While reading about Scyld Scefing and Tolkien’s study of the Beowulf legend, I had a completely unrelated revelation about how to think about Tolkien’s method. It seems obvious, but to me it was a breakthrough moment. That is, that what he takes from legend or another source and why he writes are intimately related. Thus, finding patterns in what he takes and what he does with it can bring an understanding of his motivation to write.
So, first one can think about what Tolkien does do, and then perhaps get at why. We have discussed how Tolkien includes fragments from many different sources in his “majestic whole” of the history of Middle-Earth, these including his general sense of the English mythos as he feels it should be; individual stories taken from the Celtic, Roman, Christian traditions, etc.; we notice that Tolkien claims that Christianity as a whole pervading the world “seems to me fatal” (Letters, No. 131, p 144), but that “Fall, Mortality, and the Machine” are an essential connection between the Primary and Secondary Realities. We have discussed this distinction before: as Tolkien continues, part of the problem with just putting Christianity directly into a secondary reality is that it’s too explicit, too already-known. But I think that the distinction is not just the degree to which the Primary and Secondary overlap; it’s not really just a question of how subtle the borrowing is.
I’ll get at what I think actually drives (and doesn’t drive) Tolkien’s borrowing by discussing allegory. Tolkien says he hates allegory and yet, despite his strong criticism of blatant symbolic references to other traditions, it is obvious both here—with Christianity—and elsewhere that he not only approves of taking inspiration (and even direct plot material!) from such other sources—but rather, that he finds it necessary to draw on elements of the primary reality in order to make any secondary reality plausible and meaningful.
Tolkien is consistent with his claim of dislike of allegory in that he has little patience for C. S. Lewis’ work on Narnia, an allegory framed completely by Christian thought and plot references. (This is mentioned briefly in Letters, No. 265 to David Kolb, S.J., but “Tolkien dislikes Narnia” also gets about 30,000 hits on Google, many of which explain that Tolkien thought Lewis’ allegory a possibly dangerous distortion of Christian thought).
On the other hand, Tolkien’s works are often full of clear appearances by prior ideas: the fall of Melkor is a prime example in the Silmarillion, parallel to that of Lucifer in Christian tradition. As we have discussed, there is also in Smith of Wooton Major the moment where Smith meets a stranger on the road home before recognizing Alf, who is revealed as the King of Faerie much as Jesus is met on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24).
Like Tolkien, who takes two contrasting names in his world and, instead of choosing one etymological pattern over the other, figures out how they fit together into a consistent historical/etymological whole, let’s reconcile this hate for the allegorical with the love of borrowing themes and plots. So, what is the difference between borrowing and making allegory? I think that the difference is partially in intentions, but that it also comes across in terms of structure.
Allegory, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.” So, allegory means that there are elements in the work that reflect back on the source. Why write allegory, then? It seems to me that the point would be to deliberately make an argument about something in the Primary Reality.
Tolkien, on the other hand, isn’t trying to make a new argument to describe something that already exists; rather, he’s trying to create something new from something old. So, Tolkien finds pieces of truth and uses them to create new meaningful creation, instead of imposing his own “truth” on the prior work. The result is that the scraps which he recasts are at once familiar and yet new in implications.
In terms of structure, I have a sense that this difference is expressed in what Tolkien leaves the same and what he changes. Unfortunately, this is hard to classify in a general sense, because in both allegory and sub-creation you could claim that what is kept is the basic plot or character and then you structure your creativity around it. My sense, though, is that when Tolkien does this he takes the elements of the real world as assumed and goes somewhere new with them, instead of structuring the moral to come down on one side or the other about some already-present issue, as in an Animal Farm-like story. For example, I don’t think that Tolkien’s creation myth (very similar to the Judeo-Christian one) has some new implication on how someone is supposed to think about Christianity. In fact, the differences make it less a Christian myth as the elves do not worry about worship or repentance. Rather, it takes the idea of a Fall as given, and plays it out in a new way.
When I say that Tolkien’s writings don’t argue about source works, I don’t mean that he doesn’t have themes develop which reveal perspectives on how things are. I mean instead that these perspectives are more taken as given and incorporated as a believable part of the story, than forcing the story to unfold in a way that makes them evident. Take, for instance, two occasions: the Smith giving up the fay star in “Smith of Wooton Major”, and Bilbo giving up the One Ring in “Lord of the Rings”. In each case the attraction of the object gets in the way of the initial giving. In each case a point is made about free will: Bilbo is able to make the choice even when it is very difficult, with just a little help. The Faerie King acknowledges that, if Smith desired, he could choose a different (but presumably suboptimal) child to get the fay star. So Tolkien here has characters with a degree of free will, an idea which goes back as far or farther as the Judeo-Christian creation story—but there does not, to me, seem to be a claim about free will other than asserting that it exists. This seems to me more an inclusion of an idea to build a scenario than building a scenario to make a point.
I have one last thing to touch on, which maybe could be expanded later: I think that this ideal of writing fits in very much with Tolkien’s distinction between the Elven Art and Sauron’s Magic. He writes:
Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word [Magic] for both the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves…the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their magic is Art…And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation (Letters No. 131, p 146).
Allegory can be used to describe Tolkien’s writing only in the same sense that Magic can be used to describe the Elves, in this context. What allegory actually has is that same sense of Power that Sauron’s magic does—power to re-shape belief and perception of the Primary Reality, for better perhaps in intent (as if Galadriel were to take the One Ring to ‘save’ Middle-Earth, or as if C. S. Lewis were to re-shape Christian mythos to ‘bring children to Christ’) but ultimately worse in that it distorts with rhetoric ideas which Tolkien believes are best left pure.
Instead, Tolkien writes to sub-create: to craft through Art (and through art) a piece of that “majestic whole” which goes beyond the Primary Reality while being rooted in its natural, undistorted Truth.
--H. A. K. Stone