Tolkien and Allegory
By Nathan Boone
Tolkien's cosmos remains popular because it captures many differing kinds of imagination.
From the Odyssey, to Beowulf, to Harry Potter, it is clear that the genre of
fantasy writing is not a new form of literary work. Yet the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 revealed a new surge of interest for fantasy fiction. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works telling the story of the history of Middle-earth have undeniably made their mark on cultures of countries around the world.
While there are “nerds” in multiple senses of the word for almost any fantasy
literature, there are no created worlds with a lore so vast and deep, that expansively covers everything from pipe-weed to politics, as that of Middle-earth. And there are no worlds where so many people go beyond the novel and read every bit of lore they can find, and study to even know timelines and languages, as that of Tolkien’s Arda (“the World”).
Why do The Lord of the Rings and its accompanying stories capture the hearts and imaginations of people from all generations, inspiring many to spend much of their lives studying to learn everything about something that is simply the creation of one man’s imagination? What is so special about Tolkien’s books? Why do they rise to the top over other fantasy stories, or really any fictional work?
It begins with the author himself. J.R.R. Tolkien did not just write a story and
hand it out, hoping to make money. In fact, he was reluctant to write anything for publication at all, believing that people would have no interest in the world of his own invention. And when he did write, he listened and corresponded with his readers, answering questions on all ends of spectrum, from the existence of Orc-women, to very specific linguistic questions.
Tolkien’s writing style contains something for everybody. It is amazing to see how he can go from quips between characters, to the story of the invention of golf (knocking a goblin’s head down a rabbit hole), to serious, emotional passages discussing the nature of life and death. But it is important to note that Tolkien did not use humor or other literary devices gratuitously, simply to stimulate a laugh;
everything he wrote had a specific purpose, advancing the story and the ideas about his characters.
In his world and his stories, Tolkien masterfully interweaves themes and storylines that contain layers, which can continue to be unpacked and enjoyed. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be equally appreciated by a six year-old, a college student, or a grandfather reading to his family. Some people are content to read the accounts of the battles, both military and personal, and walk on, having enjoyed a fine literary work. Others want to know every bit of background lore,
every side story.
Tolkien is famous for stating, “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.”
This “applicability” is the real reason people are drawn to Middle-earth, and
then drawn back, time and time again. The places, the languages, the history, and the characters of Middle-earth all strike a chord in the heart of each person who comes in contact with them. The greatest beauty of Tolkien’s work is that it is not allegorical, save perhaps in a “perfect allegory,” where there is no one intended meaning by the author, but themes and personalities that can be applied to any reader, and everyone can feel a part of the grander story.
There isn’t one hero that everyone wants to be in Middle-earth. Young men
can strive for the courage of Frodo, the strength in trial of Aragorn, or the loyalty of
Sam. Young ladies might long to love someone unconditionally like Arwen, be strong in the face of all barriers like Éowyn, or even to have the insight and wisdom of Galadriel. And there are so many more characters worthy of emulation!
The many timeless works of J.R.R. Tolkien have profoundly affected the
experiences and thinking of entire generations. The characters of Middle-earth give us something our world needs a lot of right now: hope.
Above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
Nathan Boone is a seventeen-year-old homeschool student. He is considering studying either law or political science at the collegiate level. His other interests include mathematics, playing the cello, tabletop strategy games, and spending time with friends.