Close window
© 2009/2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

How to read Tolkien
Corey Olsen

Tolkien’s works are unlike most modern fiction. His style, his vocabulary, and the largely pre-modern worldview which underlies his fictional world all contribute to make his works a challenge for many readers. Throughout his life, Tolkien spent a lot of time thinking about stories and story-telling, and he had several very deeply-held convictions about the value and function of fantasy stories in particular. These convictions led Tolkien to spend a good deal of time addressing and often rebutting theories by critics and readers about The Lord of the Rings. In this essay, I will examine several approaches to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien cautioned against. By thinking carefully about some of these objections, we can begin to see what it was that Tolkien most valued in the responses of his readers.

Not focusing on Tolkien’s own life

Tolkien disapproved of discussion of his works that focused too much on his own life, and he often attempted to deflect questions about his works that took a biographical slant. In one of his letters, Tolkien explains: “I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s works … and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest” (Letters 288). The objection that Tolkien is stating here has nothing to do with a desire to preserve his own privacy, nor does it condemn the writing of biography in general. What Tolkien emphasizes here is the danger of letting interest in the author of a story distract you from the story itself.

We can see an interesting example of this kind of biographical distraction in a conspicuous place: an online tourists’ guide on the website of the City of Birmingham. At the top of their webpage on Tolkien and his life, the City Council writes: “Tolkien himself said there was a danger in too much interest in the life of an author, as it distracted attention from the author's work. He then went on to say he was a hobbit in all but size; liked gardens, trees and unmechanised farmland; smoked a pipe and liked good plain food!” The City Council here makes an attempt to undermine or even refute Tolkien’s objection to applied biography. They make no actual argument, but they imply, especially through their triumphant exclamation point at the end, that they have caught Tolkien in an inconsistency. By citing Tolkien’s openly avowed preference for the lifestyle he attributes to hobbits in his books, the authors of this webpage show, as they believe, that the connections between Tolkien’s works and his own life are self-evident and important, whatever Tolkien himself might try say about it.

The Birmingham City Council may perhaps be forgiven their attempts to downplay a pronouncement by Tolkien so deeply inconvenient for them; the tourist board of the city in which Tolkien spent so much of his childhood has an obvious vested interest in encouraging Tolkien fans’ biographical curiosity. But the appeal that they make is nevertheless an instructive one. By emphasizing the similarity between Tolkien’s lifestyle and the lifestyle of hobbits, they imply that in order to have a full appreciation for Tolkien’s fictional creations, one must understand his own personal background.

But how, exactly, does such knowledge improve our understanding of the story? Surely we might have guessed, even if we had not been told, that Tolkien approved in his own life of many of the values and tastes that he praises in his fiction. And how does it deepen our understanding of hobbits to know that they share many (though by no means all) of Tolkien’s own likes and dislikes? Are we to identify hobbits in general, or perhaps Bilbo in particular, with Tolkien himself? Are we to apply all of Tolkien’s expressed views and observed attitudes to hobbits? Once we start doing so, we are beginning to filter the story through our own understanding of Tolkien’s biography, to subordinate our reading of the story to our interest in him and his views. The Birmingham City Council is quick to make this subordination, asserting that Tolkien “refers to” the Sarehole Mill (now run as a museum by the City Council, as it turns out) “as ‘the great mill’ in The Hobbit,” as if the fantasy setting for his stories were a mere smoke-screen on Tolkien’s part, a thin veil that only faintly obscures the West Midlands.

Remember that Tolkien’s whole point was that he didn’t want his readers distracted from the stories themselves. Yes, Tolkien’s views impact his writing, and yes, elements in his stories are informed by his own memories and experiences. But if while reading about Hobbiton you are thinking about Birmingham, and if while hearing about Bilbo’s outlook you are thinking about Tolkien’s, than you will neither get to know Bilbo nor enter Hobbiton.

Not interpreting The Lord of the Rings as allegory

Perhaps Tolkien’s most publicly expressed concern about potential misunderstandings of his works are the comments he makes about allegorical interpretation of the Lord of the Rings in the Forward to its second edition. He asserts: “As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical,” adding: “I cordially dislike allegory, and have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence” (xv). Instead, he offers an alternative approach: “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 one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” This disclaimer is frequently quoted, but we need to think carefully about the terms he uses and to look closely at the explanation he gives in order to make sure that we are understanding its implications.

By saying that the Lord of the Rings has no “inner meaning,” Tolkien is not, of course, claiming that his story develops no ideas or themes and has no relevance at all to the world around us. In fact, he objects to allegorical interpretations not because they read too much into his story, but because they see too little. An allegorical work is written with the intention of conveying a particular moral point, and a topical work is designed to comment on a specific contemporary issue. The significance and power of a “feigned history” are far more broad. He openly recognizes that such a story is indeed “applicable” to the moral and political concerns of the day, but its relevance will also transcend them, and it will speak differently into the lives and circumstances of every reader.

His explanation of the difference between allegory and history also draws attention to relationship between writer and reader. Writers of allegories are, at root, preachers. Their goal is to convey a specific message (usually a moral or spiritual message), and although the reader must interpret the story in order to receive that message, the allegorists design their stories so as to nudge, prod, and generally herd their readers towards the correct interpretation. By characterizing this as the “purposed domination” of the reader by the author, Tolkien plainly demonstrates his discomfort with this kind of authorial manipulation. History leaves its readers free. It may enrich the outlook of readers who apply it, but it does not try to compel them.

Tolkien is also plainly concerned about the relationship between the reader and the story itself. In an allegory, the story is only a vehicle for the message. The plot and the characters are only important for the sake of the contributions they make to the readers’ comprehension of the greater ideas being illustrated. Reading an allegory is like decoding a cryptogram or solving a puzzle. It might be a fascinating way to articulate and elaborate an abstract idea, but once the reader has figured out the meaning, the story itself is devalued and might even be discarded. Having conveyed the message, it has served its purpose and is afterwards of small interest in itself. In a history, the story only gains in value and interest the more it is applied in the “thought and experience” of different readers.

To read the Lord of the Rings as an allegory, therefore, is inevitably to cheapen it as a story. The moment we say, for instance, that the Ring represents the atomic bomb, or that Sauron represents Hitler, or that Sharkey’s Shire “is” post-World-War-II England, we cease to think about the story itself at all. Even worse, this kind of infection almost invariably spreads: once we think we have decoded one element, we are almost certain to involve others in our theory. If Sauron is Hitler, then who is Gandalf supposed to be? If the Shire of the Scouring is post-war England, then who or what does Farmer Cotton represent? Very likely, we end by squinting and straining at the story until we’ve made it fit our theory. Instead, readers should exercise their freedom with some measure of humility, recognizing the value and integrity of the story itself on its own terms, listening to it and applying it rather than trying to “solve” it.

Not seeing The Lord of the Rings as a scholarly puzzle or code

Even readers who resist the impulse to allegorize Tolkien’s works, however, may still be tempted to treat them as a different kind of puzzle. Tolkien was a scholar of great learning and an ardent admirer of stories from many different countries, traditions, and time periods. His own works are very rich, and they contain many elements that are inspired by or even modelled on many of those works. Many readers and scholars, therefore, find the attempt to sort out and identify the complex web of Tolkien’s source materials a very entertaining and attractive one.

Tolkien urged caution to readers who would indulge in this pastime, however. In one of his letters, Tolkien even directly applied to this kind of reading the words in which Gandalf rebukes Saruman in the Lord of the Rings: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” (414). He discusses his concerns about this type of analysis in greater detail in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He compares a story to a bowl of soup that has been ladled by its author out of the huge Cauldron of Story, which has for centuries been slow-cooking an enormous variety of elements: folk tales, ancient myths, historical figures, fictional characters, narrative themes, ethical prohibitions, human desires, and more. When we read a story, therefore, Tolkien insists that “we must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” We may, of course, either praise or condemn the soup as soup, but Tolkien would discourage readers from simply anatomizing it, from focusing their attention on sources and analogs with such concentration that they never end up tasting the soup at all.

Some readers look in Tolkien’s source material (avowed or suspected) for a “key” that will unlock the Lord of the Rings. If we can say that the Ring of Power “is” Plato’s Ring of Gyges, or that Gandalf “is” Jesus, then we might feel like we have cracked a code. Such simplistic identifications, however, are always misleading. Consider, for instance, a prominent example: the moment near the end of The Hobbit when Bilbo creeps into Smaug’s lair and steals a two-handled golden cup from the dragon’s hoard. Tolkien readers who have also read Beowulf will remember a strikingly similar moment near the end of that great poem, when a thief sneaks into the lair of a fire-dragon and steals a similar golden cup, a theft which so enrages the dragon that it wreaks fiery vengeance on the local towns in retribution. Although in many cases it is impossible to be quite certain about exactly which of Tolkien’s literary antecedents were influencing his works at any given point (and this very uncertainty can add zest to the investigation of sources), the connection here is tolerably plain.

The question is: Having noticed a connection like this, what do we do with it? Smaug is not the same dragon as his Anglo-Saxon counterpart, and his relationships with the town that he destroys and the people he attacks are quite different. If we simply combine the two in our minds, we will be shutting our eyes to many of the points that make Smaug such an interesting and important character. And what would one gain by taking the respectable and honest Burglar Bilbo with his conflicted relationship with the dwarves’ quest and their treasure and simply equating him with the thief from Beowulf? Asserting that this passage “comes straight from Beowulf” might make us feel like we are doing substantive analysis, but such a statement may only serve as a kind of excuse for not thinking more carefully about the Hobbit passage. On the other hand, we could read both Beowulf and The Hobbit carefully, comparing and contrasting these moments and their contexts in each story and thus arriving in the end at a clearer understanding of and greater appreciation for both works. In doing so, we would be savouring both of these great bowls of soup. But there are no shortcuts.

The approach Tolkien favoured: the story as story

Tolkien laid a great emphasis on the value of stories and storytelling. When we step back and look at the overall trend evident in the approaches that he disapproves of, his main priority becomes quite clear. Tolkien wanted his readers to experience his stories as stories, in their own terms and on their own ground. Tolkien argued that a successful story generates what he calls “Secondary Belief” in its readers, the state in which a reader can enter into a literary world imaginatively. Any tendency in a reader to neglect, resist, or undermine the story itself in the interest of analyzing the author’s psychology, the story’s genealogy, or an imagined moral commentary fundamentally defeats the purpose of storytelling. Tolkien said that “the prime motive” for writing the Lord of the Rings was “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” In order for his project to succeed, Tolkien wanted his readers to approach his story with the kind of interest and humility that he thought all stories deserved.

This is the first in a series of articles providing a helpful way into the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien by The Tolkien Professor, whose informative podcasts have been very popular among fans. Visit his website at

Close window

Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.