My post a couple of days ago concerning Milbank and Tolkien, along with Heinlein and the Church of All Worlds, soon degenerated into a discussion about the validity or otherwise of Tolkien’s own opinions about his works. Loren Rossen objected to my characterisation of Lord of the Rings as an interminably boring allegory with unsympathetic characters by resorting to what Tolkien himself said about his work. In particular, Rossen and others are keen to deflect the criticism that there is a strong smell of proto-fascilism in LOTR.

A few thoughts in response. To begin with, we need to separate what an author believes and what he or she may write as literary works. The two are not coterminous. Tolkien may have expressed his dislike of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, but we should not confuse those opinions with a product like LOTR. In light of that distinction, it is perfectly possible that Tolkien may have given voice to proto-fascist ideals – blood and soil, authentic and indigenous traditions, nascent racism and so on – despite his own apparent intentions. It’s an old, old point, but to focus on an author’s intention is terribly reductionist (and I would add, deeply theological). Intention is one small aspect of interpretation, playing a minor role, and certainly should not be permitted to usurp a dominant place. Now, let’s make this a little more complex. Even if we stay with intention, one’s intentions are never entirely rational, clearly articulated or conscious. Tolkien may have thought he was expressing values like courage, faithfulness and goodness, but in doing so he gave off all manner of subconscious signals concerning class, gender, politics and so on – all of which becomes a lovely warring mess. Add the fact that autobiography is the highest form of fiction and we really can’t trust anything Tolkien says about his work, especially when that becomes an effort to control interpretation.  Perhaps the best response is a story about T.S. Eliot that goes something like this: when he was asked, ‘What is The Waste Land about?’ he replied ‘The Waste Land’.