Discussion: Gorillaz, Lord of the Rings, and Allegory

by tigermanifesto

Today, my editor gave a brief message in his college’s chapel. It’s a building with a sloping root, opening up in the centre to allow a metal spire to rise out of it. Inside, seats are arranged in a circle around a dais on which rests a rectory. The floor is covered with wood, and a stately organ rises from the wall. Daily services are held within, and it is an inviting structure indeed. Neither overly clinical or traditional, it reflects the tension between the progressive and conservative tenets of Calvin College’s ethos. Likewise, the messages that people deliver tend to stick to familiar language but reinterpret it in new ways.

The message my editor gave was part of a presentation by the Cultural Discerners, a student leadership group that handles matters of culture in an official capacity. Unlike most student leaders, they tend (and this is merely a tigerly supposition) not to be too passionate about the Calvin community per se but be more involved in their own events. This chapel is one of the few times where they are truly visible in a major way on the campus. The content of the presentation was a short commentary on this song:

I’ve discussed a Gorillaz song earlier on this blog, but this one is quite different. While “DoYaThing” features André 3000 and a kicking beat, this is a far more subdued track. I’ll deemphasize discussion of the actual music in the song since that is not the focus. Dennis Hopper makes sure of that.

So, what’s wrong with allegories?

If you listen to or read the lyrics to the song closely, it becomes obvious that there is a charged political overtone to the song. This has led many of the wiser among the Internet masses to interpret the words in the most obvious and simplistic way possible. In other words, they develop strict allegorical models for analyzing the song. In an allegory, there is a 1:1 correlation between a textual element (say, a character, setting, or plot point) and an extra-textual element, either in real life or in other fiction. The problems with interpreting text this way essentially boil down to this: it attempts to preclude alternative interpretations by establishing such strong connections between two things and only those two things. Correlating or applying fiction to reality or finding allusions is different; that approach still allows oxygen for dissent. Of course, two people who hold strict allegorical interpretations of “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” could have divergent opinions. However, they are unlikely to come to any kind of substantive conclusion or produce much productive dialogue.

That is not to deny that there are elements of the real world in the story. There are clear indications–notice direct allusion to the United States, the Native/colonist imagery in the video, the archetypal nature of the plot, etc.–that this is meant to be somehow instructive or at least applicable to the extra-textual world. That said, I think you can admit this without claiming, as I have seen, that the Happyfolk are identical with the Native Americans or other oppressed groups. You can, with a more inclusive and expansive view of the song’s applicability to history or other subjects, engage in substantive discussions with others and find deeper and more informed ways of incorporating others’ voices into your own interpretive framework. This can only be a good thing. Two kinds of life are embodied by the Folk in the story of the Monkey, and notice that neither group finally profits from either ignorant happiness or grasping discontentment.

Lord of the Rings was transformed from a fantasy curiosity into a cultural pillar in the 1960s. Many of those who read the book in that Cold War context interpreted the Ring as the atomic bomb, and read the book through that lens. The lure of technology, the destructive power of human ingenuity, the clash of civilization and chaos, East and West. These large-scale, almost foundational conflicts, of the modern world, are certainly reflected in the text. But it would be a grave mistake to conclude that these are the only possible or even the most insightful views into the text. This view–Lord of the Rings as allegory for the mid-20th century political situation–restricts the text, tames the epic even more than the philologist’s inelegant and academic prose (tigers are allowed to say such things).

I’ll conclude with this statement from Tolkien:

“Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. 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.
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.”

I heartily agree.