A distant, glorious echo: Tolkien and typology

In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boldy declares his dislike of allegory and notes that, whatever critics and readers have suggested, the novel is most certainly not an allegory. Nonetheless, Christian readers have insisted on finding parallels to Christian theology throughout his works, to the extent that they commonly consider various characters—Gandalf in particular—to be explicitly Christ-figures.

Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee

The Tower of Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee

Given Tolkien’s adamant rejection of any sort of allegorical reading of his text, we surely cannot admit of an accidental allegory; such a thing would not make sense. More, when we hold The Lord of the Rings up against works that are explicitly allegorical—C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, for example—we note that there is a real and even profound difference between the two in character and tone. We should therefore grant that Tolkien is not to be argued with here and move on.1

Still, Christian ideas keep popping up in his works: the death and resurrection of Gandalf, the unambiguously demonic evil that the heroes oppose in its various incarnations of Sauron or the Balrog, the king returning to claim his throne after a long stewardship, the long-awaited marriage of that triumphant king to a radiant bride, and so forth. While these do not have the sorts of explicit allegorical turns that characterize, for example, Lewis’ explicit identification of Aslan with Jesus, clearly there is something going on here. What is more, Tolkien himself would freely admit it.

The answer is simple enough. What many readers have mistaken for allegory is typology instead. Allegory is "a story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one" (per The Oxford English Dictionary). By contrast, typology is the manner in which the Old Testament often presaged the New in its themes, patterns, and events. To borrow a common Sunday School illustration: when David fights Goliath on behalf of Israel, he prefigures—he serves as a type—of Jesus Christ, the other anointed king from Bethlehem who delivers the people of God from an otherwise undefeatable foe. David is not Christ, but he hints at Christ; he suggests a shadow or an outline of what the coming messianic king would actually be like.

Tolkien is up to something similar in his works.2 Unlike Aslan’s substitutionary death in Edmund’s place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gandalf is not accomplishing some magical or spiritual end when he dies. He simply dies after fighting a demon. To be sure, he rescues his friends in so doing, but there is nothing mystical in his actions, and no hint that his death has Christ-like effects in the world. He is sent back not to demonstrate the power of something greater than evil, but simply because his task is not done.

In other words, like David facing Goliath, although to a far lesser degree, Gandalf illustrates a pattern that fits Jesus’ story. The link is simply by analogy rather than by allegory. We might say the same of the other examples noted above, and especially those to do with the king motifs that surround Aragorn. They are echoes or reflections of something true, but they are not the truth in disguise.

Nor is Tolkien’s legendarium alone in this sort of echoing of the biblical narrative. Rather, it stands in a long line of other works—especially in the mythological and heroic epics—that have strong thematic and analogical relationships to the Christ story. These sorts of stories were the tales Tolkien studied for his bread and butter, and it was this very commonality of theme and thought that he drew on in persuading C. S. Lewis that Christianity was true. All the myths, he said, point to the one myth that really happened. They all represent the longing of the human heart for the sorts of things that only ever happen in "faerie tales." The Christ narrative is myth at its best; it is also true.

Of course Aragorn looks like Jesus in some ways, then: he is an interpretation of the archetype of the king coming into his own after a long exile, and that archetype comes true in Christ. Aragorn is, like David, an echo of the real king, though of course shorn of actual historical existence and special revelatory character. Our hearts leap at Aragorn not because he represents Jesus but because he reminds us of him. He is not a picture or an image of Christ, as Aslan admits himself to be. He is more like the smell of grass on a summer day reminding us of football two-a-days; or mistaking a corner-of-the-eye glimpse total stranger for a dear friend; or the reflection of the moon on a lake hinting, just a little, at the splendor of the sun.

Neither Gandalf nor Aragorn—indeed, no character in Tolkien’s works3—has anything like an exact correspondence to a character or event from Scripture (or even history). But that is exactly as it should be, and it is exactly why Tolkien’s works are so powerful. They resonate deeply with our experience, especially with our experience as Christians, precisely because they echo. To borrow Tolkien’s word, he simply subcreated. He was content not to ape the real by allegorizing, and instead to simply be a distant, glorious echo of the Christ-song.


This piece was also posted at Ars Artis, my personal blog with reflections on and collections of art.


  1. I leave aside the question of how we should deal with his creation narrative (‘Ainulindalë’) in The Silmarillion. Even there, I am not sure allegory is the right term, but it is a complex issue. That is, in any case, the singular exception for which an allegorical intent might be argued persuasively in all his substantial body of work.

  2. Of course The Lord of the Rings is not inspired by the Spirit and is making no claim to be revelatory Scripture. The confusion of some overly enthusiastic folk notwithstanding—and yes, it is a strong indictment for me to call other fans of Tolkien overly enthusiastic.

  3. Save perhaps Eru Ilúvatar, the maker-God of The Silmarillion, but this falls under the first footnote above.

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  • Jaimie Krycho

    “He is more like the smell of grass on a summer day reminding us of football two-a-days; or mistaking a corner-of-the-eye glimpse total stranger for a dear friend; or the reflection of the moon on a lake hinting, just a little, at the splendor of the sun.” Nicely written!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.hooten Jessica Hooten Wilson

    Great piece. A couple of questions: 1) What do you do with Lewis’s suggestion that neither did he write allegory? 2) Early patristic and medieval writers saw typology as a way of reading “allegorically” (Augustine, Origen, Dante): might Tolkien’s assertion that he did not write allegory be a debate of semantics? perhaps he defines allegory according to a more limited rendering of the word (at the risk of arguing with a philologist’s definition) 3) How much should authorial intention play into the analysis of his work? It seems the texts (both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s defy their assertions). I’m currently teaching this material, so I’m invested in the conversation and would love your thoughts.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

      Awesome questions.

      (1) I’d not seen that before, so I dug it up. Most prominently I find the following bit (from one of his letters):

      If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all. So in Perelandra. This also works out a supposition . . . Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways.

      Granting that terminology, I’d respond in two ways. First, Tolkien’s pieces are, using Lewis’ definitions of the terms, neither allegorical nor suppositional; we may still distinguish the two approaches, and fairly strongly. Aragorn is not the answer to the question of “What might Jesus look like…” in any way; nor is Gandalf. So at the least we should say that whatever word we use to describe what Lewis does—and the semantic quibbling is important, as our philologist hero would likely agree—Lewis and Tolkien are doing markedly different things.

      It appears, based on Tolkien’s use of the word “allegory” in the foreword to the second edition, that he and Lewis were defining the word somewhat differently. Tolkien, unlike Lewis, did conceive of it as a literary reference to an actual event (as opposed to Lewis’ conceiving of it as a literary manifestation of something non-physical). I think Tolkien’s definition actually has the better merits as far as both current and historical usage goes. Leading me to…

      (2) I do think this is a matter of that sort of fine semantic distinction, and I’m also a little bit leery of assuming that “ἀλληγορία” and “allegory” are directly synonymous; there’s a very good chance of the etymological fallacy rearing its head here and an even better one of imperfect semantic transfer (though without spending a bit more time on the Greek usage of the former, I can’t say for certain).

      Again, I think Tolkien’s approach is the ordinary one. I’d also point out that a lot of the “allegory” that the fathers found we would take to be not allegorical but speaking of something else entirely; the Antiochene literal interpretive approach is much to be preferred over the allegorical approaches taken by most of the other Fathers, whatever other flaws that particular school of theology may have had. (There are a number of reasons John Chrysostom was such a good preacher, but one of them was his hermeneutic.) All that to say: I’d distinguish between their definitions just as I would between Lewis and Tolkien’s, and I’d lean toward Tolkien’s as best representing the common understanding of what allegory is.

      (3) Always an interesting and challenging question. I think it has to play quite a bit of a role, but not necessarily a final one. That said, I think Lewis would acknowledge that his works fall under Tolkien’s definition (for they clearly do), so part of the work of interpreting authorial intention is taking their words in the way they mean them. Lewis wasn’t writing what he called allegory, but he was writing what Tolkien called allegory. Tolkien was not writing what Lewis called supposition. Neither’s definition agrees with the usage by the Fathers (again: assuming that ἀλληγορία and allegory are actually identical, which is doubtful).

      Should be lots of fodder for discussion there with students in any case. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts in response!

  • Dave Strunk

    I’ve heard it said that Tolkien tried to utilize the classic typological shades of Christ from the OT: prophet, priest, and king. Aragorn is the king. Gandalf the prophet. And Frodo the priest, the one who intercedes for the people. Am I making this up?

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

      I’ve not heard that, and I’d be both doubtful that Tolkien intended that sort of analogy and skeptical of such a reading of the text. Of those, only Aragorn really fits. Gandalf doesn’t do a lot of (prophetic-style) truth-telling, and certainly no future-revealing. Frodo, far from interceding for the people, needs an “eucatastrophic” intervention in the form of Gollum’s actions himself to escape the final lure of the Ring. Which is not to say that you’re making it up; given some of the (much hokier) interpretations I’ve read of The Lord of the Rings, especially since the movies came out, I would probably be more surprised if someone hadn’t tried to draw that comparison. :p

      • Dave Strunk

        Okay, fair points by degree, but a smallish reply.

        Gandalf isn’t formally future-telling, but he often muses about the future correctly (ie Gollum having a part to play in the role of the ring before it’s said and done; Tolkien even returns to this conversation from “Fellowship” in “Two Towers”). Surely there’s some foretelling there?

        And, though Frodo fails in an allegorical sense to be a Jesus-like priest due to his failure, surely to some degree he is typological of the priestly duty of representing the people by making substitution. The task of the ring was his, and his alone, Tolkien so often emphasizes. He alone has the scars to suffer for it.

        I buy that Tolkien didn’t necessarily intend it, but I’m not persuaded that he didn’t not intend it either. Pardon the poor grammar there.

        • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

          I think we’re just going to end up disagreeing here. :p

          For Gandalf, I’d simply call that a measure of wisdom. It certainly doesn’t look similar to what the prophets actually did. (I’m writing a paper on the first chapter of Nahum right now—or rather, procrastinating on that by writing this comment!—and the distinction is striking. The prophet warns, rebukes, reveals God. I don’t think Gandalf particularly does any of those; he certainly never mentions Eru Ilúvatar.) Further, in terms of future-telling, it’s far more associated with Elrond and Galadriel than with Gandalf, so seeing him as fulfilling that role on that basis seems not-quite-right. Gandalf functions as a counselor, to be sure, but not in an oracular sense and not with the sort of “prophetic witness” we associate with the prophets.

          As for Frodo, I don’t see him making substitution. He has a task, to be sure, but it’s not in place of others. The closest we get to that is his wish that another had been chosen, with Gandalf’s gentle encouragement that it was a good thing—even if not apparent how so—that the task had been given to him. Thematically speaking, he’s not offering a sacrifice; the personal “sacrifices” he makes (specifically the stab wound, the mental exhaustion, and the loss of his finger) are largely incidental, albeit important to his characterization. Again: he’s not representing the people to Eru.

          I think there’s a strong inclination among evangelicals to look for these kinds of readings where they aren’t, and I think that tendency is actually bad for our ability to appreciate the art for what it is doing. It’s essentially viewing the art in an instrumental sense, for how it relates back to the gospel—whether for didactic or evangelistic ends—and while some art does that, Tolkien doesn’t. I think if we force Tolkien to fit a mold that he doesn’t really fit, we end up shoving things into places they really don’t belong and as a result end up missing out on the beauty of what Tolkien was really getting at. :)

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