While metaphor plays many roles in language, the primary function of metaphor in understanding the interaction between history and religious narrative is to bridge the gap between our perception of what happens and what actually does happen. If there is no gap, then there is no space for metaphor. As such, doubt is a crucial element that gives weight to metaphor.
It is entirely possible and indeed quite common to understand metaphors as being literally true until we are given reason to doubt them. A well-educated scientist will know that much of the language we use to take about atoms and other particles is highly metaphorical; the well-known diagrams of electrons orbiting a nucleus in separate rings is merely a helpful way of illustrating concepts. Those of us who never move past high school chemistry, however, may believe our conceptions of atoms to be literally true, not understanding that the concepts explained to us were metaphors. It is only when we are given reason to doubt our conception of an atom that we come to understand the metaphor.
The same is true for mythological or religious belief as well. Max Muller, in investigating the link in Latin between breath (spiritum) and spirit (spiritus), suggests that the material, breath, is abstracted via metaphor into the non-literal concept of spirit. This implies, however, that the introduction of the metaphor was intentional and understood. In the absence of further evidence, is it not equally likely that a person’s breath actually was their spirit? This understanding would explain why dead individuals don’t breathe: Their spirits have left their bodies. As long as the relationship between spirit and breath is considered to be literally true, it is not a metaphor; it is an explanation of how the world works.
This means that a central problem of understanding metaphors is knowing the circumstances of its origin. Religious writing, including the Christian Bible as well as Tolkien’s Ainulindale and Quenta Silmarillion, is rife with this problem. Dorothy Sayers would likely not consider this an issue. In The Mind of the Maker, she writes, “All language about God must, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. . . The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors” (22-23). Sayers’s claim makes sense for the early chapters of Genesis in which God creates the world, but it becomes more dubious in later chapters, particularly with regards to interaction between God and his creations. A chief example of this problem is Jacob’s wrestling match with God:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:24-28)
The problem of how to interpret this scene in Genesis cannot be explained away by claiming that “everything is analogical.” The theological implications are crucial, and the role of doubt in metaphor once again appears. Anyone who reads this account as historical does not even consider the possibility that the language might be metaphorical. However, anyone who approaches the story with skepticism towards its historical value is much more likely to interpret Jacob’s wrestling match with God as a metaphor for his struggle with God.
To take this argument to an extreme conclusion, readers only have the luxury of interpreting something as metaphorical if they do not consider it to be historical truth. Understanding metaphor in the Bible is not a particularly difficult task for a modern audience, though the original receivers of the stories, having no doubt as to their historical truth, would not have considered the language metaphorical.
The Elves of Middle-Earth, like the early Hebrews, interpret the Ainulindale and Quenta Silmarillion as both historical and religious narratives. The Ainulindale proclaims its own origin as the words of the Ainur: “For what has here been declared is come from the Valar themselves with whom the Eldalie spoke in the land of Valinor” (22). At no point does one of Tolkien’s characters suggest any alternate account of the creation of Middle-earth or put forth a competing cosmology. If the story of the First Age as put forth in The Silmarillion is the only account, then within the context of Tolkien’s own world, it is not possible to view the story as metaphor because no one would ever doubt its truthfulness, and without doubt, metaphor is not considered.
As a final note, Tolkien as an author and sub-creator should be granted some leeway. He did not live long enough to assemble The Silmarillion for publication himself, and the task fell upon his son Christopher, who openly admits that he may not have done the work justice. He writes in the foreword that his father “came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition” (viii). Christopher’s description suggests that Tolkien was attempting to write his own Bible for Middle-earth, complete with its inconsistencies, written and rewritten stories, and overall obfuscation of historical events. In such a context, metaphorical interpretation of the First Age would have been made possible within Tolkien’s world, empowered chiefly by the introduction of doubt into the narrative.