J.R.R. Tolkien, Applicability, and the Book of Mormon

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.

9 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien, Applicability, and the Book of Mormon

  1. I think that an accute awareness of language contributes to the power and capability of subject matter to evince such “applicability.” Tolkien really is writing to an audience with Anglo-Saxon roots, and this shows up in his revival of linguistic roots and cultural/mythological themes from Northern European antiquity in his mythical middle-earth (just read, e.g., the Old Saxon Heliand and you will see the Saxon monk, writing in Old Saxon to as yet unconverted Saxons, referring often to “this middle world”). In fact, Tolkien incorporates Anglo-Saxon words and themes even more directly than that, e.g. “orc,” which means “demon” in different Anglo-Saxon dialects. Of course, Tolkien does not emphasize or draw from Anglo-Saxon roots to the exclusion of mythical and cultural influences from other areas of antiquity. By taking this approach, Tolkien uses a revived and vibrant cultural linguistic vehicle to express principles rooted in Christian belief. In a sense, you almost get an encoded overview of a salvatory Plan in action, from beginning to end (if you take LotR and the Silmarillion together). Each character plays his or her own part in bringing about the eventual and final Eucatastrophe, which is just as apocalyptic in middle-earth as it is on our Earth.

  2. In the Book of Mormon, Mormon similarly incorporates linguistic and cultural elements in telling this historical tale by literary means. It has often struck me just how conscious Mormon is of language. Mormon chooses to begin the BoM with Nephi’s testimonial as to his education in the language of his father. The brass plates episode is included at length and the importance of those plates for the preservation of language and learning is emphasized. Mormon relates the tale of the Mulekites, whose language was corrupted and who could no longer communicate with Lehi’s seed. The Tower of Babel figures prominently into the BoM, with an entire civilization springing up from the Jaredites, people whose language was preserved during the confusion of languages and who were led to the New World by the hand of God. After Mormon’s death, Moroni puts the final touches on the BoM and also, for his part, reminds us of language, assuring us that the Book was written in “Reformed Egyptian” rather than Hebrew as a conscious choice. And yet, precisely in the language, that is, in the proper names used, does the BoM speak to us as a historical record as well as an inspired and literary record. This is one of the great values of Hugh Nibley’s work: pointing out the authenticity of the proper names in the BoM, which often were things that JS simply could not have known when he translated the book.

  3. Thanks for commenting on the language aspects John. An interest in the linguistc and literary roots of Tolkien’s works has been a driving force in my own education.

    I think that you are right to suggest that a careful understanding and use of language and history is important to be able to produce a work that exhibits broad applicability like the LoTR or the Book of Mormon. I have read a lot of books, and I am repeatedly amazed that the Book of Mormon is so extensively applicable, especially in comparison to many excellent literary works. Many great books exhibit applicability, but it is rare that they are as saturated with it to anywhere near as much as the Book of Mormon or the Bible.

  4. If Mormon is J.R.R. Tolkien, does that make Moroni Christopher?

    I enjoyed the description of applicability, and will be thinking about it for a while to see where it takes me. I wonder how it interacts with the concept of transposition which C.S. Lewis wrote about (see an earlier post of mine for a bit of explanation). It seems to me that symbolism is the only way to communicate beyond transposition, and that applicability becomes more obvious when we have moved from being beneath the transposition to above it — we can then see the symbols in ways that we can apply.

    John, iirc Mormon didn’t choose to begin the Book of Mormon with Nephi’s testimony. The original beginning was the Book of Lehi … the small plates of Nephi are an additional work (bound with the edited work, but not edited by Mormon or Moroni) that Joseph tanslated and put in place of the original beginning. Not that this takes away from your point, but it’s probably worth bearing in mind.

  5. Jon or John, in the hope of fleshing out the idea of “applicability” in the Book of Mormon, could you name some examples of applicability that you find in the book?

  6. Ryan, I would suspect that Jon and I would each name something very different as examples of this because of how the book speaks differently and individually to each person reading it.

    I think that in very broad terms, two aspects of the BoM come to mind with regards to “applicability.” First, the “Nephite Pride Cycle”; second, the loss of freedom coinciding with the rise of secret societies and “robbers.” These broad societal trends and forces exhibit a very practical applicability, perhaps far more practical than anything envisioned by Tolkien, whose applicability was meant to be mythic and, perhaps, even subliminal. Tolkien wanted his tales to speak to people archetypically but not necessarily through analogy. He wanted his fiction to tap into a mythical structure that, I believe, he viewed as informing us all subconsciously.

  7. Ryan,

    On a broad level I think that there is applicability in the theme of the power of false traditions from generation to generation.

    That theme is related to another applicable theme regarding the relationship between individual actions and the societal actions of future generations. The Book of Mormon sweeps from the very personal conflicts between members of Lehi’s family and gives a sweeping overview of a thousand years of resulting history.

    But I’m not sure that that alone is the kind of applicability I mean.

    Perhaps it would be easier to look at it from a different angle. Members of the church often speak about experiences when they have been struggling with something or going through a difficult trial and discover that something in the Book of Mormon speaks to their need. They find application to the circumstance.

    I’m not sure that we realize how remarkable that really is.

    What about other literature? If you pick up a copy of Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, Hamlet, or The Old Man and the Sea, you will certainly find some applicability. With repeated readings you will probably discover further applications.

    But, imagine a person who reads Huckleberry Finn, or Watership Down the way that we do the Book of Mormon. They have their daily dose of Huck on the river or rabbit drama. We have to consider that since they are looking for applicability, they will probably find it to some extent. But how far can one push the applicability of these books?

    Mythological and Historical works seem to me to exhibit a greater degree of applicability than other works. The Book of Mormon’s extensive applicability speaks well of both its Mythological and Historical attributes.

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