Allegory, Myth, and Literature


Recently, I received an anonymous complaint concerning Mr. Hall's speculations on the similarities between Elbereth and the Virgin Mary. Evidently, someone found it objectionable that Hall had found "allegory" in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LOTR). Hall drew some parallels between the action of Elbereth in the Lord of the Rings and the action of the Virgin Mary in the context of Tolkien's christian catholicism. Doing so, Hall was accused of "insulting" Tolkien and his written work. Finally, the unknown critic said that Tolkien's work should be treated as "mythology and not as literature."

I shared this brief note with Hall and he has agreed to make some comments in response to the complaints issued against his speculations.

I would preface his remarks by saying that I don't think anyone associated with this project would willfully insult Tolkien or his writing. Tolkien's writing and thought are deep, profound, and worth study and careful consideration. In this Speculative Discussion Archive let us open our minds to discover what we can learn from Tolkien.

Jack Lang
ETEP Editor

Allegory and Similarity in Literature

adapted from

The Role of Literary Criticism in Understanding Human Nature

by Donavan Hall

Tolkien states plainly in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings that his book is not allegorical. Later, Tolkien admits that he dislikes allegory and displays contempt for "all its manifestations." Keeping this in mind, consider the following:

One fine day, I was walking along with a dear friend of mine (who by the bye is a great fan of Tolkien and has read the LOTR many times); we were talking about literature and our subject turned to allegory. I mentioned that Tolkien claimed that the LOTR was no allegory. At first my friend scoffed and said that Tolkien must be contriving some conceit to set the context of his story. I, being one to take up a good argument, defended Tolkien. To settle our dispute we had to define clearly for ourselves what allegory was. I will offer here our definition as a working description of allegory. Allegory is a one to one correspondence of elements in a story with truths in the primary world. The classical example of allegory is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. In this story each character and place bares a symbolic relationship to some general or specific truth in the everyday world. For example, the main character, Christian, is representative of any person and the burden which Christian carries on his back is representative of the sin which each person carries. Every element in Bunyan's story can be linked with an equals sign to realities extant in the primary world. Once this definition of allegory was put forward my friend readily agreed that the LOTR was no allegory. It is impossible to make the same sort of one to one correspondence between elements in Tolkien's story and elements in the world.

Last month, I submitted some thoughts on the similarities of Elbereth and the Virgin Mary to the Speculative Discussion Archive of The Tolkien Encyclopedia. In so comparing Elbereth with Mary was I finding allegory in the LOTR? In a limited sense, I suppose, one could argue that an allegorical relationship between Elbereth and Mary exists, but my feeling is that making the case for this would be extremely difficult. What I believe I have found in the relationship of Elbereth to the Blessed Virgin, is an example of one element of reality being stirred into the soup of story. A personage or object from the primary world has been dropped into the bubbling caldron and has been incorporated into the stuff of Tolkien's sub-created world.

In the article on Elbereth and the Virgin Mary, I merely demonstrated similarities between the two women. Had my subject been the flora of Middle-earth, would I have been accused of finding allegory in the LOTR if I had noted that the grass of Middle-earth bares a resemblance to the grass in our world or that the trees of Middle-earth have green leaves and trunks like the ones with which we are familiar? To demand that every element of story be uninspired by objects in the primary world is to demand that the sub-creator create ex nihilo. Tolkien weaves grass and trees into the fabric of his creation to make the secondary world familiar and to give it an air of authenticity. Tolkien weaves in elements of intercessing women from the primary world for the same reason he incorporates the blue sky, the mountains, and the forests. It is meet and right that man should have a divine figure to call upon when he is in need of aid. What could be more natural? What could be more believable and real?

If it seems that their are similarities between Elbereth and the Virgin Mary, it is not because of any defect in Tolkien's story, but rather because one reader recognized the deep truth of Elbereth. Elbereth is her own being; she is not the Virgin Mary, nor does she stand for or signify or represent the Virgin. Elbereth may play a similar role in Middle-earth as the Blessed Virgin plays in the primary world, but that does not mean that the word "Mary" can be substituted for Elbereth in the text of the LOTR without loss of meaning. In The Pilgrim's Progess one could substitute the word "sin" for "burden" and not loose the meaning which Bunyan intends. However, because Tolkien aims at telling a story and aims at creating a secondary world such mapping becomes impossible and meaningless. Similarities can be found between elements in the secondary world and elements in the primary world, but it does not follow that a similarity translates into an equality. And it is for this reason that the LOTR is indeed no allegory.

I quote from the Foreword to the LOTR once more: "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous."

Consider my speculations concerning the similarity between Elbereth and Mary. I know full well that such a comparison falls outside the bounds of Middle-earth. In the comparison I implicated the Virgin Mary as an element from the "soil of experience" which possibly in an "extremely complex" manner affected the story-germ Elbereth. Certainly, my evidence is inadequate and ambiguous. Tolkien warns his reader against taking too seriously the comparisons of critics and literary sorts which apply their analysis before confronting the story on its own terms, before confronting it on the mythical level. If there is any similarity between Elbereth and the Virgin Mary it is a curiosity at best, but does that mean such comparisons are best left unmade?

The central issue that concerns us here is the role of literary analysis as applied to a great written work. The aims of the critic and the aims of the author are at cross-purposes. The critic wishes to uncover the hows and the whys which lie beneath the literal level of the story; the critic would apply his rational scalpel to the work to dissect its meaning. The author, on the contrary, wishes the reader to abandone himself to the specification of the story, to the process of taking the written word and recreating in his mind the world sub-created for that purpose. The author recognizes that the reader who approaches to work with a scalpel will be unable to lose himself in the story. The activity of analysis draws the reader back a step and prevents him from immersing himself into it. The act of reading should be the consummate act in the full creation of a story, but if the reader imposes his own specification on top of the one provided by the author then the author is subverted, his sub-creation is modified and, from the viewpoint of the author, marred.

My advice to any critic is to read once as a child would read, imposing nothing upon the story. Read to experience the mythic quality of the story, to experience the full impact of the author's specification. Only after the reader completes such an exercise, and after he has deemed the story worthy of study, should the reader act as critic or act as a one who would by inference know the mind of the author.

Thus, my speculations concerning Elbereth and Mary, and the speculations of others who have contributed to this archive are not attempts to divine allegory in Tolkien's soup of story. The story-germs in Tolkien's the LOTR are indeed complex and I am certain that Elbereth bares a similarity to any number of historical figures which play for us in reality the role of intercessor. Finding such similarities does not diminish Elbereth or Tolkien's sub-creation, but it does enhance our experience and enjoyment of it as readers and as careful readers who appreciate the depth and significance of Tolkien's creation. Middle-earth transcends the allegorical and in doing so offers us a opportunity to transcend and view, if only for a moment, the deep truths of existence which only a well crafted myth could capture and re-present.

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