Posts Tagged ‘Fairy Stories’

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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Originally published Oct. 14, 2016

Tolkien’s LOTR endures through the years, good and fresh for many re-readings; online articles that mention Tolkien and Lord of the Rings abound to this day, with several such articles in the past few months (note this recent post from Justin Taylor, remembering what happened 85 years ago), and more over just the last few years.  The Gospel Coalition blog alone features several articles, including the aspect of “reading for worldview,” and this good observation:

Those who dismiss The Lord of the Rings as simply Harry Potter for grown-ups, or as a source of bumper sticker material for aging hippies to put on their Volvos (“Not all those who wander are lost”) have really missed the central prophetic vision of the books—a prophetic stance taken against modernity . . . or perhaps what we might want to call mordornity. This is the prophetic element that makes Tolkien’s vision a fundamentally Christian one. There are places where I prefer Lewis’s Protestant take to Tolkien’s Catholicism, obviously, but on this issue Tolkien reflects the ethical perspective of the entire Christian tradition. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Also, from the introductory “Reading for Worldviews” article:

Oddly, many modern readers are not only drawn to books that reflect their own personal worldview, but also to those that present them with a radically different worldview. On the one hand, they want to see the values they hold dear acted out on a fictional stage, partly so that they may study, and be challenged by, the decisions made by the hero. On the other hand, they want to explore realities that stand outside their normal experience and thus carry with them a sense of danger that is strangely appealing.

Thus, Christian readers are drawn to The Lord of the Rings because they encounter within its pages a world that affirms Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice. And yet, at the same time, Tolkien’s epic fantasy has attracted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of atheist and agnostic readers intrigued by a world that privileges many of the things they reject: absolute standards of right and wrong; hierarchy and kingship; the reality of a supernatural realm that impinges upon the natural; the existence of a higher purpose that chooses us rather than us choosing it.

Yet at least some Christians continue to dismiss LOTR and lump it into the same category of “problematic/evil reading” along with Harry Potter and all fairy tale stories.  The following article Harry Potter vs Gandalf – a rather lengthy essay that may take more than one reading session  — (the author is knowledgeable regarding the literature of Tolkien, Lewis, and J.K. Rowling) takes a detailed look at how “magic” is used in different literature, noting seven literary “hedges” that Tolkien and Lewis employed to “fence off” magic from the reader in this world, hedges which are not present in the Harry Potter novels:

  1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.
  2. Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.
  3. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
  4. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
  5. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.
  6. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
  7. Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.

A few more links to some interesting posts about the Lord of the Rings, from Christian blogs:

A final thought, excerpted from the above-linked “Tolkien on Fairy Stories”

Perhaps the most persistent (and nastiest!) critique leveled against Tolkien is that his work is “escapist,” that it draws its readers away from the rigors of the “real world.” Tolkien gives the lie to this critique by reminding his readers of something so obvious it is often overlooked: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

Tolkien is not thinking here of a killer or rapist confined to a jail cell for the protection of society, but of a political or military prisoner who has been captured by the enemy. In the latter case, the prisoner who escapes is neither naïve nor juvenile. Indeed, he is both practical and realistic. Far from donning rose-colored classes or acting like a cock-eyed optimist, he bravely and maturely refuses to define himself by the artificial boundaries around him and yearns for the free open air that he knows exists outside his prison walls.

Bilbo, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and Faramir are all escapists, for they risk their lives to free the world of Middle-earth from the control of forces (Smaug, Sauron, Saruman, Shelob) that would steal life, kill joy, and destroy the earth. They do not accept the creeping darkness that relativizes, existentializes, and uglifies. Rather, in the face of this onslaught, they uphold a counter-vision of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

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