Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tolkien and Allegories

We have all heard Tolkien being quoted as saying, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. 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.”  Tolkien was not interested so much in representing our world in his subcreation; rather he sought to create a world which borrows from ours, but is on the whole a new creation.   He says that in order for something to be an allegory, the author must intend it to be so.  We see this same argument from C.S. Lewis who argues that The Chronicles of Narnia are not allegories but suppositions.
As an English major it is difficult not to look at a piece an analyze it for overarching metaphors and allegories which create theme.  This is especially true under the theory of deconstruction, which always places the reader and the reader's interpretation over the actual text itself.  While I agree that Tolkien's work on Middle-earth as a whole is not allegorical, I cannot help but look for smaller allegories within it.
In high school we are taught that authors never make decisions arbitrarily.  Numbers, locations, names all carry meaning, whether explicit or implicit.  When something seems random, we are to assume that it is intentional.  
One thing that seems random within Tolkien's subcreation is how the rings of power were distributed among the different races of Middle-earth. 
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,One for the Dark Lord on his dark throneIn the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind themIn the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie."
These numbers seem totally arbitrary, which means we ought to take a closer look.  I have never been able to find any connection within Middle-earth, and as such I have turned to the real world to look for meaning.  If we look at these numbers through the lens of Tolkien's Catholic faith, they start to look familiar.  Sauron is obvious.  He's evil, and there's only one ring in his category.  He is therefore equated to Satan.  The number three has several significant connections to Christianity.  Christ rose from the grave three days after his crucifixion.  There is also the Trinity, made of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  When considering the Elves, I am inclined to go with the second connection.  The Elves are thought to be superior beings, akin to gods.  The number seven is the number of perfection and completion, and it is also the number of days that God took to create the earth.  The dwarves are of the earth, so this connection makes sense.  Lastly, the number nine has no biblical tie to Christianity.  However, church history tells us about the Catholic crusades, of which there were nine.  The crusades, just like men, were corrupt and power hungry.
So what do you think? Obviously Tolkien borrowed some things from our world (there are undeniable connections such as certain names and the Melkor/Lucifer parallel), but the distribution of the rings seems decidedly un-Tolkien.  It goes a little further than we would expect him to go with an allegory.  Is it possible that he arbitrarily picked these numbers (we know that he did sometimes do this, as evidenced by the changing color of the dwarves' cloaks)? Or is there some reason behind the numbers that exists within the realm of Middle-earth?


Nessa said...

I think that the research you did was very interesting, and in some ways it really makes sense! However, I would point out that the three Elven Rings are named after the three elements. I wonder if this could change the meaning of the numbers somewhat. It could be that that Tolkien chose three for the balance that the number of three entails, or specifically for the sake of the elements alone.

Also, upon closer look at the seven Dwarven Rings, they were initially given as one, and then six. I wonder if this could also affect the meaning of the numbers.

As for the nine, that is an interesting idea, but it seems much more specific and uncommon than the first two. However, I do like the connections you drew.

Lórien said...

Personally, I find it hard to believe that Tolkien simply pulled these numbers out of a hat. I'm usually of the opinion that authors don't try to waste the readers' time by hiding some incredibly complicated meaning behind an almost infinitesimal detail of the narrative. However, in this case it seems that the numbers are featured prominently enough to lead the reader to a deeper meaning. What is most relevant here is your mentioning of Tolkien's foreword to the Lord of the Rings, from which that quote originates. Tolkien dislikes allegory not because he dislikes hidden meanings, deeper understandings, and multi-tiered prose. He dislike allegory because he does not wish to force his own thoughts, preconceptions, and interpretations on his audience. Acting as an educator for most of his life, he wants people to ask their own questions, seek their own solutions, and arrive at their own conclusions. You have done some interesting research here, I not sure I agree completely; although the link to the idea of the biblical Trinity is very likely and rather intriguing. However, you have done exactly what Tolkien expects of his readers, he wants them to do some of the work and come up with their own interpretations. In this sense, I don't think anyone can argue that what you have presented is both potentially plausible and adds something to a reader's grasp of the narrative.