The meaning of “The Lord of The Rings”!

We are our elsewhere.
We create universes because we don’t like the world as it is and sometimes scares us.

William Blanc

No one can face “The Lord of The Rings”. We can love, we can hate, but nothing beats “The Lord of The Rings”.
Calling Tolkien the father of fantasy is questionable (or even false), but he remains a luminary. It’s hard to escape its influence, whether in literature, cinema, role-playing, video games … in short, the collective imagination.

Suddenly we’d be wondering, seeing as his stories are so important in the end, what are they really telling? These stories of legendary magicians, ancestral forces and their countless humanoid characters with the names of medicines, what can they mean?
Is it just cool? It’s epic, it’s dreamy and it’s beautiful like anything… So there you go?
Isn’t it possible that this other world is actually ours?

An allegory of world war II?

That seems to bother a lot of people for quite a while. And it must be said that when digging, there is plenty to ask questions.
No, but it’s true! A book that came out in 1954, which talks about a great war involving almost all of all nations, in a world that more or less resembles medieval Europe.

A threat already defeated in the past comes to us from the east, which is about to relentlessly invade the western kingdoms. A comeback that many refused to see return, allowing it to gain strength before becoming inevitable.!
Some take the ocean to find a country further west.
Some former allies give in to the influence of the unstoppable enemy and collaborate with it, to assert their own authority.
The peoples must unite to fight the AXIS of evil.
And in the midst of all this a fight for an immeasurable object of power, which must not fall into the wrong hands at all costs … A power so absolute and so terrifying that many people refuse to use it even if it would guarantee them victory.

Do you see my big allegory?

We have to admit that with all its coincidences, the parallel with World War II works surprisingly well.
So that would be the meaning of the Lord of the Rings? Oh, if only it was that simple! But we haven’t released The Prancing Pony yet.

So indeed we can see the Lord of the Rings as a sort of Second World War, redrawn on tracing paper of heroic fantasy. But as much as we can marvel where it overlaps quite well, but we must question the overall design.

The real war does not resemble to the legendary war in its process or in its conclusion. 
If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, and certainly the ring would have been sees and used again Sauron. It wouldn’t be annihilated but enslaved. And Barad-dûr would not to be destroyed but occupied.
In that conflict, both side would have held Hobbit in hate-hood an contempt. They would not long survive even enslaves.

J.R.R. Tolkien

But would there be a metaphor or a symbol?

I must quite frankly express my profound but polite negation of your clever and neverless somewhat false assumption my dear. And if you excuse me I’m now going to Brexit this conversation.

j.r.r. tolkien

Answer which I think is the way the British say ‘nope’.
And don’t bother looking for another metaphor if it’s not World War II, as he adds:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence

J.R.R. Tolkien

The end ?

No, but what does that mean: “I don’t like allegories …”?
We’re here to analyze stuff when in fact it would just be a story? A headless story that has nothing to do with us and our world?
Would he have cut all ties with reality, precisely to allow us to escape to an elsewhere, another world?
Well yeah, because life is a bitch, God is dead and we’re gonna be soon, and then nothing makes sense and Henry Cavill already has a girlfriend and I forgot to buy Nutella.
From the cost, our need for consolation is impossible to satisfy and that sucks.

From this perspective, we would say that the less it reminds us of our world, the more this quest is accomplished. So when we want to forget our daily worries, it is not so that we are reminded of the fucking World War II, especially when your daily worry was the fucking WWII, no later than ‘yesterday!
Tolkien assumed escape as a function of fairy tales, for example. On the other hand, think again, he also said:

Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

J.R.R. tolkien

If you trade your worries for a road-trip in Middle-earth, I’m not sure you won the day. Even admitting that the anxieties that haunt you are more existential than your bills or your boss overwhelming you with unstable overtime, is The Lord of the Rings really the best plan to help you avoid thinking about death. , suffering or your responsibilities?
In short, Tolkien’s tales, indeed, offers you an unexpected journey into a distant horizon, but it is no picnic. If what you’re looking for is anesthetizing yourself with his books, you’ll get the better of hitting yourself with them.

Tolkien did not conceive his stories to cocoon us and on the contrary to immerse us in tragic events whose protagonists never seem to be able to triumph before an unexpected salvation. A resolution he called “eucatastrophe”, a good catastrophe of which he took as a “real” example, the incarnation of Jesus. It’s a bit like Don Bluth’s cartoons, who instead of sparing toddlers, tormented them as much as possible so that the resolve was only more powerful.
The idea shared by both men is that a ray of hope shines even more as one has walked through the darkest darkness. Surely an idea rooted in their religious faith.

In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.

J.R.r. tolkien

Tolkien does claim an escape process, not thought of as an escape but as a fervent desire for something else.

And, does “The Lord of The Rings” have anything to do with WWI?

It should also be noted that Tolkien may not have fought in WWII, but he did go through hell in the first. Sleeping in the trenches for a year is enough to cause some nightmares. The influence of this experience in Tolkien’s writings is quite evident and documented.
His first text located in the Middle Lands, “Fall of gondolin” was written during his convalescence after having contracted a “trench fever”. He recounts in particular, the destruction of an ancient elven civilization by an enemy, described as relentless machines.

So in looking for our allegory we would have been wrong opus? These were all WWI metaphors? But is Tolkien saying that allegory is not his cup of tea?

Maybe we’re just asking ourselves the wrong questions. Again even though “the Fall of Gondolin” was written during his recovery from what he experienced in the trenches, that doesn’t make it an allegory. . But that does not mean that one cannot deny the influence of his experience in the Somme. Trauma like this changes you a man on a fundamental level, even though an author might not realize it, or even deny it.
Tolkien does not say otherwise.

The first world war had a broad and specific impact on Tolkien’s writing. One you look the Tolkien’s writing in the first world war in detail, you can be struck by all kinds of really curious comparisons. One Interesting I found is between, the ring’s wraiths, the Nazguls and artillery shells, sound of artillery shells.

John Garth Autor of « Tolkien and the Great War »

So i think these terrors are connected completely to a mythological and Gothic I think Tolkien wanted to use in the Lord Of The Rings.

Jon garth

An author, can not of course remain holy unaffected by his experience but the ways in witch the story germ use the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidences that is inadequate and ambiguous.

J.R.R. Tolkien

In fact this is something that we often get confused about, you know, like in college when we laughed when the teacher said:
“The chair is blue, it represents melancholy” …
And that we all thought (yes even you over there who pretend you weren’t):
“Yes, if that’s right, the author just meant that the chair is blue! “…

Allegory or not allegory?

Well, we must already understand that writing is not a 100% conscious process. It’s not like coding a message in HTML.
Even being in control of what we are doing, there is not an exact science of evocative power and we do not copy / paste meaning into people’s heads.

in an interview for the release of “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”, Steven Spielberg realized this:

– It is one of your famous scene in all of your movies I’m sure. Now look, I don’t mean to make to much of this but I’ll ask you a question.

– Your father was a computer scientist, your mother was a musician, when this spaceship was landing, How do they communicate ?

– That is a very good question, I like that. The answer is on the question.

-They make music on their computers and they are able to speak to each other.

– You see I’d love to say you, I intended that but you know, I realize that was my mother and my father was not until this moment !

Just as it is no wonder that Frodo’s feverish scenes came to the mind of someone who suffered the fever in the trenches. The same Frodo that he will see come out of such events with something akin to post traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, some of the parallels that we had drawn with the Second World War also work with the first, because there is no need to look for more or less hidden metaphors to say that an author English of this period will have imagined a more “Europeanizing” imitation Middle Ages where the protagonists tend to start from the West, while the threat will instinctively be more represented in the East.

Even at more abstract levels, the context experienced by the same author will no doubt have facilitated his vision of men as corruptible and the leaders of their nations as having fallen into the camp of evil, especially from those who write:

Gentleman are not existent among our superiors. And even the human beings are rare indeed

J.R.R. tolkien

There is no need to see it as a metaphor, and just because it isn’t one doesn’t mean it hasn’t to do with it. We write where we are from.
What we do with a metaphor is take an image to represent something else.

An allegory is a bit the same but on the scale of a whole story. A bit like a system of coherent metaphors.

Something that is used in painting for example. Very convenient process for graphically representing abstract ideas that have no shapes.

Example, how to paint justice?
in general it is represented:

Lady Justice statue in law office. Figurine with blindfold, balance and sword is personification of moral force in judicial system and it’s origin is Lustitia, goddess of Justice in Roman mythology
  • A blindfolded woman, because justice is blind, impartial;
  • She has a scale in her left hand to weigh the acts;
  • She has a sword to punish.

So, on the other hand, it implies having decryption keys to understand the work, but once everyone has them, this representation becomes universal. This is the basis of press cartoon.

Allegory applied to a story is called a fable. The ant is the hardworking person and the grasshopper a hippie who does not give a fuck.
And you have to understand the symbols in a fable to understand its moral.
In other cases, religious parables serve the same purpose.
This is why some scholars spend their time studying the same book for years to make exegesis according to a doctrine etc.

I much prefer history – true or fiend – with it varied applicability to the thought and experiences of readers.
I think there is many confuse « applicability » with « allegory ».
But the one resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purpose domination of the author.


This is where Tolkien puts his finger on something when it comes to applicability or relevance.
Stories, good stories have a relevance to themes, emotions, values etc. They operate in a secondary world, which must have its own coherence, which cannot be copied as is on our own.

Take Robert Zemeckis’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. The “Toons” are second-class citizens there, who are used in entertainment, especially cinema and who must live apart.
Here the club is based on the Cotton Club, where African Americans came to do service or show numbers, but entry was reserved for whites. In the film, the “Toons” do the show for an exclusively human clientele.
In this case the “Toons” are an allegory of black people?

Yes, but the film is also inspired by the period when homosexuals worked in show biz and in Hollywood, where they were sidelined but more or less covered.

So, is this an allegory of blacks people or of homosexuals?

Well both and both neither, and other stuff …
Being in a secondary world doesn’t stop the stories from hitting the mark, on a level that doesn’t depend on the very contextual stuff of our reality.
For what we call “imaginary literature”, science fiction and fantasy, we also speak of speculative literature. It is precisely this speculative aspect which makes it possible to evoke more fundamental things since it explores possible “other” than our history, our society, our current events … etc, including when it is not intentional, contrary to Roger Rabbit where it is very clear.

Often Winnie the Pooh is presented as an allegory of mental disorders:

  • Piglet is anxiety,
  • Tiger, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,
  • Eeyore, depression
  • Winnie, he’s having addiction issues and eating disorders.

You can imagine it but it is not at all the perspective of the author, and it would even be anachronistic to imagine that, but for all that it works very well, so much so that we find this allegory in scientific publications.
The author characterized his characters in a certain way and he typed it right. They conjure up pretty relevant stuff without needing to voluntarily adapt a list of shrink categories, which weren’t even theorized yet.

In this case, unlike pure allegory, there is no need for interpretation keys to understand the meaning.
Especially since, as Tolkien said, with his freedom of the reader in the face of author’s dominance, it’s going to make sense, including person-to-person or period-to-period making the story more accessible and timeless.

A story for “Hippie”?

To come back to “Lord of The Rings”, for example, this story has turned a lot in the hippie generation, people in all points dissimilar to the author and who yet is reflected in his work.
Because at some point, once he lets go of the result of his work, however manic he is, in nature, he no longer has control over who it is going to touch.

Magic, an ethereal story, even if it was written by a conservative Catholic, it evokes a kind of “neo-pagan-mytholo-ancestral” mysticism and that speaks to them. And this counter culture, has contributed to perpetuate the success of books and to pass the torch.
If this generation is found in the works of an easy British father born at the end of the 19th century, it is not just because of the drugs!

A tale for “Aristocrat”?

It could not be clearer, in many ways that Tolkien can easily be described as a conservative, with omnipresence of his religious sensibility, his “epically” Wagnerian tone, his call to an imaginary of glorious kings and his categories with rather racialist springs, it is expected that this will touch the fiber of some people nostalgic for an old fantasy time. Especially since his middle age doesn’t pretend to be fantasized.
The distinctly reactionary and dated aspects of his prose have been rightly noted by other more “socialist” fantasy authors.

The stories are structured by moralist and abstract logic rather than being grounded and organic.
Tolkien wrote the seminal text for fantasy where morality is absolute, and political complexity is conveniently evaporate.

• Battles are glorious and death is noble.
The good looks superb and the evil are ugly.
Elves are natural aristos
• Hobbits are good people
• And in a fairyland version of genetic determinism, Orcs are shit by birth.

This is a conservator hymn to order and reason, to the status quo.

China Mieville

How can both a “Hippie” and an “Aristocrat” be drawn to Tolkien’s work? Did either of them get it wrong?
But come to think of it, is it really so surprising that activists have been touched by “The Lord of The Rings” even though its author would have been foreign to modern environmentalist categories?

Was Tolkien that conservative?

It should be noted that tackling Tolkien as a caricatured straw man of conservatism does not shed a very useful light on the themes he addresses, just like the 1970s counterculture with which he resonated is not a monolith. Indeed, it goes from the radical environmental activist anti Vietnam war to the “neo-payan” new age of a random sect whose heritage will be found as much in the libertarian billionaires of the silicone valley fan of Ayn Rand as in the serial killer to swastika tattooed on the forehead, or in geek culture itself. Even Greenpeace has been able to invoke “The Lord of The Rings” for anti-nuclear campaigns.

Fantasy has always carried a critique of industrial modernity, organic to its recourse to a legendary past. In the same vein, one of the forerunners of the genre, and other medieval enthusiasts, who influenced Tolkien is William Morris, a libertarian socialist writer who defends the environment.
Although expressed from different angles, they have this distrust in common.

In “The Lord of The Rings” the protagonists are, I’m not spoiling you anything, the Hobbits. And by far the characters to whom Tolkien sympathizes.

Their entire civilization resembles a shorter legged version of the traditional English countryside, where they spend their time living their best life, namely smoking their pipe filled with ‘pipe-weed’ whose effects resemble cannabis, eating well, without working too much and without worrying about many things except the family who steal the silverware.

Then like Tolkien at the time of his departure for the war, there they are catapulted, from their island of peace, into a vast world with stakes beyond them. Here they are confronted with a universe of which they are a part whatever their efforts to ignore it. War, evil, corruption, and the forces involved, as diverse as they are difficult to reconcile.
The heavy toll to pay for trading his quiet life for adventure.

In contrast, to the peaceful way of life which is admittedly a little naive but very sympathetic to the “brave country folks” of The Shire, horror arises from modernity:

Saruman: Together, my lord Sauron, we shall rule this Middle-earth. The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist of the orc.

Tolkien deeply hates this industrial world which he discovered with dread in the First Industrialized War, but also in the toiling towns which tore him from his countryside to pursue his studies. This industrial modernity dirties nature and alienates men. Its armadas of orcs are in fact elves who have been tortured and enslaved. To the working masses stupefied by labor, he prefers the fantasy of “good common English folks” to ambitions and simple values.

Because if the hobbits are a recourse in this globalized world, it is precisely because they are not tempted by it. For Tolkien, they carry with them, naturally superior virtues to yet much more powerful magicians and other hundred-year-old elves, precisely too powerful to use the ring without putting all things at great risk.

A fascination with supposedly intrinsic values of the real simple people of the real simple life, which could be invoked as much by dictatorships, the France of Vichy, Franco, Mussolini … as in a diametrically opposed way a socialist like Orwell , which postulated the “common decency”, a kind of common sense inherent in the popular classes, that their way of life would make naturally good, simple, united and immune to the misappropriation of the powerful.

Because if the hobbits are a recourse in this globalized world, it is precisely because they are not tempted by it. For Tolkien, they carry with them, naturally superior virtues to yet much more powerful magicians and other hundred-year-old elves, precisely too powerful to use the ring without putting all things at great risk.
A fascination with supposedly intrinsic values of the real simple people of the real simple life, which could be invoked as much by dictatorships, the France of Vichy, Franco, Mussolini … as in a diametrically opposed way a socialist like Orwell , which postulated the “common decency”, a kind of common sense inherent in the popular classes, that their way of life would make naturally good, simple, united and immune to the misappropriation of the powerful.

This ordinary decency is not only innate, it is due to social conditions which are degraded, metamorphosed by the age of technology, triumphant capitalism and totalitarianism.
And indeed, people can no longer cultivate this ordinary decency in this world.

Bruce Bégout

Ultimately and in the final analysis, if Tolkien had no sympathy for the socializing or progressive ideologies of his time either, it is also in the name of his distrust of modernity, industry and progress, precisely, which there were associated. Moreover, if Tolkien relies on an epic register inherited from legends, to high moments of bravery he adds the darkness and the tragic of conflicts. As we recall, his visions come out of the mind of a survivor of a dirty war, which has confirmed him in the idea of the benefits of a quieter way of life.

So yes, if the evocation of great heroes with pure blood can make vibrate nostalgic for the crusades, a force capable of attracting anti-militarists emerges just as much from “The Lord of The Rings”.
So from “Aristocrat” to “Hippie”, the two find their account, only it is not the same.

Tolkien and his vision of Power

Even in a subject like power, “The Lord of The Rings” brings many other themes to which would not be limited to the sole recourse to a monarchist imagination full of dynasties of wise aristocrats and blood rights which naturally makes enlightened despots even 15 generations later.

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy
(philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)
– or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people.

J.R.R. tolkien

This is sort of the central theme, the ring, of power. Because in “The Lord of The RINGS”, power is a bit of a shit.
A power in the very general sense embodied in a shining charm, with the thematic density similar to inspiring a totalitarian regime, the wealth of a PRECIOUS treasure or the power to do good, in short any form of power imaginable.
The ring, on the other hand, seems obvious from its name alone to be a pure metaphor for power, but even it is insignificant, hollow, since it symbolizes all powers and none in particular. With Tolkien, there is no virtuous pursuit of power. Power must be destroyed.

There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power stations. I hope that, encouraged now as patriotism, may remain a habit. But it wont do any good if it is not universal.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The fundamental evil in “The Lord of The Rings”, despite its use of racial notions and its “legitimist” discourses, is not a person or a group of people! It is a disembodied notion.
For Tolkien, it’s not so much the ring that matters, but what it brings out in people.
The ring is a Rorschach test, everyone finds what they want in it and it is one of Tolkien’s great strengths. Although his tale takes place in an imaginary Middle Earth populated by elves, orcs, and other unlikely creatures, he tells us about us, us, men, all of which we run after.
The ring can be money, love, fame …
And in the end Sauron has no body because deep down, Sauron is all we want.

So no wonder that beyond his imagination of old school kingdoms, Tolkien’s apology for small communities to diffuse governance coupled with a passionate love, solidarity, camaraderie and brotherhood, which may come to him. powerful links forged in his student club, can also seduce a public not fond of his royalist icons. They were reactionary icons whose approach he had in fact quite consistent with his vision of power.

Not one in a million is fit for it and least of all of those who seek the opportunity. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Postulating for nothing except tranquility, and sovereignty yet capable of rising against the yoke of Sarouman with his companions whom Tolkien attributed to escape, disgust, anger, condemnation and revolt.

“The Lord of The Rings” is not an allegory of World War II, not even the first that its author experienced. Neither is it an allegory of the good times of monarchies, nor of libertarian communism or reactionary conservatism, or of radical ecologism, of racialist hierarchies or of international solidarity, which does not prevent that he carries all of that inside him.

Like any work that has a lot of meaning, it doesn’t have just one, it is polysemous.
Entire generations have seized upon it with a wide variety of issues and problems. You also got hold of it when you read it, discussed it and brought it to life. And this is the case even if you’ve never read it because it is so present in our common imaginations. When Peter Jackson took on the titanic task of fitting it to the screen, so did he, in his own way. By making choices that you liked or that you did not like that necessarily went one way or another, a meaning he wanted to give to it all.
Like that old man at a dinner in Rotterdam in 1958 who used this imaginary world to describe in his own words the world he did live in.

I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron; but I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.

J.R.R. Tolkien

This man was the same Tolkien who refused to see his work as an allegory, which did not prevent him from making parallels when it struck him, when it seemed to apply, to be relevant. It may even be precisely this lack of allegory that allows it. So why go without?

Remember China Mieville cited above dunking on “The Lord of The Rings” as a clean evil? Well he also said this:

The literary establishment’s incoherent critique combines snobbish disdain for popular culture with an historical philistinism. And there is a left variant of this dismissal, seeing the fantastic as decadent or socially irresponsible.
Tolkien refuses that the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way primary, or solely or really, about something else, knowly and precisely, that the work of the reader is one of code breaking. Only if we find the right key we can perform an hermeneutic algorithm and solve the book.
This is not a plea for naivety, for evading ramification or analysis, for some impossible and pointless return to « just a story »

China Mieville

Because like any story, “The Lord of The Rings” does not mean nothing, does not talk about nothing …
I don’t know the “Meaning” of “The Lord of The Rings”, and neither do you, but I hope you find this story meaningful too.

Sources (not exhaustive):

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