Allegory, whether you like it or not

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From quotefancy

I’m sorry, Tolkien – I love your work and all, but this is happening.

Per the quote above, and the message in the foreword, it’s not incredibly hard to figure that Tolkien was not fond of allegory and especially its application to his work. While the times might indicate that the War of the Ring has some pretty strong parallels to some of the recent events of the time (namely World War II), Tolkien and his followers have strongly protested this idea, and said they had nothing to do with each other. And others have connected his work to religious texts, namely the Bible (Frodo as Jesus, Melkor as Lucifer, etc.), which would (and likely has been refuted by his fans).

Unfortunately for Tolkien and many of his fans, that’s not really the way literary criticism and allegory works. The intent of the author is not necessarily considered when reviewing texts and parallels with other texts. Even if Dante Alighieri had not planned on making his own epic journey through Hell laden with images of his political rivals, the parallels between his depictions of members of society and his expulsion and dissatisfaction with how Florence was conducting itself were not invisible, and connections can be made.

So it is with Tolkien. Allegory doesn’t require the author to have written the text with allegory in mind. And as it is, many writers write things with parallels that are discovered after the fact and that were completely unintentional. Unfortunately for Tolkien, his Catholic upbringing and fellowship with writers like C.S. Lewis allow there to be a solid injection of hidden meanings and ideals thrown into the mix.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of religious allegory, the makings are there. As previously mentioned, there are characters who bear resemblances to Biblical figures – Frodo carries the ring (sins of the world) and he alone is capable of making the sacrifice necessary to destroy it; Melkor was an Ainur (essentially angel) and corrupted many Maiar (lesser angels) to follow him, including Sauron and the balrogs; other examples that elude me.

There are plenty of unintentional allegories that exist in the world. You don’t have to look much further than this year: “Warcraft,” the fantasy movie based on the strategy game series, has been linked by some Redditors to the Syrian refugee crisis despite preceding the crisis by decades. And even if Tolkien is sincere in saying no allegory is meant to exist within The Lord of the Rings, it exists.

And even if it can be vehemently ripped apart and destroyed, the story is good enough stand alone; in fact, if the reason Tolkien was and Tolkienites are so vehemently against the trilogy as being described as allegory was/is to establish it as a root text for future allegories, I’ll gladly support it.

 

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Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Is it really an allegory?

To be honest, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t think that it could be allegorical of anything at all. It was a highly fictional world with Elves and Dwarves and Magical Rings that are just too imaginative to be part of the real world. To me, Lord of the Rings was nothing more than the product of Tolkien’s fantastic imagination and dedication towards creating such a detailed world. All I saw was a writers’ great enthusiasm towards the concept of this imaginary world in which all the creatures from the fairy tales we all have read live together.

To be fair, I was 15 at the time so I’m not surprised to see how my recent readings of this series has completely changed its meaning – not going to lie, I enjoyed my first reading far more than my recent ones, just because I was able to immerse myself into this fantastical world and almost become a part of the story. In recent readings, however, I have been much more aware of what is actually happening in the story and have often connected aspects of it to the real world. By doing so, I did cut out on some of the fun of reading it, but my recent readings of the series have been far more memorable, just because they now feel a little more realistic.

In the foreword, Tolkien bluntly states that “The prime motive 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 short, THIS BOOK IS NOT ALLEGORICAL OF ANYTHING – And my first reading of this book is representative of exactly this. As the story progressed, I went along with Frodo and Sam on their quest and felt the same things as they would have felt – the book most definitely held the attention of its readers. What really strengthens this idea that Lord of the Rings is purely fictional is that Tolkien just didn’t stop at this book, but wrote almost 12 more books on the history and lore of Middle Earth. He was just trying his best to make a complete fictional world.

However, at this point it’s just difficult for me to think that this book (and all the books preceding or following it) does not pull from the events around Tolkien in his time. The overlaying themes of good versus evil is something that was (and is) highly prominent at the time given that this book was written shortly after the first World War and was followed by the second World War. The number of parallels that can be drawn between the book and the state of the world at that time make it very difficult to agree with the fact that this book was written as pure fiction. Sure, the book is not a direct allegory of real events such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it is clear that each character represents a person in the real world, but it is most definitely not pure fiction.

Looking at the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s comments about how the book was not intended to be allegorical of the war, one question that came to my mind was that can anything be pure fiction? Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during a time of great social and political turmoil and it is hard to think that those ideas were not part of his subconscious while writing the book. It is extremely difficult not to include aspects of the real world in writing and almost impossible to not be influenced by what is going on around you. In my public speaking course, we have been talking about informative speeches and how it is necessary to be unbiased in such speeches. During our discussions, I realized that it is really difficult not to include any of your own opinions to be part of your speech in one way or another. In the same way, I’m certain that Tolkien definitely had some opinions on the state of the world at that time, and at some point some of these ideas were bound to bleed into his writing. Perhaps, this is why he states that the book was not intended to be an allegory, but the ideas presented in the book are highly applicable to the real world and this is just a result of some of his own opinions being reflected in his writing. Taking a look at another ‘fictional’ series, Harry Potter once again deals with highly imaginative topics such as wizards and fantastic beasts. However, it is quite often debated that this series too has some allegorical aspects with respect to religion. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, themes that are shared with christianity are seen throughout the book, and I think it’s very possible that his interactions with C.S. Lewis could have been a contributing factor to that. After all, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is full of references to the Bible.

In the end, I agree with Tolkien on the statement that The Lord of the Rings was not written as an Allegory to the second World War, Christianity, or any of the many other ideas and themes that this book parallels. It was written as an attempt to entertain and excite readers and it does exactly that. However it is nearly impossible to write any work without being influenced by the culture and society around you and The Lord of the Rings is a result of the events happening around the time it was written, blending into it. However, this actually doesn’t take away from the book but in fact, adds to it. By adding aspects to it that are representative of the real world, readers are able to connect with the book at a deeper level as they are familiar with the concepts being dealt with. It allows the readers to relate to the events taking place in the book and in some ways enhances their experience as the delve deeper into the world that the author has created for them.

The Joy of Reading Spenser’s Poetry

– Matt Almeida

When first sitting down to write this blog I was asking myself, why am I telling Professor Hall about my experiences? I’m sure he knows more about English than I do  as he does indeed teach the class I am in, and did he not say having read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene  is like wearing badge of honor? Perhaps he should be telling me about reading The Faerie Queene, but regardless I shall discuss my experiences. I assume other IT professionals have much less interest in or knowledge of Spenser’s poetry. Also, sorry Professor but after reading just a few cantos I have no desire to acquire this badge of honor you spoke so highly of.  

Well what can I say? Reading parts of this complex, lengthy, ridiculous excuse for a poem was more or less like slamming my head into a wall. Repeatedly. I was debating whether or not it was less enjoyable than playing LOTRO, and I think I’ve made it clear through my blogs that I thoroughly do not enjoy LOTRO. It wasn’t even close. I would rather be locked in a room playing LOTRO for a weekend then read Spenser for an hour. At least I would be able to level my character up, and that’s always a plus as I don’t really see anything to gain from reading Spenser’s barely coherent poetry.

Spencer’s words are just so hard to read and the poem is very difficult to get through for a few reasons. From just looking at the poem you can see that the English is not quite what us 21st century folk are used to. We were told it was slightly more difficult than Shakespeare, but I’d say it’s a bit more than only slightly more difficult. Granted, I have seen some Old English such as that written in Beowulf, and Spenser is not nearly as difficult. The Old English barely even looks like letters, more like symbols, and at least Spenser uses normal English letters in his poetry. But regardless the words which he uses are often beyond my immediate comprehension. Spenser switches up certain letters and spells words in alternative forms that are not always instantly recognizable. This makes for not only a very slow read but also a very painful and un-enjoyable one. On top of that Spenser uses ridiculous words that sometimes don’t even make the slightest bit of sense. I weet (apparently this means know?) some words or can figure them out but even that is sometimes impossible which is why notes are often provided. It’s not even as if I can use dictionary.com or some other useful technology as these words seem to not exist anymore, only in Spenser’s fantastic world of poetry.

Spenser not only uses this complex and confusing version of the English language in his poetry, but he also writes in an incredibly complex manner and ties in deep meaning to all his cantos. He is writing poetry and he uses a specific rhyming scheme. I often felt when reading the poem some words were forced or altered in some way to make a rhyme, further adding to the confusion of the poem. Additionally, the poem seems to jump around a lot. There are a few different story lines going on and Spenser jumps back and forth between them, making the poetry not always easy to follow. Also, it appears that Spenser was a crazy smart guy who just couldn’t find enough things to tie into his poem. After going through all the various allegories today in class I felt as if my head was about to explode. We had such difficulty picking up on and noticing these allegories and I’m sure we didn’t even see half of them. As was noted in class each symbol in Spenser’s poetry has more than one meaning and has ties to more than one thing. All these allegories were pretty overwhelming and to think Spenser actually wrote this stuff with all those ideas in his head prior to actually writing them is almost unfathomable. To fully understand Spenser’s poetry, you must pick up on and explore these allegories as they provide a much deeper meaning to the poetry. This just further piles on to the agony and frustration that comes with reading The Faerie Queene. I think I’ll go play LOTRO now. Just kidding.

The Faerie Queene For Techies

So….you’re about to read The Faerie Queene. You’ve got your book (or more likely Kindle) ready to go, and then you look at the file size, the terrible, terrible  spelling, and the tiny print, and you shut that book, and decide to ask SparkNotes instead. Well, Professor Clayton knows about SparkNotes, and the stuff you get there won’t be on the test. That being said, here’s a better guide to getting you through the longest poem ever written in the English language.

  1. Reading the Farie Queene is an interesting experience, for one. The language is not quite Shakespeare, not quite Chaucer, and to say that it is not quite spell checked  would be an understatement. However, there is a meter to the words, and once you get the hang of it, the road to understanding what Spenser is trying to tell you is only marginally bumpy. Reading aloud works; it slows you down so you have time to understand one line before reading the next. The footnotes and word replacements help too, even if they mess up your reading rhythm.
  2. Now that you can read the words, it’s time to figure out what you’re reading, and trust me, it’s about as far away from C++ as you can get. The Faerie Queene is, on the surface, a poem and a story, but a heavily allegorical one that uses characters, places, and events (sometimes not so subtly, either) to impart messages. Spenser’s messages are mostly concerned with the nature and different facets of virtue, along with praising Elizabeth I far too much for her own good. He’ll often link events in his stories back to classical mythology, but doesn’t always make the connection obvious. For example, the impregnation of Chrysogene, mother of Belphoebe and Amoret, takes place via a ray of sunshine, which connects her to both the Virgin Mary and Danae, a figure from Greek mythology who experienced the same thing. Or, take this allegorical chain of symbols for Elizabeth: Belpheobe’s name comes from Diana, the chaste warrior maiden, who is goddess of the moon, another name for which is Cynthia, which is a name Sir Walter Raleigh sometimes used for Elizabeth–so really, Belphoebe = Elizabeth I! Does this seem convoluted to you? Well, too bad. Spenser’s audience, the Renaissance-educated nobility of England, expected stuff like this in everything they read: deeper meanings, double, triple and quadruple connections, and thin or complex metaphors were searched for in nearly every word an author wrote. Spenser did not disappoint on this expectation, and as a result there are still books and dissertations and whatnot being published on him today.
  3. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Go on, open up SparkNotes. It’s ok, I won’t tell Professor Clayton. Now, read the canto summary. Doesn’t that feel just great? You’re reading modern, spellchecked English words written by someone who is still alive. AND you know what’s going on in the canto, which means it’s time to close that lovely Mozilla window and return to the Kindle. Getting a summary before you do the reading can be useful; when a new character appears out of the blue or something new happens, you’re not totally thrown by trying to process all of the story events, allegories, and language at the same time. Since you are pre-informed, you can focus on the language itself and the more nuanced bits in the plotline.  Just be sure to keep an eye peeled! There’s way more to the poem than can be covered by a single page summary, even if it is on SparkNotes.
  4. Lastly, enjoy yourself. If you sit there and make the reading a drudgery, it will be one. Instead, picture the forest, or Britomart saving the Redcrosse Knight, like a movie, or even think about how awesome  different scenes might look when remediated to the Faerie Queene Online game. If you can engage yourself and take an interest in what’s happening, then you don’t need any other advice.

Dacia