In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks testily, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical….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.”
A most fascinating phrase in this rich paragraph is the reference to “history, true or feigned.” We are so accustomed to defining history as the record of what has been true that this seems at first like an attempt to split hairs, perhaps a hopeful weapon against readers who were too ready to assume references in his tales to the World War where Tolkien vigorously denied them. Yet to a man who had invented a complex imaginary world and lived in it for decades, there could be nothing surprising in the idea of “feigned history.” Having taken the giant step from literal to imaginative reality, he could find no difficulty in treating the record of imagined people and events with the same discipline and care expected from real-world chronicles and scholars.
But a record, or study, of what can be found in a work of fiction may not so easily be categorized as “true” or “feigned.” Tolkien, existing in “true” life, must draw on materials from the Creator’s world to create a world of his own, and the reader’s pursuit of his meaning may undermine the idea of allegory as a tool of “domination.” Tolkien notes, “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.” (Read my observations on this subject.) He strikes here the head of the nail that drives through critical debates over authorial intention and the existence of any text as an entity independent of its creator. It is also a touch-point between spiritual and literary theology, a bump against the reality that like God, we must create from our own substance, but unlike God, we are not the originator of that substance.
“Allegory,” we are told, is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” By this definition, despite Tolkien, every literary work is an allegory. There is something about our means of communicating that cannot be one-dimensional. “All these things spoke Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spoke he not unto them” (Matthew 13:34). Language itself is allegorical at the most basic level – words describe meaning the way music notes depict sound. The marks themselves are nothing but what we agree to attribute to them. Communication is an equation, an exchange of factors that must always be interpreted to exist at all. Thus, a writer striving to escape interpretation is a paradox.
Alfred Tennyson is a good example, a witness against his own attempt at escape. Despite his expressed irritation with attempts to pinpoint such “hidden meaning” in his poems, he was the master of deeply symbolic, allusive language. The smallest details of vocabulary, meter, and description are laden with “meaning.” (But that is a subject for another day.) “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses, in the poem that bears his name. This is a statement he makes to himself, claiming himself as an influence on the lives of others. But so must those others be a part of him. So are we all constantly brushing against each other, leaving streaks of color, infringement, motivation, reaction, inspiration. So are we all constantly affected and affecting.
In my own years of reading and seeking, I have arrived at a sense that it is not the impulse to interpret and decode that is at issue. Rather, it is the counter-impulse to accept only one interpretation, to open the door in search of meaning and then slam it shut as soon as the first glimmer appears. Tennyson abhorred interpretation that reduced his poems to mathematical simplicity – this means that, this stands for that, as if the poem were a code and a single idea could decipher and replace it. This kind of reading inevitably reduces literature, or any art form, to one dimension. It collapses tension, removes whatever is dynamic or uncertain, and flattens the living entity into one cramped and stunted viewpoint. Too much is lost, too little gained.
The same tight-fisted over-simplification appears in religious life too frequently as well. God eludes us, and instead of pondering the largess of Infinity, we strive feverishly to equate Him with something more manageable. When it is used in this way, allegory is guilty as Tolkien charges it. It is an imposition rather than an interpretation, a willful choice of anxiety over comprehension. Again we collapse the tension we cannot handle.
Meaning should be the fruit of any quest for meaning. It seems too obvious to need stating, but replacing the multi-faceted gem with the plain line-drawing is an unworthy fruit, or no fruit at all. Replacement is not the goal.
Real art explores and celebrates what is beyond its ability to depict. “Parables” are necessary because they allow the indescribable mysteries to be carried along in the limitless spaces left for them around the words and ideas we are able to describe. We “read between the lines” instinctively because we are created this way. We know there is “more to this than meets the eye.” We are wired to seek revelation because we are created in the image of the Revelator. Our ability to use this gift will be in direct proportion to our faithful confidence that our own perceptions are a tool of the revelation, but not its final boundaries.
We read closely not to reduce or replace, but to enter fully into what is present, what might be present, in the text and in ourselves. Done correctly, reading enlarges the text as we discern layer upon layer within it. Whatever we find within it, and within ourselves, the object is not to achieve the inner stillness of single meaning. The object is to draw near to our own incarnational connection with the Infinite.
Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash