Thresholds to Middle-Earth: Allegories of Reading, Allegories for Knowledge and Transformation

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Allegory and Some Methodological Obstacles

Many of Tolkien's readers will remember his foreword to The Lord of the Rings, in which he declares that his novel is "neither allegorical nor topical" and that he prefers "history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers" (The Lord of the Rings [LotR] Foreword. xxiii-xxiv). Most scholars have chosen to accept Tolkien's assertion. (2) This choice still, however, represents a position that should be contested.

The choice to accept Tolkien's assertion is surely related to three methodological obstacles that commonly populate Tolkien scholarship. The first obstacle is a tendency to privilege Tolkien's interpretation of his texts. Consequently, many Tolkien scholars have leaned heavily on Tolkien's own commentary on his works--especially his foreword to The Lord of the Rings and his published letters--to form their premises for scholarship. But we should take note of another of Tolkien's statements about The Lord of the Rings. In a letter to a "Miss Batten-Phelps," Tolkien writes, "[The Lord of the Rings] does not belong to me." Rather, he insists his story "must now go its appointed way in the world" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien [Letters] 413). The passage is in sympathy with his preference for applicability to the reader's thought and experience. Tolkien affirms that he, the author, is no longer responsible for naming his texts. Consequently, in the Letters and foreword that enjoy so much the privilege of authority, we encounter inevitable resistance to it. The Lord of the Rings' meaning is at the mercy of--and belongs to--its readers, who must decide how the text they read applies to them. We cannot recognize its allegorical dimensions so long as we concede authority to Tolkien's foreword or to the occasional, brief discussions of allegory in his Letters. As Michael D.C. Drout has said in his essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," Tolkien's opinions, perceptive as they may be, do not have "the status of holy writ" (19).

The second obstacle arises from what Deborah L. Madsen in Rereading Allegory has called "essentialist genre theory," which makes two assumptions. The first is that "a preconceived unifying principle is a sufficient basis for interpretation, classification, and evaluation"; the second is that the essentialist perspective does not consider the possibility of "a multigeneric text" (8), in which allegory may often play a prominent role. In sympathy with the first essentialist assumption, Tolkien borrows his attitude about allegory from the Romantics' preference for myth as a genre superior to allegory. The unifying essentialist principle Tolkien deploys is thus the assumption that allegory is in essence an impoverished and impoverishing genre, a perspective that finds its proof in many dry and didactic allegories. One reason for embracing this principle is the assumption that allegory is too limiting, or not polysemous enough, because it seeks to control the reader's response excessively. To free his readers from such narrow allegorizing, Tolkien denies that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory of "[t]he real war [WWII]" (LotR Foreword.xxiv). Furthermore, one may add, we cannot call it a Christian allegory of the kind C.S. Lewis often wrote, or a personification allegory of the kind that he examines in The Allegory of Love, without similarly constraining the reader. Because, then, The Lord of the Rings does not conform to these most familiar types of allegory and because we have accepted Tolkien's essential dismissal of allegorical misreadings, we have also usually dismissed the notion that The Lord of the Rings and most of Tolkien's fiction could be allegorical.

The second essentialist assumption Madsen notes--that allegory necessarily excludes and is excluded by other genres--is also present in much of Tolkien scholarship, but more subtly. Allegory, as essentialist logic would maintain, cannot participate in the formation of a text that represents and explores multiple linguistic modes, perspectives, and genres that in turn multiplies its polysemous possibilities. …