Today's Date in the Shire
Fun and Games
Walk to Rivendell
Malbeth the Seer
J. R. R. Tolkien´s "The Lord of The rings" - Mythology, Philosophy, Allegory
"Facharbeit" - Essay by Manuel Steiner, written ´00 p.r.i.
VII. The question of allegory in The Lord of the Rings
The origins of allegories
The point that many people see The Lord of the Rings as allegorical has different reasons, recent history being probably the most immediate one. It cannot be denied, though, that non-literary and cultural phenomena led, to a certain degree, to a growing interest in the novel, boosting its success. There are undoubtedly many things which can be seen as parallels to historical events or a certain view of life, but Tolkien makes clear that allegory, which would be using characters and events in the novel only to convey his message, and not for the sake of the story, never was his intention. Seeing, how many people abused his books for their interpretations, he wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, "As for any inner meaning or ´message´, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical." (LOTR, xvi). Tolkien brings the argument against the often heard allegory of World War II, that the outline of the story was there way before 1939. On allegory, he further notices, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations. [...] 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." (LOTR, xvii). Elsewhere, Tolkien gives another stance towards this treatment of his works: "an allegorical description of an event does not make that event itself allegorical." (Moseley, 76; quoted from Pearl and Sir Orfeo).
It may be the case that "this rejection of allegory could be seen an invitation to see if it will fit" (Moseley, 76); but mainly it was Tolkien´s view of history which denied allegorical meaning. "History, thought Tolkien, was varied in its applicability. But if you understood it properly, you saw it repeating itself." (Shippey, 152; my italics). Exactly this repetition of history can be read from The Lord of the Rings; not a modelling after certain history, but a portraying of a common piece of human history which war is a main shaping factor of. This way, the novel is allegorical, but not for a certain and single circumstance, but for the flow and the events of human history as a whole. Reducing the novel to a single concern is different from making applications with symbolic events in the way that "the symbolic allows the reader and his recognition a part in the creation of significance, the allegorical denies that chance." (Moseley, 72). Because history is repeating itself in a way, application is naturally possible, as it is with most events happening in real life; a new war can almost always be compared with and seen as parallel to one before it.
But application can almost not be excluded when reading The Lord of the Rings: "The real point is that Tolkien´s theories about nature, evil, luck and our perception of the world generated as a sort of by-product modern applications and political ones." (Shippey, 155). Any allegory or application has therefore to be handled with care, and most allegories can, in the sense of the author, be refuted at least so much that there only remain undetailed parallels, as I am about to demonstrate.
The most common sort of allegory for The Lord of the Rings is calling Tolkien a war-writer and the book a reflection of a historical war, either the first or second World War, or the Cold War. World War I is there mostly seen only as an influence on Tolkien, his experiences in the Somme dictating the description of landscape and countryside in Mordor, and causing him to demonize progress and technology. Tolkien admitted that Sam Gamgee is modelled after several soldiers in the 1914 war, the privates and army batmen (comp. Kessler, 1f.). Like in both wars, the enemy in The Lord of the Rings is not seen as a mass of individuals and humans, but as a collective entity. But these are merely parallels, and certainly not the whole complex of the novel. What is more, one can say for sure that Tolkien would have started to shun Germanic lore, had World War I been a really deep influence.
Using the novel as an allegory of World War II is frequent, and it is true that close parallels can be drawn in several things. Denethor and Saruman remind the attentive reader of puppet governments, Vichy and collaboration like Quisling´s. As an allegory, Warren Lewis said: "A great deal of it can be read topically - the Shire standing for England, Rohan for France, Gondor the Germany of the future, Sauron for Stalin..." (Kessler, 3). A blending of World War II with the Cold War is often found in this field of allegory, and some students in "England and the US read off from Tolkien´s books a political mythology for that time of a Cold War which could easily have become a hot one" (Moseley, 72); while others adopted Tolkien´s dislike for progress for their Green movement. Different events and conditions in the novel lead to several interpretations regarding World War II; mainly comparing Sauron with Hitler and the Ring with the atomic bomb. The comparison that orcs are products of genetic cross breeding, goes in this direction, reminding of the experiments performed by Dr. Mengele on Jews in Auschwitz.
But all those allegories of Sauron being Hitler, allied with Saruman standing for the USSR and battling against the western allies of Gondor and Rohan are flawed, not least because of mistakes and historical deficits of the respective authors. The personification of Hitler standing for all evil of Nazi-Germany is still only the most neglectable mistake. Skeparnides, for example, proves it has been a long time since he has visited school and learned about the second World War, by dating the German invasion of Russia, the Operation of Barbarossa, back to 1943, where in turn it was 1941 (comp. Skeparnides, l. 101). Michael Tagge is no better, or historically more correct, when claiming that "Hitler [sic!] experimented with a variety of genetic experiments in order to produce the Aryan race." (Tagge, l. 57f.; my stresses). Neither did Hitler undertake a single experiment himself, nor did the Nazis want to "produce the Aryan race" - nothing could be more away from the truth, because the self-assured Nazis firmly believed that the Germans were the ultimate embodiment of the superior Aryan race; why then should they have tried to produce it? The terrible experiments of Dr. Mengele had different "aims". Another grave mistake of his is claiming that, "In Europe, most of the languages are romance languages, all except German. German is very different from any other European language." (Tagge, l. 151 f.). Tolkien, as a philologist, would rotate in his grave. Tagge there completely ignores the relations of the Germanic (!) languages of German, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and others, even Yiddish.
The various allegories themselves can, independently from the above, be rejected, like the one mentioned in The Road to Middle-earth: the Ring standing for the A-bomb, being seized and used against Sauron, who would be enslaved and Barad-dûr occupied. Saruman is able to gain the knowledge for making a Great Ring of his own in Mordor. One can say that the parallels are exact, Sauron being the Axis powers, the free people the Western allies, and Saruman the USSR (comp. Shippey, 316). However, this is evidently not The Lord of the Rings; it is only that, had the novel been meant as a World War II allegory, this is how the plot would have to be; in fact it is not meant this way, proving this allegory wrong. It would be no war novel anyway, as it is certainly not an anti-war novel. Furthermore, when Tagge writes that "The battle in Mordor and the Ring being destroyed and therefore ending the war reminds me of the late stages of World War II, when the US dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima" (Tagge, l. 97 ff.), he neglects two important things. For one, the bomb on Hiroshima was only the first, followed by the one on Nagasaki; this way, this parallel is not maintainable. What is more, casting the Ring into the fire was a deed of saving lives, of reducing potential of destruction, whereas the bombing of Japan was the total opposite. Skeparnides unwillingly says precisely what is the quintessence of all this : that the Ring War is "a direct parallel to both World Wars and human history." (Skeparnides, l. 96 f.). The Lord of the Rings, as a parallel of human history in general, can of course not be reduced to be a parallel to a single event, and by no means can Tolkien be assumed to have done so.
Tolkien has also often been accused of, or been admired for, conveying an ideological or philosophical stance through his allegedly allegorical novel. Rosemary Jackson called Tolkien´s high fantasy "a conservative vehicle for social and instinctual repression" (Moseley, 72) and a confirmation of a bankrupt middle class. Whatever the portrayal of gender and class in The Lord of the Rings may have caused in certain readers, it cannot be denied that the novel is so close to medieval and ancient style that these cannot be arguments against Tolkien - and you cannot accuse the medieval poets for it. The same goes for Skeparnides, calling Tolkien, along with Shakespeare (!), an "overseer [...] of this male value system" (Skeparnides, l. 31 f.).
A very different stance comes from the Norwegian musician and pagan activist Varg Vikernes, currently still imprisoned for murder. He claims that Tolkien depicted the evil side as a mirror of heathendom, and compares Barad-dûr with Odin´s throne Hlidhskjalf, the Ring with Draupnir and Sauron´s all-seeing eye with Odin´s one eye (comp. Moynihan, 150). Whereas the trolls seem to him like Norse Berserkers, and the Uruk-Hai like Ulfhethnar - werewolves -, the elves appear "typically Jewish" to him, "arrogant, saying ´We are the chosen ones´" (Moynihan, 150). This derives from Vikernes´ unique view of good and evil, differing from the normal, western, Christian philosophy: "But even though Burzum [the name of his band - the author] means darkness, it´s really the light of Odin. Darkness is light." (Moynihan, 151). It is true that the wolf element which appears on Sauron´s side is typically heathen and that wolves were sacred to Odin; and one could even further the radical view of Vikernes by comparing the longing of the elves for Valinor with the longing of the Jewish people for Zion.
But what even Vikernes must notice is the "heathenness" on the side of the good, too: Gandalf, as an Odin-like wanderer, the dwarves with their runes, and the Rohirrim with their Anglo-Saxon, and, thus, Germanic, image. Yet more prominently against Vikernes´ stance is the actual belief of Tolkien: "he had little tolerance for real pagan myths or for naive mythiciers" (Shippey, 178); and Tolkien was, as a Christian, still not less opposed to paganism because of his interest in the north: "He had no doubt that paganism itself was weak and cruel" (Shippey, 179), denying the frequent image of the "noble pagan".
Allegorical elements in the novel
A more understandable and moderate view is that Tolkien did not intentionally write allegory, but could, as a human being, not entirely keep out allegorical elements. For Skeparnides, the outcome of the conflict "provide[s] a powerful allegorical message." (Skeparnides, l. 90 f.), and he asserts that a fictional world like Middle-earth can be only be built on characteristics of the real world. Still, the weak point of his essay is, that in contrast to Tolkien´s statement, he tried to prove the existence of allegories within the novel as intentional and inevitable. This is, as the author would affirm, wrong, whereas the point that parallels may be there unintentionally, unconsciously put in by Tolkien, is an argument not found in the essays discussed above.
Michael Tagge tries to prove his claim "If ´fantasy is based on hard fact´ (Ready, 177), then The Lord of The Rings is completely based on historical events, lands, religion, governments, and other works by different authors" (Tagge, l. 151 f.) by providing the example of the Forodwaith people who are modelled after Eskimos.
As I hope to have made clear above, such parallels are not modelled after reality, but simply always apparent where there are human beings described; in this case, any people living in an ice desert would behave like Eskimos and like the Forodwaith people.
Some answers to the question of allegory
Apparent from all those assumptions, interpretations and allegories is mainly one thing: that "the sense of a hidden significance in the book led readers to impose many allegorical readings on it which said as much about their own needs and values as about the book" (Moseley, 76). This is actually the quintessence of what is behind inventing allegories: everyone makes one fit for his own philosophy. This is, of course, reductive, as a good allegory would demand to take up "every single detail [...] into the scheme of parallel meanings of a single notation, and this cannot be done with his [i.e. Tolkien´s] work" (Moseley, 77). Like Mordor and its evil, the concept is "cosmic in significance rather than contemporary" (Moseley, 77). It is like Tolkien said in Beowulf, "large symbolism is near the surface, but [...] does not break through, nor become allegory" (Shippey, 152). This fits as well onto The Lord of the Rings, as allegory would inevitably mean that the novel had only one meaning; and this alone proves almost all allegories wrong - had Tolkien had an allegorical intention, then still all of those assumptions would be wrong except the single one which Tolkien really would have meant.
Concerning the applicability of human history and of human mythology, it definitely is "risky business finally to draw a Tolkienian ´inner meaning´ from these various ´applicabilities´" (Shippey, 155).
The topics of the novel are far too cosmic to be allegorical - good versus evil is far too often found -, but the wide spectrum nevertheless leaves the reader plenty of room for his own applicabilities, he only could not assume them to be the single inner meaning of it. Parallels may well fit, but it is another case whether they are true to Tolkien´s intentions - most of them are not. In any conflict, you can align one or another side to those of The Lord of the Rings; even more so if you do not agree with the Tolkienian conception of good and evil. It is probably only the disbelief of people in Tolkien´s greatness of imagination which led them to accuse him of allegorical, biased, or reality-copying writing.
In my humble opinion, giving the novel such allegorical meanings as those described above, reminds me of a habit of the ancient Romans who thought foreign gods were nothing but their own Roman gods, only under a different name. They then named them after their own deities, destroying that of the foreign gods which did not fit into their scheme. There is one suitable expression for both habits: plain reductionism.