Given my blog title, you’ve probably already gathered that I’m a huge Tolkien nerd. So big that nobody wants to play Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit with me, but that’s beside the point.
During my life, I have been told many times how brilliant Tolkien is for his use of allegory in Middle-Earth. Many people I have talked to have related Tolkien’s events and characters to his life experiences, or even to religion. While these points are interesting to discuss, they hold very little merit when discussing the actual text of The Lord of the Rings and the vision that Tolkien saw.
First and foremost, Tolkien despised allegory in every sense of the word. Let’s take a look at what Tolkien wrote in the foreword of The Lord of the Rings (for all of the citation nerds, its my 2001 edition of The Fellowship of the Ring with Elijah Wood’s face on it).
“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
In the same foreword, he goes on to state:
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Ah, see? Tolkien said it himself! So that must mean that people stopped saying Tolkien intentionally weaved allegory into his tales, right? Wait, people still insist he used allegory? Let’s look at some of these allegorical claims. Some of them may hold some merit.
One of the most popular claims of Tolkien and allegory are the perceived ties to religion. I won’t go over every single claim in existence – because that would take way too long – but I will go over some of the more discussed topics.
Many people believe that Gandalf represents Jesus. I can see where people are coming with this. It’s so painfully obvious. Jesus was killed and resurrected to save all of humanity, and Gandalf died while trying to protect the Fellowship and was later resurrected. It is because this comparison is so painfully obvious that it should give a red flag to readers as to why this isn’t an allegory.
Let’s start off by discussing both Jesus and Gandalf’s intentions for what they do. Jesus was sent to Earth to save humans from their sins, so that they may have everlasting life in heaven. Gandalf’s intentions, however, are not so similar. Gandalf is one of the five wizards that were sent to Middle-Earth to protect it from evil, and to make sure that they land was not corrupted. Gandalf’s intention is not to save the residents of Middle-Earth from their sin, but to purely protect against the destruction of lands.
And while both Jesus and Gandalf are resurrected, their reasoning for being resurrected are completely different. Jesus was resurrected because his place was to be with his father in heaven, his work on Earth was done. His body was brought back to life to reconcile with his friends and companions before leaving again. Gandalf was resurrected because his purpose wasn’t over. While Sauron was alive, there was a chance that Middle-Earth could still be corrupted. Theoretically, Gandalf’s purpose will never be truly fulfilled.
There is also talk that Frodo is another representation of Jesus. This is mainly noted in how the One Ring gets heavier as he nears the end of his journey (much like the cross got heavier for Jesus) and how Frodo is requested to sail with the elves to Valinor, or the Undying Lands, which is what most people equate to heaven. However, both of these are very loose and sloppy conclusions that don’t really make a lot of sense.
The One Ring gets heavier as Frodo ends his journey because the One Ring is drawn to Sauron. That’s a huge plot point that people just seem to forget about. The ring desires to return to it’s master, and will do just about anything to achieve that goal.
Valinor is reserved for the Gods and Goddesses of Middle-Earth and their children, the Elves. But exceptions are sometimes made, like in Frodo’s case. Frodo’s sailing to Valinor is not an allegory to Jesus, because Jesus wasn’t an exception in heaven. A little known fact about the ending of Lord of the Rings is that Legolas invites Gimli into Valinor with him. So, if we’re basing who is Jesus off of who is allowed into Valinor, does that mean Gimli is also up for the Jesus nomination? Do you see how ridiculous this is now?
Another common misconception about allegory in Tolkien’s work is allegories to WWI and Tolkien’s experiences in the Battle of the Somme. Many people look to the Dead Marshes as a reference to trench warfare, particularly after a heavy rainfall and the dead bodies of your comrades float around you. Even though this may hold a little more weight, it’s still not what Tolkien intended.
Tolkien can be cited denying any allegorical claims to the war, once again, in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
“The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien goes on to state how the events of the story would have played out differently if the tale had been based on WWI; how Sauron wouldn’t have been destroyed, but made a slave, for example.
Tolkien didn’t deny that people related to his stories through identifying a character with a figure or narrative that they were already familiar with, and he spoke on this in the foreword as well, stating:
“I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the proposed domination of the author.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
In the end, Tolkien created a rich world with an extensive backstory that has become a classic, and people will continue to love for decades to come. If you relate to his fabulous tale by thinking of how characters are similar to other figures that you already know, that’s fine. Just remember, that is “applicability” and not concrete allegory.