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Of gods, monsters and fairytales

I’ve booked my ticket for The Two Towers, and I’ve seen its predecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring, three times. Nothing unusual in that, you say. Except, I’m the type who prefers books to movies—hands down. I’m unconvinced that the visual medium can capture the imagination or comprehend the subtleties of the written word. So I feel the need to justify my enthusiasm (especially given the inexplicable omission, in Peter Jackson’s direction of The Fellowship of the Ring, of Tom Bombadil, and the pointless replacing of Glorfindel by Arwen—not to mention a certain loss of gravitas in the plot and characterisation).

The justification: ever since reading Classics at university, I’ve been a sucker for epic stories—for high tales of gods and mortals, with all their strength and frailty, heroism and fear, love and hate. And The Lord of the Rings, even on the big screen, is a modern epic in the style of the ancient myths. Of course, it isn’t written in poetry like Homer and Virgil. But Tolkien’s epic tries to make up for not being in poetic metre by including poems and songs all the way through—as Tolkien also does, though more humorously, in The Hobbit. Needless to say, the poetry (along with Tolkien’s graceful prose) is lost in the movie.

J.R.R. Tolkien was part of a literary circle called the Inklings, which included such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. They used to meet during the 1930s and ’40s in the small back room of an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child. There, in an atmosphere that must have been loud and stuffy, they smoked pipes, drank beer, and read their stories aloud. Most of the gathered writers shared a love of myth, and were steeped in the Classics and other mythologies, including the old Norse legends. They were also, in their different ways, committed Christians—although in those pre-ecumenical days, the Catholic–Protestant divide between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis became increasingly difficult for them both.

One common characteristic of the Inklings was that they took myth seriously, and for them ‘myth’ didn’t mean untruth but a story of gods and heroes that expressed the deepest truths. In an increasingly secularised and pragmatic age, the Inklings believed that mythology should be allowed its own integrity and not be relegated to the nursery. That meant resisting what they saw as the dangers of allegorising. Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis refused to allow their stories to be turned into allegory. Their tales were to be read and valued in their own right, and not for any covert message that the acute reader might detect.

What were the Inklings reacting against in their dislike of allegory? It’s obvious that no storyteller—especially a writer of what we call ‘fantasy’—would want his or her narrative to be read only for the insights it gives into something else. Stories are not orange peel to be discarded once the ‘real’ message has been found. But the reaction against allegory arises also from the work of scholars on the parables of the Gospels. The early church, according to these scholars, seriously misread the parables. Parables, they argued, work by drawing people into an experience of God’s kingdom, rather than by giving a moral message. Set within a narrative frame, they are symbols, not allegories. But the early Christian community gave the parables a moralistic or allegorical twist and, in doing so, distorted them.

The example most often cited is Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan. Interpreted through the lens of the Fall and Redemption, each element in this parable has significance. The traveller represents humankind beaten up and robbed of its immortality; the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side stand for the Mosaic law and the old covenant; the Good Samaritan is Christ who rescues fallen human nature; the inn to which the wounded man is taken is the church and the innkeeper represents the apostle Paul. To our ears this may seem a bit ridiculous (although in general Augustine, even by our standards, is an insightful interpreter of the Bible). Yet the parable in Luke’s interpretation already has allegorical elements. His context is a dispute between Jesus and a scribe on the meaning of the command to love our neighbours as ourselves. As Luke has it, the story is about how radical such love needs to be. The traveller represents the ‘neighbour’ who is to be loved and the Good Samaritan is
the benevolent Christian who follows the example of Christ.

According to scholars, a different interpretation emerges once the parable is stripped of its explicit allegory and removed from its narrative setting. Jesus’ listeners would have identified not with the Samaritan but with the Jewish traveller on his way to Jericho. They were perfectly familiar with that particular stretch of road. In a culture where ritual cleanliness was vital, especially for those officiating in the Temple, the hearer wouldn’t be altogether surprised that the priest and Levite don’t want to risk uncleanness by touching a body—even if they break the Law’s demand that the stranger and alien are to be cared for. What would stagger Jesus’ hearers, however, is the response of the Samaritan.

Samaritans were members of an alien and despised race who also followed the Jewish Law. The Samaritan traveller’s indifference to the ritual code as well as his extraordinary compassion towards a Jew are unsettling and disturbing. The roles of insider and outsider are reversed. The last person Jesus’ audience would expect becomes the very one who exemplifies the ‘neighbourly’ love of God.
While this interpretation has allegorical elements, the real power, according to modern scholars, lies in its overturning effect on the hearer’s world view. The story works in a symbolic rather than allegorical way. There is no moral at the end: the experience of hearing the story is enough to transform the listener.

The sense of relief and yet distaste at the actions of the Samaritan turns the hearer’s world on its head, paving the way for a radically new understanding of the grace of God.

One of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, made useful contrast between symbol and sign. Despite superficial similarities, he argues, signs are signposts pointing the way to somewhere else. Symbols, in contrast, not only point you in the right direction, but also take you there: a signpost and a mode of transport combined. Signs are restricted in meaning and have a fairly simple, one-to-one correspondence with the thing signified. Symbols are more ambiguous, lending themselves to multiple levels of meaning. This definition, supported also by the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, places symbol, sacrament, parable and myth on the same level, each capable of communicating mystery and transcendence. Allegory, in this definition, especially in its cruder forms, is closer to sign than symbol.

It was this kind of symbolic interpretation of myth that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wanted to recover; one where the story was allowed to stand by itself, in all its power. Tolkien succeeded more than did C.S. Lewis in his Narnia tales, perhaps because Narnia is a world that intersects with ours, in contrast to Middle-earth, which is a different realm altogether. It’s hard to make an explicitly Christian story out of The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia books, however, quiver with Christian meaning from start to finish. By the end of the series, the narrative strongly suggests that Aslan is Christ in different guise. Other elements fall into place: creation, the Devil, the paschal mystery, the church, the apostles, the age to come, and so on. The Narnia books tell the story of salvation in a mythological form that is identical, in many respects, to the biblical story. Their allegorical force, at least for adults, is not hard to perceive, though my guess is that, for children, the Narnia stories are appreciated simply as stories (as their author would have preferred).

C.S. Lewis also wanted his lesser-known novel Till We Have Faces to be read as myth. Yet it too has allegorical elements, whatever the author’s intentions. To my mind, this is one of Lewis’ best novels—much better than his adult trilogy that begins with Out of the Silent Planet. Till We Have Faces tells the Classical story of the secret love between the mortal woman, Psyche, and the god of love, Eros. Psyche is extraordinarily beautiful and resented by Eros’ mother, the goddess Aphrodite. Wishing to know the identity of the lover who comes to her by night, Psyche breaks her promise and lights the lamp, spilling a drop of oil on the sleeping god and causing him to wake. As a result, their love is discovered and Eros vanishes. Psyche searches everywhere to find her divine lover, and Aphrodite for a time imprisons her; finally, the two are reunited. Lewis relates the myth through Psyche’s sister, who is so ashamed of her own lack of beauty that she wears a veil and rules as queen with her face always covered.

In retelling the story, C.S. Lewis is heir to an ancient history of interpretation of the soul’s relationship with the divine—a mythic interpretation that also has allegorical aspects. ‘Psyche’ is the Greek word for soul and ‘eros’ is one of several Greek terms for love, as well as representing the divine realm. In Lewis’ hands, the story recounts in mythic form the soul’s journey to God. It depicts the transfiguration of the central character from ugliness to beauty, from self-rejection to self-knowing and love.

The question is whether it is possible to be too rigid in rejecting allegory. A myth can retain symbolic meaning as well as narrative impact, while also including allegorical dimensions. The problem with modern readings is the insistence that a story be read at one level only. In the early church, passages of the Bible could be read at several levels at the same time. Admittedly, the early church disagreed about the extent of such multiple readings: Antioch favoured the more literal approach and Alexandria the allegorical. Yet by the Middle Ages, there was consensus that a passage could produce a literal meaning and a spiritual one, a moral lesson and a spiritual truth, an individual application and a community one. The same passage could yield more than one meaning. In the case of the Good Samaritan, for example, the message that Luke detects—the radical love of neighbour—can be held alongside the theme of overturning grace. And, at another level, the whole story can be read (as in Augustine) as a succinct summation of the human condition in its brokenness and need of healing. The problems with allegory come only when we assume that, once we’ve found the ‘key’, the story can be set aside; or, when the allegory is crude and ill-fitting, in the closing off of other interpretations.

In a letter to a friend in 1953, Tolkien himself described The Lord of the Rings as ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work’. Tolkien’s writing can be interpreted at more than one level, including the theological. The story unquestionably exists in its own right (as myth and symbol), yet it also has elements of allegory. While there is no overt deity in the story, there is a distinct sense of a destiny to which the characters are called, an awareness of purpose that comes very close to being theistic. Speaking of the strange history of the ring, for example, Gandalf says that first Bilbo and then Frodo were somehow meant to find it. There is a sense of a transcendent Presence, a providential Power that ordains events, giving life on Middle-earth intrinsic meaning and purpose.

There is a mystery that hangs over Middle-earth in Tolkien, a mystery undispelled by The Silmarillion and its account of the events of Middle-earth’s early history. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, we do not know where the ships that leave the Grey Havens are going. The elves depart Middle-earth when their time is over, and Bilbo and Frodo accompany them. Later so does Sam Gamgee, at the end of a rewarding and eventful life. But what or where their destination is we do not know. The book gives the sense of realms beyond Middle-earth—not just other lands but other dimensions of existence, already portended in the joy and immortality of the elves, the most spiritual and spirited of all the creatures of Middle-earth.

One of the most profound aspects of The Lord of the Rings is its portrayal of evil. Although the figures of Sauron and his followers—the nine Ringwraiths and the orcs—are painted as unequivocally evil, others are more ambiguous. Saruman the Wise, once head of a noble school of wizards, turns to evil through his greed for power. Gollum is a pitiable, treacherous creature fatally addicted to the ring, without the resources to break free of its grip. The reader can’t fail to feel some sympathy for him and, in the end, thanks to the mercy that saves his life, he plays a vital (if unintended) role in destroying the ring. Finally, there are characters like Boromir, essentially good in themselves but so eaten up by the malevolent power of the ring—so filled with hopelessness and despair—that they are led into uncharacteristic actions with tragic consequences for themselves and others.

In all this, The Lord of the Rings has a vision of good and evil locked together in mortal strife. There is no doubt that goodness will prevail, even if the characters themselves fail to survive and even if this period of history is lost. Yet there is no sense that evil is either inevitable or necessary. On the contrary, evil is an invasion into the beauty and goodness of the world, to be cast out with courage and integrity. In this regard, The Lord of the Rings is rather different from the Susan Cooper series, The Dark is Rising, which has a Manichaean flavour to it. Although good and evil contend in Cooper’s novels, they appear as equal forces needing to be kept in balance, without hope of a final overthrow of evil. Tolkien’s vision is much closer to the Christian vision: indeed, his portrayal is deeply influenced by biblical apocalyptic.

While there is no explicit Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, several of the characters, in different ways, parallel Jesus in the Gospel story. There is Gandalf the Grey, for instance, who falls into the depths of the Mines of Moria while contending with the terrifying Balrog. Later, to everyone’s astonishment, he re-emerges victorious as Gandalf the White. Frodo, the leading hobbit, reluctantly yet tenaciously plays the role of Ring-bearer and makes the hard, painful journey to the fires of Mount Doom in the heart of enemy territory. Aragorn, whose identity is hidden, is finally revealed as the true King of Gondor, whose advent will restore the fortunes of Middle-earth. And Galadriel, the elven queen in the forest of Lothlórien, has Madonna-like qualities in her compassion for and guidance of the Fellowship in their quest.

It would seem that the Inklings’ rejection of allegory, however understandable, is an overreaction.

Allegory does not need to be set in such stark contrast to myth and symbol. They needn’t be seen as mutually exclusive, providing that the story is heard in its plenitude of meaning and neither ignored nor abused. To say that Tolkien is ‘really about’ the existential battle between good and evil, or about salvation history and the church, or (in Jungian terms) about facing the shadow, shows an inability to value the story as story. It’s very different to say, however, that there are striking parallels between one world view and another, or that Tolkien’s mythological and symbolic world is open to other possibilities of interpretation.

What we can say about Tolkien’s symbolic universe in The Lord of the Rings is that, while it is not an explicitly Christian novel, its mythology shapes the reader in much the same way as biblical mythology. There’s a striking coherence between the two mythologies, a sympathy, a similarity of values and longings. Above all, there’s a sense that victory comes by going through suffering, not by sidestepping or denying it; that it’s often the humble and weak who achieve what the great ones can’t; and that goodness and beauty will finally triumph over evil.

I understand why The Lord of the Rings is said to be the most popular book of the 20th century, a century both of technological advancement and appalling manifestations of evil and suffering. The myth captures the experience of the 20th century perhaps more than anything else has: its darkness and despair, its loss of meaning. Perhaps our culture is not quite as secular as it appears on the surface.

Perhaps, after all, Christianity in the West is not on its last legs. Perhaps, in the interplay between symbol and allegory, mythological tales like The Lord of the Rings (even in the movie version) have the power to bring us back to a vision of the world that’s finally redemptive. 

Dorothy Lee is Professor of New Testament at Queen’s College, in the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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