J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the few works of any medium or genre that sit at the top of both popular and critical opinion. While Tolkien’s narrative, in and of itself, would put the work in the company of the greatest works of fantasy, what, in my opinion, really sets it as above and beyond the greatest masterpiece of the genre is the body of literary theory that acted as a foundation for the work. While Tolkien is unquestionably the most imitated fantasy writer in history, few if any, of the thousands of books published each year seriously explore, never mind advance upon, the theoretical framework that holds the novel together. Many modern readers (and I suspect many modern fantasy writers) are not even aware that Tolkien wrote any literary theory. Because of this, I decided to do my part to spread awareness of this most overlooked part of Tolkien’s corpus by writing about one of my favorite of his theoretical ideas: the notion of Applicability.
In his introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents the reader with the idea of Applicability. The term explains how Tolkien felt his works related to the concepts of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory. Specifically, Tolkien explains that while he draws his information from his past as well as our collective past (in the form of history), he in no way intends for any of these connections to serve as part of a greater message. Rather, he acts as a conduit, assembling the world of Middle-Earth from elements of his own world in a manner that allows a reader the freedom interpret these “symbols” in their own way, rather than as a part of a preconceived ideological message.
Tolkien explores this concept in his Foreword to the Second Edition of “The Lord of The Rings”. He introduces the idea in his quest to distance himself from the numerous allegorical interpretations his work had been subjected to, stating “As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.” This of course raises many questions to an astute reader. For if his work is completely devoid of allegory, how is it so richly populated with near direct treatments of a great number of historical events and cultures. In fact, the likely reason there were so many allegorical readings of Tolkien is because of how direct and visible these historic and cultural treatments are. Anyone with a basic familiarity of British warfare during the first half of the twentieth century will recognize the connection between Sam and a bat boy. The similarities between the Shire and the English countryside are too massive to even begin examining here. The black winged horseman who fly from a dark and far away empire to wreak havoc on the armies of the West has an undeniable similarity to the bombers of World War II. As readers, we have been conditioned by thousands of years of literature towards assuming allegorical intent when encountering such obvious similarities, much to Tolkien's chagrin. Tolkien hated these allegorical interpretations so much that he spends a majority of the foreword trying to discourage readers from making them. To do this, he had to provide an entirely new way of considering the aforementioned treatments. He says:
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 thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Tolkien makes two distinctions here. The first is between allegorical works and works rooted in history, and the second is between allegory and works with “varied applicability to the thoughts and experience of readers”. For the purposes of this essay, second distinction is more important than the first, and contains the first mention of the word Applicability. This distinction is essentially one of authorial control. In an allegorical work, when an author connects his metaphorical vehicle to a real world tenor, he is making an absolute, concrete connection between the two, and the reader has little to no ability to interpret it in his own way. In Orwell's "Animal Farm", the reader cannot fully appreciate the story without fully accepting the allegorical link between the farm animals and their actions and those of the Bolsheviks. In a work of Applicability, however, the reader's imagination is given a greater preference. A similar relationship exists between the real world and the authors vehicle, but rather than forcing a singular interpretation, the work of Applicability simply connects the two elements, and allows the reader the freedom to interpret the connections in accordance with his own imagination.
There are a number of reasons for Tolkien's preference for Applicability, and in the foreword he touches on a few of them. Firstly, before he even mentions the word Applicability. He states, regarding how events in The Lord of the Rings would have played out if they were tethered to reality:
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 challenged 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.
This passage illuminates why Tolkien dislikes the control allegory exerts on the author's creative freedom. If Tolkien were to have written an allegory, the shackles of the real world events he was working with would have chained his narrative to a vision that was distinct from his creative goals. Tolkien would be bound by either what has happened in real life, what he wants to happen, or what he fears will happen in regard to the tenors he used. Any divergence from this connection would undermine the strength of his allegory and would either have to be discarded or accepted as a liability. By choosing the approach of Applicability, Tolkien was able to simply connect his vehicles to existing historical tenors without yielding structural control to them, and instead of his work functioning as a commentary on his tenors, his tenors behave subserviently towards his narrative goals, evoking in the reader a sense of whatever impact the historical events had on them, and allowing Tolkien to advance the story in a manner of his own choosing.
Secondly, Applicability allows the inherently personal nature of history and culture to be brought out. Historical events affect those who experienced them differently, as can be seen in the way the same historical events are remembered differently in different societies, cultures, communities, and people. The Roman Empire means something entirely different to someone from Tunisia, near ancient Carthage, whose native culture was conquered by the Romans, than it does to an Italian living near the ancient ruins of Rome. If Tolkien had favored an allegorical approach, these differences would render it impossible for these groups to understand his work, since they would be forced to look at the work through the cultural lens of an English with a radically different perspective on Roman history from their own. Instead, the Applicability approach allows Tolkien to simply connect the kingdom of Gondor with certain aspects of the Roman Empire, and he leaves it up to the reader to determine what these connections say about the people of Gondor. This diversity of interpretation is why “The Lord of the Rings” can be championed by such a vast and varied array of people. Everyone from radical leftist environmentalists to conservative war hawks to militant anti-Christian Black Metal bands can thus apply their own understanding of the world around them to Tolkien's vehicles without misinterpreting the story.
While these distinctions cast light on why Tolkien chose to write using the principle of Applicability, it does not present the entire picture. For that, one needs to examine another of Tolkien's critical works: 1939's "On Fairy-Stories". In that work, Tolkien outlines what he believes a Fairy Story is, and why they are unique. According to Tolkien, the Fairy Story is as old and essential to human existence as the adjective. He defines Fairy Stories as stories which reside within the realm of Fairy. The realm of Fairy is a place that exists in a way that directly contrasts the typical way we use an adjectives. When language as we know it was in its infancy, humans developed the adjective as a way of describing the world around them, descriptions such as tall trees or fast steeds gave language a tool to better capture the essence of reality. In contrast, the world of Fairy is structured around the use of adjectives to describe things that exist outside of the physical world, such as talking trees and flying steeds. Thus, when humans developed the adjective, they unknowingly opened the gates into the realm of Fairy. This idea is integral to Tolkien's conception of fantasy, and it is undermined by a straight allegory. Since the idea of an allegory is to connect the created vehicles of the author with a real world equivalent, the adjectives it employs are always connected to the traditional way the adjectives are used. While there are no Communist Pigs in real life, Orwell's decision to use pigs as stand ins for the communist revolutionaries was done out of a desire to connect the adjectives associated with pigs, such as filthy, selfish, and stupid, with the real life communist revolutionaries. This approach is antithetical to a fairy story such as “The Lord of the Rings”. A true fairy story, according to Tolkien, attempts to evoke a sense of wonder within the reader by deliberately using adjectives that are as distinct as possible from what they describe. Consider the Elves. In “The Lord of the Rings”, Elves evoke a sense of wonder in the reader due to the fact that they are described in ways that are utterly separate from what can describe humans. The following adjective/noun combinations describe Elves: immortal people, unaging people, untiring people, nature controlling people, nature bonded people, nature empathetic people, hyperintelligent people, superhuman warriors. If Tolkien had written an allegorical work, these adjectives would have to be tied to some real world tenor, which, besides being impossible, is the exact opposite of what Tolkien was trying to accomplish with his Elves. Rather, he wanted them to exist entirely outside of what we have in our own reality, he wanted them to exist within the realm of Fairy
Now that the why of the approach of Applicability has been established, we can begin examining how Tolkien employs them in his work. The real life tenors that are connected to Tolkien's vehicles can be classified in one of three ways: historical, innate, and personal.
Historical tenors are, not surprisingly, tenors that are rooted in people or events that have occurred in our human past. These tenors are the ones that are most often brought up in allegorical readings of Tolkien. This is due to the fact that it is very easy for a reader to assume that by giving the properties of a historical event to a created character or culture, Tolkien is trying to make a statement about said historical event. In fact, the opposite is true. Tolkien is using the historic connection to add to the characterization of his creations. An example of this can be seen in the armies of Mordor. The connection between the armies of Mordor and Nazi Germany is perhaps the most common allegorical interpretation applied to the story. Readers see the connection between Mordor and Nazi Germany in the way Sauron's armies were subdued once in the past only to rise again as a greater threat than ever before, in the megalomaniacal leader who inspires a fervant hatred within those who follow him in his quest for total world domination, and in the constant threat of annihilation his armies brought to the armies of the West. Because of these connections, readers then assume that Tolkien was using the forces of Mordor as a commentary on Nazism. As stated previously, the opposite is in fact true. Tolkien sought to create the most fearsome, evil, and dark antagonist he possibly could, and in doing so, he turned to the events in his own life that created those same reactions in him. Given the time of the writing, those reactions obviously came from the Nazi's, and so he took from the Nazi regime the things that evoked those emotions within him and applied them to Mordor. He also applied a number of traits from other historical events that he felt best conjured up those reactions. He used the fall of Constantinople and its effect on the rest of Europe to add weight to the battle between Gondor and Mordor. He also used the Mongol technique of launching the severed heads of their enemies over the city walls for a similar reason. He looked at those historical events and saw within them the same traits he wanted within his antagonists, and so he applied those traits to them, all the while having no intention of making an allegorical statement on any of his sources. These tenors evoke the most varied reaction among readers, since the historical events that inspire them can be interpreted in an endless number of ways, depending on the reader and his cultural background.
The second variety of tenor is the innate tenor. Instead of drawing from events that evoked certain reactions within him, Tolkien used things that inherantly evoke certain reactions within all humans as a way of evoking those same reactions from his creations. These tenors are not often confused with allegorical tenors due to the fact that there is little reason for someone to want to make some kind of statement about people's innate biological reactions. An excellent example of an innate tenor can be seen in “The Two Towers” with Shelob. Tolkien wanted the gate keeper of Mordor to evoke the same sense of fear that their armies evoke, and so he turned to one of man's innate fears, the spider. While some of us are more afraid of spiders than others, there exists within all of us an innate fear of them on some level. This fear is an evolutionary agent that made sure our hunter gatherer ancestors stayed away from potentially poisonous insects. Tolkien took this innate human fear of spiders and combined it with a subverted adjective, gigantic, to create Shelob, a monster that simultaneously evokes our fear of spiders as well as our fear of gigantic predators.
The third and final tenor Tolkien uses is the personal tenor. These are tenors that are drawn from Tolkien's own life experiences, rather than from a shared collective experience. People do not misconstrue personal tenors as allegorical as often as they do with historical tenors. An excellent example of a personal tenor can be found in the relationship between the four protagonist Hobbits. This relationship mirrors the relationships Tolkien had with his best friends in the army during World War I. Unlike the other tenors, it is unlikely that Tolkien was explicitly trying to make the reader connect these tenors to their historic origin. Rather, Tolkien sought to extract traits that he wanted his own characters to possess from his sources and evoke them within the reader without conscious recognition of their origin. This does not mean that these tenors are less applicable than the others, just that Tolkien is cutting out the middle man. Rather than having the readers filter their understanding of the Hobbits relationship through their understanding of World War I, he isolates his relationship with his friends and presents it without the historical link. This allows the reader to connect their relationship to his own personal life, in this case the relationship between the Hobbits is filtered through the readers relationship with their own friends. The reader is still compelled to use his own imagination in interpreting these tenors, just without the shared background present in the other tenors.
Tolkien's decision to use Applicability instead of allegory in his fantasy novels introduced a major change in how people interpreted textual elements that seemed to mirror real life events. Before Tolkien's time, if one encountered something that resembled a historical event, it was almost certainly intended as a commentary on that event. With the publishing of “The Lord of The Rings”, Tolkien found a way to evoke real life events in a fantastic work that had not been seen before in a work of fiction. His emphasis on the personal opened a new set of doors to authors looking to connect fantastic ideas with prexisting ideas within the readers mind. No longer would they be slaves to a restrictive message and narrative structure when they wanted to evoke something specific. One can look at the monalith of modern fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and see just how effective historical Applicability can be. Tolkien also managed to give the world of fairy, a place where direct connections to reality are anathemic, a way to engage with our collective understanding and open new worlds of expressive power.