The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:41:14

Tolkien against allegory

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 17, 2016

Our 8th grade son has a quiz today on the Forward and the Preface to the Second Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  He was finding the Forward especially hard to understand, so, to help him, I read it myself last night. Something Tolkien said in it about allegories vs. histories jumped out at me. [my bold]

But 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.

He nails something key here. It reminds me exactly of the distinction the Pope draws between evangelization and proselytizing, or between good preaching and moralizing. The one leaves you free; the other puts pressure. The one springs from profound respect; the other proceeds from an assumed superiority.

I remember having heard or read that Tolkien criticized Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia for being too allegorical. I didn't quite understand it at the time, but I do now, as I've become more alert to the master/slave dynamic constantly menacing human life.

Over the summer, I re-read Descent Into Hell, a novel by Charles Williams, a friend of Lewis and Tolkien's, and a fellow member of their literary club, Inklings. I had read it 25 years ago or so, and it had stayed with me faintly—especially the character who preferred the image of the young woman he was attracted to to the actual woman he knew. I loved the way Williams showed that that character's "descent into hell" had everything to do with his wanting others not to resist his will. I always thought of it in connection with Scheler's definition of reality as "resistance." 

But I didn't like the book as much on re-reading. The powerful insight remained, but, on the whole, I found the story too didactic—as if Williams were preaching at me, all unfittingly.

Even people who see and feel the problem—who know that the difference between good and evil on the interpersonal level is the difference between serving and manipulating, or between love and domination, find it very difficult to escape the dynamic in our mode and manners. It creeps into our relations in a million ways, both subtle and obvious.

Being able to detect it in ourselves and others isn't the same as being free of the tendency. But it's a start at least.