming majority of these critics, as is evident from their other writings, subscribe to the very same values of modernity — statism, scientism, economism, and secularism — which are implicated in the pathological dynamic that so alarmed Tolkien, and still deeply worries his readers today.  This can certainly be applied, as a way of understanding ordinary people around us who do not “get” Tolkien — as with a close family member who outwardly professes Christianity, yet has a scientific, 21st century technology and secondary causes, modernist outlook on life, and has read The Lord of the Rings but doesn’t see anything of particular worth there, preferring current-day authors of secular novels.

Another essay (“The Lord of the Rings — A Catholic View”) comes up with a rather unusual application — at least one I had never considered.  Isildur can be compared to three failed monarchs who held to the traditional construct of Church and State at a time when modernism was coming in strong —  Charles I of England (Anglican in early 17th century England), Louis XVI (Catholic, late 18th century monarch during the French Revolution), and Nicholas II (last of the Tsars, Eastern Orthodox, early 20th century), as another ruler who desired to uphold the traditional kingdom, yet had a personal weakness or flaw that brought about his downfall.  Granted that Catholics want to claim Tolkien as “one of our own,” but I tend to agree with others who have observed that what Tolkien created — though as Tolkien said it was a Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, more consciously in the revisions — was not something that put his Catholicism up front and center.  As the Amon Sul podcast host says, it’s great that Catholics want to promote Tolkien, but that’s not the main point about Tolkien and what he accomplished.

Some of the essays are written at the popular level (such as the opening one from George Sayers link: previous post), others at a somewhat higher reading level, and a few at a more academic level–notably, The Art of the Parable, which I’ll need to reread to fully appreciate its content.  The essay on time and death is also really good, noting the sadness and the pride that entered the elves, unfallen beings who nevertheless were not fully content and desired the higher station of the Valar:  an essay that brings to mind the wonderful fact of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, and the difference in the Middle Earth stories as a time before those events.

I’m just over halfway through Tolkien: A Celebration, and enjoying the many different ideas, applications, and different literary features of interest within Tolkien’s legendarium.  a


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Lately I’ve been considering Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and its literary greatness.  It is the one book, other than the Bible, that I continually re-read over the years, always appreciating it in new ways.  I’ve read several online articles on the topic – and there is no shortage of such articles.  I’ve also learned about several “commentary” books that delve into the messages in Middle Earth, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings.

Which brings me to its literary form, and allegory versus application.  Of formal allegories – pure allegories with direct correspondences and conscious, intentional allegories – John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress remains popular, a classic, and it has its fans who likewise regularly re-read it; Charles Spurgeon is one that comes to mind.  Tolkien’s work is of a very different kind, an actual story that has a lot of insights and application.

It’s well known that Tolkien disliked pure allegory, and did not consider his work in that category.

But 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.

I find myself in agreement with Tolkien regarding the preference for story.  So, what is it about Tolkien’s work that so many of us can appreciate?  First, I would say that it provides grand themes and a great view of the world: God’s majesty and the beauty He has created, and varied characters to show us something of what it means to live in this world.

For several years, I read the Bible in a genre format, a modified Horner Bible reading plan with 10-12 chapters of the Bible per day, all from different sections of the Bible, and different genres: narrative, poetry, prophecy, gospels, history, epistles, and so forth.  This reading plan helped me to see  the “full picture” grand themes view of the Bible and its unity in all the parts.   “Lord of the Rings” can be thought of as like the Old Testament, with its narrative and wisdom literature, as well as a decent amount of prophecy. It shows us the greatness of the world we live in, with all its variety, and a view of Christendom.

Pilgrim’s Progress, on the other hand, is more about the inner life of the individual – a writing from the early-modern era of the late 17th century – and about the make-up of the individual believer in terms of distinctive Christian characteristics and how well the individual holds to God’s truth.  It fits in with Modernism and the focus on the individual, yet by doing so misses the larger picture.

As pointed out in this article at The Imaginative Conservative:

Similarly, Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress is not a person but a personified abstraction who exists purely and simply to signify the Christian on his journey from worldliness to other-worldliness. As a formal or crude allegory, every character in Bunyan’s story is a personified abstraction.

It is this kind of allegory to which Tolkien is evidently referring in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He cordially disliked such allegories because they enslaved the imaginative freedom of the reader to the didactic intentions of the author.

In order to teach and preach, the author of a formal or crude allegory dominates the reader’s imagination, forcing the reader to see his point. Whereas good stories bring people to goodness and truth through the power of beauty, formal allegories shackle the beautiful so that the goodness and truth become inescapable. Such allegories may have the good and noble purpose of teaching or preaching, but they do so at the expense of the power and glory of the imaginative and creative relationship between a good author and his readers.

The Bible has a lot of narrative and poetry, wisdom literature, and prophecy — similar to Tolkien’s work.  God’s word also includes some parables and figures/types.  So there is some of what could be called allegory (in the broader definition, beyond formal/crude allegory), “this for that” symbolic reference teaching.  One example is Paul’s application of the Sarah and Hagar event.  But this is application and analogy, rather than formal allegory.  Sarah and Hagar were real people and the event described really occurred in history.  Jesus’ parables involved allegory, “this for that” representation in several parables, as for instance the parable of the soils, and the wheat and tares – all of these with specific correspondences.  (Also, with these types of parables there was a form of judgment going on.  The people were not responding, and so He only spoke to them in parables, but gave the interpretation to His disciples.  Reference Matthew 13:10-13  )

But there were other types of parables as well, in the story form, with actual characters and the meaning plain enough, stories that we can understand and relate to as we consider the characters and the story – for instance, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan; also, the parable of the master of the vineyard.  In this last example, the Pharisees perceived that He was talking about them (Matthew 21:45).

So as I see it, “Lord of the Rings” has more in common, in its literary features, with the Bible — and thus, the ways in which God has chosen to communicate with us His creatures — than the more limited format of pure allegory of the conscious, intentional type.  It is true that preaching, exposition of the word, is something that God has decreed for the New Testament church.  We also see an example of it as early as Nehemiah’s day, when the people assembled and the leaders read and explained the meaning of God’s word, and so the work of preaching is important.  But God’s word itself is not generally presented in the form of sermons.  Certainly some of the New Testament epistles, especially the books of Romans and Hebrews, have some quality of that, the sermon teaching.  But God’s word – in the vast majority of it — presents us with narrative story, with poetry, wisdom literature, prophecies– never with lengthy pure allegories that are personified abstractions of doctrinal concepts.

As so well expressed in the above quote, we do see in Lord of the Rings that good stories bring people to goodness and truth through the power of beauty, whereas formal allegories shackle the beautiful so that the goodness and truth become inescapable. Such allegories may have the good and noble purpose of teaching or preaching, but they do so at the expense of the power and glory of the imaginative and creative relationship between a good author and his readers.

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