Gnostic themes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Interview with Lance Owens (Part 2)
In the first part of the interview, Lance Owens discussed the visionary experiences of JRR Tolkien (and their intriguing connection to the mystic revelations of Carl Jung). Owens also presented the Gnostic foundation of Tolkien’s mythology.
In this section, Owens relates the Occult influences on Tolkien, as well as the dark perils of Gnosis that plagued both Tolkien and Jung, an important lesson to any Lover of the Esoterica.
You have been warned.
MC: Obviously, Tolkien was a practicing Catholic all through his life. I’m sure what some of the listeners would like to know—as far as you know—did he ever have any contact with esoteric, or occult agencies beyond whatever Paganism he might have studied in his life?
LO: Yes, and was it influential upon him? Perhaps no. The main influence on Tolkien was his own imaginal experience. When people look at his mythology, when people read his books, there is a school of thought which would tend because he was a philologist, because he had great knowledge of ancient texts. Medieval texts principally—that these were influences upon his work, and he was taking pieces of this, and pieces of that. Blending them together into his own mythology. That simply is not the case. The man had his own experience of an imaginal world. From it he discovered, and recorded, and interpreted his mythology from that experience.
He was most definitely a Christian. He was deeply devoted to the Eucharistic Ritual. To the mystery of The Eucharist, and to the Christian myth, a story which he considered true. Myths sometimes are true. True stories change history. True stories make history. True stories perhaps come before history, and history is an echo of a story. He saw that definitely in the Christian myth. People talk about Tolkien as a good Roman Catholic, and try to find images of Catholic dogma, I suppose, within some of his writings. That’s in a way bizarre. There are elements of Catholic dogma which are certainly profoundly called into question by Tolkien’s mythology. The principle one is the reality of evil. Within Tolkien’s mythology, evil is a force existent in cosmos before the awakening of men. Before the awakening of human consciousness, which goes entirely against the privatio boni— the whole concept that evil is only the privation of good.
Tolkien, in that poem you just brought up a minute ago, Mythopoeia, one of his declarations is that: “Evil is.” Evil is a reality. You just have to look at The Lord of the Rings, and you’ll see that Sauron is evil, and evil is reality.
MC: Yeah, no doubt.
LO: If you go back through his mythology before Sauron, there’s Morgoth. Morgoth is the form in-world of Melkor. That first force of darkness. That first force of discord. That really stands in contrast to a basic, fundamental issue in Catholic theology.
So, Tolkien was a Catholic; in what way was he Catholic? Well, you could say, “In every way he was Catholic.” He was deeply devoted to the sacramental form of the Church. He was a man who went to confession and took communion many days of his adult life. He took that very seriously. His eldest son became a priest. As a young man, he had served Mass every morning before going to school. He was an orphan, and he was raised by a Catholic priest after the age of about twelve.
He had a deep relationship to the sacramental system of the Church. He felt that in the sacramental system, there was a truth and a nourishment. That in the Eucharistic Ritual there was a nourishment. One was entering into a true story. Into a true myth, and in that, there was sustenance. So Tolkien’s Catholicism should not be doubted at that sense. In that devotion to the validity of the Eucharistic Ritual. To transpose that into a re-statement of Catholic dogma somehow hidden within his works, I think is bizarre.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, at the time that Tolkien was interested in developing his mythology, and searching for others who might see this inner realm, there were a lot of esoteric sorts wandering around. If you look at Jung in Zürich in 1930, he was searching for ways of understanding what had happened to him. He found that in Alchemy. In the esoteric traditions of the West. Subsequently, he found it also imaged in Kabbalah. He saw that there were other human beings who had entered into the imaginal realm. That these—call them “systems” or call them “traditions”—echoes of a valid human experience of this inner mythopoetic reality. He saw that definitely in Alchemists, he saw that in Hermeticism, and eventually he saw that also clearly present in the Jewish systems of Kabbalah.
It so happens that in England, there was a fellow by the name of Charles Williams who had been involved with A.E. Waite, with the Order of the Rosy Cross. A.E. Waite—for those who don’t know esoteric history too well—had been one of the original members of The Golden Dawn. About the time Aleister Crowley came along, he separated himself from The Golden Dawn, from its more Goetic magical procedures. A petitionary in the commanding magical procedures, to a more religious, shall we say, Grail oriented mystery. He called it the Order of the Rosy Cross.
Charles Williams was part of that. Charles Williams was an editor at The Oxford Press. He was deeply involved in alchemical, and Kabalistic ritual, and mysticism. He went through—I think he spent about 15 years with A.E. Waite—and went through many of the rituals of the Order of the Rosy Cross. In 1939, he went to Oxford, and became a very close friend and associate of Tolkien’s. He was a friend of C.S. Lewis.
This point from 1930 onward through the late 1940’s, C.S. Lewis and Jung were extremely close friends. They met at least twice a week. They had beer once or twice a week at the pub. Then usually would get together on Thursday nights in C.S. Lewis’s rooms to read papers, and have discussions, and drink whiskey and beer, and smoke pipes late into the night. Three or four or five or six other people would come, but C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were really the center of this group. C.S. Lewis being the anchor.
When Charles Williams came to Oxford in 1939, he almost immediately entered into this group and became one of the “Inklings” as they’re called. A very informal group it was, but certainly had stable members. From 1938 to 1945 when Williams died, he was a close associate of Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
Tolkien and Williams definitely had conversations. Tolkien encountered in Williams this entire, shall we say, more esoteric view of Christianity and Hermetic Christianity. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t get it. He didn’t get Charles, he didn’t understand his mythology. He didn’t understand how it related. This becomes pretty clear in some of the things he wrote privately during this period, but he loved Charles. He saw that in the glint in his eyes, there was authentic experience. So Tolkien really struggled with Charles Williams trying to understand his take. He saw a bit of a “black magician” in him, and yet, nonetheless, he understood that he was still contact in something of validity.
So I would not say that Tolkien was influenced by Williams, or brought into contact, or understanding of esoteric systems such as alchemy, such as Kabbalah, such as Jung, but he sure as heck was aware of them.
Then there was another figure that was a dear friend of C.S. Lewis’s by the name of Owen Barfield. Barfield was a disciple of Rudolph Steiner, and he was an Anthropostist. Barfield was a close friend of C.S. Lewis’s, and was a member of this group of Tolkien “buddies” from the 1930’s through 1950’s. The ones that Tolkien actually met. I guess they stopped really meeting at the end of the 40’s. Around 1949, I think, was the end of their meetings.
For those 18 years, Barfield was a frequent visitor. He was a very good friend and a more frequent companion of C.S. Lewis’s, but Lewis and Tolkien were so close that Tolkien got a lot of stuff from Barfield. Barfield was very much into the Anthroposophical world view, and also considered himself Christian at the same time. Barfield is an amazing fellow. If there were any influence upon Tolkien from that realm, shall we say, it would be Barfield. Barfield clearly did have some affects that Tolkien admitted around 1930. One of Barfield’s very early books on words—on the history of word as an expression of human experience—deeply influenced Tolkien at a critical point in the 30’s.
One thinks of the Inklings as this group of Christian gentlemen. One forgets the fact that these guys were occasionally drinking a bit too much whiskey, and smoking a bit too many pipes, and becoming extremely boisterous. At the same time, they were sharing their writings, and that the people in that group sharing writings included Barfield, an Anthroposophist. Williams, a Hermetic Christian with initiatory background in esoteric Order of the Rosy Cross, which had associations with The Golden Dawn. And then there’s another fellow by the name of Dr. Robert Havard, who was at one time a Freudian analyst, a physician who was a Freudian analyst. Havard was Tolkien’s personal physician all of his life.
The Inklings really were an extremely diverse group of individuals. The thing that tied them together was not just their Christianity. It is their central interest in the reality of the imaginative. That there was an interior, soulful reality as infinite as the world we see without. That realm needed our attention, and it needed our experiential encounter.
Tolkien was probably, by the 1930’s, aware of Jung. When he went to write his great essay On Fairy-Stories, he makes mention in his notes of an intention to mention both Jung, and The Psychology of the Unconscious. He was writing those notes in 1938 through 1943. Some place in there, at that time he was aware, certainly, of Jung.
He was also involved with Oxford Christian culture. In Oxford there was The Blackfriars—The Dominican Order at Oxford. There was one of the priests there in the Dominican Order who was very, very, very, close to Jung from 1946 through the early 1950’s by the name of Father Victor White. Victor White was working as a Catholic priest who was a Dominican friar, and he was a Jungian analyst unofficially. It would be hard to conceive of Tolkien not having had some contact with any of Jung and his psychology, especially in conversations over many years with Barfield and with Williams.
MC: Lance, to end things, and I feel this is important for the listeners, especially all of us who are seekers, who are on our path of Gnosis, and self-knowledge, and so forth. I found this almost troubling, and very sad when I was listening to your lectures. You talk at one point, Tolkien actually became—and I guess this is what separates him from Jung—but he became severed from the source. From that fountainhead of imagination. How could that have happened?
LO: Well, that is really a very interesting question.
MC: And an important one for all of us because, it could happen to any one of us.
LO: Well, for it to happen, something else has to, you know, there is a presence and an absence in that word. First of all, there has to be a presence of an experience before there can be its absence. The type of experience that Tolkien underwent, and that Jung underwent had an intensity and a reality. A presence that very few of us, very, very few of us can comprehend through our own experience. We may get inklings of it, but these men went so much further into that imaginative reality.
If one looks at individuals who have such experience—my own perception as a physician, taking care of lots of people over 30 years—is that not many people have experiences like Jung and Tolkien. In a generation of the world, there are only a few people who really have that sort of depth of experience. Those doors don’t stay wide open for an entire lifetime.
When Jung entered his imaginal realm, the doors swung wide open around 1914, and began to close. That intense visionary experience was really closing off by the early 1920’s. Not to say it was not always available to him to some degree, but that sort of visionary material was not a life-long experience.
For Tolkien, the doors really swang open wide in late 1916, 1917-’18-’19, through the 20’s. He worked on the material continuously through the 30’s up to the time he started writing The Lord of the Rings, which was an entirely different type of experience for him. Around 1938 he started that, and finished in ‘48 -’49.
In the 1950’s Tolkien went back. He’d wanted to publish The Silmarillion. He wanted to publish these initial vision texts that had come to him. The problem was, they were not a book. They were not a single story. They were not a literary form. He went back, and he tried to bring them forward and into some form that would be able to be published. Something that would be intelligible to people who had read The Lord of the Rings, and he simply could not do it. They were primary manifestations of a mythopoetic imagination. They were fragmentary. They did not have literary context, the only context was his experience. What he discovered as he went back is he couldn’t rewrite them. He couldn’t change them. He could not enter again into the imaginative world as he had 30 years earlier.
There was a sense of bereavement in that experience. Tolkien wrote a story called the Smith of Wootton Major about this fact—that a man or a woman can enter into the imaginal to great intensity and depth as he had—but a time comes when one must leave. One can return to its memory always. One can perhaps return to the environs, the edges of that realm of imagination, but at a point in life one cannot go back into the heart of it again. It’s happened, it happened, and it is not repeated.
If one looks at the creative logic in the individuals, one sees that there is this seminal period of deep imaginative fire, and it does not last forever. This comes down to this whole idea of Pistis in Gnosticism. We have some intense experiences. The more intense, the more valid, the more true, the more deep they are, the most likely they are to be repeated on a daily basis. They’re special because they are special. They are different because they are so different. They are deep because they are so deep, and we cannot live in that experience perpetually. Once we have had the experience, the question is; can we remain faithful to it? Can we remember it? Can we serve it?
Jung was not having visions all of his life—in intensity and complexity that he was having during his “confrontation with the unconscious” as it’s called, but he certainly served that experience all of his life.
Tolkien was not able to return to the realm of Faerie as intensely at age sixty as he had at age twenty-five and thirty, but he continued to serve, to consider, to forward that experience.
There’s one last thing I’d like to say…
LO: …that I think is important. Both of these men saw that the story that they were encountering, had relevance to our world, our time, our history. Both of them believed that the imaginative realm—the story that they encountered—was real and true. That it crossed history. That it impacted history. That the story that they heard touched history. Tolkien and Jung shared a vision that we were near an end of a time. Jung felt that this was the end of the third month of human history. That we were about to begin the Age of Aquarius. The fourth chapter of the pale of human consciousness. This was a critical period. We were at the end of an eon. The end of a vast age of two thousand years, and something was about to begin.
That was really part and parcel, and primary form of this vision that came to him back in 1914. That we were at the beginning of a new age. This revelation that, he had in some fashion impacted that story he was telling, was critical to this coming new age. The Sophianic Age, one might declare it in Jung’s view.
Tolkien had the same vision. What’s The Lord of the Rings about? The end of the Third Age. Tolkien’s story is not something locked in history. It’s not something placed in some ancient realm of history. That’s how we see it. You know we say, “He’s talking about medieval times, he’s making up Pagan myths.” You know— bull patootie. Tolkien’s story is a fact he encountered as real, as true, as a discovery, which is a story that will touch this time.
The Ring is not yet in Mount Doom. The war is still engaged. Each and every one of us—within the framework of Tolkien’s myth—are a bit like Frodo. We all have that burden in this age, but this age will end if indeed we can get the Ring to Mount Doom.
So, you see, he really felt that story touched history. I could go on for hours and explain to you how he saw that, and how specifically he saw it, but I assure you he did see that his story had relevance to this age. It was a story that would impact the consciousness of this age, and I believe it has. Three hundred and fifty million books later, The Lord of the Rings has penetrated well into modern consciousness.
What was Gnosticism about? What happened two thousand years ago? It was the beginning of an eon; wasn’t it? The beginning of a new age, and that Gnosis, that Gnostic vision struggled. It came forward. It was present. The imaginal was a reality. People say, “What’s Gnosticism?” I’ll tell you what Gnosticism is. It’s an experience of the imaginal. It’s mythopoetic imagination. That experience of the imaginal—that mythopoetic imagination is understood to be an experience of a reality. Then part two, it’s the interpretation of the experience into textural and mythic form.
Onlook for coherence in the term Gnostic. Is there such a thing? Is there Gnosticism? I say, “yes.” Gnosticism is defined by its term: knowing. It’s defined by the experience, and the interpretation of genuine experience. That happened two thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the great demiurge has taken power of our world. The irrational, materialistic that shuts us off from accepting the fact that there’s something more. That there is spirit, that there is interior, that there is light. There is a spark that was born before, and will proceed after what we call time. We’ve lost that. We are at the end of an age where the great hope will be remembered.
That’s what Jung struggled all of his life, as a result of his revelations. He called them revelations. He really felt that he was called to form a new religion. At one point in 1920, that’s what his soul told him. The revelation was: you must declare a new religion. But he didn’t declare a religion. What he did was declare the fact of the reality of the inner world, of the spirit, and tried to return people’s consciousness to the power and form of myth.
Tolkien was very much in a similar place. He understood that myth would touch history. I really believe that in 200 years, we will find, not you and I, but humankind, speaking generally, will find that it was so, and that they have touched it.
MC: Indeed it has, there’s no arguing about that. Well, I think that’s all the time we have today, Lance. I’d like to thank you very much for coming on Aeon Byte, and giving us a very stimulating and erudite conversation on Tolkien.
LO: Well, I’m pleased to have had the opportunity. Thank you very much.