Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. — J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Murray, S.J. [1]

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. — J.R.R. Tolkien (Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings.) [2]

There is a mystery at the heart of The Lord of the Rings that continues to baffle and confuse the critics. Is it “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” as Tolkien claimed in a letter to his Jesuit friend, Fr. Robert Murray, in December 1953, or is it, as he claimed in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, devoid of any intentional meaning or “message?” If Tolkien dislikes allegory in all its manifestations and if he insists that it is “neither allegorical nor topical,” how can it be Catholic? If there is no literal reference to Christ or the Church and no allegorical level of meaning, the work cannot be Catholic. It’s as simple as that. And yet, it can’t be as simple as that because Tolkien also insists that it is “religious and Catholic,” prefixing the assertion with “of course,” as if to state that the religious and Catholic dimension is obvious.

The mystery deepens when we realize that Tolkien, on another occasion, refers specifically and unequivocally to The Lord of the Rings as being an allegory, thereby contradicting what he says in the foreword. Replying to a letter in which he was asked whether The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of atomic power, he replied that it was “not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).” Having confessed the allegory of power, he asserted that this was not the most important allegory in the story: “I do not think that even Power or Domination is the real centre of my story…. The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality.”[3]

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

It seems, therefore, that Tolkien contradicts himself, describing his work as an allegory in one place and denying that it is an allegory in another. Is he confused, or is he simply guilty of employing the same word to denote two different things? Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory in one sense of the word and not an allegory in another?

Clearly, Tolkien is not confused about the meaning of allegory. He was a highly respected philologist and professor of language and literature at Oxford University. As such, we can safely assume that he is using the word allegory in two distinct senses. In one sense, The Lord of the Rings is an allegory; in another sense, it is not.

Perhaps, at this juncture, it would be helpful if we took a moment to discuss the various meanings to which the label of “allegory” is attached. Linguistically “allegory” derives from the Greek word allegoria, itself a combination of two Greek words: allos, meaning “other,” and agoria, meaning “speaking.” At its most basic level, therefore, an allegory is anything that speaks of another thing. In this sense, and as St. Augustine illustrates in his discussion of conventional signs in De Doctrina Christiana, every word that we use is an allegory. A word is a label that signifies a thing. A word, if spoken, is a noise that points our mind’s eye to the thing that the noise signifies; if written, it is a series of shapes that points our mind’s eye to the thing that the series of shapes signifies. It is, indeed, astonishing to realize that we cannot even think a single thought without the use of allegory—a mysterious fact that subjects all perceptions of reality to the level of metaphysics, whereby the literalness of matter is always transcended by the allegory of meaning.

It is clear that Tolkien could not have had this basic meaning of allegory in mind. At this level of understanding, The Lord of the Rings is obviously an allegory because it couldn’t possibly be anything else! This being so, let’s continue with our exploration of the different types of allegory so that we can discover what sort of allegory The Lord of the Rings is and what sort of allegory it isn’t.

Prodigal SonThe most elevated form of allegory, or at least the most sanctified, is the parable. This is the form adopted by Christ to convey the truth He wished to teach. The prodigal son did not exist in reality; he was a figment of Christ’s imagination. Yet the story of the Prodigal Son has a timeless applicability because we can all see something of ourselves and others in the actions of the protagonist and perhaps also in the actions of the forgiving father and the envious brother. Insofar as the parable reminds us of ourselves or others, it is an allegory. Insofar as Frodo or Sam or Boromir remind us of ourselves or others, The Lord of the Rings is an allegory.

A far less subtle type of allegory is the formal or crude allegory in which the characters are not persons but personified abstractions. They do not have personalities but merely exist as cardboard cut-outs signifying an idea. Thus, for instance, the Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy is not a person but a personified abstraction. She exists purely and simply to signify the beauty and wisdom of philosophy. Similarly, Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress is not a person but a personified abstraction who exists purely and simply to signify the Christian on his journey from worldliness to other-worldliness. As a formal or crude allegory, every character in Bunyan’s story is a personified abstraction. C.S. Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Regress echoes Bunyan’s method, introducing characters such as a beautiful maiden in shining armour called Reason who has two beautiful younger sisters called Theology and Philosophy.

It is this kind of allegory to which Tolkien is evidently referring in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He cordially disliked such allegories because they enslaved the imaginative freedom of the reader to the didactic intentions of the author. In order to teach and preach, the author of a formal or crude allegory dominates the reader’s imagination, forcing the reader to see his point. Whereas good stories bring people to goodness and truth through the power of beauty, formal allegories shackle the beautiful so that the goodness and truth become inescapable. Such allegories may have the good and noble purpose of teaching or preaching, but they do so at the expense of the power and glory of the imaginative and creative relationship between a good author and his readers.

It goes without saying that The Lord of the Rings is not this sort of allegory.

lord of the ringsMany other forms of allegory could be discussed, such as the intertextuality employed most memorably by T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” or the way in which allegory is subsumed with great subtlety and dexterity within the works of Homer and Shakespeare and by modern novelists, such as Evelyn Waugh. Although there is no obvious employment of intertextuality in Tolkien’s work (though it is present), there are numerous parallels between the ways in which allegory is subsumed in The Lord of the Rings and the manner in which this is achieved by the greatest writers of epics, tragedies, comedies, and novels. It is in this sense that The Lord of the Rings can be seen as part of the great Tradition of western civilization and as one of the priceless gems of Christendom.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay has drawn extensively from the opening chapter of Joseph Pearce’s book, Frodo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings.


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 172

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings; see J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp. xxiii-xxiv

[3] Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 246

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