Between the Lines: A Conversation with Matthew Dickerson – Part 3

We recently had the chance to talk with Matthew Dickerson about his new Brazos book, A Hobbit Journey.

Matthew Dickerson (PhD, Cornell University) is a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, a writer, and the director of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf. His previous works include From Homer to Harry PotterThe Mind and the MachineNarnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis; and Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R .R. Tolkien.

In Part 1, Matthew spoke about the relationship between our world and the world of The Lord of the Rings.

In Part 2, he explained how his love for Tolkien’s writing influenced the composition of A Hobbit Journey.

Today he discusses whether The Lord of the Rings should be understood as allegorical.

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Even though Tolkien was known for disliking allegory, do you consider The Lord of the Rings to be allegorical?

No. Not at all. Certainly not in the strict sense of allegory of a book like Pilgrim’s Progress, and not even like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which I think can be read very allegorically. If you try to turn Tolkien’s works into allegory in that way, you will, I think, fall flat. Not only will an attempt to cram his characters into some allegorical straightjacket fail in the end to make connections that hold, but in searching for allegorical meanings that don’t exist you will miss the rich “meanings” that do exist.

Now if you ask whether Tolkien’s works are applicable (as opposed to allegorical) then I would answer “yes”—which is really just giving the answer Tolkien himself gave in his famous Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings. Of course not everything an author says about himself or his works is by necessity true, but in this instance I think that Tolkien was speaking accurately.

I do think that Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” does have some elements that are both strongly allegorical and autobiographical, but that is another question. When it comes to The Lord of the Rings I think the first thing is to enjoy them as stories, and appreciate and delight in the world, the characters, and the narrative. If you want to look for meaning and applicability of that meaning to our own story—which, I think, is a very worthwhile endeavor, and one Tolkien himself thought valid—then look for the meaning in Tolkien’s words themselves and his tale itself, and not in trying to force his tale into some mathematical correspondence with some other story.

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For more information on A Hobbit Journey, click here.
To read an excerpt, click here.

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