Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tolkien and Allegorical Readings

Monday's class put me in the unusual question of direction questioning many of my assumptions about The Lord of the Rings. This is a series of books I've read more times than I recall; there are scenes (for me, when they first sight the sails of the Corsairs of Umbar during Pelennor Fields up until the flag is unfurled...goosebumps. Every time) which I go back to for comfort when I need it. Yet every single time I have read these books, and this is probably because of my Hindu background, I only read the most surface-level Catholic intention. My mom is trained as a sociologist, so I had always learned to attempt to contextualize works of fiction within their time and directly from the author, but I had never read Catholicism into the plot to the moral level at which we did so during class.

This is arguably my failing, given that I've made it clear both during and outside class that my Christian theological knowledge is rudimentary at best, but, as whenever I read anything into a work of fiction, whether or not it can be classified as a "failing." Tolkien was notoriously disinterested in allegory, and a story, as was presented in class, where the Hobbit, epitome of "Britishness," are "punished" for their taking-for-granted the nature of God's creation and Frodo and Sam's task is that punishment/resolution for their sins, is if not directly allegory, very much of the same feather. It's a fascinating reading, but one that I'm not sure holds up to scrutiny. Primarily, it is dependent on viewing Frodo and Sam's journey as a pilgrimage (or even "penance") and I don't exactly see the evidence for that, beyond the fact that it's a tough journey and Christian literary heroes only go on tough journeys when it is a pilgrimage or penance. In other words, I'm not sure that the argument isn't circular: this reading of The Lord of the Rings only works if you assume that this is the correct reading of The Lord of the Rings.

More to the point, I don't know why the alternative that this is simply what literary heroes (not necessarily Christian ones!) of the genre do. Frodo and Sam struggle against tremendous odds, their toughness is rooted in that same kind of Biblical toughness...and here we are to the Christian reading again. In other words, I worry that we are conflating Tolkien's Christian imagery and his worldview with a direct reading of the plot (it is very suggestive that, when explained in class, the route taken was to present their journey as a penance and then argue backwards what they were penitent for - Tolkien never really condemns smoking pipeweed, for example. I'm reminded of David Simon, when discussing the television show Treme, and two controversial characters, referring directly to totally incorrect statements by each, noting that if you felt that these characters represented his worldview, you weren't listening. Authors leave hints in their work. Where does Tolkien ever show he truly dislikes the Shire/rural England [though I wonder if UKIP election victories would annoy him as much as they do me]?). There's a difference between thematic elements and an allegorical plot, and I don't know if we've teased along that line enough.

Birzer discusses this exact fact in his conclusion when he talks about Tolkien's Christian humanism. To Birzer, Tolkien's work, like that of other Christian humanists is meant to explore questions as to the role of man in God's creation. Is it really a surprise that Tolkien's work plays with this kind of idea? It goes back to Tolkien's own statements in one of the letters, where he calls the initial work an "unconsciously" religious text; naturally a writer who is consumed by overarching questions will play with those in his work. There is a next step to state that his work is directly about those questions or gives a direct answer. This is a step which requires intent, and if we gave exact evidence for intent, I guess I didn't find it very convincing.

It's a similar question with regards to imagery. I have never found exercises like the one done in class comparing Galadriel and the Virgin Mary in the prayer to be very convincing. This isn't because they're bad exercises; to the contrary, they're incredibly thought-provoking, which is the intention. I just don't think a list of superficial similarities is enough to answer this intent question. Naturally Galadriel has a lot of star imagery: Tolkien was a devout Catholic who visualized a great deal of things in the context of that imagery and it would therefore naturally fall into his works. The problem with my argument is that there isn't necessarily any evidence in support of what I'm saying either. We're back to square one, no? Or, at least, if I'd be surprised if I've even coherently explained my thoughts to anyone, let alone convinced them.

I really didn't want to go back to the same well as my previous post, but given the last part of class and where this post has gone, I might have to. Birzer talks a great deal in his conclusion about all of the different groups of fans of Tolkien's work, each individual getting something different from the books, and deriving joy (even the "fantasy enthusiasts"). That's true for me, too. I'm far from a-religious. It could be that I defend this position because I don't want this to be another Christian morality play. I want these books which I love to death to be epic mythology, or have deep emotional meaning, or thematic depth. The beauty here is that they can, right? I talked at length in my last post about my own religious tradition intersecting with Tolkien's and my reading of these stories as such - the same can be said for the story as a whole. I've always loved mythological tales, from the Iliad to the Ramayana. Why can't this just be another one?

Well, it can be, but that's not a very satisfying academic position. Pure subjectivism feels good, but doesn't teach us much about the world beyond, well, pure subjectivism. The best thing for this class which can be said is that it has made me think about one of my favourite series without ever dampening my love of that series. It comes across just as greater learning, not supplanting my enjoyment. Regardless, I'll be listening in the last lecture, if only to learn and not really accept.

EDIT: Whoops, I realize I forgot to put my name! - Vidur Sood


  1. I don't have anything particularly useful to add, but this is pretty much exactly how I feel, said more eloquently than I could've said it.

  2. I would like to respond to this post from a completely different point of view. I was raised Catholic, so I feel like I understand a bit of where Tolkien is coming from, but I know I am no where near as devout as he was. I do notice a lot of the Christian imagery, but I still, of course, miss some. In this class, I noticed specifically that I miss the significant parallels between Galadriel and the Virgin Mary. While this may be interesting to a non-Catholic, but not really help their understanding of Galadriel of the work as a whole, it is very informative to me. Not only do I realize that Galadriel shares some space with Mary in Tolkien’s head, but Galadriel gains a new dimension for me, one that I believe is only comprehensible because of my experience as a Catholic. I could be wrong, but I think that for a non-Catholic, it would be easy to realize (after our discussion, for instance) that Tolkien associates Galadriel with Mary, but the secondary associations that come with that for Catholics would be missing. I suppose my point is that, unlike Vidur, I get a lot out of these type of readings, but this is no fault of Vidur’s. In fact, I think everyone would get more out of the stories if they understood Tolkien’s background, and as a whole, that is what this class has done for me. It has deepened my love for this tale, not just refrained from dampening it.

  3. "I've always loved mythological tales, from the Iliad to the Ramayana. Why can't this just be another one?" I think it actually is "just another one," that is, a real mythology. My sense is that Tolkien wanted to make a mythology not just for England, but for humanity ("Men"). Because he believed as a Christian that the Lord is not a fraud (recall his letter to Michael about what it would mean for him to lose faith, to call the Lord a fraud to his face), Truth for him must be universal--i.e. apply to all human beings. But he also (and he was actually very like C.S. Lewis in this respect) wanted to believe that this same Truth was communicated throughout human traditions, including those that developed prior to the coming of Christ. What would such a Ur-mythology look like? This, I think, is what he was aiming at, and I think he would be pleased to find readers from other traditions recognizing truths from their own mythologies (Christianity being one such mythology) within it. Does this make sense? RLFB

  4. Another way of thinking of it: Tolkien was trying to discover an expanded perspective on the divine, much as the characters in the Notion Club Papers experimented with expanded perspectives on memory and time. Could there be a point of observation from which one could see the truths/Truth in the mythologies of humanity, not to say that they all say the same thing (a sort of soupy blend), but from which one could see the Truth that they all touched upon? RLFB

  5. That makes a lot of sense, and it definitely reconciles the feelings I had in my previous blogpost (where I talked about how I had always associated my own mythological traditions and how I had always felt their similarities to Tolkien's work). I'll have to think a little more about it, but I do feel a little better about my conflicting reactions to the more overtly allegorical readings of the story. It fits in a couple of different mythological traditions to believe that there is some level of truth among all human historical and mythological beliefs and if Tolkien was working in that vein (and I have the same sense here that you, at least after you explain it a little) then it is definitely easier to contextualise some of the questions/reactions I've had.


  6. “More to the point, I don't know why the alternative [isn't] that this is simply what literary heroes (not necessarily Christian ones!) of the genre do.” I think, to further the conversation, that this again is from a well-spring so deep that the exemplar and the tradition are indistinguishable—how can we talk about a literary genre, or heroes, without talking about the ways in which biblical heroes are a formative part of that genre too? But, as you say, “the genre” has deep and wide cultural roots-- I am reminded of the Ugaritic tale of Aqhat and Paghit, in which, if memory serves, Paghit pretty closely parallels the actions of the biblical Judith (sneaking into an enemy camp, getting the leader drunk, killing him). I agree that Tolkien would be very happy to see that the fabric of his mythology has a weft and weave indistinguishable from others, and that he would see this as evidence for the universal nature of that fundamental fabric.


  7. I completely agree with the notion of universal human understanding in Tolkien's work. He says that his work is fundamentally "religious and Catholic," but I think the focus is rather on religious than on Catholic. Going back to our discussion of language, we said that we use names to express our understanding and ultimately praise of this world, so different languages will necessarily carry different perspectives of their speakers. The same is for religions, which can be considered as grand narrations of languages--they carry unique point of views, references, and even flows of logic, but ultimately they are speaking about the fundamental truth from perspectives, however sundered by geography and culture, that are still human. I came into this class wondering how I should deal with a potential alienation if I am rejected by the label of Christianity over everything that I hold dear. But at the end of the class I am quite happy about my understanding of both the work itself and the religion which is its source of inspiration. Galadriel might be inspired by the image of Virgin Mary, but as she has spoken herself she will "remain Galadriel," so remains she Galadriel to me in the context of Tolkien's narration (like the analogy I used in another comment, I don't see leaves as piles of chlorophylls even if that is the scientific explanation of why leaves are green).
    Like Paul says, Catholics will be able to understand a deeper secondary understanding of the text that are not accessible to non-Catholics because of necessary religious background. But the associations you and I found from our own cultures are also not quite accessible to the Catholics, and I would say the surprised joy from these "Ah-ha" moments are profound exactly because they are not expected from a Catholic perspective--perhaps the only thing not quite accessible to the author himself, but I think he would not feel offended by it. And again like we have discussed in class, it is good that we have the ability to learn different languages, gain different perspectives of different people and better learn about the One World we live in. Likewise it is good that we are coming together and sharing the different perspectives and readings of the Lord of the Rings--not only I learned about Christianity, now I also learned about Hinduism and that also comes as surprised joy. In such exercise we are actively eliminating the provincial complacency that the Hobbits were guilty of. I would say that it is indeed the most appropriate fruit grown out of the seed that Tolkien has planted :)

    1. To contribute another different perspective of human understanding, I would like to bring up some points in Taoist teachings that are surprisingly "coincidental" to what we have discussed in class. The translation may be slightly skewed by translators' knowledge of Christian ideas, but I have checked the Chinese original and can testify that the general meaning is preserved. All texts are from Tao Te Chin by Lao Tzu.

      (From Chapter 1)
      The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
      The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
      The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
      While naming is the origin of the myriad things.

      (From Chapter 2)
      Therefore the sage abides in the condition of wu-wei (unattached action).
      And carries out the wordless teaching.
      Here, the myriad things are made, yet not separated.
      Therefore the sage produces without possessing,
      Acts without expectations,
      And accomplishes without abiding in her accomplishments.

      (From Chapter 45)
      The Tao produces one, one produces two.
      The two produce the three and the three produce all things.
      All things submit to yin and embrace yang.
      They soften their energy to achieve harmony.

      I am not Christian--to be honest I am brought up in teachings of "dialectical materialism," which is far from religious in the traditional sense (although Nietzsche may argue that it still functions as a religion?)--and I am still rather agnostic, but even I am not unfamiliar with the idea of Creation from the One :)

  8. Your religious framing is quite interesting- I agree with most of what you say, and your sentiments, as I come to reading Tolkien as an atheist of mixed Catholic/Hindu/Sikh background. I too, try to contextualize, and while I can examine the moralist Tolkien in the frame of moral objectivism/universalism, on a personal level I do not engage with a Catholic moralist reading of the text. However, as others have pointed out, as well as Professor Brown in her comments here, there is a lot more than just Christian mythology in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, quite the scholar, wrote a work with many varying religious and mythological roots. What I want to respond to specifically is your argument that Frodo and Sam’s journey must be viewed as a pilgrimage- I would disagree, I think it is best viewed as a katabasis, which, while of originally Greek mythological origin, is found is numerous religious traditions, including many Catholic texts or readings (best exemplified in Dante’s Hell). Thus the voyage is not a pilgrimage to repent for sins (after all, what sins are Frodo and Sam guilty of?), but a voyage to carry out some superhuman task, a descent into Hell, and back. Theirs is not the only one; Gandalf descends in his duel with Durin’s Bane, dies, and comes back. This coming back is very important (anabasis), as otherwise a journey without return would merely be a death (albeit a heroic one). Aragorn too journeys into the mountain to summon the Dead Men of Dunharrow, bringing dead ghosts to the Earth in a very Orpheic manner. But returning to the main journey here, Sam and Frodo’s, although they do not actually leave Middle-Earth, they can still be viewed as descending into Hell, as Mordor is described in a fiery and very Hell-like fashion, ruled by the clearly demonic Sauron. And their journey would not be a katabasis without the requisite return (in Dante, it’s two poets, and Sam and Frodo are a pair who frequently break into poem/song), so it’s very fitting that the book ends with Sam’s announcement to Rosie: “Well, I’m back.”

    SB Chhabra

  9. Does anyone know if there is a hidden satire or meaning behind the Lord of the Rings books?
    JRR Tolkien was a devout Catholic and he spent 40 years writing the Lord of the Rings.
    He was also a member of the Inklings and a close friend of CS Lewis (who portrays Jesus Christ as the lion Aslan in his books).

    When you look at it, the map of Middle Earth is like similar to that of Western Europe.
    The following countries are thus represented:
    Gondor = Italy
    Minas Tirith = Rome / Vienna
    Isengard = Constantinople
    Mordor = Palestine
    Shire = England

    The characters may be portrayed as such:
    Gandalf = Pope
    Aragorn = Christian Roman Emperor (eg Charlemagne or Constantine)
    Sauron = Muslim leader /Ottoman Sultan (eg Mehmet II, Saladin, Suleiman the Magnificent) or Satan
    Saruman = Patriarch of Constantinople
    Sharkey's men at the Shire = Protestants
    Denethor = Other Roman Emperor(s)
    Frodo = Jesus Christ
    Samwise Gamgee = St Peter the Apostle
    Gollum = Judas Iscariot
    Orcs = Muslims/Turks

    The story may represent the history of the Crusades as well as the history of the Catholic Church.
    Among the areas covered are:
    Treason of Isengard = Schism between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Churches.
    Destruction of Isengard by Ents = Plundering of Constantinople by crusaders.
    Plundering of the Shire = Iconoclasm and plundering of Church property by Protestants.

    The war with Mordor represents the Crusades, which are ongoing and will result in stalemate or defeat if not for the actions of Frodo in bringing the ring to Mount Doom (Jesus bringing the burden of sin on the cross at Golgotha/Calvary.)
    Frodo is accompanied by his servant, the faithful Samwise Gamgee (portraying St Peter) and the treacherous Gollum (portraying Judas Iscariot). Thanks to Gollum's (and Judas') greed, the mission of Frodo (and Jesus) was successful.

    Following on from my interpretation as above.
    The five Istari (or Wizards) may represent the five ancient Apostolic Sees of ancient Christianity.
    The five Istari are:
    Saruman the White (representing the Patriarch of Constantinople)
    Gandalf the Grey (representing the Patriarch of Rome / Pope)
    Radagast the Brown (representing the Patriarch of Jerusalem)
    Alatar & Pallando the Blue (representing the Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria)

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    1. As to the identity of the various fantasy races in LOTR, I'm quoting Tolkien as below (Warning: Racial stereotypes):

      1) The Hobbits

      "I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size." JRR Tolkien
      "The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination." JRR Tolkien

      Conclusion: The Hobbits are British

      2) The Dwarves

      "The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic." JRR Tolkien

      Conclusion: The Dwarves are Jewish

      3) The Elves

      The elven languages are constructed after Welsh and Finnish.

      Conclusion: The Elves are likely to be Northern Europeans

      4) Concerning the Orcs: (What he said was quite disturbing!)

      (The Orcs are) ""sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types"

      Mongol types include Mongols and Turks:

      Conclusion: Orcs are Mongol-type people, mostly likely the Muslim Turks due to their geographical location and history of their battles with the Europeans.

  11. Compare the following elements of European history with the Lord of the Rings:

    1) Council of Elrond = Council of Clermont
    Compare launch of War of the Ring by Gandalf with the launch of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II.

    2) Death of Boromir = Song of Roland
    Compare the death of Boromir at the hands of the orcs with the death of Roland
    at the hands of the Muslims/Turks.

    3) Battle of Pelennor Fields = Battle of Vienna
    Compare The Battle of Pelennor Fields in which Theoden arrives to relief Minas Tirith from Sauron's armies with the Battle of Vienna in which the Polish King, Jan Sobieski arrives to relief Vienna from the armies of the Muslims/Turks.

    4) Coronation of Aragorn = Coronation of Charlemagne
    Compare the coronation of Aragorn by Gandalf with the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by Pope Leo III

    Also compare the following elements of Catholic/Christian history with the Lord of the Rings

    1) Compare the Istari with the Pentarchy
    The Istari or Wizards are Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar and Pallando. (The last two are named in Wikipedia).
    The Pentarchy are the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria.

    2) Compare the Treason of Isengard with the Great (East-West) Schism
    Gandalf and Saruman fell out with each other. Compare this with the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

    3) Compare the Destruction of Isengard with the Sack of Constantinople
    The Ents destroyed Isengard while the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.

    4) Compare Plundering of the Shire by Sharkey's men with the Rise of Protestantism in England
    King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Chruch and formed Anglicanism.

    Here are some further bits and pieces:

    Roland's horn is an olifant (Compare the oliphaunts in LOTR which are great elephant-like mounts)

    The Pope's vacation palace is at Castle Gandolfo (Compare Gandalf)