Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is It Allegory?

In his preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” This statement has puzzled me ever since I first read the fantasy classic in the 1970s. Series of events occur in the book that most definitely remind me of series of events in the Bible.

Some of the clearest cases depict Christ figures. Gandalf fights an enemy made of fire and shadow, falls to his death in the depths of the earth, and then comes back to life more powerful and resplendent than before. Tolkien knew the Bible, so of course it’s no accident that these events follow the story of the death of Christ, his descent to Hell, and his resurrection in a glorified body. Aragorn begins his arc as Strider, a scruffy ranger, but is later revealed to be the heir to the human throne. Can anything good come from Bree? Frodo takes on the burden that tempts and corrupts mortals and carries it to the fires of the evil one in order to destroy it. This parallel to Jesus’ acceptance of our sin even follows the geography of Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Galadriel looks into the hearts of each member of the Fellowship; they hang their heads in shame, but she says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” No one can think that Tolkien didn’t shape these examples on the preexisting Biblical pattern that he knew so well.

As much as LoTR’s main plot of sin, sacrifice, and redemption follows the contours of the Biblical account of Jesus’ work, a detail jumped out at me the other day that evokes comparisons with a different character from Scripture. In telling the story of Sméagol’s fall, Tolkien’s narration says, “They kicked him, and he bit their feet.” It’s impossible for me to think that this line didn’t come somehow from God’s words to the serpent of Eden: “He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” How is this not allegory?

Merriam-Webster defines allegory as “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” If so many details of The Lord of the Rings seem intentionally patterned after details of the Bible, how can Tolkien say the book isn’t allegory? And why does he say that he “cordially dislikes allegory”? The answer to the second question is easy: Tolkien didn’t care much for C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. With the great friendship between the two, Tolkien’s dislike had to be cordial. But it was dislike nevertheless. Whatever it was he didn’t like about his fellow Inkling’s book series, he called it “allegory” and claimed that his own epic novel didn’t partake of it. But surely LoTR contains characters and events that stand for historical situations in a symbolic way. On the other hand, many characters (Mr. Tumnus, for example) and even entire books (A Horse and His Boy, for example) from the Narnia series have no discernible Biblical referent. Tolkien’s claim just doesn’t make sense to me.

On the other other hand, though, Tolkien and Lewis knew more about literature than I know about anything. So I keep pondering Tolkien’s enigmatic statement while I enjoy rereading The Lord of the Rings. I don’t completely understand, but at least the puzzle keeps me from dwelling on the many aspects of this beloved fantasy classic that a certain film director didn’t understand.

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