Of Corruption and Allegory

Tolkien says his mother gave him his love of philology and romance; and his first stories were gathering in his mind when he was an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford. When war came, however, he didn't write in the trenches as some chroniclers insist. "That's all spoof. You might scribble something on the back of an envelope and shove it in your back pocket, but that's all. You couldn't write. This [his study] would be an enormous dugout. You'd be crouching down among the flies and filth."

His close friend, the late C. S. Lewis ("a very busy official and teacher" to whom Tolkien test-read a great deal), wrote once that the darker side of "The Lord of the Rings" was very much like the First World War. He gave examples: the sinister quiet of a battlefront when everything is prepared; the quick and vivid friendships of the hobbit journeys and the unexpected delight when they find a cache of tobacco. No, Tolkien says; there is no parallel between the hundreds of thousands of goblins in their beaked helmets and the gray masses of Germans in their spiked ones. Goblins die in their thousands. This, he agrees, makes them seem like an enemy in a war of trenches. "But as I say somewhere, even the goblins weren't evil to begin with. They were corrupted. I've never had those sort of feelings about the Germans. I'm very anti that kind of thing."

Students produce lots of allegories. They suggest that the Dark Lord's ring represents the Bomb, and the goblins, the Russians. Or, more cheekily, that Treebeard, the tall treelike being, "his eyes filled with age and long, slow, steady thinking," is Tolkien himself. In a rather portly note to his publishers, he replied: "It is not about anything but itself. (Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.") But he will agree that the Shire, the agreeable hobbit country, is like the West Midlands he remembers: "It provides a fairly good living with moderately good husbandry and is tucked away from all the centres of disturbance; it comes to be regarded as divinely protected, though people there didn't realize it at the time. That's rather how England used to be, isn't it?

Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman
January 15, 1967

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