Few authors have had as much an influence in my life as J.R.R. Tolkien. I will reserve the story of how I fist became acquainted with Tolkien for a future entry, for now it is sufficient to say that his thoughts and his art have permeated my childhood and adult playtime as well as the entirety of my education from grade school through college.
Comparisons have frequently been made between the Book of Mormon and The Lord of the Rings, though a vastly better comparison would be between the Book of Mormon and Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It is amazing to me the truths that Tolkien was able to glean from his Christian background and his thorough knowledge of ancient languages and literature. His fictionalized creation story at the beginning of The Silmarillion is sublime and we might draw many parallels between his precreation symphony of gods, composed by and conducted by One Father of All, and the true council in heaven presided over by the Father that took place before our world began.
Tolkien disliked allegory and denied vehemently that there was any specific symbolism in The Lord of the Rings. That does not mean however, that the book is not symbolic. In place of the one for one symbolism of Allegory, Tolkien espoused a concept he called “Applicability.” Good literature, he thought, utilizes themes and imagery that can be applied to a broad number of situations and experiences. The Lord of the Rings, therefore, is not symbolic of World War II, but it is applicable to World War II. The ring is does not specifically symbolize nuclear weapons, but it is symbolically applicable to them, as well as many other things.
The Book of Mormon is the work of another literary genius. While it contains the words of many people, the literary quality of the work as a whole rests upon the genius of one man: Mormon. I suspect that Mormon was among the great minds of all time. He was considered “somewhat learned” and “sober” by the age of ten. Of the many ways that typical ten year old boys can be described, somewhat learned is not one of them, nor is sobriety a typical virtue of the age.
Mormon took the accumulation of the records of nearly a thousand years and created a complex and literary abridgment. In so doing, he was not trying to create any kind of comprehensive history, he was creating a record that would bring people to Christ. We must consider that out of a thousand years of history, Mormon chose carefully which discourses of prophets past to include in the book, which battles and which details of those battles. His work resulted in a book that is both historical and literary.
Even more than Tolkien’s masterpieces, Mormon’s life’s work exhibits an inspired degree of symbolic applicability. Historical events like Captain Moroni’s fortifications of the cities are not only historical, but thanks to the literary genius of Mormon’s abridgment, symbolically applicable to many things in the lives of individuals as well as nations, both spiritually and temporally.
The temple, like the Book of Mormon, also draws upon the symbolic applicability of narrative to teach us truths.
Nephi’s famous explanation that they did liken the scriptures unto themselves seems to be tied to this concept of symbolic applicability. Nephi was speaking specifically about reading Isaiah, and Isaiah, among all of the Old Testament prophets, seems to exhibit the same kind of inspired literary retelling of history as Mormon.
I should stress that I do not believe that the history and the literature are unavoidably in competition. At least some of the applicability of Tolkien’s works is derived from the ancient historical and literary documents that he was so familiar with and from which he extracted themes and symbols. In the case of scripture, the history, as written by these inspired authors, is not necessarily compromised by its literary form. The journeys of the posterity of Israel, or the family of Lehi, in the wilderness as they work toward the promised land are both historical and symbolically applicable. In the case of Lehi, we are not reading the abridgment of Mormon, but the personal record of Nephi, and yet the history still exhibits symbolic applicability.