Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 28, 2009

Tolkien On The Incarnation And Allegory

J. R. R. Tolkien

In one of his letters, probably dated somewhere around January or February 1956, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in reply to a list of questions posed by Michael Straight, the editor of New Republic, who was anticipating writing a review of The Lord of the Rings for his publication. Much of this letter is very revealing as Tolkien graciously answers Straight’s questions on issues such as what was the meaning of Gollum’s role in the story, Frodo’s apparent moral failure in Mount Doom, and was the chapter, the “Scouring of the Shire,” meant to be an allegorical representation of contemporary England. As he responds to each of these queries, Tolkien chases the occasional rabbit, and as you follow him, you are glad to have gone down the rabbit hole with him as he further expounds his concept of “fairy-story” and how he views it as a more powerful “mode of reflecting truth” than other approaches such as allegory and satire (233; italics mine in quotation; Just as a side note, Tolkien’s selection of using the word “reflecting” is very deliberate with reference to his philosophy of myth and the usefulness of stories. I will resist the temptation to chase that rabbit, though Tolkien probably wouldn’t). In general, this is the main reason why one should not treat LOTR as allegory, that is, Tolkien saw himself working within a completely different framework that did not even allow for allegory to slip through the cracks. This is not say, however, that there isn’t intentional symbolism in the narrative. My opinion is that most people have a hard time distinguishing between allegory and symbolism, but I’ll postpone that discussion.

Jesus Christ, the Incarnation

In the final paragraph of his letter, on the topic of the religious element of Middle Earth, Tolkien states that “There is no ’embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology (237).” It seems that this clarification is intended to reject the idea that Gandalf was the allegorical figure of Christ. He continues, “Gandalf is a ‘created’ person; though possibly a spirit that existed before in the physical world. His function as a ‘wizard’ is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers (237).”  Later, however, he gives the ultimate reason why he not only set his stories in a post-Fall, pre-Christ historical period, but also why he avoided making his attempt at fiction an allegory for Christianity in a post-Christ age. Although Gandalf does die and comes back to life, the wizard’s journey, he notes, is far different than the Gospels’ account of Jesus. With this in mind, he further reflects, “The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write (237; italics are original).” I think this is a powerful reflection that sheds much light both on how to understand the religious climate of LOTR and Tolkien’s personal theology.

Tolkien regarded the Incarnation of Christ very highly, and I was encouraged to see his humble acknowledgement that he would not even “dare” try and “sub-create” something equivalent or, perhaps, parallel to what he viewed as the greatest of all “myths,” namely the Christian Myth; the one which is True.

**All citations and quotes in this post are taken from: Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, rev ed., with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

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Responses

  1. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write

    That’s great word. Quite a contrast from William Young’s approach.

  2. It’s funny that you mention Young. I was going to add a brief section on contrasting Tolkien’s humility with Young’s liberty, however, I didn’t want to run my critique of Young in the ground. I’m glad you brought it up though.

  3. I say chase the rabbit, bro. I’d be interested in seeing some more discussion on the difference between symbolism and allegory.


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