‘The Perspective Glass and the Palantir’

The dislike of allegory stated by J.R.R. Tolkien in his forward to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ contrasts greatly with the views of John Bunyan expressed in the beginning of  ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.

Tolkien writes in his forward

‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’

On the contrary Bunyan, although apologetic, states clearly that allegory is the style most suited to express the message he is trying to convey.

‘And thus it was: I, writing of the way

And race of saints, in this our gospel day,

Fell suddenly into an allegory

About their journey, and the way to glory,

In more than twenty things which I set down.

This done, I twenty more had in my crown;

And they again began to multiply,

Like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 1

Given Tolkien’s fundamental difference of opinion with Bunyan one might expect to see little relationship between ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. Curiously this does not seem to be the case as the topography imagery and narrative of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ appears in part to both parallel ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and also to significantly invert them in places.

There are certain parallels between the two central characters of these works. Christian is on a journey to the ‘Celestial City’ to relieve himself of a burden of sin without which he would sink into ‘Tophet’ or hell.

‘Because I fear that this burden is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave, and I shall fall into Tophet’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 15

Frodo must bear the ring to Mordor and the ring is also referred to as a burden-

‘In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards’.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 616

Both Frodo and Christian are guided by characters with greater wisdom than themselves- Gandalf and Evangelist.

‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’ 

‘But I have so little of any of these things! You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?’

 ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 60

‘CHR. I am directed by a man, whose name is Evangelist, to speed me to a little gate that is before us, where we shall receive instructions about the way’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 24

(Of course there are major differences between these two characters Gandalf appears as a mentor whereas Evangelist is a wayfarer’s guide. This could be a function of literary style where ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a pure allegory and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has more narrative depth).

In addition the interaction of Boromir with Frodo has strong echoes of that of Worldly Wise with Christian in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ where both play the role of tempter.

‘I think I already know what counsel you would give,” said Frodo, “and it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.”

“Warning? Warning against what?” said Boromir sharply.

“Against delay. Against the way that seems easier. Against refusal of the burden that is laid on me. Against— well, if it must be said, against trust in the strength and truth of Men.”

‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 388

 ‘WORLD. How now, good fellow, whither away after this burdened manner’?

CHR. A burdened manner, indeed, as ever, I think, poor creature had! And whereas you ask me, Whither away? I tell you, Sir, I am going to yonder wicket-gate before me; for there, as I am informed, I shall be put into a way to be rid of my heavy burden.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 38

In the battle between Théoden and the Nazgul Théoden is pierced by dart in a similar way to Christian being struck by the darts of Apollyon.

‘To me! To me!’ cried Théoden. `Up Eorlingas ! Fear no darkness!’ But Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart had pierced him. The king fell beneath him. The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature…

The Lord of the Rings’ pg.  822

‘And with that he threw a flaming dart at his breast; but Christian had a shield in his hand, with which he caught it, and so prevented the danger of that.

Then did Christian draw, for he saw it was time to bestir him; and Apollyon as fast made at him, throwing darts as thick as hail; by the which, notwithstanding all that Christian could do to avoid it, Apollyon wounded him in his head, his hand, and foot’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 150

There are interesting parallels between the episode of Frodo’s imprisonment in Cirith Ungol and the jailing of Christian by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle where both characters are imprisoned starved and abused. Both characters use an ‘artefact’ to escape. In the case of Frodo and Sam it is the ‘Phial of Galadrial’ and Christian uses ‘a Key in my bosom called Promise’.

‘Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. As if to honor to his hardihood, and to grace with splendor his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass.

‘Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!’ Sam cried. For, why he did not know, his thought sprang back suddenly to the Elves in the Shire, and the song that drove away the Black Rider in the Trees.

‘Aiya elenion ancalima!’ cried Frodo once again behind him.

The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged, and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.’

  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 894

‘Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went damnable hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King’s High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 292

(Of course these are stylistically two very different approaches. Bunyan labours his allegory by having Christian pull the key out of his bosom whereas the Phial of Galadrial reads as both spiritual symbol and an artefact within the narrative).

Whilst on the subject of artefacts another curious inversion is the way both stories include ‘all-seeing eyes’ but the Palantir of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ gives Pippin (and the reader) hints of what is happening whereas the shepherds ‘perspective glass’ in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ appears to reveal the end of the story.

‘Let us here show to the Pilgrims the gates of the Celestial City, if they have skill to look through our perspective glass. The Pilgrims then lovingly accepted the motion; so they had them to the top of a high hill, called Clear, and gave them their glass to look.

 Then they essayed to look, but the remembrance of that last thing that the Shepherds had shown them, made their hands shake; by means of which impediment, they could not look steadily through the glass; yet they thought they saw something like the gate, and also some of the glory of the place. Then they went away, and sang this song–

Thus, by the Shepherds, secrets are reveal’d,

Which from all other men are kept conceal’d.

Come to the Shepherds, then, if you would see

Things deep, things hid, and that mysterious be’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 304-305

‘I, I took the ball and looked at it,’ stammered Pippin; ‘and I saw things that frightened me. and I wanted to go away, but I couldn’t. and then he came and questioned me and he looked at me, and that is all I remember…In a low hesitating voice Pippin began again, and slowly his words grew stronger and clearer. “I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements,” he said. “And tiny stars. It seemed very far away and long ago, yet hard and clear. Then the stars went in and out — they were cut off by things with wings. Very big, I thing, really; but in the glass they looked like bats wheeling round the tower. I thought there were nine of them. One began to fly straight towards me, getting bigger and bigger….’

 ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 579

Perhaps the contrast between these two visions is a reflection of authorial intent.  Bunyan makes it clear in the poem that begins the work what the end of the story is

‘This book it chalketh out before thine eyes

The man that seeks the everlasting prize;

It shews you whence he comes, whither he goes;

What he leaves undone, also what he does;

It also shows you how he runs and runs,

Till he unto the gate of glory comes’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 8

Tolkien’s’ Palantir vision hints at the plot but does not give away the ending and ultimately leaves the reader draw his own meaning from the work. As the author writes in his forward to ‘The Lord of the Rings’

‘I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

There are some interesting correspondences between the topography of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.(Probably because in some cases they are drawing on the same Biblical imagery). The description of the Morgul Vale and the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ has certain echoes.

‘A long-tilted valley, a deep gulf of shadow, ran back far into the mountains. Upon the further side, some way within the valley’s arms, high on a rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Dúath, stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light.’

‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 688

Now, at the end of this valley was another, called the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Christian must needs go through it, because the way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it. Now, this valley is a very solitary place. The prophet Jeremiah thus describes it: “A wilderness, a land of deserts and of pits, a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, a land that no man” (but a Christian) “passed through, and where no man dwelt.” [Jer. 2:6]

 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalms 23:4.)

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 155

See also the ‘Dead Marshes’ and the ‘Slough Of Despond. Another comparison can be made between the House of Elrond and the House of the Interpreter particularly in the description of the graceful inhabitants of these locations.

‘I saw also, that the Interpreter took him again by the hand, and led him into a pleasant place, where was built a stately palace, beautiful to behold; at the sight of which Christian was greatly delighted. He saw also upon the top thereof certain persons walking, who were clothed all in gold’.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 82

“Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength.”

The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 220

Despite these similarities there are significant instances where the narrative of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ seems to be an inversion of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. The most major example is that Christian is leaving the ‘City of Destruction’ on top of Mt. Zion to be ‘delivered from the wrath to come’ whereas on the contrary Frodo is leaving the peaceful Shire towards Mount Doom warlike Mordor and an uncertain fate.

“What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.”

“But you cannot see very far,” said Gandalf. “Neither can I. It may be your task to find the Cracks of Doom; but that quest may be for others: I do not know. At any rate you are not ready for that long road yet.”

“No indeed!” said Frodo. “But in the meantime what course am I to take?”

“Towards danger; but not too rashly, nor too straight,” answered the wizard.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 64

CHR. Here is a poor burdened sinner. I come from the City of Destruction, but am going to Mount Zion, that I may be delivered from the wrath to come. I would therefore, Sir, since I am informed that by this gate is the way thither, know if you are willing to let me in?

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 61

(Is this indicative of a difference of theological metaphors? Perhaps ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is pre-Fall with the Shire as it’s Eden whereas the narrative of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ takes place post-Fall where the whole world is a ‘City Of Destruction’).

Both stories involve a journey towards a mountain but in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ it is the infernal Mount Doom whereas in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ it is the heavenly Mount Zion.

“The Mountain standing ominous and alone had looked taller than it was. Sam saw now that it was less lofty than the high passes of the Ephel Dúath which he and Frodo had scaled. The confused and tumbled shoulders of its great base rose for maybe three thousand feet above the plain, and above them was reared half as high again its tall central cone, like a vast oast or chimney capped with a jagged crater.”

 ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 920

There, said they, is the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect. [Heb. 12:22-24] You are going now, said they, to the paradise of God, wherein you shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof; and when you come there, you shall have white robes given you, and your walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of eternity.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ section 395

Another contrast is in the way both works describe the itinerary journey undertaken by the protagonists and the significance of the route taken. Christian is directed to the ‘wicket-gate’ of heaven by the straightest route. Conversely Frodo and Sam enter Mordor by an indirect route via the stairs of Cirith Ungol avoiding the infernal ‘Black Gate’.

CHR. But thou camest not in at the wicket-gate that is at the head of this way; thou camest in hither through that same crooked lane, and therefore, I fear, however thou mayest think of thyself, when the reckoning day shall come, thou wilt have laid to thy charge that thou art a thief and a robber, instead of getting admittance into the city.

‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ 309

Incidentally there are some odd echoes of Christian’s references to thieves and robbers in the words of the ‘Mouth of Sauron’ addressed to Gandalf and his party before the Black Gate of Mordor.

‘Dwarf-coat, elf-cloak, blade of the downfallen West, and spy from the little rat-land of the Shire… here are the marks of a conspiracy….

The Lord of the Rings’ pg. 871

Whether these comparisons and contrasts with ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ were deliberate on Tolkien’s part is unclear perhaps it is simply that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ draws on similar Biblical imagery and Christian themes. After all Tolkien says as much in one of his letters.

“The Lord of the Rings’ is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.”

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981


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