This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Silmarillion and Tolkien’s Mythopoeic Philosophy”, running in the Winter Term 2024 (January to March), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters know that he disparaged literary allegory. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” though, I am fascinated by Tolkien’s generally negative attitude towards the concept, which provokes for me the question, “Why do I, as a lover of allegory, love a writer who disavows the genre?” In a truncated literary biography he provided to one correspondent, Tolkien writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the aesthetic behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings’ mythology:
“I dislike Allegory – 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 a story.)”
In this letter, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it is quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident–for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication.
What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.
Second, I must offer an interrogation of Tolkien’s use of the term allegory, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that is to do with the Professor himself. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” It is crucial to not merely note a word’s meaning intellectually, but to inhabit it – a point on which Tolkien as Philologist was himself an absolute master. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking–for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another.
Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself at Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him–far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul).
Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of allegory in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend, writing, “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 a story” (xiii). But this treatment of allegory is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.
Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading.
So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term inspired from reading Tolkien on this matter, “enlegends.” Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the effect of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam – both allegorical, but one unto death and the other unto life.
So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi).
This assertion is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (it is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.
Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves.
Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion’s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun. In my upcoming course, “The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s Mythopoeic Philosophy,” we will explore further Tolkien’s fraught but fascinating engagement with allegory as a literary form.
This Literature course will be taught by Anthony Cirilla. This course will run from January 8th through March 16th. Register here.
Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.