John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as many will know, is the creator of Middle-earth: almost certainly the most exquisite and complex fantasy world in the history of the Fantasy Genre. And while even his Arda/Middle-earth lore is enough to make people love him, not everyone knows just how deep and thematically loaded his books are. With his rich, poetic writing and the beautiful messages he spells out on the pages, Tolkien is definitely worthy of inclusion with the greatest English authors of all time. Certainly Shakespeare himself would have admired Tolkien’s eye for themes, and Wilde would have relished reading every word of his beautiful descriptions.
But there is an error which readers of Tolkien often make. I myself made this mistake for years. The mistake is this: Allegorical Interpretation. So many times have I heard people make a simplistic interpretation of The Lord of the Rings and especially The Silmarillion. Little do they know what a lot of the beauty in the text is missed because they simply say “Frodo is Jesus” or “Sauron is Hitler” and leave it at that. I speak with the intention of Tolkien himself on my lips when I say that is not it.
In a letter to one of his friends, Tolkien, with all of his usual eloquence, is quoted as saying “I cordially dislike allegory in all of its manifestations…”. He repeatedly insisted that people making allegorical interpretations of his works, such as equating Mordor with Hell or the Ring with the Atom Bomb, were doing it wrong. For years he refuted such interpretations as his goal, before eventually giving up because people refused to accept his word on it.
As a Catholic, the temptation for me to interpret allegorically was pretty strong. Especially as Tolkien himself was a Catholic, and therefore many Catholic philosophical ideas are printed out pretty plainly in his books. But if one reads The Silmarillion and just goes with the “Melkor is Satan” route, for example, they miss out on a lot. All the themes are lost because instead of being read as the complex epic that it is, it’s been twisted into a boring, simplified parable. But Melkor is clearly supposed to be Satan, you might be saying. Well, yes and no. Meant to be a Satanic figure? Yes. But meant to be a direct representation of Satan? No. There is a difference. One interpretation leads to a whole mess of sophisticated themes such as Order versus Chaos and Destruction through Solitude. The other interpretation leads to the sentence “He’s Satan, so he’s bad.”. The end…. Oh, I’m sorry, the crippling boredom almost killed me.
As a general rule, it’s always going to be more interesting looking for themes rather than direct parallels. Firstly because allegory is so simple. It’s usually the Lazy Man’s Literature. But besides this, Allegory is by nature extremely subjective. An interpretation by one person may be completely unrelatable to another. Thematic interpretation is more universal, and can be appreciated by most, if not all. In this way, literature has become more advanced as humanity has advanced. Gone are the days of mankind’s childhood, where people were satisfied by Aesop’s simple moral tales. Now, we crave something deeper.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like allegory just as much a the next guy (go, Nathaniel Hawthorne!), but in the instance of Tolkien, allegory is all wrong. His stories are too intricate for that, which is one of the many reasons he is my favorite author. And believe me when I say, this is not the last of him you’ll see on Mind Vitamins.