Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tolkien's History: If it's not allegorical, what is it?

I am a history major, and when I saw that this course was listed in my department, I was ecstatic: history and Lord of the Rings…what could be better?  To be completely honest, however, I was initially disappointed with the scope of history in this class. I think that I expected to find some very real ties between the contemporary events of Tolkien’s time (World War I and World War II, for instance) and his literature. 

However, Tolkien directly claims in his Forward to the Second Edition of Lord of the Rings that “the real war [WWII] does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion”. He goes on to outline what the War of the Ring would have looked like if it had followed the motions of the Second World War, or if the War of the Ring had truly been some sort of allegory to World War II.  This outline does not even closely resemble the actual events and outcome of the War of the Ring with which we are familiar. In this same Forward, Tolkien claims to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”. It is clear, then, that the importance of history to Tolkien, and in our course, does not lie in any type of ‘direct connection’ to contemporary events. 

So what is the importance of history for Tolkien, and for us as his readers and interpreters? In the Forward, Tolkien says that “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers”. Why is Tolkien so drawn to history? What does he mean by “true” and “feigned” history? And why does he think that history has the capacity to deeply touch and apply to the “thought and experience of readers?”. 

For me, the answer to these questions starts with my own experience: why do I like history? Why does it affect me so much? I am, after all, one of Tolkien’s readers – one of the people whose “thought and experience” he hopes to touch with his work. So, about me: I like the connections that history illuminates for me. I like seeing the movement of events, how they overlap and affect each other, and move on to produce new events. I like the collectivity of history: it’s there for all of us, whether we want to look at it or not. I know that it doesn’t exist for all of us in the same sense – we all look at it in our own way, and have our own interpretation of it. That’s almost its allure: it’s a summation of our collective interpretations. Even though there were concrete events that happened, history is not concrete like a math equation or a science experiment. It is mutable, because the human memory, and human interpretation, is mutable. History is therefore something of the past, for that is when it took place, but also something of the present, for it is in the present that we modify and interpret it. 

Tolkien went to great pains to create a “history” behind his stories. In fact, much of Tolkien’s fundamental “world” history pre-dated his stories. It almost seems that he started with the creation of a world and its history, and then wove his stories into this framework. This creation is perhaps what he would call “feigned” history – a history, developed by a sub-creator, which has a semblance of reality. For Tolkien’s “feigned” history functions much like the history of our own world, in an abstract sense. Tolkien weaves in details, and shows the movements and repercussions of events and decisions throughout time. His stories, then, with this history as their background, are comparable to the “present”. The characters in them are part of the ever-moving history, but like us in the real world, the characters’ views and interpretations of the past shape both their history and their present.

The fact that Tolkien created a history, and tied it in with his stories, draws me even more to his writing. It gives it depth and continuity, and a captivating sense of reality. Like I mentioned before, I like seeing the connections in history, and looking at how people interpret the past. Tolkien’s writing gives me a chance to do this in a sub-created world, and in this way he really has touched my “thought and experience”. History belongs to everyone, and Tolkien recognizes its commonality and its allure, and brings that to us through his creation.

There’s more, however, to Tolkien’s sense of history. Not only does he sub-create this history, he also envisions it as a history that is almost intertwined with our own. In a drafted letter to Auden, Tolkien writes that “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world […] the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time” (Letter 183, p239). Tolkien has imagined a historical period, but has somehow attempted to make it contiguous with our own vision of history. The Lord of the Rings is set in “this earth,” and Tolkien has striven to make this world feel “familiar” to us. In doing this, he draws readers even deeper into his story, and makes us feel part of something bigger – history.


-E.O.

8 comments:

  1. I think what is striking about Tolkien's complete dismissal of allegory with regards to Lord of the Rings and the World Wars is that there are elements of the World Wars that are very strong within the books. Whether this is intentional or not is debatable, "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience"--Tolkien.
    The Rohirrim smack of the last stand of calvary in the first world war, the dead marshes bear extreme semblance to the Western Front, Sauron's army with it's superior technology and mutated orcs (Uruk-Hai) are also indicative of the German forces in the World Wars.
    So even though plot wise there there isn't a striking similarity there are definite elements from the World Wars. I think this shows the role of history upon every person. Even though Tolkien is consciously creating a separate universe from ours; elements that have effected him pervade into this secondary reality.
    This history of our own world is bigger than we are, bigger than our lives; just as the history of middle earth is bigger than just the story of Frodo and the ring. The intersect with Tolkien as history is so strong not even he can escape the effects that it has had upon his life.I think what is striking about Tolkien's complete dismissal of allegory with regards to Lord of the Rings and the World Wars is that there are elements of the World Wars that are very strong within the books. Whether this is intentional or not is debatable, "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience"--Tolkien.
    The Rohirrim smack of the last stand of calvary in the first world war, the dead marshes bear extreme semblance to the Western Front, Sauron's army with it's superior technology and mutated orcs (Uruk-Hai) are also indicative of the German forces in the World Wars.
    So even though plot wise there there isn't a striking similarity there are definite elements from the World Wars. I think this shows the role of history upon every person. Even though Tolkien is consciously creating a separate universe from ours; elements that have effected him pervade into this secondary reality.
    This history of our own world is bigger than we are, bigger than our lives; just as the history of middle earth is bigger than just the story of Frodo and the ring. The intersect with Tolkien as history is so strong not even he can escape the effects that it has had upon his life.
    --JP

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  2. I, too, was initially disappointed with Tolkien’s denial of allegory within his epic. While reading LotR, I’ve often pondered the allegorical meanings behind the major events of the book. To learn that Tolkien never intended for his story to reflect real-world happenings left me at a loss as to his tale’s purpose. In fact, I still find it hard to believe that he was not in some part inspired by the World Wars, given the poignant correlations between LotR and these events (politically aloof nations coming together to fight against a common “menace”? And this menace happens to demand a forced homogeneity among its members? C’moooon).

    Thanks to this post, however, I now understand a little better what Tolkien was really trying to do with his work. For his sub-creative focus does seem to be on generating a history of Middle-Earth, and propagating that history through the story he tells us. I guess he was less interested giving an interpretation of the our true past, and more concerned with revealing a history of his own creation—with implications and meanings unique to itself.

    -Jessica Adepoju

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  3. I agree. It’s not historical-allegorical, definitely not topical. But it’s not ahistorical either. (One of the historian’s assumptions is that nothing can be ahistorical.) For me it helps very much to see Tolkien historically in the literary company of Lewis and in the literary heritage of William Morris, George MacDonald, Henry Rider Haggard, Andrew Lang, etc. These at least suggest common areas of concern in Tolkien’s time and before. Turning to your main observation, it seems to me that most historical fiction operates to some degree on the two levels you describe, past setting and present concern. The test of a reader’s response is always important in generic distinctions. If Tolkien’s use of two orders of past and present is different from that of historical fiction in general (as my response tells me), then maybe there’s something else going, maybe another principle is in order. You do a great job of describing the humanistic enterprise of historical interpretation. One thing that strikes me as relevant is that history makes it easier to see what’s important. It makes it easier to see patterns, patterns that influence - and are influenced by - historical narrative. In fact, when Tolkien writes the foreword, he can already see the shape of the Second World War in a way that was perhaps not obvious to him when he began LotR. I’m not sure he’s producing a picture with a semblance of reality. It is reality of a different order. But, to put this back into history, many other writers, thinkers and artists in his day were having similar ideas.
    JT

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  4. This is definitely an interesting reflection. I will admit that the thing I most want to address is the influence of Catholicism in his writings. Reading this post after examining the readings for today was very interesting, though, given the extent to which Tolkien claimed he had to create a history for each word and sound in each of his languages; they weren't mere, random inventions.

    I've always felt that there was more history and depth in one of Tolkien's mountains than there is on our own history. Reading about World War II doesn't necessarily make my stomach twist into knots the way it does when Gandalf arrives at Helm's Deep or the Rohirrim thunder across the plains towards Gondor. How he did this, I do not know, but there are times when that history feels more real to me than our own.

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  5. Perhaps we could say, there is history and there is history: there is "what actually happened," and then there is the way in which what happens involves, as you rightly say, the movement of events, the collectivity of memory and experience, the interpretation of events on the basis of present concerns. Tolkien's stories can be fully "historical" in the second sense without saying anything directly about history in the first. And why should they? History, after all, does *not* repeat itself (whatever Marx says).

    RLFB

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  6. I, too, admit that I was at first a little confused by the listing of this course under the HIST heading. It's about literature, it should at least be at least cross-listed in English, right?

    However, I've come to agree that considering Tolkien as history is one of the most valuable ways we can examine his work (and not just because Tolkien said so). What makes Tolkien so interesting is this "backwards" method of creation you've pointed out: instead of starting with the characters and plot and finding a "theater" for them after the fact, Tolkien's creation of world and story went hand-in-hand. Many great works of literature (Shakespeare's plays, for instance) can be transported to different "worlds" and still function in a similar, if not identical way, to their original form. However, this isn't so with Tolkien: his stories are so tightly interwoven with the history that he's created that it is impossible to separate them from their timeline.

    As someone whose approach to literature is so, for lack of a better word, English-y, I never thought to consider Tolkien's work as allegorical to WWII. However, I think that considering Tolkien's works as a history in a broader sense -- a history that overlaps with our own world, perhaps in ways that even Tolkien didn't intend.

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  7. Sorry, that last sentence wasn't a sentence.

    Let's try, "However, I think that considering Tolkien's works as a history in a broader sense -- a history that overlaps with our own world, perhaps in ways that even Tolkien didn't intend -- is one of the most interesting ways that we can read the Lord of the Rings."

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  8. I’ll admit, as someone who deeply enjoys reading some of the more dry historical texts, Tolkien sold me at a young age on the idea that history tells a story of its own. I also considered the War of the Ring as a possible allegory for the World War I, as Tolkien was in the middle of it, and also made the connection between the significant advancement in weapons technology and the Uruk-hai of Saruman. I like to think of history as “the greatest story that has ever been told” as it encompasses all other stories. The fact that Tolkien saw fit to insert his history into our world reminded me of that, which allows me to dismiss all the allegory I had previously held, as I can now justify it as simply a different part of “the greatest story” that took place at a different time, instead of trying to draw a parallel Tolkien explicitly doesn’t want to draw. I deeply appreciated the depth Tolkien went to and can now understand why he did it. He wanted to insert it into our world, so it needed to feel as if it belonged. I can now see that the depth was not done on a personal whim, but as a desire to create something that was complex enough to fit in our world and understandable so it could be accepted. It’s a new perspective for me that I intend to apply to the texts from here on out.

    -Joseph Houghton

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