Monday, April 25, 2011

Metaphor, Parable, and Maimonides

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.



  1. Normally 12th century Jewish philosophy isn’t my thing, but I thought this was an excellent post. I agree with the argument against metaphor wholeheartedly. Metaphors serve solely as devices for imparting a meaning, holding no intrinsic reality themselves. For one thing, this is far too close to analogy (who’s “vulgar external meaning” is just a vocabulary swap away from the actual meaning, i.e. the story its analogizing), for another, I want to feel that the stories I love are powerful as stories in their own right, not just vehicles for a moral.
    However, I feel compelled to correct a point you made in your post, and several others made in class: Aule is never actually asked to give up or destroy the dwarves. In the second chapter of the quenta silmarillion Aule begins to make the dwarves. The text states:
    “Now Iluvatar knew what was done, and in the very hour that Aule’s work was complete… Iluvatar said to him: ‘Why hast thou done this’”
    There are two key points here. First, Iluvatar is aware of the making of the dwarves from the inception of the work, but does not come to Aule until he is finished. Second, Iluvatar demands of Aule only explanation, not repentance. While the tone of his questions is clearly a rebuke, Iluvatar does not condemn Aule’s results, stating “Thy offer (creation) I accepted even as it was made.” It is Aule who jumps to the assumption that Iluvatar does not desire the dwarves existence, and decides, of both his own volition and his own opinion, to unmake them. I think this is significant in Aule’s redemption. He not only agrees to give up his creation, he does so without being asked, earning two sets of kudos with Iluvatar. I believe this is why he is not only not punished like Feanor, but rewarded by being allowed to keep his creation, a status two boons greater than that of the elven smith.

  2. One day I will actually remember to sign my name to my comments

  3. Extreme case in point above, apologies for this triple post

    David Gittin

  4. This was a great elaboration on your point from class, which I thought deserved more exploration. I agree that the term “metaphor” may not be the most apt for describing Tolkien’s creation myth (nor, I might argue, even in the sense that Sayers used it), simply because it seems too close to the term “allegory,” which we all know Tolkien was vehemently opposed to. My issue with using “parable,” however, is that a parable is used to convey a lesson, especially a moral one, which I think Tolkien had no intention of doing. You noted that the parabolic internal meaning was that the Silmarils were never Feanor’s to give up, and therefore nothing we make is truly our own. This could indeed be a lesson, but is it really the central lesson? Is the point of Tolkien’s creation myth to teach the reader a moral lesson? I don’t think Tolkien ever attempted to elevate himself to a moralist, “eager to deal out death and judgment,” to use his own words.
    Additionally, I’m not convinced that a metaphor “implies the falsity of the literal meaning,” as you stated, but rather that it adds layers of meaning. Like Barfield’s argument, a word, like Tolkien’s myth, has multiple layers of meaning, each which builds on the last and is as equally true as the former. In fewer words, this is basically what you were saying about parables, but I object to the use of that word because of the moral lesson implied in it. Unfortunately, this boils down to a semantic argument in defining the lines separating metaphor, allegory, analogy, and parable. Whatever word one uses to discuss Tolkien’s work, it’s very important to acknowledge as you have the layers upon layers of meaning inherent in his tales.

    -Merry Herbst

  5. @David: True, I should probably have looked back at the text after class, I'm not sure what that does to my argument. It could be though that interpretation as a parable isn't damaged by my misremembering of the text, but just my specific interpretation. I will think about it some more.

    @Merry: I'm not sure that I buy that there is no lesson, or at least that Tolkien wasn't trying to put some moral content into it. For me, it seems impossible to read anything meaningful without drawing some lesson about how to live/not live life. By sublimating the inner parabolic meaning to the external (vulgar) meaning--and i should stress that there isn't normative judgment we place on 'vulgar' here, just having to do with the masses--authors can impart these lessons in subtle ways. They are still imparting them though.

    Anyway, thank you both for your substantive comments, they really made me think hard about some different aspects of the points I had made!


  6. As Merry notes, we are arguing labels here, not substance! HLLG, what Maimonides calls the "parabolic" meaning, most (medieval) Christian commentators would call the "spiritual" or "mystical" meaning. This "spiritual" meaning is sometimes divided into "allegorical", "moral" and "anagogical" with the allegorical pointing to the relationship between Christ and the Church, the moral pointing to, well, morality, and the anagogical pointing to the end times or heavenly resolution, but the main point is the same: texts carry both a literal and a spiritual (or metaphorical or symbolic) meaning. Or, to put it figuratively, they are nuts, with the hard shell of the letter concealing the sweet meat of the spiritual meaning. As for the literary examples that you give: "Juliet is the sun" depends on both Juliet and the sun being real. Saying that "Juliet is the sun" helps us see things about Juliet that we might not otherwise. But this is not the kind of metaphor I was talking about--or, if it is, then what Flieger is saying is that Tolkien takes such metaphors (e.g. "Feanor is fire") and then makes them literal and physical so as to explore their meaning in depth.

    Clearly, I need to think some more about how to get across the points I was trying to make (note the metaphor: "Language is a conduit enabling the transfer of repertoire members from one individual to another")! Thanks for a provocative post!


  7. P.S. I should say (oops!), yes, you are absolutely right! What Maimonides says about the parabolic interpretation is a very good way of thinking about the levels of meaning that Flieger suggests we can find in Tolkien's stories: the physical (or literal), the metaphoric (or external parabolic), and the symbolic (or internal parabolic). Yet another label for this type of hermeneutic would be figural (see Auerbach). What is critical in all instances is that the literal meaning be true in itself (historically, as it were), which is not the case in the kinds of allegories that Tolkien insists his work is not. But let's not go there just yet.

    (Okay, I'm going to end up writing a blog post worth of comments if I don't stop here! More to think about!)


  8. Well I do agree that we are arguing labels and definitions, my time spent as an amateur philosopher has made me inordinately excited about disputes over definitions. However, one of my favorite philosophical fallbacks is the so-called 'context principle'-- that you should never try to define a word outside of its context. I think that I misunderstood what Flieger meant by 'metaphor.' In thinking about it, that use of 'metaphor' seems to match on to my use of 'parable' much more closely than to my use of 'metaphor.' I had sort of had this idea that by saying that "Feanor is fire" is a metaphor somehow implies that it is JUST a metaphor, not more than that. I wonder though which way the causal chain runs--is Tolkien taking these metaphors and making them literal and physical or taking literal and physical things and interpreting them in a metaphorical way? Or can the two sides of the coin even be separated?

  9. I think this is a really good point about metaphor being inherently not true, and parable being true and then some. I think this reflects well the discomfort many of us in the class (myself emphatically among them) feel when pushed to acknowledge Tolkien’s universe as “made up;” I would much rather think that it is all parable, somehow true somewhere out there and also ‘true’ is a more abstract, moral, life lesson kind of way.

    Very clever of you to apply Maimonides to Tolkien’s legendarium! The story of Fëanor is a good example to use to demonstrate how this works because it is such a crucial story in the history of Middle Earth and because there are so many lessons to be learned from it.