Tolkien, Allegory, and Applicability: Freedom of the Reader Is Not License to Reinterpret

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I’ve noticed that many people, when trying to justify their opinions about Tolkien’s works, resort to his statement about preferring “applicability,” which lies in the freedom of the individual reader, to allegory, which is the purposed domination of the author. But does Tolkien’s statement really give us freewheeling license to interpret his work however we want?



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Applicability is what the author, Tolkien, directly wrote down and referred to and then, most importantly, the feelings and thoughts aroused in the reader. Example: Sam is a true friend to Frodo, this is Tolkien's intent; the reader thinks about best friends they have and what a true friend should be.

Or another example: Sauron built a great empire through sheer force and power but this fell apart when the ring was destroyed and all of Sauron's tryanny went away, this is Tolkien's intent; the reader may consider other great and powerful tryants, like Genghis Khan, whose empires fall apart when they die or were overthrown.

As long as the reader understands what Tolkien is referring to and understands the context within Tolkien's work, then valid applicability can arise from the reader. If the reader misunderstands the themes or overlooks certain themes or plot points then incorrect ideas and inferences can arise.

A great example of this was some readers in the 1960s were saying that the one ring was a reference to nuclear weapons; a false applicability arose here as the one ring is not a weapon of mass destruction, it is instead a spiritual device and an example of machinery (the ring is a technology as well) dominating people by the hands of tyrants and amoral people- no matter how the ring is used and regardless of intentions it always strives to bring power to the wearer and domination over others. Both the books and Tolkien's letters have stated that the ring is not an example of nuclear weapons- thus those readers had incorrectly used "applicability".

Author — skatemetrix

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Love this vid, my friend! I love these deep dives into things that we’ve heard so many times and are very commonly misconstrued.

Also, politicians being Saruman is so dead-on. Haha. I get so many comments of people comparing different politicians to Sauron or Morgoth, but I always think, “nah, I think they’re just all Saruman.”

Author — Nerd of the Rings

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Mae govannen. Just want to say that you’re my favourite Tolkien channel out there! I find your videos the most interesting and the topics always make me think a lot.

Author — oneusertorulethemall

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I think that both the author's and reader's intent and interpretations matter on some level and that the readers are free to interpret and infer things as they want so long as they can separate (and be upfront about said separation) the story as written and the story as interpreted or inferred. Otherwise, conversations can quickly become a chaotic mess and can even come off as disingenuous (even when unintended) in some cases where one person may be talking about the story as written, while another is talking about it in their own interpretation. Basically, if you are going to talk about your personal interpretation of a story, make sure that you are upfront and communicate properly that it is your interpretation and maybe even make comparisons between the story as written/intended and your own interpretation. You will reduce arguments by showing that you know and understand both and can actively separate both. It just feels like a better practice to me and comes off way better IMO. And that goes for all stories, not just Tolkien's works. Anyways, sorry for rambling! lol

Author — WhimsicallyChrissy

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The difference seems to be, in summary

It is not quite appropriate to say "this is what Tolkien said and meant by XYZ" unless we have some certainty from the author's own words

It is often appropriate to say "this is what happens in the story/the character did. This somewhat resembles real life in XYZ way and so I can use the story as an analogy"

I think. Have I got that right?

Author — FightingFitPT PCG

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I just wanted to say; thank you for this video. I've seen so many comments saying things like "There's no Christian themes/beliefs in Lord of the Rings because Tolkien hated allegory!" when that clearly flies in the face of Tolkien also saying that the story was fundamentally Catholic. Clearly applicability doesn't mean that anything goes or that nothing about the text is certain.

Author — Nmjjmn

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Broke it down like a true lawyer. Great video as always Tolkien lore!

Author — Gandalf the Gold

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Nice vid, and interesting to note from that Tolkien quote that 'history' in its original Latin/ French meaning has a much more general meaning than the modern English usage (i.e. 'the study of the past'). In modern French, it most commonly means 'story' but implicitly means 'an account of real life events', which is more or less what Tolkien wanted LOTR to be. As a linguist, Tolkien would have known this of course.

Author — Alfonzridesagain

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It took me a few times to get through one of your videos - i guess I preferred the lore pieces. BUT - I have grown to find your videos are the most intelligent examinations of Tolkien's works - whether i agree with you or not. Keep the good work up. And I appreciate your shut outs to other YouTubers and expand upon their thoughts.

Author — Michael Tucker

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I don't believe that the people attempting to subvert Tolkien honestly believe theirs is a legitimate or applicable interpretation. Rather, they are just transparently grasping at whatever justification is handy to thinly veil their attempts to force their agenda into everything.

Author — Maxpie MUSE

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Topicality, when LoTR was first released people drew parallels with WW2, they assumed that as it was written around the time it was topical to the events of WW2, I think that's what Tolkien meant in the foreword.

Author — the gorgon

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Tolkien may have said, 'I see no Saurons in the world'. Maybe some of your fellow Tolkien YouTubers need to watch this video. I fear they have lost Tolkien's intent.

Author — Alfred Vincent

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Well said. The culture in general would do well to hear this and do a bit less free-wheeling interpretation 😁

Author — Andy Grams

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This is very good, I agree. As an example of "applicability": in the UK there is a system where political journalists get briefings from a senior civil servant, on condition that this person is not named. They then write stories citing "a source close to the Prime Minister" or some such. A couple of years ago the journalists took to calling this individual "the Mouth of Sauron". It wasn't an interpretation, it wasn't an attempt to find any particular significance in the story. It was just an amusing phrase.

So "applicability" means you can compare something in the real world to something in the story; but the purpose is to convey an understanding of the real-world thing, no more. Tolkien was trying to restrict, or prohibit, "interpretation" as such; though I should say that certain religious and moral aspects do bear interpretation.

Author — MrPwmiles

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People are free to their own interpretation but if they get Tumblr with it and start making fan art of their Frodo/Sam head canon, then they're open to mockery. An arbitrary line I know but if I gotta see one more Legolas drawn somewhere between the Cal Arts style and anime, I'm gonna lose it

Author — Easttowest

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Well, Tolkien also said that he wasn’t the actual author, that he was rather a translator of manuscripts that had come into his possession, but originally written down by a couple of hobbits, who in turn to a large degree relates what others have told them. So maybe we can’t automatically take everything Tolkien said about his works at face value. The Blair Witch Project is supposedly found photage, but I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility that that film has some kind of metaphores and hidden messages, just because the producers say they just found it in the woods.

I don’t think that Frodo and Sam are boinking, but I’m pretty sure that even if they had, then A: Tolkien wouldn’t write about it. And B: he would still not consider them ”gay” as we understand it today. They do have a relationship that is incredibly close, warm, trusting, devoted and intensely emotional, and Tolkiens own comparison was between officer and batman. And if anybody wants to make comparisons to romantic partnerships today I’d say they kinda have a point, but not if they said that it was ”the same” as a modern couple. Also it’s not a relationship between equal partners. Sams ultimate term of endearment for frodo is ”master”. I have a friend who’s deeply into bdsm and who cites this as a ideal romantic relationship, whether it involves boinking or not. (It is btw quite possible that some officer-batman relationships did.)

But Tolkiens ideas of straight love doesn’t really hinge on boinking preferences either. They center on aesthetic appreciation, mutual support and devotion, and most of all marriage. Sam wants to marry, be a husband and a father. That makes him super straight, regardless of whether his batman emotional support duties included blowing master occasionally. Which, as I said, I don’t believe, because I see no subtextual hints of it.

As for Tolkiens claims that Sauron and the rings of power are not the least bit inspired by and have nothing to do with events and people in his lifetime, that is obviously absurd. Pull the other one! But I agree that Sauron is not a straight Hilter metaphor either. (Especially not with the extreme definition of metaphor that you select.) Let’s compare Animal Farm and 1984. Both are about Sovjet communism. But Animal Farm is a fable where even single individuals like Trotskij have one to one equivalents. 1984 is a sci/fi dystopia where the criticism of what Orwell saw and feared in the Sovjet Union is generalized and removed from the real world inspiration. Which, arguably makes it more universally applicable. I think something like that is what Tolkien meant by ”not a metaphor”.

Author — Dan Guillou

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It depends on which Tolkien works you are talking about. Questions as to the lord of the rings are quite different than questions related to the Silmarillion. Whatever the Christian themes in parts of the books, the original intent of all his efforts at the start was to create a new mythology for Britain.
By its very nature and intention, there is a great amount of license granted with regard to the Silmarillion for interpretation.

Author — Jim Tuner

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Waiting for the day you go to work and your opposing counsel tries to argue “they should have taken the eagles to Mordor” or something. I would pay good money to see you lay into them 😂

Author — Darshan Senthil

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I was never a fan of, "Choose a <inset -ism here> critique and respond to the writer, " papers. I found most of these readings as hammers hunting nails through the work in question. More than anything else, this sort of reading allows the reader to find or place themselves in the work. Many times I wondered if we were reading the same piece of literature. I was always more interested in authorial intent and the events and people that shaped the author's life. That, for me, has more bearing on the author's work if I am looking for contextual influence or insight into the text. This was always a debate we had to have in all of my upper/masters level English classes two decades ago.

Author — beatleblev

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In art school we are taught that once you release a work to the world, it is open to and subject to the viewers interpretation. Adding fan fiction or the like to a writing or adding meaning that is clearly beyond the ideological scope of the creator of course invalidates this. Give an

Author — Moss Free Farms