|JRR Tolkien (1892-1973)|
If there was ever an author who wanted to disappear behind his books, that author was JRR Tolkien. If you read the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, you can't miss his message. The War of the Ring is not an allegory; it's not a metaphor for Christianity; it's not social commentary; it's not about the Second World War (which was raging as he wrote it) or the First World War (in which JRR Tolkien served). Or, as Tolkien writes in the Foreword:
As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.
...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.Such vehemence reminds me of another great book about two companions who leave home and make a perilous journey into parts unknown. Mark Twain begins the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) with a foreword that is equally clear and much more succinct. In its entirety, it simply reads:
NOTICE.I get the sense that both Tolkien and Twain didn't want their books appropriated by critics, moralizers or other dangerous bores.
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Per G.G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE.
But there is something more here too. Tolkien writes that the problem with allegory is that it enslaves the "freedom of the reader" to the "domination of the author". In other words, a heavily allegorical book (ahem, CS Lewis, cough, cough) puts the reader on a rail and tells him what to think. If The Lord of the Rings is about anything, it is about the struggle of freedom over domination. This struggle (of course) animates the plot -- but it also infuses the way Tolkien writes the book itself. He does not interpret the book for you. Almost like Gandalf, Tolkien could use his authorial powers to influence you -- but he will not. He will not deprive you of your freedom to make of the book what you will. That's what he's saying in this Foreword.
And this light touch is precisely what makes The Lord of the Rings so enchanting: since Tolkien removes himself from the scene, the readers feel free to populate Middle Earth with their own dreams and experiences.
One more thing about the Foreword. Tolkien concedes that his book may have been indirectly shaped by the World Wars, but that attempts to trace this influence are merely "...guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous." This seems like a peculiar thing to say, since surely Tolkien himself possessed pretty good information (or "evidence" as he call it) about what influenced him.
In any case, I don't need to dwell on this topic because this has been covered by Nancy Marie Ott in a thoughtful essay on Tolkien's experiences in World War I. My own view is that the man was entitled to maintain his privacy about his service in the British Army. If he wanted to throw a barrier between real and fictional violence, who am I to gainsay him? After all, the saddest words in the entire trilogy are contained in this Foreword: "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."
To read on, here is my commentary on the Prologue.