Tolkien on Allegory


For years we have heard the story that J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, never intended for any of his books to be allegory at all even though the Christian community rallies around him as a writer of Christian fiction.  It is true that we can see many images of Christ in the characters of Frodo, Aragorn and even Gandalf, but in a letter to Stanley Unwin dated October 13th, 1938, Tolkien derided any critic who would think so.  He wrote of The Lord of the Rings in its early stages that “it [LOTR] is not an ‘allegory'”(41).  This quote is all we have of his denial, but his later letters give us a glimpse not only of how he viewed the role of allegory in fiction but also his general feeling about the use of the device.

He notes generally two things:

1.  “Allegory and Story Convergence Meet Somewhere in Truth” – He states in a letter to Stanley Unwin (again), this one dated July 31st, 1947: “the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory.  And one finds, even in imperfect human ‘literature’, that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easily it can be read ‘just as a story’; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it” (121).  In other words a writer who is consciously writing allegory has already failed.  Allegory, says Tolkien, is a more subconscious effort that eventually comes out in good writing.  I am largely guilty of trying too hard to insert allegory into my novels.  Tolkien was a Christian, so his themes usually gravitate toward the Christian ideals of sacrifice, love and predestination.  However, Tolkien was also an environmentalist of sorts, and so the Ring and the forces behind its power (Sauron) could also represent industrialism, the Ents, Elves and Hobbits nature, etc.  The point being that Tolkien was not trying to write allegory, but as he said, “allegory and story convergence [meet] somewhere in truth”(121).

2.  He Dislike[d] Allegory” But Found It Necessary – In a letter to Milton Waldman, probably written in late 1951, Tolkien (as stated) wrote that he “dislike[d] allegory” at least “the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.  (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as story)” (145).  I have found that working with allegory intentionally can be rewarding to some extent because it ends up informing my storytelling, however I can also see Tolkien’s point in that it can become too overbearing and ruin a perfectly good story when a perfectly good story just needs to rise up on its own, leading a reader to find their own allegory in the tale.

My latest WIP isn’t really an allegorical tale either, but I suppose if I pour myself into it then it could be seen that way simply because I push myself to create fiction that is permeated with my ideas, my views, my opinions about societal woes and my general dislike for weekend Christianity (that is Christians who only go to church on Sunday out of cultural obligation or that it is a “social club” yet do not live out their faith on a daily basis).

Tolkien was the same way, but his writing was so advanced that he created allegory without really trying.  Oh to reach that pinnacle of writing ability to be able to be told by others that they see an allegory that I did not intentionally create.

All quotations are taken from the following text:

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

4 thoughts on “Tolkien on Allegory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: