Tolkien, Allegory, and Sub-Creation

If you don’t know Ralph Wood‘s work yet, you should. His work centers on the mutual indwelling of faith and imagination, and he’s also written monographs on the theological basis for the writings of Flannery O’Conner, J.R.R. Tolkien, and most recently, G.K. Chesterton. Right now I’m reading through his book on Tolkien, The Gospel according to Tolkien, published by Westminster John Knox in 2003.

Tolkien was, of course, great friends with C.S. Lewis, but their ideas on the how the craft of literature was inflected by the Christian faith were extraordinarily different. Lewis, after his conversion, became an apologist for the faith, and he did not hesitate to enlist his generous literary talents in this endeavor. His justly famous Chronicles of Narnia make inspiring reading, but there are allegorical correspondences that make their evangelistic character plain. It should be said that Lewis himself did not see the books as allegories, calling their Christian character a ‘supposition’ and intending only heuristic correspondences between Aslan and Jesus. Interpreters of Lewis have likewise tried to distinguish between parable and allegory in locating the literary genre of the books. But whether or not the books should expressly be read as allegories, if one does not see Jesus in Aslan, one has missed the point of the books.

In whatever light one sees the Narnia series, however, it is clear that Tolkien was doing something different in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Tolkien confessed that he had a ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory and avoided it in his own writing. The presence of the gospel in his story is thus indirect, as an informing presupposition rather than didactic feature of his writing. Whereas in Narnia, Aslan has a distinctively Christological character, dying as ransom for the Narnians and rising from the grave in victory, all of the central characters of LotR have Christological properties, but none of them are to be read as Christ. The vision of goodness cast by the gospel is everywhere present, but nowhere concentrated in LotR. As Wood writes, ‘Tolkien the Catholic is confident that the sacramental and missional life of the church will convey the Gospel to the world without the assistance of his own work’ (p. 8).

The work was intended to function autonomously as literature, but it was not for that reason construed as being less true than explicitly Christian literature. For Tolkien, the meaning of our createdness was not only that we might worship but also that we might in turn create.  He refers to the worlds of his own making as ‘sub-creations’, and these miniature products of imagination, as with God’s creation, bear the imprint of their makers. Tolkien writes this illuminating poem in his ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and Other Essays:

Man, Sub-Creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons–’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made. (p. 144)

For Tolkien as a Catholic Christian, this meant that his sub-creation would be pregnant with the sacramental vision of the cosmos. The fictive element would express, precisely through its mythic dimensions, the power of Catholic faith, fides quae creditur. As dark and forbidding as the literary world of LoTR can be, there is a hopefulness in it that is never extinguished. Tolkien puts this virtue of hopefulness on the mouth of the elf Haldir in Lothlorien: ‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater’ (LotR, 1.363). In my view, Tolkien’s understanding of literature as sub-creation can be seen as an application of the Catholic truth that grace does not destroy but elevates and perfects nature.