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J.R.R. Tolkien by Tom Shippey

Author:Tom Shippey [T.A. Shippey ]

Language: eng

Format: epub

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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J.R.R. Tolkien by Tom Shippey

CHAPTER IV

THE LORD OF THE RINGS

(3): THE MYTHIC DIMENSION

 

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J.R.R. Tolkien by Tom Shippey

Author:Tom Shippey [T.A. Shippey ] , Date: June 7, 2019

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Author:Tom Shippey [T.A. Shippey ]

Language: eng

Format: epub

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
CHAPTER IV

THE LORD OF THE RINGS

(3): THE MYTHIC DIMENSION

Allegory and applicability

In the ‘Foreword’ to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’. As with the denial of any link between rabbits and hobbits (see chapter I), the evidence is rather against Tolkien here. He was perfectly capable of using allegory himself, and did so several times in his academic works, usually with devastating effect. In his 1936 lecture on Beowulf, for instance, Tolkien offered his British Academy audience ‘yet another allegory’ (it was not the first in the lecture), about a man who built a tower. He took the stone for the tower from a ruin, ‘an accumulation of old stone’ in a field, part of which had also been used to build the house in which the man actually lived, ‘not far from the old house of his fathers’ (i.e. the ruin). But his friends came along, noticed at once that the tower was made of older stones, and laboriously knocked the tower down to examine the stones, look for carvings on them, prospect for coal, and so on. Then some of them complained that the tower was in a terrible mess, while even the man’s descendants murmured that he should have spent his time not building the tower but restoring the ruin. ‘But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea’ (see Essays, pp. 7-8).

There is no doubt that this is an allegory, for Tolkien says so himself. A brief study of it, concentrating on the elements italicized above, may explain exactly what Tolkien meant by the word, how he expected allegories to work, and why he disliked both word and thing when they were misused. Tolkien’s little story is an allegory of the progress of Beowulf criticism, one of the major features of which, up to Tolkien’s time, had been a conviction that the poet had written the wrong poem. Its accuracy, or ‘justness’ to use Tolkien’s own term, is hard to appreciate without the kind of awareness of Beowulf scholarship which Tolkien’s original audience may be supposed to have had, but in brief one could say that:

The old stone, i.e. the ruin = the remains of an earlier, heathen, oral poetry which the Beowulf-poet might have known about

The house the man lives in, also partly built from the ruin = Christian poetry contemporary with Beowulf like the poem Exodus (Tolkien’s edition of which was published posthumously in 1981), which also drew on the early oral poetry

The tower, of course = Beowulf, and the man = the Beowulf-poet

The man’s friends who knock his tower down = the dissectionist critics of the nineteenth century, who concentrated their efforts on pointing out where the poem had gone wrong

Finally, the man’s descendants, who wished he had restored the old house = British critics like W.P. Ker and R.

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