I recently had a conversation with my sister regarding Tolkien’s work in which she made the assertion that his work is allegory. Now my sister isn’t a big fan, and has only read The Hobbit and seen the LotR films, so I tried to explain, but she didn’t really understand.
According to the dictionary, allegory means the following:
a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.
Whereas the word applicable means:
able to be applied or used in a particular situation.
Both of these are true on the surface when applied to Tolkien’s work, but the key lies in who determines the character or symbol. While it is probable, though Tolkien despised overt allegory, that Tolkien had specific Truths in mind when he wrote, that was not his purpose in writing. His purpose was to free the writing of all allegory to allow the reader to take control, to see and interpret the writing from their place in life, rather than his own.
Tolkien provides many metaphors which illuminate the process of applicability, most found within his great work ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.’
The first is the tower metaphor, in which a man builds a great tower using remnants of other buildings in order to see the sea. Others come and berate the man for his silliness and dismantle the tower in order to see its component parts, to see the concrete origins. Yet, the primary purpose of the tower is to see the sea! With allegory, the reader is shown a controlled, empirical interpretation, the meaning is closed, internal, finite. Applicability, or the tower, elevates the reader, allowing them to see further vistas, to see the sea! It is inclusive, infinite.
Think of it this way:
Allegory is the tower with one window. The view never changes. Though at times weather and the vagaries of time may affect the view, the ultimate vision is fixed in time and space.
Applicability is the tower with winding stairs, and windows pointing north, east, south and west, with a viewing platform at the top. In this tower, as one climbs the steps the view changes and even when one comes to the same cardinal point the view differs from the height. The peak of the tower gives yet another view, a vision of all, and yet different from all those visions which came before.
Allegory may be applicable, but as its genesis lies in the author, there is always a fixed point of reference, a correct view.
In the same essay, Tolkien equates myth and story telling with a stew. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take any one ingredient, taste it alone and it is bland, ordinary. Mix it into the stew of story and you create a savory dish. Though a singular ingredient may shine at any one moment, that depends on the diner: their taste, whether they have a ‘side dish’ (personal experience), if it’s left-overs etc.
These two examples are two of the few times Tolkien resorts to allegory to make a point. Yet even these are applicable. How is applicablity different from allegory then?
In some sense applicability is allegory, in that it references ultimate Truths of the world and human existence. The difference lies in the purposes of the two. Allegory leads the reader by the hand to a singular point. Though the ignorant may read allegory as applicability, once the signified is known, the reader is chained to that knowledge. Applicability, however, allows the reader to approach the tale from their own state in life and find meaning from there. The meaning is not static, but ever changing.
What I’ve come to realize is that applicability can be a powerful vehicle for recovery. This visceral connection in which the reader takes ownership of a tale and colors it with their experiences creates renewal and opens their eyes to Truth.
The genius of applicability is in its ability to show us a facet of Truth through the lens of our current state in life. Truth never changes. We constantly change. We, the readers, are constantly climbing the winding stair, discovering new facets of that grand Truth we can never fully grasp. The Truth at the heart of myth, at heart of human existence, is so vast it can never be fully perceived. We are allowed catch glimpses, and new vistas as we progress through life. Though we may see many of those facets in life we never see the whole diamond of Truth.
Myth gives us a concrete way to discover and share the Truth, though always in slivers and shards. Applicability brings myth to a higher state, allowing each and every reader to make the tale their own for their current state in life. In using this mechanism, Tolkien continues a long tradition within the Catholic church of teaching through symbol. Much of ecclesiastical architecture used proportion, geometry and scale to inspire a sense of the sacred and even educate the illiterate. The Gospels and the Bible are proof of the eternal power of applicability. Though thousands of years old, these ancient texts still speak to us, no matter our faith (or lack thereof) or state in life. Particularly following the Counter-Reformation, begun with the Council of Trent, the primary focus of Catholic art (art, architecture, literature etc) was on the creation of the sublime; to uplift the soul and enflame the heart with a love of God and His creation. Though not overtly Catholic, Tolkien’s work is suffused by his frame of reference: his deep and lasting faith. By following the model the Church has used through the ages, Tolkien developed these theories in the field of literature, infusing every word with eternal Truth.