This blog post is roughly divided into two general sections. The first is an quick explanation of the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ views on metaphor and the interpretation of parables, which I feel is very relevant to the discussion we were having in class today (and which I tried to bring up but didn’t really manage to articulate in a meaningful way). The second part is trying to apply his heuristic to the Legendarium. If 12th century Jewish philosophy isn’t your thing, feel free to skip the first part, I will try to make the second half as un-technical as possible.
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In the "Guide of the Perplexed," Maimonides uses the notion of the parable as a tool that both explains Biblical passages and allows him to discuss obscure matters of metaphysics. By presenting the truth in parable form, authors can allow for different levels of interpretation, ranging from a belief in the explicit meaning of a text down to its deepest internal meanings. By examining the parabolic structure of passages, Maimonides is able to both clarify seeming contradictions within texts and, for those who interpret them on their deepest level, reveal some truth about the nature of human existence and the metaphysical structure of the world that would be impossible to say otherwise—one of Maimonides’ key arguments throughout his Guide is that humans are inherently unable to understand the mysteries of the Divine, and that any human attempt to say literally true things about God or metaphysics leads to blasphemy and idolatry.
For Maimonides, a parable need not be a story—it is a term used to denote any text that has a hidden meaning. Maimonides believes that parables have three different types of meaning. First, they have the vulgar external meaning, which is what someone who didn’t realize that they were reading a parable would grasp. Second, they have an external parabolic meaning, which “contains wisdom that is useful in many respects, among which is the welfare of human societies” (Guide, 12). Finally, and most importantly, there is the inner parabolic meaning, which “contains wisdom that is useful for beliefs concerned with the truth as it is” (Guide, 12). Thus, the explication and understanding of parables is a multi-step process. First, the reader must recognize that he is reading a parable. Then, as he studies what the parable could mean, he will realize first the external parabolic meaning and then, if he is wise enough, come to glimpse the truth at the center of the parable, which is infinitely more precious than even the parabolic external meaning and can only be glimpsed as through a filigreed shell.
This process is necessary for several reasons. First, some meanings must be hidden so that those who should not know the truth do not know it. There are certain truths (such as the inability to say anything about God) that, for the uninitiated, would lead to terrible skepticism and an abandonment of the path of righteousness. Only those who study until they realize the hidden meanings are worthy of knowing them and can know them safely. Secondly, there are certain truths that you just can’t really say. Any way of saying them using human language is inherently flawed. This seems to tie in directly with the idea of language as a metaphor. However, unlike Sayers, Maimonides believes that most language is concrete—it is just in the case of God that our language falters, as any syntactic construction that involves the subject ‘God’ and a predication (any predication, even ‘exists’) separates God from his attributes and is thus polytheistic/idolatrous, which for Maimonides are the same thing. Thus, the only way to express the truth about God is through parables, so that one can come to glimpse the truth through the veil imposed on it by the logic of human speech (both inner speech and external, vocalized speech).
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How is this parabolic interpretation relevant to Tolkien? I want to argue that through a parabolic interpretation, we can better understand what it is that we are supposed to learn from the stories in the Legendarium. I think that an approach which views the stories of the Legendarium as parables rather than as metaphors is more fruitful.
Why not metaphor? To me, and this is purely subjective, metaphor implies that the languge we are using in on some level not true. When we say that ‘Juliet is the sun’ or that ‘her eyes were glistening jewels’ (Wikipedia’s first example of a metaphor), we realize that what we are saying is not literally true. Juliet is not the sun—she is just, say, that thing which allows there to be life, the light of Romeo’s life, or whatever else we interpret it as. When we say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is a parable, however, it is not necessarily making any sort of claim about the truth or falsity of the vulgar external meaning of the parable. It could well be the case that God actually came and walked in the Garden with Adam (Maimonides has his own theological reasons for claiming that this cannot literally be the case), and it could be the case that a snake actually talked. Nothing in the interpretation of these stories as parables means that they did not occur. It is this that seems to separate parables from metaphors, and I would argue that the stories in the Legendarium are not meant to be dismissed as mere metaphors in the way that we would dismiss the factual claim that Juliet is the sun. At least in the context of Tolkien’s secondary reality, these events did transpire, and thus do not seem to be metaphors in that the literal meaning of the words isn’t true.
Why parables? Clearly, there is more going on in the Legendarium than just a collection of stories. The stories are supposed to impart some deeper meaning, which is hidden from us and we can only tease out through study and discussion. This seems to place them squarely within Maimonides’ views of what makes a parable a parable. If we accept Maimonides’ system of how to interpret parables, then we should be able to distinctly see the vulgar external meaning of the stories, and then on closer inspection see both a parabolic external meaning (which seeks to give us advice on how to successfully run our own societies) and a parabolic internal meaning (which shows us something of the truth as it is). I will examine the story of Feanor and his refusal to give up the Silmarils and try to see whether we can sense what the three different meanings are.
First, the easy one. The vulgar external meaning is just the story, what happens in the text. We will focus on the part that in which Feanor refuses to hand over the Silmarils to the Valar, as looking at the entire story would extend this already overlong post to Tolkein-esque length. Feanor refuses to give the Valar the Silmarils so that they can restore the trees. This is pretty straightforward, as far as I can tell.
What then is the parabolic external meaning of this part of the story? According to Maimonides, the parabolic external meaning provides wisdom, but only the type of wisdom that helps the health—political, social, even spiritual—of the community. This interpretation also seems relatively straightforward, as Feanor’s defiance of the Valar leads to greater ruin for everyone, including himself. This Silmarils are, as we said in class, symbols of desire and especially the desire for possession. The message then is this: inordinate desire for the Silmarils, like the inordinate desire to possess anything that does not truly belong to you (because it is not the Silmarils qua Silmaril that the Valar want, but the light inside the Silmaril, which is a universal good) against the betterment of the community as a whole will lead to greater destruction and loss than you imagine. Feanor, by refusing the hand over the Silmarils to the Valar, ends up setting himself upon a path which will lead to his loss of everything. The lesson for the community is then that one should not put personal possession above the welfare of the whole, because this will have disastrous results.
However, an interpretation that stops with the parabolic internal lesson does not fully explore the significance of a parable—it doesn’t speak to the truth as it is. In Maimonides, one often finds that the parabolic internal meaning is hidden, and depends on the interpretation of many interlocking parables. For example, Maimonides’ interpretation of the Fall requires that one understand his parabolic interpretation of ‘eating,’ which he views as a metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge. Thus, to find out the true meaning of a parable one must see it in its context as a whole. The same is true with the story of Feanor, especially as it is contrasted with Aule’s creation of the Dwarves. In both of these stories, someone is asked to give up something that, in a sense, should not be theirs. They have both created something with the intent to have it be a good force in the world, but are asked (under different circumstances, but we are speaking in parables here and that is just the vulgar external meaning) to give it up. Aule does so, Feanor does not. This suggests, again, the external parabolic meaning where w realize that the things that are not ours should not be coveted. However, this is not the parabolic internal meaning.
To understand the parabolic internal meaning one must realize that Feanor does not have the Silmarils to give up—they are literally no longer his to give. By thinking of them as his, and hiding them away, he allows for them to be stolen from him. By jealously guarding them as his personal possessions, he loses them forever. This is contrasted with Aule, who is quick to realize that he cannot create anything that is his—all of his creations are in a sense only truly creations when that creative force comes from outside himself. What the parabolic internal meaning then is merely is that the things we create cannot be our own, and that to think of them in those terms is to misunderstand what it means to create and own. We cannot ever create anything for ourselves—all we can do is create, and hope to share our creation. To think that anything we have made is our own in the way that Feanor thinks the Silmarils are his is to already have lost them. That is the truth as it is, and the internal meaning of the parable.
Why must this meaning be hidden? Maimonides says that meanings are hidden either because the truth that they express cannot be said or that those who would hear it might misunderstand it. The latter seems to be the case here. Were the literal meaning of the text something along the lines of “nothing you make is your own” or “you have no creative power as an individual,” this might lead people to not create. This is not what the author of the Legendarium (in a certain sense ’God’) wants. The goal is not to stop creation, but to spur on creation as a group, and for the group. This ties in, of course, with the external parabolic meaning, which suggests that withholding one’s own possessions from those who need them is wrong, but builds on it by showing that we cannot truly speak of our own possessions. However, by embedding the parabolic meanings so deeply, the author can make it available only to those who really study the text. This makes it so that people who would misunderstand this truth and use it as a justification for laziness or a lack of creativity still think that they have their own possessions and creations.
In summary, there are two main points I want to stress. The first is that I feel parables are a better name for what is going on in the Legendarium than metaphors, because a metaphor implies the falsity of the literal meaning. Secondly, the structure of parables (at least as interpreted by Maimonides) gives us a novel way of approaching the Legendarium and extracting different levels of meaning from it. I know that we generally approach Tolkien from a more Christian theological view, but this seems to suggest a whole realm of new interpretation that lie within the structure of the text.