Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: the Foreword

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:
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.
I get the sense that both Tolkien and Twain didn't want their books appropriated by critics, moralizers or other dangerous bores. 

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.


  1. One could understand if the LoTR was influenced, to some extent, by WW1 - after all it was the defining event of Tolkien's generation. But having said that I personally didn't see WW1 having any great influence on the story - the dislike of mechanisation/industrialisation comes through far more than any points on WW1...

    1. I'm not sure you can separate mechanisation/industrialisation from the 1st World War.

    2. I think the influence of WWI also shows in Tolkien's description of Mordor. It sounds an awful lot like No-Man's Land -- a wasted land, pocked by craters and covered in a fine ash.

    3. Indeed but desolation around the lands of the antagonist is hardly missing from Saxon literature, take Beowulf and his Dragon or to a lesser extent Grendel in his fens. Desolation surrounds Mordor because that’s what surrounds places of great evil. The Lord of the rings wouldn’t live in sunny uplands with rainbows, woods and unicorns.

      That raises the question, does Mordor look like the desolation of WW1 or is Mordor just a desolate place and so coincidently looks like another desolate place?

      For the record I'm not sure how Tolkiens writings couldn't have been influenced by his experiences even if only subconsciously.

  2. Everything in an author's life informs his writing. Tolkien was also greatly upset by the industrialization of England tearing up the landscape too.
    But also everything in a READER'S life influences and informs how the reader interpret things and Tolkien I think would be called a "Reader Response Critic" these days (which wasn't very fashionable back then and still isn't). He wants the reader to be free to bring their own experiences to the book and find their own meaning.

  3. Preface: I am no LOTR scholar, merely a lover and studier of it. I do, however, have a university degree in WW2 history.

    That said, this is regarding the correlation of the book and the Great War.

    I know this is a debatable opinion and I don't claim it as fact, but I've always assumed Tolkien so vehemently denied (more specifically) The Hobbit's ties with Hitler, Nazism, (etc.) because of Herr Goebbels.

    Goebbels had a Ph.D. in Germanic literature (and we all know Tolkien pulled from Germanic myth/fairy tales for The Hobbit) and was hell-bent on pushing his "Hitler myth" - the theory that Hitler was infallible, omniscient, a true world leader like no other.

    Goebbels was without a doubt the best propaganda expert of history. He sought out authors, musicians, poets, etc. in Germany whose works even REMOTELY could possibly reference Hitler or Nazism negatively and had them killed. The German Student Union were ruthless in their systematic book burnings in Germany in the 1930s. This no doubt was in every writer's mind at the time.

    Now I know the Nazi/Hitler correlations tie more in with LOTR (which was written after Hitler's death) than with TH, but Tolkien did use a lot of Germanic culture as underlying basis for the tales. It's something that Goebbels would've easily picked up on had he even known about the book. (I know TH was published in 1937 in London so it was at least around while Hitler was growing his empire; I have no idea if Goebbels knew about TH - he did have a 15 yo stepson, a 3 yo, 2 yo, and <1 yo by 1937 so there's at least a good bet that he could've known of it as a children's tale).

    If Tolkien wanted his book to do well or to be accepted in his time (with millions embracing Nazism), there's a good bet he would openly denounce any and ALL "hidden meaning" whether The Hobbit was allegorical or not.

    *like I said, not fact but my thoughts.

    1. I'm pretty certain that millions weren't embracing Nazism in the 1960s when the "it's not an allegory" preface was added.

    2. I was under the impression the original script contained the "not an allegory" preface. That does change things then...

  4. I'm not so sure LoTR is about freedom over domination. Elric excercises his freedom by giving up his throne for a life of adventure, Conans wanderlust depends on his individual freedom. Tolkiens heroes (Frodo, Aragorn, Faramir, Sam) seem more motivated by a sense of duty. Just my 2p!

    1. That's quite true that the kind of freedom that Conan or Elric stand for has almost no place in the LotR. But I think that freedom *from* domination is an important idea for Tolkien. It lies at the heart of some of the great themes in his books: the struggle of the ringbearer against the ring, or the corruption and tyranny caused by power.