Isn’t it funny how your interpretation of a book can change completely between reading something as a child and then re-reading it as an adult?  The librarians at O’Fallon have been considering this issue as it relates to classic literature, notably, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien.

Historical Perspectives

At first reading of this classic tale, we instantly fall into a fantasy universe.  We have dwarves, trolls, wizards, elves.  There are magic rings, fabled swords, and rich lore. It is the epitome of the fantasy genre.  It is, however, also a most-clever history lesson.

It should be noted up front that Tolkien has stated that his work is not based on real-life events.  “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience,” Tolkien acknowledged, but he strongly denied that his story was an allegory for World War I or II (Quoted from The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, Revised Edition, by Jane Chance, copyright 2001).  Tolkien, as you may know, served in World War I and had sons who fought in World War II.

Nevertheless, as you read (or watch) LoTR, the symbolism is palpable.  The Shire represents the romanticized past. People don’t lock their doors, the streets are clean, there’s no pollution and the pace of life is slow.  It’s essentially pre-Industrial Age England.  It’s idyllic.

The neighboring world is changing though.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll just list out some of the historical parallels without getting too nitty-gritty:

  • Saruman industrializes. His orc army raise the landscape, devastating an ancient forest of Treants (we still see this happening with urban sprawl and increased pollution).
  • A forgotten threat regains a footing in Mordor an launches a fresh attack (cough, cough Germany).
  • There’s a strong Axis and Allies parallel in the books as council meets in Rivendell to join forces. Likewise, the forces of evil are forging their own alliances.
  • Innocent citizens get caught in the mess, some seeking shelter at Helm’s Deep, others aren’t so lucky.
  • Leaders are torn at whether or not they should get involved, putting their armies and people at risk for “someone else’s war” (this is classic isolationism).
  • Then of course you have the specter of greed.  As we know, greed is a recurring theme in human history, just has it is in Middle Earth.  The dwarves dug too deep, Boromir couldn’t resist the ring, Saruman was corrupted by power, so on and so on.

If you have a decent understanding of World War I and II, I challenge you to keep these themes in mind the next time your enjoy LoTR.  You’ll find connections everywhere!

Like Tolkien, I’m not saying it is a direct allegory (far from it).  I’m just saying these themes exist.  Tolkien started creating Middle Earth while he was literally in the trenches.  He continued fill it out while his sons, and his continent, were at war.  It’s no wonder we can find these similarities between his fantasy world, and our real one.


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