Friday, April 13, 2012

A Question of Intent

First of all, Ashford is free on Kindle today.  Happy Friday the thirteenth!

Lately I have started writing study guides for a curriculum program.  It's a great side job, as I get to reread some of my favorite children's classics (and young adult) and write about them.  The study guides focus on story structure, character, theme, literary devices, etc...

One thing that constantly comes up is the question of symbolism, and for every children's classic written there are hundreds of people willing to tell you all about what the author intended in that department.  My most recent experience was with The Velveteen Rabbit, and I heard so many different ideas concerning the possibly symbolic nature of certain passages (even one claiming that the fact that Skin Horse and the Rabbit are made Real but the mechanical toys are not is symbolic of salvation not being for everyone) that it boggled the mind.

In study guides, certainly, the question is always, "what did the author intend?" and you go from there.  And that brings me to Tolkien.

I must confess, I am a Tolkien nerd.  Always have been, since I was old enough to read the books the first time, and always will be, until I'm blind and senile.  Twice in the last year I have been present at writing-related seminars or workshops where statements were made, as fact, concerning Tolkien's supposed intent of comparing Sauron to Hitler, Mordor to Nazi Germany, etc...  Both were phrased as, "Tolkien created Mordor to represent..."  This bothers me extremely, because Tolkien stated very clearly in his lifetime that he intended no such comparison.  In the preface to the (I believe second) edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, he says:

"As for any inner meaning or "message", it has in the intention of the author none.  It is neither allegorical nor topical.  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 does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.  If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied.  Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth.  In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
"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."

That seems fairly definite.

Of course, a good, well-concieved and well-written book will present different ideas to each person who reads it.  Some will agree with the author and some won't.  That is how it should be, and I'm thoroughly honored by anyone who sees my work as relevant to their life in a particular way.  Just don't say I wrote it to say exactly that...because I probably didn't.  Thus the "applicability" vs. "allegory" reasoning.  Thank you Tolkien.


  1. I agree -- books are living creatures that interact with their readers!

    And I've always liked Twain's take on it: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

    (PS - the study guide gig sounds kind of awesome ... are they perchance looking for more writers?)

  2. I'm not sure, but I can always ask. :-)