Allegory Infested Waters


J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter – I’ve had this book for years now, having received it as a Christmas present from my aunt when I was around ten or eleven. While I recall skimming thorough it a few times, I didn’t actually read it all the way through until just recently. Published in 1977, this is the first authorized biography of the author, detailing his life from his birth in South Africa through his academic and writing career. While his life was not particularly eventful, Carpenter gives interesting indications as to what kind of a person Tolkien was and how he came to write his celebrated fiction. The picture painted is largely that of what I as an American might consider the typical Englishman of his time, generally friendly and affable, yet also eccentric and prone to grouchiness over certain matters, and longing for a grand past that might never have existed. His lifelong fascination with language and mythology is explored, as well as his tendency to be somewhat of a guys’ guy in terms of hanging around with other men with similar interests. It was interesting to learn that his wife never liked C.S. Lewis much, and when Lewis married Joy Davidman HE didn’t care for HER. Carpenter writes, “It was almost as if Tolkien felt betrayed by the marriage, resented the intrusion of a woman into his friendship with Lewis–just as Edith had resented Lewis’s intrusion into her marriage.” Also of note is that Tolkien’s original name for Frodo was Bingo, and “gamgee” was local slang for cotton. Incidentally, it struck me recently that Tom Cotton, the Senator who warned Iran not to deal with President Obama, has a rather hobbit-ish name. Maybe he’s confused Iran with Mordor.

While I’d heard before how Tolkien was not fond of allegory, this book quotes him directly as saying, “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” (pp. 189-190). This is something I’ve occasionally thought of myself, relating to how I consider myself fairly well-read but was never that keen on writing English papers, partially because I think that field of study is so concerned with symbolism and theme. I’m more the sort who wants to immerse myself in a fictional world and enjoy it for its own sake. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in authors’ inspirations and the applicability of fiction to real-world situations, but they’re not my primary concerns, I guess. C. Warren Hollister (who was also the author of one of my college history textbooks) wrote an essay about how the Oz books tend not to be critically acclaimed because they’re not all that strong on theme and plot, but they have a three-dimensional aspect that draws in readers. And it’s still unfortunately common for academics to accept Henry Littlefield’s idea that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz CAN be read as an allegory on American economics as an indication that this is undoubtedly why L. Frank Baum wrote it. I also feel that the word “allegory” gets tossed around too much anyway. I mean, I get why Animal Farm is an allegory, because every character and event in it symbolizes something else, and that’s obviously the intention. But other times I’ll see someone insist that a story can be taken as allegorical because it involves a struggle between light and dark. That seems WAY too general to be an effective allegory.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Book Reviews, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Allegory Infested Waters

  1. Paul Dana says:

    Nathan, I like your narrow definition of allegory. And, like Tolkien, I’m usually allergic to full-on allegory. The biggest exception is Phantom Tollbooth, which is so much fun.

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