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)

I was not magnificent: The Craft of Imagination in The Hobbit

A song frequently heard from my playlist is Bon Iver’s “Holocene.” It’s one of those rare songs where the music video contributes meaningfully to the song’s poignant call to imagine the holocene – the period of time since the last ice age, 11,700 years, the brief moment in which human history can be found in the vast timeline of the earth.

I recommend listening and watching before reading more.

The chorus runs, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/(Jagged vacance, thick with ice)/I could see for miles, miles, miles.” In the video we watch a young boy awakening in his small, comfortable, Hobbit-like home, as he prepares to go outside. As he looks out the window, we can see a bird flying past. The boy leaves his modest abode, walking with stick in hand, and the grassy home fades as he encounters the surrounding landscape, the hawk circling overhead.

Imagining for Miles and Miles

Bilbo was no child when the boisterous dwarves came calling at the Unexpected Party, and he was also not, like the child, looking for adventure in wild places. The call to adventure had fallen asleep in him; memories of Gandalf from his childhood stirred those thoughts for a moment as the wizard visits uninvited him on a good morning:

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that fastened themselves and never came undone til ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!” (19)

Bilbo quickly remembers his Hobbitish disinterest in such “mad adventures,” though he is too polite to refuse the wizard for tea, and still too polite to question a troop of dwarves inviting themselves as the old man’s plus thirteen. It is really not Gandalf or any argument from the dwarves, I think, which woos Bilbo into the approaching adventure. It’s not the smith-craft of the dwarves, but their song-craft, which resonates with the Hobbit’s Tookish heartstrings:

“And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music” (26).

They sing of mountains, dwarven kings and treasure, elflords and dragons, a lost home and the harps that filled their halls with music. Like the crowns they made that “meshed the light of moon and sun,” the song alloys sadness with beauty, casting a somber light like that from the fireplace to create half-seen wonders in the imaginations of those who will listen:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

Their song opens his mind to see more, to see further, to stray high above the homely comforts of his hobbit-hole and encounter the magnificence that the world has to offer, and to bear the symbol of encounter with that magnificence, to exchange a sword for a walking-stick.

The Craft of Imagination

This is my third time reading through The Hobbit, and I am struck yet again by Tolkien’s craft of imagination. We may often think of imagination as something that is a given; simply imagine a dragon, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf – it seems easy. But just as our capacity for rational thought or sensory experience gives us the potential for philosophy and science, greater effort is needed to obtain the discipline of the imagination – deep, stirring encounters with transformative beauty. Of what are our imaginations really capable? Tolkien, as he dims the light of our comfortable assumptions at the fireside of his magic song, does not merely present his own craft of imagination, but shares it with us, mentors us, like Gandalf mentors Bilbo and the Dwarves, to let our minds soar.

I think this has something to do with the reason why Eagles and other birds play such an important role in his stories, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are more pedagogical in their desire to teach readers how to read the story than the more austere Silmarillion legends. It would be easy enough to imagine Eagles meeting Bilbo at his door and sweeping him off to the Lonely Mountain, but to do so would be to miss the texture of Middle-earth and the presence of the Eagles themselves. There is an author mapping the story, but he withdraws from Bilbo at times and lets him think he is alone in the dark, comforted not even by his best companion, his pipe:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely” (77).

I am more sympathetic to this passage now, as a casual pipe smoker, than I was as a younger, more puritanical sort (no offense meant of course). At other times we see Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Dwarves smoking their pipes; it is a simple form of camaraderie and is a muted way in which Gandalf’s magical abilities can be hinted at without becoming excessively utilitarian. Mere utility quite ruins the fun of magic, and for that matter ruins pipe-smoking: that would be what we call addiction (we’ll speak of the Ring some other time, which is more like an always replenishing pack of Newports – yum). Striking a match just then, as the narrator assures us Bilbo comes to realize, would have been a bad idea in any case. The goblin tunnels are a poor place to show off your ring-blowing skills, even poorer than showing off to Gandalf, and it is a mistake (though one with small consequence in this case) rooted in a failure of imagination.

To Everything There is a Season

Pipe tobacco and Eagles have their place, and it is a poor, uncrafted imagination that seeks to have the pleasure and the majesty of both at all times. “Holocene,” like The Hobbit, uses the passing of seasons to express the texture of our encounter with the small concession Nature, in its sheer presence, makes to our little lives. From Halloween to Christmas human celebrations attempt to pierce the seasons with meaning, and Bilbo’s journey takes a year, though it only takes nine months, from April to December, for his duties as Burglar to become resolved. This seasonal quality to the texture of imagination as it unfolds through story is something lost on the dwarves in the midst of their most grotesque behavior (especially Thorin’s) – their occupation of the hoard under the Lonely Mountain.

When the dwarves first sang their song, it was partly to bring Bilbo into harmony with their intentions, and also to reignite the fellowship that would unite all of them. It’s Springtime (April to be exact), proverbial rather than cliche as a fitting time to recollect their identity and begin the mission. With summer grown old, they sing their song again in Beorn’s hall – somewhat unseasonably, since Beorn seems to find no interest in songs about treasure (127). Whereas the song in Bilbo’s home served as a call to adventure in a place that had little enough of it, Beorn’s home, surrounded by goblin-infested mountains and spider-crawling Mirkwood, needs no such call.

The song related by the narrator is not quite the same, a varied reiteration that reaffirms the journey’s purpose for the dwarves and Bilbo, and which focuses more on the restless wind rather than the dwarven “dungeons deep and caverns old”:

“The wind was on the withered heath…
…It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair…
It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale
and stars were fanned to leaping light.”

Weary travelers in brief respite meet the wind as fellow traveler as well as a sometimes tiresome obstacle; the wind becomes here a means to imagine a cosmic journey, providing a consoling solidarity moving through Nature itself.

Maturity of Imagination

In the first two songs, the dwarves were more experienced than Bilbo in the world, and their wisdom contained the means to push Bilbo’s imagination past a comfortable place where the best rooms are conveniently always on the left. But by the end, their last song is a deadening of imagination, a conflation of imagination with mere possession of ill-gotten gain:

“Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old’!
Here at the Gates the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.” (249)

When the gems and gold were across the Misty Mountains cold, past Mirkwood damp and dangerous, and encrusted under the dragon’s belly, their summons was a summons to poetry and adventure, but as Bilbo recognized, gripped in hand such dragon-tainted treasure meant the narrowing of dwarven imaginations to violence: “But Bilbo’s heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike” (249).

Bilbo’s reiterated desire to go home, as each new challenge and even each place of respite, transforms from whine to wisdom in the trying fire that lay out of the frying pan. He had peered from mountain-tops for miles and miles, his imagination had soared, and like the wind could alight but could never rest on mere gold. The gold-gleam was for Bilbo a fuel, not an object, of imagination, and there was its true value. Thorin’s imagination was tied to his own importance from the beginning (as we hear from the narrator even during the Unexpected Party), and so able to ignore a small detail such as he did not slay or even arouse from slumber the dragon who had occupied his hoard. Thorin could not see past his own magnificence, and he could not understand the language of the thrush, only that of the more warlike ravens (though even the old raven proved wiser than a gold-sick Thorin).

Bilbo grew into his imaginative appreciation for things magnificent with the insight that he was himself not. The last song of The Hobbit is the hobbit’s own, about the return to that home he had so longed for and the roads that go between his and all homes, those visited and those not:

“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at least to home afar.” (284)

Returning from the flights of imagination where we have learned to be passengers to Eagles and conversant with Thrushes, as readers we are left somewhat in Bilbo’s shoes, unable to return to our world without something of elven songs and dwarven chants echoing in our dreams. The easy story of a journey that relied upon Eagle-flight alone would reaffirm the fantasy of our own grandeur, but such vain self-centered fancies blind us to more fulfilling and self-realizing experiences of which our wandering minds can obtain, in higher reaches where songs are carried on the wind.

Instead, through a more profound craft of imagination we are invited to feel that we, our lives, are not magnificent – and what a relief, for the encounter with true magnificence lies out there, if our imaginations are awake enough to thirst for it. Like hobbits, Tolkien reminds his readers of their magnificent smallness to affirm the big wonders that lay in wait down future roads.

As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” (286-87)