I am reading John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno’s Sanctified Vision for the independent study on hermeneutics and theological method I am doing this summer. I have found the book fairly helpful overall, and think the authors are right to commend the church Fathers as models for Biblical interpretation in many ways. The authors do good (albeit somewhat tendentious) work arguing for whole-Bible/“intensive reading” strategies and the validity of typology as part of theological method. When they come to allegory, though, their argument almost immediately goes off the rails with a deeply misguided interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. I offer a critique in two (brief) parts:
An explanation of why and how their allegorical interpretation is deeply mistaken about Tolkien’s work itself.
An elaboration to how this ought to caution us about allegory in Biblical interpretation.
J. R. R. Tolkien said his epic trilogy2The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory…. Yet, in that story, we are tempted to think of the Mines of Moria through which the Fellowship of the Ring must pass as having allegorical significance. The Mines were developed by dwarves who fatefully dug too deeply and awakened the evil force of the Balrog. Are we fanciful when we turn from the literal sense to a different level of meaning and speculate that the dwarves represent modern human beings, and the mines our vast technological enterprise, and the Balrog the horror of nuclear weapons that our relentless digging into the mysteries of matter has awakened?…
In many cases… allegorical readings do not question or doubt the cogency of the literal sense. Instead, the interpreters press the literal sense to draw out additional meaning. Our interpretation of the Mines of Moria episode in The Lord of the Rings is an example…. the narrative makes good literal sense but contains additional meaning. The interpretation does not doubt or question the literal sense; instead, the reader sees a surplus within the literal sense, and the interpretation is designed to draw it out.
The problems here should be fairly obvious to anyone familiar with Tolkien’s own comments on The Lord of the Rings. First, as the authors themselves acknowledge,3 Tolkien directly rejected any such allegorizing reading. He comments in “Foreword to the Second Edition” (which appears in every copy of the text I have owned—and I have owned at least five):4
As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor typical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.
The real war [World War II] does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion….
Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, 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.
So much, then, for O’Keefe and Reno’s reading. When they ask, “Are we fanciful when we turn from the literal sense to a different level of meaning and speculate…?” the answer must surely be yes, simply on the grounds of authorial intent. At least in theory, it is precisely such authorial intent which allegorical readings seek to expose, but here, the author’s own comments rule them out.
And in fact, it is even worse than this. Earlier in the foreword, Tolkien comments a bit on the historical development of the novel:5
The delay [in writing The Lord of the Rings] was, of course, also increased by the outbreak of war in 1939, by the end of which year the tale had not yet reached the end of Book One. In spite of the darkness of the next five years I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned, and I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria. There I halted for a long while. It was almost a year later when I went on and so came to Lothlórien and the Great River late in 1941.
Tolkien’s own dating here puts his initial draft of the encounter with the Balrog sometime in 1940 or 1941—well before anyone but a very short list of scientists and politicians knew anything of atomic weaponry, in other words. There are therefore two major problems with the allegorical reading O’Keefe and Reno offer: authorial intent, and simple historical fact. That the dwarves’ delving too deep reminds the reader of a general human tendency to push technology too far without consideration for consequences is indeed a natural reading of Tolkien’s work, especially given the direct thematic overtones of valuing nature and concern about mechanization that run throughout the novel.
But there is simply no justifying an allegory to atomic weaponry here.
2. Misreading Scripture
This is precisely the problem at which O’Keefe and Reno claim to be taking aim in this chapter, in a defense of allegorical interpretations of Scripture. This is the reason why many modern conservative Biblical scholars are open to (even enamored with) typological readings but remain suspicious of allegorical readings. Seeing points of contact with human experience, even intentional and explicit typological structures linking figures or events, is one thing. “[Pressing] the literal sense to draw out additional meanings”6 all too easily leads to inventing meanings—again, as O’Keefe and Reno themselves note: “Allegory involves so much interpretive ambition that it can creation the impression that the real source of meaning is in the reader’s imagination and not in the text itself.”7 Unfortunately, their own example makes it clear that it is not merely an impression but the reality: they themselves have created a meaning that was not present in the text of The Lord of the Rings, even ignoring the author’s own stated views to do so.
A single failure of a method of reading does not, of course, disqualify all interpretation using the same method. However, when there are such ample resources to prevent that interpretative failure, and well-intended authors still manage a profound misreading, the result is suggestive. Thus, even if we grant allegorical readings of Scripture potential validity, the patent risk of misreading with an allegorical strategy requires that the bar for accepting such readings be set extremely high.
This discussion necessarily arises in any discussion of patristic theology, which frequently leaned heavily on allegory. However, rejecting allegory does not entail rejecting patristic readings in general—only being thoughtful about what to take from the Fathers and what to set aside. By their very nature, allegorical readings are on relatively weak ground: they demand a greater interpretive investment and a greater degree of willingness to diverge from the clear meaning of the text than do other forms of reading. We need not think that the historical-grammatical-critical method is supreme and unquestionable to also reject the majority of allegorizing interpretations. One can gladly embrace whole-Bible theologizing, “intensive reading,” and typological interpretation—one may follow O’Keefe and Reno in treating the Fathers as helpful guides in many ways, in other words—without thereby being obliged also to embrace allegory as universally useful or valid, or to uncritically accept specific (usually patristic) allegorical interpretations as correct.
Unfortunately, O’Keefe and Reno close their chapter by strongly implying that modern readers’ rejection of the Fathers’ allegorical readings comes down to a lack of faith, of zeal for rich interpretation, of confidence in the depth and reliability of Scriptures. In their view, it seems, anyone who rejects the validity of, say, Origen’s interpretation of Song of Songs does so because they don’t grant the text those things.8 But as we have seen, there may well be other good reasons for rejecting such readings—even while we grant the value of allegorical readings where they are appropriate, and even as we agree with O’Keefe and Reno that whole-Bible readings are important.
In short, allegory is always suspect when applied willy-nilly; the text itself must give us reason to read at a second level. To return to our opening discussion of fiction, O’Keefe and Reno cite another other literary example at the end of the chapter—The Chronicles of Narnia—which gives just such reasons for allegorical readings. When Aslan tells the Pevensies that they will know him by another name in their own world, Lewis is winking at the reader in a way Tolkien never does, precisely because his literary aim is different from Tolkien’s. Lewis makes explicit in the text itself that the secondary reading is legitimate, demanded even. Where texts give no such warrant, whether implicit or explicit, readers would do well to tread lightly.
It is one thing to misread a great novel. Misinterpreting it will annoy detail-oriented fans of the text (yes, like me). It may mislead other, less well-informed readers if the interpretation is bandied about—but the consequences are minimal and not very serious. In the context of Biblical interpretation, by contrast, the consequences of a misreading may be severe. To mislead an audience about the word of God is to be liable for judgment (James 3:1). To be sure, there are texts where the Bible itself pushes us toward allegorical reading. We dare not exclude a mode of interpretation which Paul himself uses (implicitly in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4; explicitly in Galatians 4:21–31). Teachers should be slow to embrace an allegorical reading without particularly strong warrant, though, and should generally favor other interpretive strategies, as do the authors of the Bible themselves. Read with zeal and faith, by all means. But do not make the text say what it does not.
Anderson, Douglas A. “Note on the Text.” In The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 50th Anniversary Edition. 1954. Reprint, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
O’Keefe, John J., and R. R. Reno. Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary Edition. 1954. Reprint, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.