Tolkien: imagery or allegory?

I'm a big Tolkien fan, so I watched EWTN's show, Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" A Catholic Worldview and really enjoyed it. Afterwards, I remembered how Tolkien disliked allegory, so I was wondering about all the connections Pearce was making between LOTR and Christianity. I found this answer:

catholic.com/thisrock/2002/0207qq.asp

but I'm still a little uncertain about the difference between "imagery" vs "allegory." For example, when Pearce says the ring "is" original sin, or the elven bread "is" the Blessed Sacrament, that seems like allegory to me (rather like Lewis' Narnia stuff). Maybe someone can help me sort out the distinction between imagery and allegory. :confused:

… I remembered how Tolkien disliked allegory,…

He hid his allegory well. I didn’t enjoy “imaginary world” fiction (I hated Alice in Wonderland) as a child and didn’t read the Lord of the Ring series.

One of the reasons I don’t like fiction (in general) is the requirement of the reader to accept the author’s perception of the world, and I don’t like how allegory can be used to deform traditional values and ideals.

When finally, I was pushed to see the movie, I was caught by Jackson’s visual storytelling. (I had no idea who Tolkien was or that he was Catholic.)

Watching the movie(s) I didn’t put two and two together to specifically identify Catholicism in the movie. I did of course recognize the overall Christian values (good vs. evil).

I completely missed hearing the date of the destruction of the ring (March 25th) and the significance of that date. :popcorn:

:doh2:

“Imagery” are the figures, symbols and, well, images used in a work of art. Lembas, the One Ring, The White Tree of Gondor, the Eye of Sauron, etc. those would be imagery in the books and movies.

“Allegory” is basically using one story to tell another. For instance, if you told a love story but meant it to represent the relationship between Christ and the soul, or if you told and adventure story about a man on a voyage, but you mean it to represent a man’s journey through life, that would be allegory.

Imagery can be used in different sorts of works. It can be used in allegories, but using it doens’t necessarily mean the work is an allegory. Images in a story can have some sort of symbolic meaning to the author, characters, or the reader but that in itself doesn’t make the story an allegory of anything.

So a story like LoTR can contain imagery, but containing imagery doesn’t automatically mean a story is an allegory.

In the link it says

In a broad sense the Ring is a symbol of sin: It appears to make you stronger, but in the end its corrupts you. So The Lord of the Rings may be seen as a metaphor for the quest to destroy sin. But the details of the story cannot be pressed into representing specific.aspects of the gospels or the process of sanctification in the real world.

Notice he says “in a broad sense”. So what he’s saying is that the Ring can represent sin and the effects of sin, but it’s not used to strictly represent sin in the story.

I read The Hobbit 30 years ago and LOTR a couple times over the past few years, but never knew he was Catholic until recently. Yeah, I was struck by discovering the March 25th thing, too.

It sounds like you believe that Tolkien did use allegory but, because he disliked it, he hid it better than C.S. Lewis. Is that it? Allegory that is well hidden is “imagery?”

Ok, that helps. So, what Tolkien disliked was basically for the finished work to “mirror” another story, which is more what C.S. Lewis did with Narnia and Christianity. LOTR contains “images” of Catholic theology but does not strive to tell the “story” of Christianity. I think that’s it, eh?

in literary terms, the image is the person, place or thing that evokes an emotional reaction or identification, or connotes or refers to something else.
The allegory is the story, or “plot line” using such images, usually told in a very literal way, which conveys a greater truth and because all the key elements are images invoking key points of that larger story, the entire story stands for another story.
A story of an individual’s conversion from a sinful lifestyle becomes an allegory of the global possibility of redemption. The parable of the prodigal son is also an allegory for the conversion process and experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Puzzleannie explained it well.

Sort of. I wouldn’t exactly say “images of Catholic theology”, I would say more “elements of Catholic belief in the images, characters and the story”.

Another way to think of it is in terms of food… “Imagery” is a type of ingredients, and “allegory” is a type of dish. You can use imagery to make an allegory, but you can also use imagery to make other types of dishes.

Tolkien himself used the word “applicability” in the intro to the book in lieu of “allegory”, and denounced the latter completely. So I would argue that to say he hid the allegory well is still too bold a statement. Although to be fair this might be hairsplitting.

My take on this is that if, hypothetically, one could converse with Tolkien about the book and say something like “I think X in the book stands for Y”, Tolkien would never say “Exactly” or “No, you missed the point, it really stands for Z”. Now he might say “Hmm, I am not sure how that makes sense”, or “I can see that”. The alternatives which I claim he’d deny are what I’d call “allegory”. But that still leaves the question as to what to call what he would say.

Another way to approach this might be to first point out that Tolkien’s world is morally consistent with ours (one of the reasons why, BTW, the book resonates with so many, even though they may not profess explicitly the common moral worldview). One then notices the book is full of moral decisions, both good, bad and ambiguously complex. So while the moral framework of the story mirrors our own, it is not necessary to see symbolism of any kind anywhere, although by doing so one reader may help communicate to another the moral parallels. For example, when Gandalf turns down Frodo’s request to keep the ring, this touches on common truths (the virtue of humility, the nature of true authority as being ordered toward service not power, etc), and yet the ring (say) need not symbolize anything. One could say it symbolizes temptation, but one needs not accept that because of the clarity of the scenario’s dialog.

Do understand that is all just my opinion, albeit informed. Peter Kreeft has a couple of audio lectures on LotR and its philosophical applicability (my word) on his website here, numbers 4 and 28, especially the latter. While his personal enthusiasm for the book is not hidden, he probably knows more about the book, and commentary on it, than anyone who ever posts on CAF (or many others for that matter; he is no slouch on philosophy or the Catholic canon either:thumbsup:). He touches on this issue several times.

Since childhood, I’ve chosen to concentration my attention toward nonfiction. Most movies today focus on emotional or visual responce - romances, horror, sci fi, etc.

Initially, I was attracted to LoTR for the visual responce (the filming is beautiful) but I was a bit turned off by the childish imaginary world that I was being required to enter and accept (Hobbits, the Shire, Wizards, Elfs, etc.)

But when the story took off (explaining the who, what, where, when) of the good vs. evil and the catastrophy of the kings and the rings I was hooked.

I’m about to watch the repeat of that EWTN show, having missed it the first time it aired. Some of Pearce’s previous conclusions about JRRT’s work have been off-the-mark, for example his assertion that the name “Sauron” is based on the the Greek saurus (lizard). JRRT actually specifically discounts that origin in letter 297:
It is …] idle to compare chance-similarities between names made from ‘Elvish tongues’ and words in exterior ‘real’ languages, especially if this is supposed to have any bearing on the meaning or ideas in my story. To take a frequent case: there is no linguistic connexion, and therefore no connexion in significance, between Sauron a contemporary form of an older θaurond- derivative of an adjectival *θaurā (from a base THAW) ‘detestable’, and the Greek σαύρα ‘a lizard’.
JRRT has said that the Hobbit is not an allegory (Letter 34) and that LOTR is not an allegory either (Letters 109, 131, 144, 165, 181, 186, 203, 211, 229, etc.), although he does also say in Letter 186 that LOTR “is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).”

However, he has said that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” (Letter 142)

JRRT described lembas (the Elven waybread) this way:
In the book lembas has two functions. It is a ‘machine’ or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world in which as I have said ‘miles are miles’. But that is relatively unimportant. It also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind. This becomes later apparent, especially in the chapter ‘Mount Doom’ (III 2135 and subsequently). I cannot find that [Mr.] Z[immerman] has made any particular use of lembas even as a device; and the whole of ‘Mount Doom’ has disappeared in the distorted confusion that Z has made of the ending. As far as I can see lembas might as well disappear altogether [in Z’s screenplay]. (Letter 210)
He wrote in another letter that one reader/critic “saw in waybread (lembas) viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist.” (Letter 213)

JRRT wrote LOTR to provide a mythological history for England. It is a pre-Christian world.

[quote="japhy, post:10, topic:235439"]
I'm about to watch the repeat of that EWTN show, having missed it the first time it aired. Some of Pearce's previous conclusions about JRRT's work have been off-the-mark, for example his assertion that the name "Saur*on" is based on the the Greek *saurus (lizard). JRRT actually specifically discounts that origin in letter 297:
It is ...] idle to compare chance-similarities between names made from 'Elvish tongues' and words in exterior 'real' languages, especially if this is supposed to have any bearing on the meaning or ideas in my story. To take a frequent case: there is no linguistic connexion, and therefore no connexion in significance, between Sauron a contemporary form of an older θaurond- derivative of an adjectival *θaurā (from a base THAW) 'detestable', and the Greek σαύρα 'a lizard'.

[/quote]

Sigh. He brings up the Sauron-saura link in the EWTN program. Oh well.

Thank you. Very good. :slight_smile:

Ok, thanks. :slight_smile:

[quote="manygift1spirit, post:8, topic:235439"]
Tolkien himself used the word "applicability" in the intro to the book in lieu of "allegory", and denounced the latter completely. So I would argue that to say he hid the allegory well is still too bold a statement. Although to be fair this might be hairsplitting.

My take on this is that if, hypothetically, one could converse with Tolkien about the book and say something like "I think X in the book stands for Y", Tolkien would never say "Exactly" or "No, you missed the point, it really stands for Z". Now he might say "Hmm, I am not sure how that makes sense", or "I can see that". The alternatives which I claim he'd deny are what I'd call "allegory". But that still leaves the question as to what to call what he would say.

Another way to approach this might be to first point out that Tolkien's world is morally consistent with ours (one of the reasons why, BTW, the book resonates with so many, even though they may not profess explicitly the common moral worldview). One then notices the book is full of moral decisions, both good, bad and ambiguously complex. So while the moral framework of the story mirrors our own, it is not necessary to see symbolism of any kind anywhere, although by doing so one reader may help communicate to another the moral parallels. For example, when Gandalf turns down Frodo's request to keep the ring, this touches on common truths (the virtue of humility, the nature of true authority as being ordered toward service not power, etc), and yet the ring (say) need not symbolize anything. One could say it symbolizes temptation, but one needs not accept that because of the clarity of the scenario's dialog.

Do understand that is all just my opinion, albeit informed. Peter Kreeft has a couple of audio lectures on LotR and its philosophical applicability (my word) on his website here, numbers 4 and 28, especially the latter. While his personal enthusiasm for the book is not hidden, he probably knows more about the book, and commentary on it, than anyone who ever posts on CAF (or many others for that matter; he is no slouch on philosophy or the Catholic canon either:thumbsup:). He touches on this issue several times.

[/quote]

Ah, yes, I had forgotten about his use of the word "applicability." Thanks for the reminder. :thumbsup: I'll check out those lectures, too.

[quote="Barbkw, post:9, topic:235439"]
Since childhood, I've chosen to concentration my attention toward nonfiction. Most movies today focus on emotional or visual responce - romances, horror, sci fi, etc.

Initially, I was attracted to LoTR for the visual responce (the filming is beautiful) but I was a bit turned off by the childish imaginary world that I was being required to enter and accept (Hobbits, the Shire, Wizards, Elfs, etc.)

But when the story took off (explaining the who, what, where, when) of the good vs. evil and the catastrophy of the kings and the rings I was hooked.

[/quote]

It does hook one, doesn't it? :D

[quote="japhy, post:12, topic:235439"]
Sigh. He brings up the Sauron-saura link in the EWTN program. Oh well.

[/quote]

Yep, he sure did. Pretty interesting show, though. I'm still trying to catch up with the fact that for over 40 years and having had a Catholic education I didn't even know Tolkien was Catholic until recently. :blush: So, I'm eating it all up. :D

Frodo’s selflessness of taking the Ring to Mordor I always saw as Christian thing, along with the journey to destory the ring, much like the battle against sin.

Tolkien was known to dislike allegory, especially in regards to his work because it oversimplified what he was writing about. it equated one thing to another while ignoring the idea he had which was that things or characters within the story could mean many different things to anyone who read it, and in this sense the Lord of the Rings is timeless because the concepts and types of characters are universal to all people and will be applicable to any generation living anywhere.

With that said I am sure many of the ideas Tolkien had when writing came from his Catholic faith, perhaps the most obvious being the similarities between Jesus and Frodo as being meek and humble heroes. But to definitively say frodo = Jesus or the ring = original sin, is something that Tolkien did not intend to taken from his work.

Most definitely not. Frodo is heroic but he is most definitely not an allegorical portrayal of Christ. He at best as you say shares similarities and there heroes of a variety of types in the book. Sam (whom Tolkien once said was perhaps the real hero) is heroic in a very different style than Frodo and balances out Frodo’s intellectualism with practicality.

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