Extended writing Framing Metaphor

Metaphors and freedom: On Tolkien’s notion of allegory vs applicability

On rereading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I was struck by this passage in his foreword to the second edition:

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.

Tolkien is reflecting on the many reactions to his work and people trying to situate the happenings in the Lord of the Rings into the context of the Second World War or later the Cold War. He claims that he had no such intentions and takes some time to analyze what would have had to have happened in the books if he had wanted to make that sort of point.

But the idea of history opening up more opportunities for readers than allegory is a useful one. Allegory is just a complaint, an empty gesture aiming to show something in a purportedly “truer” light than a mere description. But in fact, it aims to constrain the lesson that can be learned, rather than expanding it. This neatly underscores the central thesis of this blog that metaphors and the conceptual frames they rely on need to be negotiated. Taken apart, examined and put back together.

Tolkien’s complaint helps me express much more succinctly my own dislike for allegories and dystopias such as Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984. There is so much more to learn by studying the complex case studies of history and the thick descriptions of ethnography – which in the best cases reside in the same work. What did Orwell add to what was already known? Nothing. He only took away. He took away the complexity of the situation and he absolved his readers of tackling the more complex issues involved.

But luckily for us, we are not at the mercy of other people’s imagination. My thesis is not just normative. I do not just say that we should always examine our metaphors and negotiate their mappings – even though it is a recommendation I do make. This negotiation is what we actually already do as part of the process understanding metaphors. And we don’t just do it at the moment of reading a particular metaphor. We do it over the course of our life. We think, rethink, we have conversation with others, we are exposed to competing accounts – even in seemingly totalitarian contexts.

In fact, allegory is itself an example of this process. Because what is allegory if not an extended metaphor, negotiating one view of the world. It is a narrative metaphor, just like satire but without the humor. Its rhetorical purpose is one of persuading us to the author’s view of the world. And it may be slightly more underhanded than a mere historical description by constraining the avenues of applicability, to use Tolkien’s term. But ultimately, even a historical description or an ethnographic account use the same processes of framing and reframing. Describing the world from a perspective of the author’s context.

That’s why each generation writes new histories, even if the actual facts do not need revision (though they often do), the new perspective of the time demands a retelling. All of a sudden, there are more women in history, more people of color, history is not happening just to old white men. And how did this come about? Did we all of a sudden notice things we missed the first time around and changed our view of the present? No, we just find new things worth talking about. This in turn does lead to new discoveries of fact, but these will then be reassessed as the narrative demands of the day change.

Metaphor, in this sense, is not a figure of speech, it is a process that expresses our constant reengagement with the world. Metaphors do not give or take away our freedoms of thought or action. They are the means through which we express these freedoms. All the way through. Across books and debates.

Hobbes spent a whole section in the Leviathan complaining about metaphors and their power of misdirection. Without ever once acknowledging that the book itself is one giant metaphor or that he is using the metaphors of ignes fatui (will o’the wisp) to do his hatchet job on them. But he was not wrong, metaphors can be used to cover up parts of what we express as well as to shed new light on it.

But they never have the last word. Because we never stop talking, writing, engaging. Finding new ways of projecting concepts onto each other, coloring our perceptions with lenses made from one framing or another. And this includes the very process of metaphor use. Hobbes or Tolkien are just one of many weighing in on the use of metaphor. Some say that metaphors are just froth on top of good literal truth, others that metaphors are the only way to true understanding.

But metaphors are always the journey never the destination. Even if we sometimes feel their power so strongly that we cannot for the moment imagine anything else, there’s another metaphor or allegory just around the corner, just as seductive and completely contradictory. And then a third taking parts from the other two. And it is through this constant reassessment and retuning of our understanding as individuals and as groups, that we live our lives. As free or as tied down as we can be. Metaphors are there to help us along, but we are the ones who wield them. Constrained by the limits of metaphor, having to negotiate the journey with them and around them, sometimes stuck as if in treacle but never chained to them for good.