Tolkien & Allegory

Last week, I started re-reading Lord of the Rings for probably the fifth or sixth time. It has been about three years since I’ve read it, so I am definitely due for a read. That the series is my favorite work ever is reconfirmed every time I give it a read. Although I know what will happen, the writing draws me in every time. It feels like a sort of coming home, a tradition of familiarity in the comfort of immense talent–a perfect nostalgic sense to evoke during the holiday season!

This go-around, I actually read something new in the book–the author’s note in the forward. I claim to love Tolkien, but for some reason my anxious mind always wanted to get to the story and skipped over this part. Now, being an author myself, I found this segment fascinating to hear another author’s perspective. One quote really stood out to me. Tolkien was speaking about readers’ questions about whether or not the story was an allegory to the current events during the time of writing (WWII). Tolkien had this to say:

“I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J.R.R Tolkien

This quote really spoke to me as a former English major. I couldn’t begin to guess hour many hours of explication and class discussions we spent trying to figure out the “author’s true meaning” in everything from works of poetry to novels. Admittedly, historical evidence does show that some works are meant to be allegorical (Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” comes directly to mind), however, I like Tolkien’s view to consider applicability. Part of the beauty in a work of literature lies in the unique impression it gives to each individual reader. If a Lord of the Rings fan wanted to apply the context of WWII to the trilogy, and that gave the work more meaning to them, they are free to do so (although Tolkien might argue some of their points on the matter!).

Literature is not only the author’s freedom to write what words he will, but also the reader’s freedom to interpret or apply the words in the way that makes sense to him. It should not be the author’s task to move every single reader to the exact same conclusion or interpretation as that would take the magic of the human mind out of the equation.

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