Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.

The Abolition of a Hobbit: Rereading The Two Towers

[Alternative Titles: Sympathy for the Slinker; Sticking it to Samwise (with utmost respect of course)]

More so than The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers reads like what one expects from a fantasy novel. It’s exciting, it’s action packed – Hobbits are being kidnapped by Orcs, evil wizards are being sieged by walking trees, Elves are shooting winged beasts from the sky, noble warriors are engaging in fierce struggles for the survival of their people against dark Hordes of the Enemy. Two of our major protagonists, Frodo and Sam, have on their hands the dangerous dilemma of trusting a most untrustworthy and most indispensable guide, the split-personality of Slinker and Stinker, Smeagol and Gollum. The dangerous yet somewhat comical spiders of Mirkwood from The Hobbit are dwarfed (pun entirely intended) by the cunning Shelob. In an essay on stories by C.S. Lewis, creatively titled On Stories, Jack makes a distinction between the excitement of plot and the immersion of atmosphere created by a world. It is the difference between the flight-or-fight fear created by being chased by a giant, man-eating spider, and meditating on the quality of a world where giant, man-eating spiders exist. It’s the difference between Wordsworth feeling the rush of the river Wye and its countryside flow over him, and the discerning meditation upon what that rush means. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to be sure, an exciting story, and one that layers itself intentionally over The Hobbit to fill readers with anticipation of a similar story.

But even in The Fellowship, we begin to understand that we’re in a larger and darker adventure than the one that swept Bilbo from his door. We learn the deeper lore of the Ring, the terror of the Nazgul who serve its master, and the forces of light marshalled against the Enemy. The Fellowship is, in some ways, The Hobbit inside out: the pressure of larger forces at work is felt throughout The Hobbit but never seen clearly (though, we with Tolkien will discover, encountered quite directly in the finding of the Ring), while the legacy of Bilbo’s adventures are the pressures by which Frodo and his comrades find themselves issuing out of the safety of the Shire and into the larger affairs of the Great and the Wise. The excitement of The Fellowship is a texturing excitement; it educates us, carrying us over the thresholds of the Bruinen, Nimrodel, and Kheled-zaram and into the darkening shadow of Mordor, the dark touch of which we feel in the agonizing loss of Gandalf and Boromir.

The sub-creative work of building atmosphere for our imaginations to inhabit is of course not finished, but has reached a certain fulfillment once The Two Towers has begun. As readers, we have been oriented to this world clearly enough that we feel more acutely the disorientation of Merry’s and Pippin’s plight and the weight of the task before Frodo and Sam. The two books of The Two Towers presents two separate journeys of a pair of Hobbits, the intertwining of their plots felt only when we realize that the Nazgul winging menacingly over Frodo and Sam was headed to Saruman thinking that the Hobbit with the Ring might be in his clutches, thanks to the errors of Pippin with the Palantir. This is why Lord of the Rings achieves a deeper effect than much of its literary progeny: the weight of history, the lives of its characters, and the intersection of broad realities with narrow experience makes the momentary excitement of plot resonate with the significance of enduring atmosphere. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” asks Sam.

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.” (407-408)

Something about this exchange between Frodo and Sam has always struck me as powerfully moving, from my first reading of it, to its representation in the film, and my second reading of it earlier today. On the back of my copy, Lewis recommends, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart….good beyond hope.” The Lord of the Rings in general has the peculiar quality of breaking my heart with its portrayal of goodness as well as its portrayal of evil.

Not long after Sam’s own insightful vision into the storied nature of life itself, he snaps at Gollum in a moment when the poor creature might have tipped into goodness once and for all, having seen in the napping Hobbits a lost self he could, in the presence of his Master Frodo, recall, however faintly. “Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway,” Sam had said, and fancifully calls, “Would you like to be the hero—now where’s he got to again?” At that moment, we’ll find, Gollum had been away laying his trap with Shelob, but who knows how Sam would have replied if he’d seen “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time” (411). Instead of remembering his own musings, Sam falls into the insulting habit of interaction he had with the creature he called Slinker and Stinker – accusing him of sneaking and being an old villain. Not without justification, Gollum is wounded, and coupled with the guilt of his treachery, Slinker retreats and Stinker grows.

In the opening pages of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis rebukes our culture for losing an important part of our “human heritage,” namely, the belief “that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt” (15). Frodo’s reaction to Sam’s musing that his master might be in “songs or tales” some day is to laugh, and Sam’s reaction at being included in those imagined songs and tales is to respond as if his thought were injured, mocked: “Now Frodo,” said Sam, “you shouldn’t make fun, I was serious.” “So was I,” said Frodo.” Sam abolishes his own insight to a fancy when it comes to himself, and if he cannot imagine himself as a hero in a story (with his most heroic actions about to unfold in not too many pages), how could he imagine his fancy about Gollum’s value as anything more than just that, a fancy?

For all of the blame laid in the Ring, the failure of imagination in Sam about a creature of his own kind contributed to Gollum’s doom as surely as the hand of Sauron. This is not to judge Samwise Gamgee too harshly, for there was undeniable sense in his reaction to Gollum, which stemmed as well from his admirable loyalty to Frodo. But if Sam had taken more comfort in Frodo’s pity towards Gollum, as Legolas and Gimli took comfort in each other’s love of forests and caves, perhaps the burden of the One Ring would not have been so heavy to bear. Who can tell, in this time of crisis, how much evil we kindle by laughing at our own ideals? We might be silly hobbits, but let not our laughter be altogether be without dignity, for the sake of the Frodos, Sams, and Gollums among us all.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (The Abolition of Man, 26)

Rivers and Ruins: Rereading The Fellowship of the Ring

In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s return to the banks of the River Wye call to memory a boundlessly energetic past self whose passions have been estranged to him by the passage of time:

“I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion.”

He finds his passions cooled; he cannot feel that level of immersion in the landscape, but he can reflect on those passions, meditate on them more profoundly where once they had possessed him. I am saddened to say that the return to Lord of the Rings is similar in that sense: I no longer have the boundless energy to block out all the world, to regard no concern of my daily life, and plunge with every strength of my soul into the subcreation before me. I wish to be all consumed with the fear of the Nazgul and the wonder of the Elves and the haunting ruins of the ancient Numenoreans as I once was. It is not that the pages of the text have lost any beauty for me; I do not love Middle-earth any less. I am just now too much of the world of experience, as Blake would put it – my days of innocence (I know, it sounds disgustingly nostalgic, but I mean it in a quite specific sense) are gone, and they are properly gone. I lean back from the page rather than into it, and with that comes a longing for the days when I plunged in, but there is something new:

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”

Just as Wordsworth turned in his heart to the “Sylvan Wye,” that “wanderer thro’ the words” who mirrored his migrant soul, so have I remembered the harried flight across the Bruinen, dogged by the Nazgul, and the crossing of Nimrodel into Lothlorien. Although I cannot feel the total abandonment to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, I can more deeply appreciate the Nimrodellian powers Tolkien holds over my heart, who makes me feel that, if for only a fleeting moment, “we see into the life of things.”

Despite it being over a decade and a half since my last reading, few words felt unremembered or strange – rarely did Gandalf’s words “I have no memory of this place” spring to mind. Rather, it was as if a layer of dust had collected, and disturbed by a return, rereading was akin to meeting up with a dear, dear Friend whose exact aspect has perhaps grown soft in your memory, but the flow of conversation and comfort in her society returns with such immediacy as if you had only talked yesterday, though it had been years.

My regard for the crossing of the Bruinen when I first read The Fellowship versus my present relish for the crossing of the Nimrodel perhaps best captures the newfound awe which the story holds for me. The strange reaction of Frodo as he confronts the Nazgul on the riverside, to call upon Elbereth and Luthien, as if the tales of the Elves he knew from Bilbo and Rivendell were talismans of power, the shapes of elemental knights on horses in the waves that rise to confront the wraiths and batter them away – the heat of Tolkien’s spell was upon me, and the magic that it portended drew my attention. But I know now that Elrond was a ring-bearer, that Glorfindel a tragic memory of the annals of the Silmarils, and that this meeting of force with force, beautiful as it remains, is a symbol of the desperation that comes with power wielded only to hold power at bay.

The waters of Nimrodel are not so exciting as the waters of Bruinen, though perhaps they might be if threatened by a breach of Ring-wraiths:

“It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs… At length a silence fell, and they heard the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Almost Frodo fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel’…” (440)

One should always suspect a sad story in rivers named for maidens; even the sometimes repugnant optimism of Wordsworth admits the “sad, still music of humanity” that echoes over the streams. But Nimrodel is not a mournful river after the manner of Kheled-zaram, the mirror-like pool where Gimli and Frodo stand in stricken grief over the fallen Gandalf. Grief, in its emptying stranglehold, requires we look away from ourselves and see our reflection on the world diminished: “Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen” (434). Kheled-zaram was something I did not appreciate so well, when I first felt the jarring absence of the irascible old wizard, as I do now.

But like crossing the Nimrodel, rereading The Lord of the Rings has reminded me of a cleaner self, a less cynical eye, so that while it may be true that we are in a world where “but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as Keats would have it, the Elf is not deceiving, and the music’s sadness does not take away its stillness. In the real world, you might say that we only hear Elf-songs from Hobbits, but Hobbits are sometimes Fallohides, and there’s more to them than meets the eye (on this point Bilbo and Gandalf are agreed, a formidable alliance to be sure). And Hobbits though we are, we can bear a burden heavier, and for longer, than we might think.

“And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!”