Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien

A dream came true for me recently, when I had the opportunity to co-present with my dissertation chair, Jacob Sherman, at the PCC retreat at Esalen Institute in late October. We spoke about the creation myths articulated by the 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the 20th century fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, demonstrating some of the extraordinary parallels between their cosmogonies. Jake presents on Hildegard in the first half of the talk, while in the second half I retell Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, the creation myth he called The Music of the Ainur, before we open into a brief dialogue together.

We spoke in the darkness of Esalen’s dance dome, illuminated by medieval illustrations of Hildegard’s visions and contemporary paintings of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë created by the artist Anna Kulisz, as well as one painting done by Tolkien himself. Between our presentations we played one of Hildegard’s remarkable musical compositions, “Quia ergo femina,” performed by the Bay Area women’s choral group Vajra Voices (with whom I had the privilege to play the harp several years ago, when I was part of Cheryl Ann Fulton‘s medieval harp choir, Angelorum). This presentation was such a delight to give, not only because I was able to present with one of my teachers who has been such an inspiration to me, but also because I felt I was able to sink into a mode of storytelling which I greatly value and enjoy.

Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien

From the time we arrive on the scene, human beings have sought to understand our existence and the existence of all things through myth, symbol, ritual, and story. But where do our creation stories come from and how do they change? Are they the product of inspired individuals, the creation of entire communities, or something else? In order to try to get some traction on these questions, Jake and Becca will consider two extraordinary creation myths, one given by the 12th century visionary, prophetess, and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, the other by the 20th century philologist and fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being separated by roughly eight centuries, both Hildegard and Tolkien produced creative cosmogonies that resonate remarkably with one another and remain peculiarly powerful today.

Many thanks to Chad Harris for filming, editing, and posting this recording.

The Two Red Books in Orange County

For those who are in the area, I will be bringing my lecture The Synchronicity of the Two Red Books: Jung, Tolkien, and the Imaginal Realm to the C.G. Jung Club of Orange County! I will be presenting on Sunday, November 10 at 4:00–6:00 pm at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach.

For more information, please visit the website of the Orange County Jung Club.

Jung & Tolkien

The Synchronicity of the Two Red Books

Beginning in the years leading up to the Great War, both C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien independently began to undergo profound imaginal experiences. They had each stepped across a threshold and entered into another world, the realm of imagination, the world of fantasy. Jung recorded these initially spontaneous visionary experiences, which he further developed using the practice of active imagination, in a large red manuscript that he named Liber Novus, although usually it is referred to simply as The Red Book. The experiences narrated in The Red Book became the seeds from which nearly all of Jung’s subsequent work flowered. For Tolkien, this imaginal journey revealed to him the world of Middle-earth, whose stories and myths eventually led to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, a book he named within its own imaginal history The Red Book of Westmarch. There are many synchronistic parallels between Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books: the style and content of their works of art, the narrative descriptions and scenes in their texts, the nature of their visions and dreams, and an underlying similarity in world view that emerged from their experiences. The two men seem to have been simultaneously treading parallel paths through the imaginal realm.

The revelations of this research hold deep consequences for modernity’s assumptions of a disenchanted world and bring to the surface implications concerning the nature of imagination and its participatory relationship to the collective unconscious. This presentation will point to the possibility that Tolkien and Jung are preliminary guides on a journey to the depths of an ensouled cosmos in which imagination saturates the very foundations of reality.

Course objectives:
• Explore the nature of imagination and its participatory relationship to the collective unconscious.
• Understand the relevance of Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books to modernity’s assumptions of a disenchanted world.

The Astrology of Jung’s Red Book

On Thursday, November 7 I will be offering a presentation for Adam Elenbaas’s Nightlight Astrology School on “The Astrology of Jung’s Red Book“! The talk will bring an astrological lens to bear on The Red Book of C.G. Jung, exploring Jung’s natal chart and transits, as well as drawing on Liz Greene’s astrological analysis of Liber Novus. The presentation will be hosted online, at 4:00 pm Pacific time, 7:00 pm Eastern. Please visit the Events page of the Nightlight Astrology School for details on how to log in to the meeting.

Astrology of Jung's Red Book

The Astrology of Jung’s Red Book 

Recently, new scholarship has been emerging demonstrating the essential role astrology played in the development of C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology. Although Jung kept his practice of astrology relatively concealed, he was using it regularly with his patients. With particular focus on Jung’s remarkable manuscript Liber Novus, better known as The Red Book, this presentation looks at the role astrology played in shaping Jung’s psychology and world view, drawing significantly on Liz Greene’s work to explore the astrological symbolism throughout The Red Book, as well as the transits Jung was experiencing at the time of his self-described “confrontation with the unconscious.” 

To view my schedule of upcoming events, please visit my Events page!

Book Release: Journey to the Imaginal Realm

My first book, Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Reader’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is now available! The book was published by Revelore Press on September 22, a significant day in the history of Middle-earth: Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthdays, a day that is now affectionately known as “Hobbit Day.”

JourneyToTheImaginalRealm_CoverFULLThis book is the culmination of my love and devotion to Tolkien’s work, shaped by many years of study into the nature of imagination and a deep exploration of the imaginal realm. The book was born out of lectures created for the course I taught through Nura Learning last autumn, and I am so grateful to Jeremy Johnson for suggesting that this material was worthy of being published as a book. He and Jenn Zahrt, of Revelore Press, have been extraordinary to work with, and I am so honored to have this book published in their Nuralogical Series.

It is truly my joy and honor to share this book with all of you, and I am deeply grateful to every person who has supported me on the journey of bringing my first book into the world.

Order a copy of Journey to the Imaginal Realm

Book Description

Journey into the world of Middle-earth, explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story, see The Lord of the Rings in the context of the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and delve into Tolkien’s writing process and his powerful experiences of the imaginal realm.

Beloved to several generations since its mid-1950s debut, The Lord of the Rings is a timeless story, engaging with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. Many treat The Lord of the Rings as a sacred text, returning to it year after year, or reading it aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings has become a myth for our time.

In Journey to the Imaginal Realm, Becca Tarnas guides you through each chapter of Tolkien’s magnum opus, drawing attention to subtle details, recalling moments of foreshadowing, and illuminating underlying patterns and narrative threads. Her close reading of the text is paired with relevant biographical information from Tolkien’s life. Journey to the Imaginal Realm is a celebration of Tolkien’s work, and an inquiry into the profound nature of an imagination capable of bringing forth a world as vast as Middle-earth.

Comprised of six main chapters with several interludes and an in-depth biographical introduction, Tarnas’s book canvases the landscape of Tolkien’s legendarium, accompanied by six newly commissioned illustrations by Arik Roper.

To read an excerpt from the book: “Sub-Creation: Tolkien’s Philosophy of Imagination

Returning to the Imaginal Realm: Nura Learning’s Tolkien Course

Journey to the Imaginal Realm_2019

As summer reaches its crescendo, we are starting to think about autumn and what the colder months will bring. For me, the falling of leaves and the chill mists on the evening air always draw me back to Middle-earth, with the desire to journey again through the imaginal realm.

Thus, it is my delight to announce that with Nura Learning I will again be teaching the course Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For those who were unable to attend last year, we gladly invite you to join us. We have also heard that some class participants from last year wish to repeat the annual journey, and we welcome you back with open arms. It will be such a pleasure to go on this adventure together with new and old travelers alike. We are also offering the course on a weekend this time, and at an earlier hour of the day, to be able to accommodate more people’s schedules both in terms of work commitments and time zones!

Learn More and Register

Course Description

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien has been a beloved story to several generations since its publication in the mid-1950s. The story has a timeless quality to it, and engages with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. The Lord of the Rings blends otherworldly romance with the high rhetoric of epic mythology, at times interwoven with the internal depths of the nineteenth century novel and the political climate of the twentieth century. As Tolkien’s close friend and colleague C. S. Lewis once said: “Nothing quite like it has been done before. This book is like lightning from a clear sky . . . here are beauties which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron.”

The Lord of the Rings is a text treated by many as a sacred text, one to be returned to year after year, or read aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings has become a myth for our time. This course, now in its second year running, offers a journey through Tolkien’s magnum opus in a community of learning, guided by a scholar who has spent more than two decades engaging Tolkien’s writings and artwork. This course is designed both for newcomers to Tolkien’s narrative, and for veteran travelers through Middle-earth’s many realms. Together we will explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of Tolkien’s epic story, connecting The Lord of the Rings to the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and situating Tolkien’s process of writing within his own powerful experiences of the imaginal realm.

We are welcoming back students who took the course in Fall 2018, who might like to journey once more through the imaginal realm in a company of fellows, continuing the tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings as an annual ritual.

To learn more and register, please visit: Nura Learning: Journey to the Imaginal Realm 

A More Personal Post

In these days just past the threshold of summer, I am finding myself amidst a period of immense change. It has been a little over a year since I graduated from CIIS with my PhD, and in that time I have both been trying to recover from the intense process of writing and defending a dissertation, while also continuing to work on several ongoing projects and even embarking on some new projects as well. I have found this time to be full, exciting, and yet also exhausting. So I am trying to bring a change into the pace of my life, and create a balance between the work I love to do and the many other ways of being in this world that are calling to me.

Yuba River
Photo of the Yuba River by Samuel Sohmer.

As part of that intention, as well as for many other reasons, we are moving out of the Bay Area to Nevada City, a beautiful little town in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. There are numerous reasons for this move, but a major one is to live in a more rural area, amongst the trees, close to multiple creeks and streams and the Yuba River (my favorite river in the world), in a place where the stars shine brightly at night. As someone whose first home was in Big Sur, this feels like a returning to my natural roots in many ways.

Professionally speaking, I am continuing my astrological counseling practice both online and in person. While I will no longer see my Bay Area clients in person, I am available online and I hope to establish my in-person practice in Nevada City as well. I am also continuing to teach at Pacifica Graduate Institute in the Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies online hybrid program.

One of the biggest projects I have been working at slowly since completing my dissertation is the seventh issue of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology. While the process has been far slower than I expected, I feel confident about the collection of articles and book reviews that make up this issue, and will be delighted to publish the volume this summer—more news to come on that soon. A couple other writing projects are in the works too: Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Reader’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that will be published by Revelore Press, and an article for the fourth volume of Jung’s Red Book for Our Time, edited by Murray Stein and Thomas Arzt, which I am extremely honored to be contributing to. I know many of you are eager for me to publish my dissertation, The Back of Beyond, as a book as well and I do hope to carve out time for that as soon as possible.

I realize I have not been posting writings here to the extent that I used to, and I hope after this move to be able to cultivate a new relationship with my creativity: to my writing, both poetry and prose; to my artistry and painting which I have barely engaged with since starting graduate school; to my music and harp playing (I have returned to taking lessons with the extraordinary Cheryl Ann Fulton during the last six months); to my skills as a gardener and a cook. Nevada City is a place that has drawn numerous musicians, artists, poets, and philosophers, and I hope that this place can draw forward more of those facets of me as well.

But most importantly, I want to slow down and learn not only how to do but how to be. To come back to stillness, and quiet. To listen to the sounds of the wind in the trees, the song of birds early in the morning, the animals moving through the undergrowth, the echo of moving water, the sweet harmony of the stars and the song of planets in their orbits, the sound of my own heartbeat. These are the primary reasons for leaving behind the wonderful, exciting, sometimes frenetic urban life of the Bay Area, to create a new home closer to the Earth and closer to my heart.

Magic of the Spheres Podcast

I had an absolutely enchanting and immersive conversation with the evolutionary astrologer Sabrina Monarch on her podcast Magic of the Spheres, in which we discussed planetary combinations of Venus. It felt as though we had dropped into a timeless space during our conversation, and that between us we were truly communing with the archetypes.

Our conversation has been released in two episodes: in the first episode we talked about the nature of archetypes, the current Saturn-Pluto conjunction and how we have been seeing that manifest, and the planetary combinations of Venus through the pairings made with the Sun, Moon, Mercury, and so on all the way out to Pluto. In the second episode we wrapped back around to Saturn and Pluto by talking about the triple combination of Venus, Saturn, and Pluto.

It was such a joy to be in dialogue with Sabrina, and I feel absolutely delighted to share these two episodes.

Part I: Planetary Combinations of Venus – Venus Pairings 
Part II: Planetary Combinations of Venus – Venus-Saturn-Pluto

Magic of the Spheres