It has today become such common practice to mine written texts for their true meaning and intent, that it often comes as a shock to learn that people have not always read this way. Other times and places have been more open to admitting that the true meaning of anything, much less a text, can be slippery business indeed. A reader can only enter a text from where he or she happens to be. If I am a baseball player, a dog breeder, an army officer or a physician, I am going to approach the rest of life in much those same terms. Ancient readers, recognizing all these differences, and also differences of education and temperament, practiced reading on many different levels. A four fold path, called the quadriga, was the standard model for readers, especially readers of sacred and philosophical texts, which were known to be potentially curious and unfathomable.
Mythology, sacred scriptures, non mathematical philosophizing, and dreams are all “polysemic” or “polyvalent,” which only that they can mean a great many different things at the same time and that there are many different ways to approach them. Remember that words are magic and that they transform letters and sounds into concepts and things. When words are used to approach the divine, they also transform the person who reads, chants, prays, memorizes, dances, paints and imagines them. And as I am transformed, so also is what I am reading transformed, hence the need for a story that can contain me when I am small, and grow with me as I become wiser and more far ranging.
Which brings me back to the problem of Mr. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings and whether or not it can or should be read as allegory. Allegory was and is one of the way to read mythological texts, and if Mr. Tolkien did not care for it, perhaps he should not have written mythology. What I would have said, had I written the books, (and would that I could!) is that if I limit myself to an allegorical reading, I will certainly miss the book's greater point. Allegory as allegory is a post-reformation phenomenon. If it began as writer imposing self upon reader, it has not stayed as such. A story is a conversation, and finally what the writer says is far less important than what the reader hears. Imagine if we had all internalized Mein Kampf as an allegory of the divided self and had battled our own internal demons instead of using it as a text to kill people!
So let us pretend to be ancient readers for a moment and let us explore the quadriga. Or, since, quadriga in fact refers to the fourfold yoke, which meant that we would be in a chariot pulled by four spirited steeds, lets take up the reins and gallop across the fields of Story.
The first horse is called Literal. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. In a literal reading, words function as signs, much as the stop sign on the corner functions today. The story we are embarking upon involves a being who lives in the ground.("Of course they are not awful burrows full of worms an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.") In this way, we know that an important character in this story is chthonic. And here I stop and that is that. Literal readings encompass surface information: in the beginning God planted a garden in the East, or Lucy opened the doors of an old wardrobe. This may be excessively simple, but it cannot be dispensed with. The beginning and foundation of human consciousness begins in the particular. In the beginning there can be no abstract category of “parent” or “mountain.” There is Mt. Horeb and there is my mother and my father and these are very solid, and very much themselves. So is this hobbit, whom, after learning about all the comfortable things he lives with, we discover is named Bilbo Baggins. And also, I must literally confess that this sentence does not hail from The Lord of the Rings, but actually begins The Hobbit.
Now right beside our Literal horse, is yoked the horse named Allegory. It seems to be an ineluctable human trait that no sooner do we learn something than it cannot just stay there. We have to make a pattern of it. If you have ever sat and tried to empty your mind while holding a rock in your palm, you will know exactly what I mean. It is almost impossible to let a rock just be a rock, a particular piece of black stone and nothing other than itself. Even a mute rock can be transformed into a synecdoche of earth’s whole history. That little pattern of dimples becomes the pock marks of ancient volcanoes. A sharp edge takes on a resemblance to a wolf’s head and one does not have to look much further for the head and paws of her pups to emerge from the rock’s lower edge. In the blink of an eye, then, the souls of a family of wolves are now abiding in the stone in the palm of my hand, wildness trapped and patiently awaiting over eons for the devastations of men to pass so that they might emerge once again. One who understands the Word of God is like a man who builds his house upon rock. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Allegory functions as one-to-one correspondence. Aslan of Narnia is not only a lion, he is also the allegory of the creative and self-sacrificing Christ. The fruit in the Garden represents temptation, which corresponds to appetite. Hobbits, small, earth-dwelling and comfortable, represent that which is cozy, warm and innocent, the unfallen people we really are beneath the surface of our arrogance and sin.
But now the third horse is neighing loudly. “Arrogance and sin are moral categories,” it whinnies, “and those belong to me.” Indeed, allegory does slip easily into morality, for that is what allegory is often constructed to teach. Aesop’s fables were wonderful examples of moral tales. The parables of Jesus have often been understood in such a way. Thomas Jefferson edited the Gospels so that we might more easily appreciate Jesus as a great moral teacher, the friend of enlightened men. Jefferson’s Bible has no miracles whatsoever, and the story ends when Jesus dies and everyone goes away. Today, many people are quite content with religion as morality. We are wild creatures who must learn to behave! We have too much power and too little discipline. Look at Sauron and his ring. If his mother had toilet trained him more properly he would not have been so tempted to grow up and become a dark lord. (I realize that this is bad Freud, but it is irresistable to throw in a little psychology at this point.) In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Voltaire would have liked this. Il faut cultiver son propre jardin. The moral is, the time has come to emerge from your hole and face the consequences. We all know that Voltaire was an ironist.
The fourth and highest level, the Darley Arabian of reading levels, was the anagogic, or mystical reading. This was when the thing became thing again, not as sign, but as self in and of itself. When I reach the anagogical I have transcended sign, pattern and morality and can appreciate the particular stone as nothing less than the particular stone. When the hole in the ground in the very first sentence becomes a hole: the entry way it really is, set in the ground of meaning, the alpha point, the depth of soul, the resiliency of truth, and I know that he who inhabits it has been chosen and I am ready to follow him wheresoever he goes.
Great writing, like great religions, are insoluble, as they sit at the very point of paradox. They ask us to live with many, often contradictory meanings, all at once. The four horses are there in their diversity to guide us over that impossible hurdle. It is where, I am told, the Holy Spirit appears. In the fourfold path, faith and life and stories become journeys. I can take my journey anywhere. I can take my journey without ever having to leave home.