Times when you don't believe an artist about their own works

There are times when an author, musician, painter or other artist explains about, or denias someone elses explanation about, their work - when I have a hard time taking the artist at his or her word. Three examples:

  • Tolkien insists (IIRC) that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is not allegory and/or does not reference WWII. I understand that he said he disliked allegory. I have a hard time believing him. The LOTR political storyline background seem to be obvious parallels to the world he experienced just before his writing the books. Also, he had no problem with associating and appreciating other authors, like CS Lewis who revelled in allegory.

  • Peter, Paul & Mary - They have repeatedly denied that there are drug references in “Puff The Magic Dragon”, but I find myself saying “Come on”. Considering when it was written and names like “Puff” and Jackie Paper, I sometimes find it hard to believe them.

  • Beatles - Ditto with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, considering the initials and the psychadelic content of the song, it seems that the drug references are a given. Yes, I know the story about the child’s (Julian Lennon’s?) painting where the title was taken, but I sometimes find it hard to believe that people as clever as the Beatles wouldn’t have at least noticed the reference in writing the song. (BTW, IIRC some of the Beatles did, in later years, admit the song was at least partially written during use of narcotics.)

Any artists stories you don’t really buy?

When an interviewer asks a musician what they think their best work is, they will invariably say their most recent album, or the album they’re working on now. It makes sense that they’d be really exicted about their newest work, and would rather talk about that than the old stuff, but you have to wonder-- did Ray Davies circa 1989 really, genuinely believe that UK Jive was better than The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society?

Times when not to believe artists talking about their works:


Allegory is a lot more specific than just “obvious parallels” - in an allegory, nothing is without a parallel. Tolkien was a professor of language, I think he’d know what he was talking about. Also, it would be really prescient of him to parallel something happening in the future. So, in this case, I believe him over you.

Yes. True allegory is almost “encrypted.” Most characters, places & events in the story correspond to the characters, places & events that the author is really writing about.

Of course, Tolkien was influenced by both World Wars, Roman Catholicism, early loss of both parents, etc. They affected his work–but were not the reason he wrote. Nobody writes in a vacuum.

However, after reading his Letters, I wonder about some of the things the Older Tolkien says about what he wrote in 1915. Perhaps the Younger Tolkien would not agree…

I agree with McDribble (sorry, can’t resist.)

LOTR isn’t an allegory of WWII. Obviously Tolkein was influenced by his experience of WWI that destroyed the England of his youth along with something like 90% of his Oxford classmates.

In an allegory, Sauron would be Hitler, the Ring would the the atomic bomb, Gandalf would be Churchill, Aragorn would be Roosevelt, Saruman would be Stalin, and so forth. Except it doesn’t work. The only real parallel between the war of the ring and WWII is that both are world-altering wars.

An example of a real allegory of this type is Orwell’s “Animal Farm” which is a straighforward allegory of the Russian Revolution.

Ridley Scott claims that he intended Deckard to be a replicant in Blade Runner. That may be so, but there’s enough ambiguity in the movie (both original and director’s cut) that it could go either way. Deckard being human makes for a better character arc, though, and that’s the way I choose to view the story.

It would be helpful if you learned what the word “allegory” means. Simple similarities between a work of fiction and the real world don’t make the latter allegorical. Also, Lewis didn’t care for allegory in the strict sense either,and denied that the Chronicles were allegorical.

As a former friend of mine used to say, “Words have meanings.” An allegory is a work of fiction with multiple 1-to-1 correspondencies between characters and events in the real world (or a given religious/mythological framdwork) and the fictional one. Thus, the RingWar may be reminiscent of WWII, but it is no allegory of it. The one ring, for instance, fails as an allegory of the atomic bomb because it is a creation of the Enemy, not the protagonists; moreover, the protagonists reject the use of it rather than use it to ensure their ultimate victory. The Chronicles of Narnia likewise fail, because, while Aslan is clearly a hieroglyph of Jesus, neither Narnia nor Edmund is a good match for the human world Christ died to redeem.

Marlon Brando claimed later in his life that he hated acting. I don’t buy that.

Ok, I apologize for the misuse of the word “Allegory”. I admit I misused it, in haste, and I got called on it. I do know what an allegory is (I was an English teacher in a past incarnation).

However, the debate about how much of a one-to-one correspondence between elements of LOTR and elemwents of WWII is still going on. See here for example, with a counter argument on the next page. Or here (where, incidently, National Geographic also uses “allegory”. My point is, Tolkien was brilliant and couldn’t fail to see the parallels. I feel that in many of his later statements he was minimizing the relationship.

Sheesh, this was kinda meant to be more of a fun thread. Sorry again about the misuse.

Lord of the Rings isn’t an allegory, but I still maintain that Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle is. The best part about it is, he claims it’s a “fairy tale”, but published it attached to an essay in which he sets out exactly what constitutes a “fairy tale”, and Leaf matches the definition not at all.

For another example where I don’t trust the artist, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (not to be confused with the completely unrelated movie which coincidentally bore the same name). He later wrote that military service was not necessary for citizenship in that world; that any sort of civil service would do. But this is not borne out by the book: When Johnny enlists, he’s given a form to fill out his preferred positions. He lists all of the Navy positions in order, followed by all of the Army positions, ending with Mobile Infantry. He doesn’t bother listing anything else, because the only positions left involve testing prototype spacesuits on Venus, or similar unpleasentness, and if he’s stuck that low, it doesn’t matter. But surely, if “mail carrier” or “medical attendant” were options, those would be preferable to Venusian spacesuits?

I thought he said the title wasn’t a reference to LSD - not “the words aren’t inspired by LSD.” The latter statement is almost impossible to believe.

Then again, John said a lot of things about the Beatles that I don’t believe. The bitter things he said about the band after the breakup might have reflected his feelings, but I have trouble taking most of them literally.

But half the fun in any thread is nitpicking what other people said.

So that means this thread is bursting with fun.

As for Tolkien, I’d say that LOTR was more influenced by WWI than WWII. Tolkien never got over the destruction of the pre-war England that he loved. He was one of only a handful of survivors of his Oxford graduating class, the rest ended up dead in the trenches. The overwhelming feeling of loss, of longing for what has vanished, of tragedy that cannot be escaped, the dislike for the modern world, the distrust of technology, are much more shaped by being a surviving junior officer in WWI than being an adult civilian in WWII.

Of course WWII influenced Tolkien, but we just can’t say Sauron==Hitler. In fact, look at Saruman’s ability to mesmerize people by the power of his voice…Saruman is more Hitler than Sauron is. The Ring isn’t the ultimate weapon that must be used to cut down the dark lord, but the weapon that cannot be used. And so on. But Napoleon or Genghiz Khan or Attila the Hun make just as good a model for Sauron as Hitler. If we can fit Napoleon into LOTR just as easily as Hitler, then the contention that LOTR was inspired by or an allegory for WWII kind of falls apart.

Artists do not necessarily have more access to their subconscious than the rest of humanity. So an artist is rarely the best authority on the “meaning” of their own work. Reading and writing are two different acts, and neither is more or less valid than the other.

Hmm. I’m an artist. I like having created something, but the act of creating it can be very painful. When I’m painting, for example, I start out with an idea in my mind of what I want the painting to look like. So I slather some paint. And invariably, my first reaction is one of horror:* No, no, no, no, no! That’s ALL wrong!* The rest of the process of painting is the process of fixing my initial mistake. I know a painting is done when my back relaxes, and suddenly I realize it had been clenched tight as rocks the whole time I was painting.

So I can definitely see what Brando might be talking about.

One of my favorite bands has claimed that their breakout album was never intended for release and that it was done for personal reasons. According to him, a friend overheard it and said “You should release this!”

I don’t buy it.

(for those interested, the band is VNV Nation and the album is “Praise the Fallen”)


I agree the Chronicles aren’t allegorical, but The Pilgrim’s Regress sure as heck is!

Among other things, The Lord of the Rings couldn’t have been that much influenced in its overall structure by World War II because Tolkien had already worked out the basic plot for it before the war started.

Lemur866 writes:

> He [Tolkien] was one of only a handful of survivors of his Oxford graduating
> class, the rest ended up dead in the trenches.

Cite? Yes, a lot of Englishmen of his age were killed, including many other Oxford graduates. But only a handful survived? Are you claiming that 90% of the men who graduated from Oxford in a particular year were killed in World War I? I think that’s clearly an exaggeration. The only statistic I remember Tolkien ever remarking on was that there was a group of four friends who hung around together in his public school, St. Edward’s (i.e., his high school). That is, there was Tolkien and three other young men. All four served in World War I and two of them died. So even in to this very small sample, only 50% died. I believe this is the only comment that Tolkien ever made on the proportion of his friends or classmates or age cohort that were killed in World War I. Incidentally, a first-class study of Tolkien’s experiences in World War I is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth.

Geez, I remember reading such a statistic, but can’t remember where. I’ll see if I can dig it up somewhere.

Any songwriter who claims there is no particular meaning in their lyrics, they’re just words that sounded nice together. I’ve heard this claim from Bob Dylan, REM and others I don’t recall right now, and I simply don’t believe it.