” ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations…I much prefer hisoty, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.’ ” JRR Tolkien (xvii Forward to the Second Edition LR)
Tolkien’s assertion at the very beginning of the Lord of the Rings is of key importance. Here, the reader finds the reason for the work’s continuing endurance and vigor; much to the chagrin of much of the “literary intelligencia” and Tolkien’s early critics. The reason for this is that Lord of the Rings is most definitely not allegorical, in any sense. It is inevitable, of course, that the author’s life and views would assert themselves within the work. However, these views are niether overt or mandatory.
The triumph of Tolkien’s work lies in its masterful use of applicability. Applicability gives the power to the reader. Tolkien is our guide into the world of Middle Earth, but the reader brings his or her being to bear, adding meaning and emotional weight to the story. The reader is in charge of finding meaning, from his or her experience. Lord of the Rings succeeds so effortlessly in this way due to its human core. The book explores concepts such as love, honor, mercy, temptation, war, suffering and sacrifice to name a few. Each of these has the ability to touch the reader, to tap deeper emotions and find hidden thoughts.
For each person, the meaning changes. For each person, new points of import are found. For each person, the story changes. This is why the book has thrived. It has something for everyone. It is timeless. It holds insight and knowledge applicable to our time as much as Tolkien’s or people from far before his time.
Applicabilty is what makes continued study and rereading of Tolkien’s works possible. As the reader moves through life, his or her emotions, experience, maturity and memories change. As they change, so does the book. Each reading is a new experience.
Ultimately, this is where the movies fall short. They banish the magic, confuse the clear vision, and erase meaning.