Middle-Earth: The Real World of J. R. R. Tolkien

Article excerpt

IN THE world of fantasy fiction, perhaps no other writings have found such fame as J. R. R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and its companion books The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. They have also been the subject of much controversy as the "true" meaning of them has been endlessly disputed. They have been evaluated numerous times as a stand against the status quo, as shown by counrercultural declarations of "Frodo Lives" in the subways of New York in the 1970s. The question raised following the original publication of the books was what exactly was Tolkien trying to express through The Lord of the Rings? In response to these inquiries, Tolkien published the following statement 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. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches; but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. [...]

The real war [World War II] does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. [...]

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. 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 the readers. (Fellowship 10-11)

This declaration appears to have quelled these inquisitive voices, for since 1965 relatively little criticism has commented extensively on the hidden implications of The Lord of the Rings.

Still, whether intentional or not, the elements that caused this initial question of intent continue to exist within the text of this revered novel. Middle-earth in many ways still parallels the world that existed in the late 1940s when the book was being completed. The vying powers within his created world still support the political ideologies that Tolkien advocated in life. The underlying motivations of the principal characters still echo traditional Christianity. Tolkien claims that in writing The Lord of the Rings, he was attempting to create an apolitical mythology for the English language, isolated from the time and place in which it was written. He is quoted as saying, The Lord of the Rings "is not 'about' anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions general, particular or topical; moral, religious or political" (qtd. in Glover 39). Upon closer analysis though, it is impossible to deny the presence of allegorical elements. "Despite Tolkien's well-known distaste for allegory," David Critchett avers, "a point he makes clear in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, such a work as the trilogy cannot help but be susceptible to some kind of legitimate allegorical interpretation" (46). Despite his anti-allegorical intentions, The Lord of the Rings is a British epic documenting, analyzing, and criticizing the Western, Christian experience of the early 1900s as seen through the eyes of J. R. R. Tolkien.

THE SHIRE AS RURAL ENGLAND, 1900

To begin to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the world at large, it is perhaps best to begin with the land which is most familiar and the hobbits' home, The Shire. Tolkien admitted that much of the model for The Shire is derived from his impressions of rural England (Curry 37). These similarities run deeper than basic superficialities; the landscape, the people, and the customs presented parallel traditional, rural, British stereotypes. In the Prologue, Tolkien describes The Shire as "a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside" (Fellowship 19). The pastoral images of gently rolling hills and stone-fenced fields of England immediately come to mind as the hobbits travel throughout The Shire. …