Tolkien on Scripture Study

The single most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve read is Tolkien’s essay, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. Or, more precisely, the most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve ever read is Tolkien’s allegory of the man and the tower, contained in his essay, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” I’ve written before about how I see the most pervasive themes in Tolkien’s writings as among the most pervasive themes of the Book of Mormon (see these posts). But this post is not about how Tolkien’s work relates to the content of the scriptures; it’s about how it relates to how we approach them. This allegory is probably the piece of writing that has most improved my scripture study.

The Allegory of the Man and the Tower

Here’s some background. Tolkien was, over many years, an extremely close reader and student of the Old English poem Beowulf. He taught the poem in a series of lectures at Oxford, and those lecture notes ultimately culminated in a lecture, titled Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, which he delivered in 1936, first to the British Academy, and a few weeks later to the Manchester Medieval Society. He later heavily revised it and it has been published in a few different compilations.

Tolkien’s central complaint in “The Monsters and the Critics” is that readers of Beowulf in his time had largely misread the poem and had missed its literary merits because they misunderstood what it was. Instead of studying it as a well-wrought piece of literature of it’s own genre, they saw it instead as a poor example of some other genre, or as an artifact only valuable for its historical or linguistic importance and not for its literary content. “Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Boewulf,” he says, “has been due either to the belief that it was something it was not—for example, primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappointment at the discovery that it was itself and not something that the scholar would have liked better—for example, a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.”

He puts his complaint in the form of this allegory: [1]

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for the hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmer: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

The TorLet’s unpack that a bit.

The man is the author of Beowulf. The tower is Beowulf. The “friends” (I perceive a subtle allusion to Job, here) are the critics. Instead of climbing the steps of the tower—taking the poem on its own terms and experiencing it for what it is—the critics have destroyed the tower, treating it only as a source for information about the origin of the stones. They have treated Beowulf only as a historical artifact, a source of information about history, and have missed its literary merit, and its author’s design. They obsessed over the “stones” and missed the beauty and strength of the design they form a part of. Some even missed the stones themselves in search of something else that they supposed should have been there. The critics all agreed that the poem was worthy of study, but they believed that it was supposed to accomplish something it was not, and so pressed into the service of those other goals, it did not perform well, so they criticized it as an ill-wrought “muddle,” and missed the fact that if they had climbed it they would have been able to look out on the sea.

Tolkien was not saying that studying something for its historical value is wrong, or that understanding historical context doesn’t enhance understanding. His point is that we should judge the merit of text in part not by how well it plays the part we think it is supposed to play, but how well it plays the part that it is itself designed to play. Now that’s a little circular, because it’s sometimes really hard to tell what part something is designed to play. But Tolkien’s point is that we can at least begin to figure that out by looking at how a given text it is put together as a whole, not just by taking its parts in isolation.

I’ve read Beowulf a few times, but I’m not conversant enough in the history of Beowulf scholarship to venture an opinion on whether Tolkien’s complaint against the critics is fair. But I do believe that his method of understanding the poem is sound not just for appreciating Beowulf, but for appreciating any text. And I believe that his warning against fitting a text into a preconceived idea of what we think it is supposed to be, rather than discovering from careful reading of the text itself what it is supposed to be, is particularly important with more ancient texts. And it is even more important with a text that has a long history of being pressed into the service of goals set by critics rather than being allowed to serve its own purpose. In other words, Tolkien’s method and warning are particularly relevant to reading scripture.

Applying the Allegory to the Book of Mormon

Take The Book of Mormon, for example. Over the nearly 190 years since it was published, it has been pressed into service by both apologists and critics in service of extratextual goals. To the critics, it has been useful primarily as a punching bag. It’s ungrammaticisms, its anachronisms, the clumsiness of its language, are trotted out as fodder for ridicule and as proof that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Meanwhile, to the apologists, its very existence, its internal structure, and the truncated timeline in which it was produced are trotted out as proof that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Those kinds of arguments may bring to light certain extratextual consequences of The Book of Mormon, but they don’t make much progress in getting us to understand what The Book of Mormon itself is designed to do.

Thinking about Tolkien’s allegory has changed the way I read The Book of Mormon in particular. I am convinced that we must experience the message of The Book of Mormon before we can adequately explicate or defend or criticize it. And I am convinced that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is not to prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet or that the church is true, but to reveal Christ and call us to repent and follow him. The Book of Mormon’s design, in Jacob’s words, is “that all men would believe in Christ and view his death and suffer his cross, and bear the shame of the world” (Jacob 1:8). So if we don’t see the vision of the crucified and risen Christ, and of the path of discipleship leading to him, we will never truly understand the Book of Mormon.

Like the false friends in Tolkien’s allegory, if we don’t see the vision that the man’s tower was built to convey, we will never really understand the design of the tower. It is only when we climb the tower steps and look out upon the sea that we understand the tower. The tower reveals the sea. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that in middle-earth, the sea represents the veil separating mortality from eternity. The sea-kings who came up out of the sea, though they were mortal, came from a far land close to eternity, and were looked on almost as gods. The Elves, when they grew weary of the world, because they could not die, turned to the sea and to the ships of Cirdan that would carry them into eternity. Even those who grow up in the fastness of the deep woodland realm, and walk under the tree-tangled stars, once they see the sea, long for it with an incurable longing, a longing that they describe as perilous. Those who turn to the sea turn to eternity. [2]

In a similar way, The Book of Mormon reveals Christ. And it is only when we see the vision of Christ that we can truly understand The Book of Mormon. One of the most salient images Christ from of The Book of Mormon is the image of the tree bearing the fruit of eternal life, which Lehi and Nephi described. And the way The Book of Mormon presents that image plays very well with the lesson of the allegory of the man and the tower. Lehi tells his family his dream, but he doesn’t fully explain the lessons it teaches; [3] he seeks to convey the vision, not to explicate it. It is vision, not knowledge or information, that he wants to give his family. Lehi seems to understand that it is in seeing Christ, not in hearing an explanation of Christ, that his family will know Christ.

And it is only in seeing the vision that Nephi understands it: Nephi did not go to the Lord seeking an explanation of the vision, he went seeking the vision itself. He asks to “behold the things [his] father saw” (1 Nephi 11:3), and only after he saw it himself—making Lehi’s vision his own—was Nephi prepared to “know the interpretation thereof” (1 Nephi 11:11). [4] To understand The Book of Mormon, we must make its vision our own vision, just as Nephi made Lehi’s dream his own.

The Book of Mormon is thus an invitation see Christ. It is an invitation to climb the tower and look out on the sea.The Needles (2) It is an invitation to not just sit on the tower’s bottom step, and mentally assent to somebody else’s report that the top of the tower offers a view of the sea, nor even to defend that report against naysayers who say that it doesn’t, but to stand and turn and climb the steps. To reach the top of the tower, and to step out blinking into the bright sun, to feel the sea breeze and to smell the sea air and hear the crying of sea birds. To look out over the blue-grey waves, and perhaps to glimpse there past the edge of the waves, if the light is just right, a dream-like view of a far-off place where a white tree grows, more straight, more tall, more beautiful than all other trees. Whiter than driven snow. Laden with priceless fruit. Coursing with the light of life. Maybe even to see opening before you, as the clouds roll back, the perilous road that passes straight through the sea, through the grey clouds and the blue-black mists of darkness, past the pride and mockery of the world, straight on, narrow as a razor’s edge, until the world drops away, and the straight road goes on to the tree that grows in eternity.
Like all scripture, The Book of Mormon is an invitation to not only find that vision in the stories of the family of Lehi and the Jaredites that came before them, but to find it in our own dreams, and then to dare to follow that perilous road even when we wake.

[1] Tolkien famously (and correctly) protested the suggestion that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory. But despite his claim to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” (see “Forward to the Second Edition, Lord of the Rings), Tolkien did write allegory. His Leaf by Niggle is a superb allegory on Christian discipleship. He was not above using allegory when it suited his purposes.

[2] Although Tolkien wrote the allegory of the man and the tower years before he published The Lord of Rings, elements of the legendarium were already in the works, and I think it is no accident or mere coincidence that the vision of the man in the tower is a vision of the sea.
[3] All the explanation Lehi gives is that the vision gives him reason to rejoice for Nephi and Sam, and to fear for Laman and Lemuel (1 Nephi 8:3-4). But even that is less an explanation, and more a declaration of the vision’s effect on him as it pertains to hopes and fears for his family. It doesn’t even come close to the detailed theological and historical exposition that Nephi later gets, and which ultimately goes beyond Lehi’s vision to it’s own independent revelation.
[4] Perhaps this is why Nephi’s explanation of the vision to his brothers in 1 Nephi 15 fails to have any lasting effect on them, and in this light, Laman and Lemuel’s statement that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:9) is particularly poignant and sad.


  1. Tyler Lewis says:

    This is the kind of stuff that attracted me to this blog in the first place. Thanks for reminding me! This is beautiful.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    This post is everything that is great about BCC.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nicely articulated; thanks.

  4. Thanks, guys!

  5. Great piece.

    “Like all scripture, The Book of Mormon is an invitation to not only find that vision in the stories of the family of Lehi and the Jaredites that came before them, but to find it in our own dreams, and then to dare to follow that perilous road even when we wake.” This sums up entirely my biggest issue with modern LDS peoples and practices. When I read the BoM I clearly see a vision of society so far removed from current cultural norms that I’m dismayed that nobody else seems to care about our full participation in US and other national customs and ways of life. I’m not sure if the problem is that my vision (that to me seems clearly described and spelled out in scripture/temple) is wrong, or if nobody really cares to “follow the perilous road” when awake.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Really enjoyed this, JKC. Thanks.

  7. Leonard R says:

    This is truly marvelous, and your own prose a wonderful tribute to your subject.

  8. Thanks for shedding light on the nature of scripture.

  9. I love this. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my fiance once about teaching our kids the Book of Mormon. I assumed he would balk because as a “book” of scripture it’s a fraud or whatever. Instead he responded that he didn’t really care about that — it could be fan fiction for all he cared, but of what he had read, the message was repentance and grace through Christ, and that message was worth sharing.

  10. I started more successfully reading the scriptures when I mentally put them in the same box as sweeping epic narratives that I craved, such as Tolkien. This feels of a pattern.z

  11. Again, thanks for all the positive comments!

    Jax, I sympathize with this. I think it’s good to see the disconnect between the ideal and the current reality. When we find ourselves saying that all is well in zion, I think we’ve gone off track. But we also can’t let that righteous urgency become an impatience that gets in the way of love. It’s a tough thing to balance, I think.

    Carolyn, Thanks for this comment. I think it’s awesome that your fiancé can recognize that. For full disclosure, I’m firmly in the the-book-of-Mormon-is-literally-true camp, but I also believe that its essential message–or at least the beginnings of its essential message–can reach anyone who’s willing to receive it, regardless of whether they believe it to be true or inspired fiction or whatever. I have no problem with bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, I just wish we would be at least as engaged with understanding, sharing, and bearing testimony of the essential message of the Book of Mormon.

  12. “Lehi seems to understand that it is in seeing Christ, not in hearing an explanation of Christ, that his family will know Christ.”
    This really struck a chord with me. Thank you for sharing!

%d bloggers like this: