This is a condensed version of my presentation on “The Red Book and the Red Book: Jung, Tolkien, and the Convergence of Images”given in the fall of 2014 at Esalen Institute. The longer presentation is available here, and the accompanying paper can be found here. For further exploration, the methods section of my dissertation is also available.
“Perhaps the path or method of re-search done with soul in mind is simply a recognition that all our acts of knowing are attempts at remembering what we once knew but have forgotten. Perhaps all our attempts at re-search are sacred acts whose deep motive is salvation or redemption. Maybe all our re-search reenacts the Gnostic dream of the fall of soul into time and its desire to return home.” – Robert Romanyshyn
The journey of this dissertation began with the intuition of a synchronicity. The first time I beheld The Red Book of C.G. Jung I felt an echo in my memory: J.R.R. Tolkien also had a Red Book, The Red Book of Westmarch, that he claimed was the supposedly fictional source from which he had translated his stories The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, besides the titles, there was no reason to suppose any similarity existed between the two Red Books; no reason except that my intuition was telling me to look further, to find out if there might perhaps be more in common between these seemingly disparate works than would ordinarily be expected.
As I started preliminary research on this topic I began to find uncanny similarities between many of the images and experiences recorded in Jung’s Red Book and several of the stories and pieces of artwork from Tolkien’s oeuvre. Furthermore, I found that both men were having experiences of what Jung came to call “active imagination” beginning in the same year—1913—and continuing for several years thereafter. The images from this time period provided the seminal material that both men spent the next forty years developing in their work. The further I investigated, the more the similarities revealed themselves, until I began to question what the implications were of the synchronicity of the two Red Books. If Jung and Tolkien were simultaneously having experiences of active imagination that led them each to create art and writing with many similarities in style and content, what did this indicate about the sources of these experiences? If these findings were not to be dismissed as mere coincidence, then what did they imply about the nature of imagination? Such thoughts led me to the formulation of the primary research question of my dissertation: What implications might the imaginal experiences of Jung and Tolkien have for the modern disenchanted world view that has led to our current ecospiritual crisis, and how might a greater understanding of imagination lead to a shift in consciousness? My preliminary thesis statement is that the experiences of these two men point to the ontological reality of an imaginal realm, which holds significant implications for overturning the disenchanted world view that has contributed greatly to the ecological crisis.
Because of the nature of my inquiry, and the manner in which the research topic revealed itself, the methodological approach to this dissertation must be one that affirms the importance of imagination and intuition in the research process. Therefore I will be using an alchemical hermeneutics, as developed by Robert Romanyshyn, as my primary research methodology because it is an approach that aims to “keep soul in mind,” and emphasizes the importance of imagination, intuition, feelings, dreams, synchronicity, and the myriad other expressions of the unconscious that emerge in the research process. Alchemical hermeneutics is what Romanyshyn calls an imaginal approach to research, an approach that complements other methods, rather than seeking to replace them. Thus, I will be taking a mixed methods approach to this research topic, with each method filtered through the imaginal lens of alchemical hermeneutics.
“When one designs a method,” Romanyshyn writes, “one is mapping out the journey that one will take from that place of not knowing one’s topic to that place of coming to know it.” For my dissertation research I will be employing an array of methods to address the multiple levels of the topic: literary, artistic, biographical, historical, and archetypal analysis, which will each be engaged from an imaginal research perspective. If alchemical hermeneutics is the path mapped out for my research journey, I see these different forms of comparative analysis as the supplies I have in my pack to aid me along the way. Each of these methods will come in handy at different points on the journey, depending on what the terrain of the research is at the current moment.
“Method is also who the researcher is in the work, who he or she is as he or she continuously opens a path into a work. Method is an attitude that pervades the whole process of research as a journey.” My choice of an alchemical hermeneutics will not only shape the results of my research, it will shape me along the way. According to Romanyshyn, “dissertation writing can become an aspect of the individuation process.” As I am transformed by the process of researching and writing, my methodological approach will be transformed as well. This is what Romanyshyn refers to as the hermeneutic circle:
Within the embrace of this circle of understanding, the knower approaches a text with some foreknowledge of it, which in turn is questioned and challenged and amplified by the text, thereby transforming the knower who returns to the text with a different understanding of it.
For example, when I first approached Jung’s Red Book, I had already been steeped for a decade and a half in the stories, languages, and images of Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth. This reserve of knowledge, which I was already shaped by, in turn shaped how I approached my initial reading of Jung’s Red Book. Yet, after delving more deeply into the content of Jung’s imaginal experiences, the way in which I viewed Tolkien’s stories, and his process of creating them, began to shift as well. As Romanyshyn points out, “the topic chooses the researcher as much as, and perhaps even more than, he or she chooses it.” I had the sense that something in the material was asking me to explore it, although the calling seemed to be taking place below the conscious level. One way in which alchemical hermeneutics differentiates from traditional hermeneutics is that is seeks to bring the unconscious of the researcher into the process of research itself. Romanyshyn describes this recursive dialogue between the researcher and the material as the hermeneutic spiral:
One task of an alchemical hermeneutic method is to deepen the hermeneutic circle by twisting it into a spiral. The researcher, then, follows the arc of the hermeneutic circle, but in such a way that the engagement of the two takes into account the unconscious aspects of the researcher and the work.
The imaginal approach to research is particularly well-suited to this topic because it seeks to recreate through methodology Jung’s and Tolkien’s own imaginal methods in producing their material. Romanyshyn writes, “In a sense, we might say that alchemical hermeneutics is the offspring of the encounter between the tradition of hermeneutics and depth psychology.”
Before unpacking further the pertinent aspects of alchemical hermeneutics, I would like to look at the more specific methods I will be using throughout this research journey. As mentioned previously, I will be using literary, artistic, biographical, historical, and archetypal analysis, depending on which aspects of Jung and Tolkien I am studying. Both men expressed themselves primarily through writing, therefore I will be using literary analysis to compare the texts they each produced. To narrow the scope of which texts I will analyze, I am focusing on material directly related to or produced by imaginal means—in Tolkien’s case the stories, poems, and languages that he composed, and in Jung’s case the narrations of his experiences of active imagination, recorded primarily in The Red Book. I will be comparing the content of these texts, and at times the style, although the fact that they were originally written in different languages—English and German, respectively—will have to be taken into account.
Besides the common name of The Red Book, what originally drew my attention to the potential similarities between Jung’s and Tolkien’s work was a resonance in the style and content of their artwork. Not only were there common images of dragons, cosmic trees, eyes, and mandalas, but there were deeper similarities that I could feel intuitively but were not explicitly on the surface. These were images that seemed to be expressing the entrance into an internal world, an imaginal world, the realm of psyche. An analysis of these images has to take place on multiple levels. On the one hand, the images can be analyzed for specific content, compared to each other as well as to other artwork produced at the time. Is the resonance in style particular to Jung and Tolkien, or does it reflect a larger artistic style of that cultural period in history? On the other hand, the artwork can also be analyzed symbolically, not only when there are shared appearances between Tolkien’s and Jung’s art, but also when the images differ aesthetically yet might symbolically be pointing toward a congruent meaning.
Hermeneutics is the art of interpreting and coming to understand symbols as expressed in texts and images. An alchemical hermeneutics seeks to approach this act of interpretation by recognizing that a symbol can never be exhausted, for the very nature of a symbol is that it presences what is absent. Romanyshyn writes,
Interpretation is always a “failure” because what is present in the symbol remains haunted by what is absent. . . . Interpretation at the level of soul is not just about deciphering a hidden meaning, it is also about a hunger for the ordinary presence that still lingers as an absent presence.
In my approach to the images created by Jung and Tolkien, both in text and in art, I am not only reading what the symbols contained therein are explicitly communicating, but also what is implicit in their very existence. I am asking of these symbols not only what they are expressing, but why. What meanings do these symbols point towards? The meaning of symbols can unfold eternally: “Alchemical hermeneutics,” Romanyshyn writes, “is not, therefore, only about arriving at meaning as a solution. It is also about the continuous dissolution of meaning over time in relation to the unfinished business in the soul of the work.” As I walk the path of my research I have to come to recognize that the path does not end, I will only choose to stop treading it at a certain moment. As Romanyshyn goes on to say, “there is never simply an ‘after’ of the work, a time when, after the work is finished, it is done.”
In addition to literary and artistic comparative analysis, I will also be doing biographical and historical analysis. I believe that life context is essential to understanding any person’s work, particularly when the material is as intimate as the Red Books are to their authors. Therefore, I will delving into all the available biographies of both Tolkien and Jung, looking for how the external experiences of their lives may have shaped their imaginal explorations. In order to put their life stories into context I will also be looking at the historical landscape in which Jung and Tolkien lived their lives. What cultural, political, ecological, and other pertinent factors were shaping their experiences? How did their imaginal experiences and expressions relate to or differ from their contemporaries? Looking at the larger context in which Jung and Tolkien were each having their imaginal experiences will shed light on the significance of the similarities in their work, whether the correlations are unique to them or are reflective of the culture and historical situation at large.
The final method I will be using to approach this research will be archetypal analysis. There are two ways in which I will be using the archetypal lens: one will be identifying the archetypes present in the stories and symbols expressed by Tolkien and Jung in their works, and the second will be using the empirical data of archetypal astrology to explore the birth charts, world transits, and personal transits relevant to the area of research. The latter archetypal method will illustrate the correlations between the movements of the planets and the manifestations of their archetypal energies in world events as well as in the personal lives of Tolkien and Jung. Thus, this aspect of archetypal analysis will be done alongside the biographical and historical readings of the material. The astrological perspective can shed light on the collective energies manifesting in world events during specific time periods, or on the energies being carried by individuals as reflected in their personal transits and natal charts. For example, the primary years of creative imagination for Jung and Tolkien, beginning in 1913, took place under the opposition of the planets Uranus and Neptune, which archetypally correlates with
widespread spiritual awakenings, the birth of new religious movements, cultural renaissances, the emergence of new philosophical perspectives, rebirths of idealism, sudden shifts in a culture’s cosmological and metaphysical vision, rapid collective changes in psychological understanding and interior sensibility . . . and epochal shifts in a culture’s artistic imagination.
Recognizing that these transits were taking place can bring greater illumination to the imaginal experiences Jung and Tolkien were undergoing during this time.
The same archetypal eye that can recognize the astrological patterns manifesting in both personal and worldly events can also be turned inward to interpret the stories and images expressed in the Red Books. The second form of archetypal analysis will therefore be done in conjunction with the literary and artistic analysis discussed before. An archetypal lens will allow the symbols inherent in the material to speak a common language, allowing correlations to be more discernible.
One final methodological approach I am taking to my dissertation research is the analogical approach used by Daniel Polikoff in his book In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History. This method can be seen as a means of encompassing the five methods I just delineated and unifying them into a multivalent, symbolic lens. The analogical approach allows the researcher to recognize analogies between artistic expression and life event, or between life event and archetype, or between archetype and myth, and so forth. By reading through the many layers present, the meanings of the symbols in the work can continue to reveal themselves indefinitely.
While the empirical orientation of this dissertation is the identification of similarities between Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books, the deeper question at work in the research is what the implications are of these correlations. Therefore, not only are the similarities of import, but the differences are as well. If the similarities in their work point toward a common experience of the imaginal realm, what do the differences indicate? As I approach these questions in my research I have to be careful not to impose my own preconceived ideas onto the material, but rather remain open to what is being communicated directly to me by the work. As Romanyshyn writes,
Not so impatient to engage the work in any conscious way, not so quick to irritate the work into meaning, the researcher who uses the alchemical hermeneutic method is content to dream with the text, to linger in reverie in the moment of being questioned, as one might, for example, linger for a while in the mood of a dream.
Here is both the gift and the challenge of an imaginal approach to research, because it can be such a trial to stay with the material when no clear answers seem to be arising, when the meaning or understanding one is searching for is not on the surface. Romanyshyn goes on:
Thus, the alchemical hermeneutic researcher begins with a kind of emptiness. It is an emptiness that has the qualities of patience and hospitality, which leave the researcher continuously open to surprise, an openness that, in having no plans, simply invites the text—the work—to tell its tale.
When I first began my research on the Red Books there were times when I was sure that I would find nothing, no correlations to back up the intuition I had that some relation existed between these works. Yet, as Jung wrote, intuition “is not concerned with the present but is rather a sixth sense for hidden possibilities.” I felt I had to surrender myself to whatever the text wanted to reveal. Romanyshyn speaks of how “The ego as author of the work has to ‘die’ to the work to become the agent in service to those for whom the work is being done.” It may not even be clear for whom the work is being done, but that too is part of the surrender of ego to the soul of the work. “Within an imaginal approach,” Romanyshyn writes, “that larger tale to which one is in service is the unfinished business in the soul of the work, which makes its claims upon a researcher through his or her complexes for the sake of continuing that work.” An essential part of the imaginal approach is recognizing that the work itself has soul, and has agency. The work guides the researcher as much as the researcher guides the work.
Soul means many things to many different people, and its elusive meanings have changed and evolved over millennia as well. From the depth psychological perspective soul, or Psyche, is primary. We exist in Psyche’s realm. “Soul is not inside us,” Romanyshyn writes. “It is on the contrary our circumstance and vocation. It surrounds us, and we are called into the world, as we are called into our work, through this kind of epiphany.” Not only is the researcher ensouled, the researcher’s work is as well. An alchemical hermeneutics acknowledges that embeddedness in soul and seeks to articulate it, to give “voice to the soul of one’s work” by “allowing oneself to be addressed from that void, which depth psychology calls the unconscious.”
How does one listen to the void? How does one open oneself to the unspoken wisdom of the unconscious? In an imaginal approach, this orientation is called a poeticsof the research process. Not literally drawing on poetry, it is a means of entering into mythopoetic consciousness. In Romanyshyn’s words: “A poetics of the research process, then, is a way of welcoming and hosting within our work the images of the soul, a way of attending to more than just the ideas or facts, and it requires a different style, a different way of being present.” More specifically, “A poetics of research invites the researcher to become the work through the powers of reverie and imagination and then let go of it.” Traditional hermeneutics does not explicitly give a place to reverie and imagination in its methodological process, yet they are epistemological forces shaping the work nonetheless, although oftentimes unconsciously. A poetics of research allows the knowledge and understanding born from reverie the space to unfold. “In reverie,” says Romanyshyn, “we are in that middle place between waking and dreaming, and, in that landscape, the borders and edges of a work become less rigid and distinct. . . . In reverie, the work takes on a symbolic character and is freed of its literal and factual density.”
Part of my research process has been learning to cultivate these moments of reverie while in direct relationship with Jung’s and Tolkien’s material, particularly while doing the literary and artistic analysis. When reading Jung’s Red Book for the first time, I created a ritual practice around the reading to honor the feeling I had that I was approaching a sacred text. The practice was in some ways communicated to me by the confluence of my embodied reaction to the material and the text itself. At first I would sit down to read with the intention of taking in as much material as possible, as I might with any other text I was researching. But I began to find after about eight pages I would emotionally shut down and disconnect from what was on the page; I was saturated, and literally could absorb no more. I would sit staring at the page wondering what had happened. Romanyshyn speaks of the role the body plays in our research, and that one should pay attention to those moments when we disconnect from the text, when we seem to drift off intellectually and depart from ourselves and what is present before us. Something important is being communicated in that moment, and instead of reprimanding ourselves for “spacing out” we can instead learn to cultivate that place of reverie. One lesson I received from paying attention to this moment of splitting off from the text was that its richness could not be digested if I sought to take in too much at once. Therefore, I created a daily practice of reading eight pages—no more and no less—of The Red Book at a pace where I could absorb more of the material, and also be absorbed into the material. Such an approach, according to Romanyshyn, “deepens research and makes it richer by attending to the images in the ideas, the fantasies in the facts, the dreams in the reasons, the myths in the meanings, the archetypes in the arguments, and the complexes in the concepts.”
Another aspect of my daily practice with Jung’s Red Book was that I only read from the original text. The Red Book has been published with the same size pages as Jung’s original manuscript, making it a weighty volume fifteen inches in height and eleven inches wide. Jung created The Red Book to look and feel like a medieval manuscript, and when one sits and reads it one cannot help but feel like a monk pouring over an ancient text. One must sit up at a table to read the book because it is too heavy to hold in one’s lap; the turning of each page feels like an accomplishment, giving the sense that the turning of a leaf has its consequences. Although a reader’s edition, as well as digital versions of the text, are available, I had an intuition I would learn more from the volume if I sat with its weight each day and learned from it at the emotional and physical levels, as well as at the intellectual level.
When approaching Tolkien’s work I developed a few different practices to bring the same care and reverence as I was bringing to Jung’s Red Book. I have read much of Tolkien’s oeuvre repeatedly over the course of my life, and to a high degree have internalized much of the content. When I came across a correlation in Jung’s work, it usually triggered my memories of some passage or aspect of Tolkien’s stories that I had read years before. The texts I was consulting of Tolkien’s, in the initial research, were a part of me, imprinted on my memory and soul. In some ways, my own memory could be seen as one of the texts being consulted in the research. Therefore, I decided to try to bring my memory even more consciously into the process. Certain passages I chose to memorize, to internalize the exact wording of Tolkien’s writing. For me this was another way of attending to the poetics of research, to become one with the poetics of the material. Another way in which I sought to bring ritual practice into my reading of Tolkien’s work was reading certain stories out loud with my partner. By presencing the language to each other, hearing the shape of the words—particularly the words of languages that Tolkien invented—gave greater life to the text and allowed the imaginal experience to lift off the page. Both sitting with Jung’s Red Book and reading Tolkien’s stories out loud became practices of trying to recreate their own imaginal experiences, of attempting to come to a greater understanding of their journeys into the realm of the imagination.
From these practices of physically sitting with the weight of the texts, as well as with the artwork created by both men, I realized that another part of the research I wish to undertake is to travel to the homelands of Tolkien and Jung to attempt to find any additional artwork in their archives that have not yet been published. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England is an archive of Tolkien’s work that I know contains several pieces of artwork not previously published. I am particularly interested in a series of drawings from his unpublished sketchbook The Book of Ishness, which is a series of imaginal drawings created at the exact same time as the early years of Jung’s Red Book period. While some of the images have been published in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, a footnote in that book lists the titles of the many drawings from the series that remain unpublished. I am curious to see if any of these bear a resemblance to more of Jung’s artwork. Thus I would also want to travel to archives in Zürich, Switzerland where the papers and artwork of Jung are held, to see what other images of his have not been published.
Approaching research from a place of reverie can open unexpected doorways into the research topic. For example, my research question regards the nature of imaginal experience, and one day when I was sitting with The Red Book I closed my eyes after reading a particularly beautiful passage about the sea. As I my eyelids descended, an inner world opened up before me: I had the sense of diving into a still pool in a forest glade and of swimming down, down, down. Long past the moment I felt I should have touched the bottom I was still descending. Then, instead of touching the base of the pool, I found myself surfacing from another body of water. The world had inverted, turned upside down. The waters in which I found myself swimming stretched as far as the eye could see under a grey sky, wan sunlight illuminating the backs of the clouds. As I began to swim forward I saw the white shores of what seemed to be an island. I swam up to the beach and pulled myself from the waters. A forest grew not far from the water’s edge, and I walked through the soft sands on a path under the trees. As I began to ascend the path, the vision started to fade and I reopened my physical eyes to The Red Book lying open before me.
This experience was not looked for in my analyses of Jung and Tolkien, but it gave me an experiential understanding of what active imagination felt like. Imaginal experiences born of reverie or dreams—of sleep or waking—can contribute to the methodological approach to the research. However, as Romanyshyn writes, “dreams as portals into research are not the data of research.” While the content of this vision will not be a part of my dissertation, the experience of it has shaped me and therefore will implicitly shape the nature of the work.
The subject of my dissertation is the descent into soul, the threshold into the world of the imagination that both Jung and Tolkien seemed to have crossed on their life journeys. Part of what I am attempting to understand was their own methodological approach to those journeys. As Romanyshyn writes, “the descent into the depths of soul is easy. Finding our way back, however, is the art and is the work.” The Red Books were Tolkien’s and Jung’s means of finding their way back from the world of soul. By treading the path again and again it becomes easier for others to follow in their footsteps. In creating a methodology I am attempting to find the maps they used on their imaginal journeys, and to survey the terrain in my own right.
Part of the intuition that drew me into this research was a sense of recognition of the experiences both Jung and Tolkien had undergone. At age nine when I first encountered the realm of Middle-Earth by having The Hobbit read aloud to me, I acknowledged that there was something deeply familiar about this territory. The sound of the names, the feeling of the places and the people all seemed to be echoing something I had somehow known before. When, over a decade and a half later, I encountered Jung’s Red Book I had that same sense of familiarity, and again could not place from whence it came. This very feeling Romanyshyn addresses as why we are drawn to do the research that we do, what in the work calls us forth to attend to it. He writes, “Research with soul in mind is re-search, a searching again, for something that has already made its claim upon us, something we have already known, however dimly, but have forgotten.” The process of research is that of anamnesis, the un-forgetting that is the philosopher’s quest, as Plato articulates. The inexplicable affinity and familiarity the work holds for the researcher is the soul of the work calling to the soul of the researcher. It is a call to action within the realm of soul itself. That call ignites the desire to remember, to re-search, to find what we sense is there. As quoted in the epigraph opening this essay, “Maybe all our re-search reenacts the Gnostic dream of the fall of soul into time and its desire to return home.”
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Edited by Aniela Jaffé. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.
–––––. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Edited by Sonu Shamdasani. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Polikoff, Daniel. In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2011.
Romanyshyn, Robert. The Wounded Researcher: Research with Soul in Mind. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books, 2007.
Samuels, Andrew, Bani Shorter and Fred Plant. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
–––––. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
–––––. “Smith of Wootton Major.” In Tales from the Perilous Realm. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
 Robert Romanyshyn. The Wounded Researcher: Research with Soul in Mind (New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books, 2007), 268.
To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation. . . . The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.” – C.G. Jung
“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
This essay was the seed of what is currently being developed into my Ph.D. dissertation, which will be available in spring 2017. Many of the ideas have been expanded and revised as I have brought in new perspectives and further research.
When you close your eyes and images arise spontaneously, what is it that you are seeing? The inside of your mind? Your imagination? The interior of your soul? Are you seeing something others can see also? Is it real? Is it inside just you, or inside everyone? Is it only internal, or could it be external as well? Might you actually be seeing a place, a realm, into which not only you but others also can enter? Does this realm have a name? These are questions I have often asked myself, when I close my eyes and am beckoned down some new road I have never encountered in this green world beneath the Sun, or when I read a story flowing from the pen of some author and find that I somehow already know the tale, am familiar with the names, have seen the images of these places before. Reading stories is an anamnesis, a discovery of the new found by treading down the paths of the old. Creativity, creation from the imagination, is that rediscovery, that recollection and remembrance. As C.G. Jung writes, “To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation. . . . The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.” But how do we begin to undertake that task? And what does it look like when we do?
The Red Book. Carl Gustav Jung undertook the task of giving birth to the ancient in his time by following the meandering pathways of his imagination into the darkest depths of his psyche; the images with which he returned he inscribed in black and red letters, accompanied by rich illustrations, on large pages bound by two covers of red leather.
The Red Book of Westmarch. J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write a mythology—“a body of more or less connected legend,” cosmogonic myths and romantic tales whose “cycles should be linked to a majestic whole”—which came to the world in the form of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. But within the world of the story itself these tales are written out in a book that has been passed on from generation to generation: inscribed in black and red letters, accompanied by rich illustrations, in a large book bound by two covers of red leather. The book is referred to—by Tolkien who presents himself simply as the translator of this work—as The Red Book of Westmarch.
At first glance the parallel names of Jung’s and Tolkien’s respective Red Books just seem to be an odd coincidence. They could not actually have anything to do with one another, or share anything in common in content. On the one hand, Jung was one of the founders of depth psychology, an explorer of the unconscious, of the archetypal realm, of the phenomenon of synchronicity, a man of Switzerland born in 1875. On the other hand, Tolkien was firmly English, a philologist, famous author of The Lord of the Rings, one of the founders of the genre of fantasy literature, a younger man born in 1892. At first glance there seems to be little common ground between the two men, let alone between their work. There have, of course, been Jungian analyses of Tolkien’s work—focusing on both the content of his fiction, and on aspects of his biography. But, as of yet, there have been few, if any, extensive “Tolkienian analyses,”  to use Lance Owens’ phrase, of Jung and his work, particularly his work with active imagination and its product: the Liber Novus, also named The Red Book.
As I began to explore Jung’s Red Book in the context of Tolkien’s writings I started to find certain similarities between their work beyond the titles and color of the leather binding. There seemed to be a certain resonance between the two bodies of work, a convergence of images—a synchronicity, in Jung’s terminology—a synchronicity of imagination. The following essay is not so much the laying out of one particular thesis, but rather an exploration of this synchronicity of images, a journey through art, language, and story. Because of the nature of this exploration I will also quote at greater length than I usually might, because the original words of each of these men carries great power in themselves.
The first parallel that stood out to me was the timing of when Jung began his “Red Book period”—the time of his psychological descent when the fantasy images began to come to him in waking life—and when Tolkien began making an unusual series of drawings in a sketchbook he entitled The Book of Ishness. In 1913 both men, Jung an established psychoanalyst, Tolkien a young man early in his undergraduate studies at Oxford, took an unusual turn in their lives, turning away from the outer images of the world of common day and focusing instead upon the inner images of the imagination. Jung’s Red Book period is considered to have spanned the years 1913-1930, but the primary content of his visions came to him from late 1913 through around 1917, the first vision taking place on December 12, 1913. The majority of the sketches in Tolkien’s Book of Ishness were done over a shorter period of time: from December 1911 through the summer of 1913 he made his “Earliest Ishnesses,” but he continued to add to The Book of Ishness up until 1928. Alongside the visionary drawings another form of creativity was emerging through Tolkien as well: the arts of language. Tolkien was trying his hand at writing poetry and prose not only in English, but in languages of his own invention as well. The first mythic stories that were to become part of The Silmarillion Tolkien wrote down in September 1914. Although the primary creative period for both Jung and Tolkien was during these potent years of the 1910s, they each spent the next forty years of their lives developing the material they encountered during that time. As Jung wrote of that period:
The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life—in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime’s work.
One means of understanding the simultaneity of Jung’s and Tolkien’s periods of creative imagination is archetypal astrology, which interprets archetypally the relational positions of the planets in the sky at the time Tolkien and Jung were having these unusual experiences. Yet, although astrology sheds a strong light upon the timing of the outpouring of this imaginal material, that is not the primary direction this particular essay will be taking. However, I would briefly like to point out a few significant planetary alignments before moving deeper into exploring the art and writings of Jung and Tolkien.
From 1899-1918 there was an opposition between the slow-moving outer planets Uranus and Neptune. The archetype of Neptune, as Richard Tarnas writes, “is considered to govern the transcendent dimensions of life, imaginative and spiritual vision, and the realm of the ideal.” He goes on to say that Neptune “rules both the positive and negative meanings of enchantment—both poetic vision and wishful fantasy, mysticism and madness, higher realities and delusional unreality.” Finally, “The Neptune principle has a special relation to the stream of consciousness and the oceanic depths of the unconscious, to all nonordinary states of consciousness, to the realm of dreams and visions, images and reflections.” In contrast, the planet Uranus, as Tarnas also writes,
is empirically associated with the principle of change, rebellion, freedom, liberation, reform and revolution, and the unexpected breakup of structures; with sudden surprises, revelations and awakenings, lightning-like flashes of insight, the acceleration of thoughts and events; with births and new beginnings of all kinds; and with intellectual brilliance, cultural innovation, technological invention, experiment, creativity, and originality.
When the archetypal natures of these two planets, Uranus and Neptune, come into geometrical relationship with each other, personal and world events with increasing frequency tend to reflect the combined energies of these archetypes. Uranus-Neptune alignments correlate with
widespread spiritual awakenings, the birth of new religious movements, cultural renaissances, the emergence of new philosophical perspectives, rebirths of idealism, sudden shifts in a culture’s cosmological and metaphysical vision, rapid collective changes in psychological understanding and interior sensibility . . . and epochal shifts in a culture’s artistic imagination.
The visionary periods of both Jung and Tolkien perfectly exemplify the characteristic manifestations of Uranus-Neptune alignments. The most potent time of both men’s imaginal experiences took place in the sunset years of the early 20th century opposition alignment, from 1913-1917. Furthermore, they were not the only of their contemporaries to be having fantasy visions and translating them into paint and the written word.
The following two axial, or quadrature, alignments of Uranus and Neptune since the turn of the 20th century have also correlated to significant periods in terms of the work of both Tolkien and Jung. During the square alignment of the 1950s Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. Under the same alignment, in 1957, Jung began working with Aniela Jaffé on compiling his autobiographical memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Finally, under the most recent alignment of Uranus and Neptune, the conjunction that lasted from 1985-2001, the film renditions of The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, were produced in New Zealand, with the first installation released in December 2001. Also at the end of that same Uranus-Neptune alignment in the year 2000, the decision was made by the Society of Heirs of C.G. Jung to at last publish the long-awaited seminal work of Jung’s career, his Liber Novus, The Red Book.
Intimations of the imaginal explorer Jung would become were present from his childhood, particularly in his relationship to his dreams, visions, and sense of having two personalities, one of whom he felt was connected to an earlier historical period. Jung referred to these two personalities simply as No. 1 and No. 2. No. 1 was the personality who corresponded with his age and current time in history, a schoolboy who struggled with algebra and was less than self-assured. No 2. Jung felt was an old man, who perhaps lived in the 18th century, but also had a mysterious connection to the Middle Ages. Yet No. 2 was also not tied to history or even time, for he lived in “God’s world,” a boundless, eternal realm. Jung described this realm as follows:
Besides [personality No. 1’s] world there existed another realm, like a temple in which anyone who entered was transformed and suddenly overpowered by a vision of the whole cosmos, so that he could only marvel and admire, forgetful of himself. . . . Here nothing separated man from God; indeed, it was as though the human mind looked down upon Creation simultaneously with God.
In another description, Jung writes how he felt when experiencing life as personality No. 2, saying,
It was as though a breath of the great world of stars and endless space had touched me, or as if a spirit had invisibly entered the room—the spirit of one who had long been dead and yet was perpetually present in timelessness until far into the future. Denouements of this sort were wreathed with the halo of the numen.
The vision Jung paints in these descriptions brings to mind a quote from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” in which he describes a similar perspective, like a view from above, that one gains while in the realm of Faërie—Faërie being Tolkien’s term for the realm of imagination. He writes,
“The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living things.”
Tolkien too had the sense he somehow had been born into the wrong time. His interests lay primarily in the Middle Ages, and he was drawn to ancient languages such as Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Old Icelandic, and several other tongues no longer spoken in the contemporary world. Tolkien had an intuitive feel for these languages as if they were his own. He was most inspired by pre-Chaucerian literature, particularly favoring the heroic myths of the Finnish Kalevala, and the world of monsters and dragons presented in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. Even his voice had an other-worldly or ancient tone to it. As his biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “He has a strange voice, deep but without resonance, entirely English but with some quality in it that I cannot define, as if he had come from another age or civilization.”
Both Jung and Tolkien painted and drew as children, but their art, leading into adulthood, was always representational in nature, usually of the surrounding landscapes. However, there was an abrupt change in the style of each of their artwork from the early 1910s onward, moving from depictions of topography to abstract, semi-figurative, and symbolic art. 
One of the earliest visions that came to both Jung and Tolkien was of major significance to each of them: an overpowering Flood, or as Tolkien sometimes called it, the Great Wave. The first of Jung’s Flood visions came to him while awake, on October 17, 1913:
In October, while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. . . . I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.
Two weeks later Jung had the vision again, this time accompanied by a voice saying, “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”
An uncannily similar vision came also to Tolkien, both while awake and while sleeping, beginning when he was about seven years old and continuing throughout much of his adult life. He called the vision his “Atlantis-haunting”:
This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me. In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands. It still occurs occasionally, though now exorcized by writing about it. It always ends by surrender, and I wake gasping out of deep water.
When World War I broke out in August 1914 Jung recognized that his vision of the destructive Flood was prophetic of the war; his interior images were reflective of the external political and cultural situation occurring in Europe. The outbreak of the war indicated to Jung that he was not, as he had been afraid, going mad, but was rather a mirror of the madness unfolding in the external world. Tolkien, being an Englishman and of a younger generation than Jung, fought in that very war that Jung’s vision had prophesied. Needless to say, the war had a tremendous effect upon Tolkien, particularly the Battle of the Somme in which two of his most beloved friends were killed. Later in his life, as Tolkien was creating The Lord of the Rings, world events began to reflect what he had already written in his narrative. As his close friend, and fellow Oxford don, C.S. Lewis wrote, “These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round; real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented.”
The next vision that came to Jung, and the first that he wrote out in calligraphic hand in his Red Book, marked the beginning of his “confrontation with the unconscious.” To get a fuller sense of the experiential nature of this vision, I will quote at length from Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
It was during Advent of the year 1913—December 12, to be exact—that I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths. I could not fend off the feeling of panic. But then, abruptly, at not too great a depth, I landed on my feet in a soft, sticky mass. I felt great relief, although I was apparently in complete darkness. After a while my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, which was rather like a deep twilight. Before me was the entrance to a dark cave, in which stood a dwarf with a leathery skin, as if he were mummified. I squeezed past him through the narrow entrance and waded knee deep through icy water to the other end of the cave where, on a projecting rock, I saw a glowing red crystal. I grasped the stone, lifted it, and discovered a hollow underneath. At first I could make out nothing, but then I saw that there was running water. In it a corpse floated by, a youth with blond hair and a wound in the head. He was followed by a gigantic black scarab and then by a red, newborn sun, rising up out of the depths of the water. Dazzled by the light, I wanted to replace the stone upon the opening, but then a fluid welled out. It was blood. A thick jet of it leaped up, and I felt nauseated. It seemed to me that the blood continued to spurt for an unendurably long time. At last it ceased, and the vision came to an end.
In this inaugural vision of The Red Book are contained many symbolic images. But for this particular study, what stands out to me are the numerous parallels to images in Tolkien’s own works of the many underworld, underground journeys that take place in Middle-Earth: the dark journey through the lost Dwarf realm of Moria in which Gandalf is lost in a battle with Shadow and Flame; Frodo and Sam’s fearful passage through the monstrous spider Shelob’s midnight tunnel on the borders of Mordor, which has resemblance to the giant scarab Jung describes; Aragorn and the Grey Company’s journey through the Paths of the Dead, in which they encounter a dead host of restless shades, another parallel to Jung’s encounter with the Dead deeper into The Red Book; Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon Smaug in the dark halls of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain; and Bilbo’s fateful encounter with the twisted creature Gollum, whose lair was deep within a mountain cavern, upon a little island rock set within the icy waters of a subterranean lake. Upon that rock, like the red crystal of Jung’s vision, lay long-hid the One Ring, the Ring of Power made by the Dark Lord Sauron. In both stories the heart of the narrative begins here, upon this island rock, where a lost treasure of unknown power is hid, awaiting for a new hand to grasp it.
At about the same time Jung was experiencing these early fantasies, Tolkien started to draw the visionary illustrations in his Book of Ishness. Two particularly stand out in correlation to Jung’s own vision, as they seem to symbolize a similar entrance into an underworld imaginal realm. The first is titled simply Before, and depicts a dark corridor lit with flaming torches, leading to a gaping doorway from which a red glow issues ominously (see Figure 1).
Lance Owens describes Before as “primitive, quick, a statement of the deep dream world.” Verlyn Flieger also comments on the sketch, saying that “The title Before conveys the dual notions of ‘standing in front of’ and ‘awaiting,’ or ‘anticipating.’ The sketch is remarkable for its mood, which conveys both foreboding (the dark corridor) and hope (the lighted doorway).”
The second sketch seems to be intended to follow directly after Before: it depicts a solitary figure walking out of a doorway of the same shape as in the previous drawing, and heading down a long hall lit with many torches. The drawing is titled Afterwards (see Figure 2). The coloring is in great contrast to the stark red and black of Before; Afterwards is sketched in yellows and blues, although it too conveys a sense of darkness and gloom, yet less foreboding than the previous drawing.
The Book of Ishness contained a series of Tolkien’s drawings, all of them symbolic or abstract in nature. As previously mentioned, Tolkien underwent a shift in the subjects he chose to illustrate. As Owens explains it, Tolkien felt “a need to draw not what he saw on the outside, but what he saw on the inside.” Interestingly, in 1911 not long before he began to draw his “Earliest Ishnesses,” Tolkien visited Switzerland, Jung’s homeland, for the only time in his life. He went on a walking tour through the Alps, whose majestic peaks had a tremendous impact on him. How close geographically Jung and Tolkien might have been to each other at that time, one can only guess. While in Switzerland Tolkien came across a postcard on which was a painting by J. Madlener, titled Der Berggeist, “the mountain spirit” (see Figure 3). The painting depicts an old man in a cloak and wide-brimmed hat, seated beneath a tree in an alpine setting.
Many years later Tolkien made a note on this painting: “Origin of Gandalf.” Within The Book of Ishness Tolkien also composed a painting he entitled Eeriness, that seems to depict a wizard-like figure bearing a staff who is walking down a long road lined with dark trees (see Figure 4). Like all the illustrations in The Book of Ishness, there is no explanation of the content of the pictures beyond their titles—we can only guess what inner images of Tolkien’s they are reflecting.
Perhaps the most striking of all the Ishnesses is the one titled End of the World (see Figure 5). In this drawing a small figure is stepping off of a cliff extending over the sea. The Sun is shining brightly down onto the scene, and seemingly within the water itself shine white stars, and a crescent Moon bends across the horizon line. Although the image of a man stepping off a cliff, and its corresponding title, may seem to be somber, even depressing, they convey a dual meaning: this is not only the “end of the world” in reference to its demise, or to the death of the individual, but it is the “end of the world” in that the individual has reached its edge and wishes to continue on his journey. As Owens says of this image, “that fellow has stepped, and he is not falling, he is walking into a Sun, into a Moon, into Stars.” One might see End of the World as a symbol of the threshold Tolkien appears to have crossed at this time—the doorway to the imaginal, into what he called the realm of Faërie.
Much of Jung’s fantasy material came to him not only as images but in the form of runes and words that he would hear. No easy translation of his fantasies was available to him. As written in the Translators’ Note to The Red Book, “The task before him was to find a language rather than use one ready at hand.”
When Tolkien began to take up the creation of his own language systems, it was because he too was hearing words, languages with no correlate in the outside world. Owens compares Tolkien’s hearing of languages to Mozart’s experiences of hearing full melodies playing out in his mind. He wished to compose languages as others composed symphonies. Accompanying these languages were races of people, Elves he soon discovered, who came replete with names and histories of their own. The images of story seemed to arise from the music of the languages themselves. In a passage in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien illustrates an experience Frodo has in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell while listening to Elvish music, which I believe may be a description of Tolkien’s own experience with the story visions that would accompany the Elven languages:
At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep.
The same year Jung’s Red Book visions began, Tolkien came across a pair of lines in an Anglo-Saxon poem titled Crist, written by the poet Cynewulf.
“Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
above the middle-earth sent unto men”
Many years later Tolkien wrote of his finding both the names Earendel and Middle-Earth: “I felt a curious thrill . . . as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.” Tolkien felt as though he had come across something he somehow already knew, a stirring of remembrance, of anamnesis. In September 1914, just after World War I broke out and while Jung was gripped by the visions of his psychological descent, Tolkien wrote his first poem about this figure Earendel, who was to become a central character in his mythology, with the slightly altered name Eärendil.
“The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star”
Earendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim; From the door of Night as a ray of light Leapt over the twilight brim, And launching his bark like a silver spark From the golden-fading sand Down the sunlit breath of Day’s fiery death He sped from Westerland.
The poem is describing the journey of a lone wanderer across the night sky, a single light entering the realm of darkness before making his descent into the West, the direction in which, according to Tolkien, dwelt the Faërie realm.
The journey of the Evening Star seems to have entered Jung’s imagination also, although by another name. Upon the cornerstone of the tower he built at Bollingen, Jung had inscribed this line, among several others: “This is Telesphoros, who roams through the dark regions of this cosmos and glows like a star out of the depths. He points the way to the gates of the sun and to the land of dreams.”
When Tolkien showed “The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star” to his close friend G.B. Smith, he asked Tolkien what the poem was really about. Tolkien gave an unusual response: “I don’t know. I’ll try to find out” He always maintained that the stories he was writing were true in a sense, that he was not making them up but rather discovering them. As his biographer writes, “He did feel, or hope, that his stories were in some sense an embodiment of a profound truth.” Jung too, “maintained a ‘fidelity to the event,’ and what he was writing was not to be mistaken for a fiction.” What then was it that both men were encountering, that appeared to be an internal experience, and yet had such a profound air of reality?
The Liber Novus, Jung’s Red Book, “depicts the rebirth of God in the soul.” The Red Book is “Jung’s descent into Hell” and is “an attempt to shape an individual cosmology.” Tolkien’s own Red Book, in the form of his mythology and The Lord of the Rings, is also an attempt to shape an individual cosmology and cosmogony, a world containing the God he loved and worshipped. And Tolkien also depicted a descent into Hell—into Mordor, and into worse Hells: the dark realm of Thangorodrim, the darkness of lost and corrupted souls.
Both Jung and Tolkien were drawn to the style of medieval manuscripts, with their calligraphy and illuminated letters, and emulated the medieval aesthetic in their artwork. Jung spoke of the style of language in which he wrote The Red Book, saying: “First I formulated the things as I had observed them, usually in ‘high flown language,’ for that corresponds to the style of the archetypes. Archetypes speak the language of high rhetoric, even of bombast.” The language used in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and even in the latter chapters of The Lord of the Rings, has a similar tone, sounding mythic, almost Biblical in nature.
The term “fantasy” was of great significance for both Jung and Tolkien, and although the specific language in which they defined the term differs somewhat, there are certain significant overlaps. In A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, “Fantasy” is defined as the
Flow or aggregate of images and ideas in the unconscious Psyche, constituting its most characteristic activity. To be distinguished from thought or cognition. . . . “Active” fantasies, on the other hand, do require assistance from the ego for them to emerge into consciousness. When that occurs, we have a fusion of the conscious and unconscious areas of the psyche; an expression of the psychological unity of the person.
The Jungian dictionary finds a contradiction in the further definition of Fantasy, saying that Jung seemed to have “two disparate definitions of fantasy: (a) as different and separate from external reality, and (b) as linking inner and outer worlds.” Although these definitions seem contrary, perhaps when read in light of Tolkien’s definition of “Fantasy” they may not seem to be quite as at odds as first appears: “Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.” Tolkien goes on to say, “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity.” He also adds, “Fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity.” According to this definition, Fantasy appears highly similar to Jung’s practice of active imagination, that links a person of the external world to the internal realm of Faërie, yet is also the very heart of that separate realm of the Imagination.
Diving further into the content of The Red Book itself, there are many significant parallels simply between the style of artwork composed by Jung and Tolkien. For one, they both painted multiple dragons, symbols of the archetypal monster to be confronted in the heart of the underworld (see Figures 6, 7, 8 and 9). Another archetypal symbol both
men painted multiple times was of a great tree, that could be seen as the World Tree or the Tree of Tales. Tolkien “regularly” drew what he called the Tree of Amalion, which particularly resembled a single tree painted in Jung’s Red Book with large ornaments situated upon each branch (See Figures 10 and 11). Jung wrote in his memoir, “Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.” Trees were beloved, even sacred, to Tolkien: “he liked most of all to be with trees. He would like to climb them, lean against them, even talk to them.” The entrance to the realm of Faërie, for Tolkien, lay not underground, as was depicted in many traditional fairy-stories, but through the woods; in the world of trees lay the transition between realities. While for Jung the archetype of the World Tree played a significant role, Tolkien’s mythology had at its heart not one World Tree but two, the Two Trees of Valinor, whose intermingling silver and gold lights illuminated the newly created world before the Sun and Moon were formed of their last fruit and flower.
One of the most prominent figures Jung encounters in The Red Book is Philemon, an old man who provides guidance and teaches magic. Many chapters could be dedicated solely to Philemon and the teachings from his wisdom, but in this study I will focus primarily on his resemblance to another old man who provides guidance and is an embodiment of magic: Gandalf the Grey, one of the Istari, a wizard, who within the course of The Lord of the Rings becomes Gandalf the White and guides the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth to victory against the Dark Lord Sauron. Gandalf not only plays a similar role as Philemon, but also his original name—his Maia name by which he was known in the Undying Lands in the West, before he was sent in human form to Middle-Earth—was Olorin. The name Olorin comes from the Elvish olor which means “dream” but, as Flieger writes, “that does not refer to (most) human ‘dreams,’ certainly not the dreams of sleep.” Furthermore, olor is derived from Quenya olo-s which means “vision, phantasy.”
The vision of the Great Wave stayed with both Jung and Tolkien and entered into their imaginal writings. Jung wrote out one particular fantasy of the Wave that came to him January 2, 1914 in the pages of The Red Book. Yet another synchronicity was that this recurring vision, which he seemed to share with Tolkien, occurred on the eve of Tolkien’s birthday, January 3. Yet because Jung always did his practice of active imagination late at night he very well may have beheld the Great Wave after midnight, on the date of Tolkien’s twenty-second birthday. As written in The Red Book, Jung’s fantasy unfolded as follows:
“Wave after wave approaches, and ever new droves dissolve into black air. Dark one, tell me, is this the end?”
The dark sea breaks heavily—a reddish glow spreads out in it—it is like blood—a sea of blood foams at my feet—the depths of the sea glow—how strange I feel—am I suspended by my feet? Is it the sea or is it the sky? Blood and fire mix themselves together in a ball—red light erupts from its smoky shroud—a new sun escapes from the bloody sea, and rolls gleamingly toward the uttermost depths—it disappears under my feet.
Tolkien also wrote of the Great Wave many times, in The Silmarillion, in his two unfinished tales The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers, and as Faramir’s dream in The Lord of the Rings. He said when he bestowed the dream upon Faramir he ceased to dream of it himself, although he found out years later his son Michael had inherited the dream in his turn. One of the most powerful narrations of the Great Wave takes place in the Second Age at the Downfall of Númenor, also called the Akallabêth: “Darkness fell. The sea rose and raged in a great storm . . . the Sun, sinking blood-red into a wrack of clouds.”
And the deeps rose beneath them in towering anger, and waves like unto mountains moving with great caps of writhen snow bore them up amid the wreckage of the clouds, and after many days cast them away upon the shores of Middle-earth. And all the coasts and seaward regions of the western world suffered great change and ruin in that time; for the seas invaded the lands, and shores foundered, and ancient isles were drowned, and new isles were uplifted; and hills crumbled and rivers were turned into strange courses.
The name Númenor, given to the island kingdom that sank beneath the waves in divine retribution for a mortal transgression of hubris, has often been mistakenly written as “Numinor,” even by Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis. Tolkien felt such a mistake came from associating the name with the Latin numen, numina that is the root of the word “numinous,” a term of particular significance to Jung. Tolkien explains that the name Númenor is actually derived from the Eldarin base NDU, meaning “below, down, descend.” This base is the root of the Quenya word nume, meaning “going down, occident,” and númen “the direction or region of the sunset.” Not only does the mistaken name of the land that sank beneath the Great Wave refer to the numinous, but the actual name implies a descent, the very term used for the psychological process Jung was undergoing during his Red Book period.
The power of Fantasy comes directly into the visions of The Red Book when Jung encounters the God Izdubar, a giant somewhat resembling the Norse God Thor. In the course of their conversation Jung brings up an aspect of Western science, the disenchanted world view from which he comes. The encounter of a mythic being with the disenchanted perspective of the modern world mortally wounds the God, laming him so he cannot walk and sapping his life strength away. In an attempt to save him Jung realizes that if he can convince Izdubar he is a fantasy he may have some hope in saving him. Jung’s dialogue captures both the humor and profundity of the exchange, thus I will quote at length directly from The Red Book:
I: “My prince, Powerful One, listen: a thought came to me that might save us. I think that you are not at all real, but only a fantasy.”
Izdubar: “I am terrified by this thought. It is murderous. Do you even mean to declare me unreal—now that you have lamed me so pitifully?”
I: “Perhaps I have not made myself clear enough, and have spoken too much in the language of the Western lands. I do not mean to say that you are not real at all, of course, but only as real as a fantasy. If you could accept this, much would be gained.”
Iz: “What would be gained by this? You are a tormenting devil.”
I: “Pitiful one, I will not torment you. The hand of the doctor does not seek to torment even if it causes grief. Can you really not accept that you are a fantasy?”
Iz: “Woe betide me! In what magic do you want to entangle me? Should it help me if I take myself for a fantasy?”
I: “I know that the name one bears means a lot. You also know that one often gives the sick new names to heal them, for with a new name, they come by a new essence. Your name is your essence.”
Iz: “You are right, our priests also say this.”
I: “So you are prepared to admit that you are a fantasy?”
Iz: “If it helps—yes.”
. . .
“A way has been found. You have become light, lighter than a feather. Now I can carry you.” I put my arms round him and lift him up from the ground; he is lighter than air, and I struggle to keep my feet on the ground since my load lifts me up into the air.
Through this exchange Jung demonstrates the tremendous power that Fantasy has, if allowed to work its enchantment. He writes, “Thus my God found salvation. He was saved precisely by what one would actually consider fatal, namely by declaring him a figment of the imagination.”
Significant in itself, this scene of carrying one who ought to be heavy yet is somehow light also has a resemblance to one of the most moving moments in The Lord of the Rings, when Sam and Frodo are struggling up the treacherous slopes of Mount Doom.
“Now for it! Now for the last gasp!” said Sam as he struggled to his feet. He bent over Frodo, rousing him gently. Frodo groaned; but with a great effort of will he staggered up; and then he fell upon his knees again. He raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully he began to crawl forward on his hands.
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”
“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”
As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire. He took a deep breath and started off.
Perhaps one of the most profound areas in which the fantasy visions, and respective world views, of Jung and Tolkien overlap is around the nature of evil. They both had a deep understanding of the nature of evil, and were able to articulate its presence in the world in a way that demonstrates the importance of confronting that evil and going into its depths on behalf of personal and collective transformation. Yet not only do Tolkien and Jung share a similar understanding of the workings of evil, they also share uncannily similar depictions of evil nature in both their art and writing. Within The Lord of the Rings, the clearest view we are given of the Dark Lord is his great Eye, “an image of malice and hatred made visible . . . the Eye of Sauron the Terrible [that] few could endure.” Frodo has two separate visions of the Eye, each more terrifying than the last. The first is while gazing into the Mirror of Galadriel in the woods of Lothlórien.
But suddenly the Mirror went altogether dark, as dark as if a hole had opened in the world of sight, and Frodo looked into emptiness. In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled nearly all the Mirror. So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or to withdraw his gaze. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one.
The second exposure to the Eye of Sauron that Frodo endures is upon Amon Hen, the Hill of Seeing:
All hope left him. And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was.
These powerful depictions of the piercing gaze of evil also entered into Jung’s Red Book visions, in both image and word. Tolkien did many illustrations of the Eye of Sauron, showing a red iris with a hard black pupil. Within the illuminated letter on the first page of the Liber Secundus, the second section of Jung’s Red Book, is a nearly identical illustration: a red eye with a hollow black pupil in its center (see Figures 12 and 13). Yet Jung also writes further into The Red Book,
Nothing is more valuable to the evil one than his eye, since only through his eye can emptiness seize gleaming fullness. Because the emptiness lacks fullness, it craves fullness and its shining power. And it drinks it in by means of its eye, which is able to grasp the beauty and unsullied radiance of fullness. The emptiness is poor, and if it lacked its eye it would be hopeless. It sees the most beautiful and wants to devour it in order to spoil it.
The eye that symbolizes evil is an eye that looks only outward; it does not look inward, it does not self-reflect. The eye as symbol of evil cautions against the refusal to look deep into one’s innermost self, to face the Shadow within. If one only looks outward one becomes subsumed by that Shadow; it is all the world can see although the eye may be blind to it from within. Indeed, both Jung and Tolkien even used the term Shadow to refer to this darkness that must be faced and reflected upon.
“He who journeys to Hell also becomes Hell: therefore do not forget from whence you come . . . do not be heroes . . .” Jung writes in The Red Book. Indeed, the two Hobbits who journey into Hell, into Mordor, are not Heroes. They are but simple folk who do the task that is at hand, that has been set before them by the greater powers of the world. But Frodo succumbs to the Hell into which he enters; at the final moment when he is meant to throw the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom, within the heart of the volcano Orodruin, Mount Doom, he cannot do it. He takes the Ring for himself.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.
Frodo has, in that pivotal moment, become the evil he had set out to destroy. But it is only through that act, and through his ultimate sacrifice, that the quest can in the end be achieved. In the same section of The Red Book in which Jung writes of the eye of evil, he also writes, “the scene of the mystery play is the heart of the volcano.” The moment of transformation, the unexpected turn that Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe, takes place in the fiery heart of the volcanic underworld.
A form of art that Jung found to have particular significance in the psychological journey was the mandala, a circular and quadratic emblem that he came to recognize as a symbol of the Self. Without knowing what at first he was doing, Jung drew his first mandala on January 16, 1916 (see Figure 14). He came to understand that the mandala form represented “Formation, transformation, the eternal mind’s eternal recreation.” In Tolkien’s artwork I did not expect to also find drawings of mandalas, and yet it seems that towards the end of his life he would wile away the time drawing ornate patterns on the backs of envelopes and on newspapers as he solved the crossword. Many of these emblems, which he later designated as Elvish heraldic devices symbolizing individual characters within his mythology, were mandalic in form (see Figure 15), as were some others of his more complete drawings (see Figure 16). Yet another interesting quality of Tolkien’s art was that he often designed his pictures around a central axis. If one were to imagine moving from the sideways perspective portrayed in the drawing to a bird’s eye view from above, these illustrations of Tolkien’s quite likely would resemble a mandala (see Figures 17 and 18).
“If the encounter with the shadow is the ‘apprentice-piece’ in the individual’s development, then that with the anima is the ‘master-piece.’” Jung wrote these words in reference to his own visionary experiences, as well as the experiences of the patients with whom he worked. We have already explored parallels in Jung’s and Tolkien’s encounters with the Shadow. But what of the encounter with Anima? The Anima for Jung is the female personification of the soul of a man, and the Animus is the male personification of the soul of a woman. Anima figures can take many forms, of course based upon the psychology of each individual. For Jung, one of the personifications of his Anima whom he encountered in the physical world at a young age was a girl he met briefly while walking in the Swiss mountains. As they began to descend the mountain side by side, he said “. . . a strange feeling of fatefulness crept over me. ‘She appeared at just this moment,’ I thought to myself, ‘and she walks along with me as naturally as if we belonged together.’” Reflecting later on the encounter, he wrote, “. . . seen from within, it was so weighty that it not only occupied my thoughts for days but has remained forever in my memory, like a shrine by the wayside.” This girl was one of several women who represented an Anima image for Jung, the female symbol of his soul.
The last story that Tolkien ever wrote in his life was called Smith of Wootton Major. It is a short story of a man who, as a child, is given a fay star, an emblem from the realm of Faërie, that grants him passageway into that enchanted world. On one of his journeys through Faërie this man encounters, in a high mountain meadow, a beautiful dancing maiden.
On the inner side the mountains went down in long slopes filled with the sound of bubbling waterfalls, and in great delight he hastened on. As he set foot upon the grass of the Vale he heard elven voices singing, and on a lawn beside a river bright with lilies he came upon many maidens dancing. The speed and the grace and the ever-changing modes of their movements enchanted him, and he stepped forward towards their ring. Then suddenly they stood still, and a young maiden with flowing hair and kilted skirt came out to meet him.
She laughed as she spoke to him, saying: “You are becoming bold, Starbrow, are you not? Have you no fear what the Queen might say, if she knew of this? Unless you have her leave.” He was abashed, for he became aware of his own thought and knew that she read it: that the star on his forehead was a passport to go wherever he wished; and now he knew that it was not. But she smiled as she spoke again: “Come! Now that you are here you shall dance with me”; and she took his hand and led him into the ring.
There they danced together, and for a while he knew what it was to have the swiftness and the power and the joy to accompany her. For a while. But soon as it seemed they halted again, and she stooped and took up a white flower from before her feet, and she set it in his hair. “Farewell now!” she said. “Maybe we shall meet again, by the Queen’s leave.”
Although clearly of a fictional nature, Smith’s encounter with the Elven-maiden has certain resemblances to the young girl with whom Jung walked in the Swiss mountains, and perhaps she had a similar significance to each of them too. Indeed, Jung even wrote in The Red Book that he sees “the anima as elf-like; i.e. only partially human.”During Smith’s final visit to Faërie his most profound meeting occurs:
On that visit he had received a summons and had made a far journey. Longer it seemed to him than any he had yet made. He was guided and guarded, but he had little memory of the ways that he had taken; for often he had been blindfolded by mist or by shadow, until at last he came to a high place under a night-sky of innumerable stars. There he was brought before the Queen herself. She wore no crown and had no throne. She stood there in her majesty and her glory, and all about her was a great host shimmering and glittering like the stars above; but she was taller than the points of their great spears, and upon her head burned a white flame. She made a sign for him to approach, and trembling he stepped forward. A high clear trumpet sounded, and behold! they were alone.
He stood before her, and he did not kneel in courtesy, for he was dismayed and felt that for one so lowly all gestures were in vain. At length he looked up and beheld her face and her eyes bent gravely upon him; and he was troubled and amazed, for in that moment he knew her again: the fair maid of the Green Vale, the dancer at whose feet the flowers sprang. She smiled seeing his memory, and drew towards him; and they spoke long together, for the most part without words, and he learned many things in her thought, some of which gave him joy, and others filled him with grief. . . .
Then he knelt, and she stooped and laid her hand on his head, and a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery, and also outside them and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and in ownership, and in peace. When after a while the stillness passed he raised his head and stood up. The dawn was in the sky and the stars were pale, and the Queen was gone. Far off he heard the echo of a trumpet in the mountains. The high field where he stood was silent and empty: he knew that his way now led back to bereavement.
The encounter with the Queen of Faery may be as significant as the encounter with the Anima, and perhaps that is who the Queen of Faery is. Smith of Wootton Major is considered to be something of an autobiographical tale, or as close as Tolkien would ever come to writing one. Perhaps he is writing of his own encounter with his Anima, or rather an encounter with the archetype of Anima as present in all myths, within the individual human soul and in the mythic dimensions of the cosmos.
Jung identified what he called the “transcendent function” as that which bridges the conscious and the unconscious. The transcendent function takes the form of a symbol that transcends time and conflict, that is common to both the conscious and the unconscious, and that offers the possibility of a new synthesis between them. In The Red Book Jung writes of the power of such a symbol:
The symbol is the word that goes out of the mouth, that one does not simply speak, but that rises out of the depths of the self as a word of power and great need and places itself unexpectedly on the tongue. . . . If one accepts the symbol, it is as if a door opens leading into a new room whose existence one previously did not know.
Symbols are present in myths and stories, and in the living visions of the creative imagination. Symbolic, archetypal story can open doorways between the conscious and the unconscious, between this world and the enchanted realm of Faërie. “Such stories,” Tolkien writes, “open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself maybe.” Perhaps Fantasy, or Imagination itself, are the transcendent function of which Jung speaks.
In reading Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books side by side and seeing the profound similarities in their experiences, and in the writing and artwork produced from those experiences, I came to feel that they may have been entering into the same realm. Whether we call it Faërie, or the collective unconscious, or the Imagination, both men seemed to be crossing a threshold and walking down parallel and even overlapping paths in the same kingdom. Jung writes, “The collective unconscious is common to all; it is the foundation of what the ancients called the ‘sympathy of all things’.” It is the fertile ground from which grows the Tree of Tales, it is the wellspring of the Imagination born anew in each creative person. Tolkien too had a sense that this place in which he witnessed his stories was the unconscious. In a letter to W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes,
I daresay something had been going on in the “unconscious” for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through.
I have come to believe that Imagination is a place, a realm, that is both inner and outer. The Imagination is not merely a human capacity, a function of the mind or the workings of the brain. It is a place that can be accessed through human capacity, through creativity, but Imagination extends far beyond human capacity as well. It is a world as infinite as the physical one in which we daily dwell.
Now that the particular leg of this journey is drawing to a close, we can ask how Jung and Tolkien can inform each other’s works. Jung advised that each person could make their own Red Book from the Fantasies that arise through the practice of active imagination. He said to return to your Red Book like you would to a sanctuary or cathedral, for your soul is within its pages. The Red Book that Tolkien created for himself he gave to the world in the form of The Lord of the Rings. It is a text that is treated by many as a sacred text, one to be returned to year after year, or read aloud with loved ones. Why is that? Because The Lord of the Rings, like Jung’s Red Book, is an invitation to enter the realm of Imagination. It is an invitation to find our own stories and learn to tell them. Indeed, when Tolkien was first conceiving of his Middle-Earth legendarium, at the same time that Jung was writing down the visions of his Red Book, he saw it as a great mythological arc in which space would be left for others to take it further with their own art and stories. He once wrote, in his usual self-deprecating tone, “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.”
Sonu Shamdasani, the historian of psychology who took on the great task of editing Liber Novus, captures succinctly and elegantly what Jung’s and Tolkien’s respective Red Books are inviting each one of us to do. He writes, “What was most essential was not interpreting or understanding the fantasies, but experiencing them.”
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Flieger, Verlyn. A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1997.
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Jung, C.G. “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.” In Collected Works. Vol. 9, i. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.
–––––. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Edited by Aniela Jaffé. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.
–––––. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Edited by Sonu Shamdasani. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
This semester I am undertaking an independent study in which I will be exploring The Red Book of Carl Gustav Jung and bringing it into dialogue with what J.R.R. Tolkien called The Red Book of Westmarch, the fictional narrativethat became the key books of his Middle-Earth legendarium, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Jung’s Red Book period began in 1913, the same year that Tolkien began his own practice of active imagination in his illustrated book entitled The Book of Ishness. Using additional material from both Jung and Tolkien, as well as contemporary secondary sources, in conjunction with some of the insight provided by archetypal astrology, I will explore the similarities (and significant differences) between what was emerging through both of these men’s creative imaginations.
I will be culminating the independent study with a paper that I will post on this website, and with a PCC Forum lecture that will be filmed and also posted. If anyone has source material or other recommendations for this project I would greatly appreciate the feedback!
C.G. Jung – The Red Book
C.G. Jung – The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung
C.G. Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections
C.G. Jung, Meredith Sabini (ed.) – The Earth Has A Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung
J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien – The History of Middle-Earth
Humphrey Carpenter – J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (ed.) – J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator
Verlyn Flieger – A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie
Lance Owens – J.R.R. Tolkien: An Imaginative Life – A Series of Three Illustrated Lectures (Audio)
One thousand, four hundred miles in two days, from the rolling wooded hills of Ohio, through the dry tabletop flatland of Kansas, deep into the rapid ascent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt has been a heroic driver. And because of the exhaustion of such an expedition, we have decided to spend an extra day in the idyllic beauty of Aspen, enjoying the sight of high green and red mountaintops, fluttering aspen leaves, and glittering hummingbirds feeding outside the window.
The much-needed rain began to descend as we departed Cincinnati Saturday morning, and we were met with a sudden downpour and pools of water on the poorly constructed Ohio highways. Traffic slowed immediately to a crawl as we appeared to be going through a car wash machine without soap. Soon, however, we left the shadow of the rain clouds and entered drier land. Meanwhile a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton, over the existence of God and the need or lack for religion, played out on the speakers. At many times they seemed to be having parallel but separate arguments, Hitchens focusing on the evils of religious interpretations, and Sharpton pushing the issue of the existence of God without religious trappings, a point which Hitchens seemed to generally avoid. From there we turned our attention to a lecture given by Chris Hedges, not to be in any way confused with Hitchens, who spoke of religious fundamentalism, the Christian Right in America, the economic despair that drives people to such extremist faith, and the “epistemology of television” which suppresses critical thinking. With his words reverberating in the car we passed large crucifixes in the cornfields, anti-abortion posters, and billboards with images of a pale white, effeminate Jesus blessing the drivers of I-70.
While passing through Indiana we listened to a rousing talk by Helen Caldecott given in 1982 on the threats of nuclear war; she drew an analogy between the state of our planet and the plight of a terminally ill cancer patient. The horrific images she painted of nuclear war, and the insanity that the governments who build these weapons have not thought of the ultimate consequences of their use, reminds me of the same delusional denial the world’s leaders take in regard to climate change and the ecological crisis. We stopped briefly at a gas station where I saw a woman dressed as a clown filling up her car—a perfect image to capture the direction in which this country is going. Not long after, we passed for the second time on this trip a concrete cross at least ten stories high, towering over the yellow straw of drought-ridden, eroded agricultural fields on the edge of desertification.
Matt and I returned to Lake Quivira near Kansas City for the night, the place we stayed ten days before on our outward journey. Early the next morning, we left the comforts of a familiar place to embark on the longest stretch of the entire trip: 782 miles from the eastern edge of Kansas up into the Rockies to Aspen, Colorado. Although we crossed just two states, unlike the day before when we had traversed five, the day totaled thirteen hours of driving.
The long expanse of Kansas proved to be flatter than a pancake, with the largest fields of wheat and corn I have ever seen. It felt like an alien landscape, with a mile of corn suddenly giving way to gray dirt and clumps of yellow grass as suddenly as if a wall had been built to separate the two. The highest objects in sight for hours were the plastic signs advertising fast food joints and gas stations. Occasionally a stream would meander over the land, and an oasis of green followed the track of the water. When there was variation in the topography the road would occasionally dip into a cut in the soil, revealing red and white striations of earth layered like a cake beneath dry grass icing. Our own oasis was provided by a set of tapes recorded in 1992 of Robert McDermott, who gave a lecture series on spiritual masters while he was president of the California Institute of Integral Studies. We heard the first three of those lectures, on Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, and Simone Weil.
After leaving behind us the Oz Winery, a massive wind farm of white turbines, and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, we entered the tiny town of Hays and knew we needed to stop for lunch. It was 106°. As Matt put it, it felt like a breeze blowing straight out of Hell. It was not hard to believe the large billboard we had seen earlier that stated “Hell Is Real.” Hell is the havoc we have wrecked on the climate that is producing this massive drought and soaring temperatures. The small oil wells we had seen along the roadside, pumping oil up out of the barren fields, seemed like some kind of a mockery of the weather.
As we entered Hays I could not help but wonder what life was like in this small town. What is the primary form of income? What makes people happy? What do they dream about? To our delight we found a local brewery called Gella’s Liquid Bread, and were able to sample their award-winning oatmeal stout and American wheat ale with our afternoon meal. Here certainly was one expression of creativity in the town of Hays.
Hours after lunch was digested we crossed the chalky Colorado border. Feral sunflowers grew by the sides of the highway. Black calves followed their mothers through fields. Train tracks led to nowhere. Small houses from a bygone era stood alone, each with their own forgotten history. Who had once settled this piece of land in the name of freedom, so many decades ago? Still the land was flat.
Then, in the far western distance, clouds began to gather. A deep azure shadow blurred the once clear edge of the horizon. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the land. Planes trafficked the air, criss-crossing the skies. Denver. A city, trees, hills, mountains, then thunderheads, each layered against the next. In a matter of minutes the plains were a mere memory.
I can barely begin to describe the feeling of ascending into the Rocky Mountains after hours upon hours and miles upon miles of flat grassland. It is like drinking in the sweetest draughts of color and texture, light and shadow, like paintings unfolding beneath the artist’s wrist of the Divine. The rapid incline was accompanied by flourishing conifers and carved red boulders. The foothills grow into mountains like seedlings into trees, children into adults. These ancient mountains are decaying; after millennia of shooting skyward with the pressure of tectonic upheaval, they now are slowly crumbling, their peaks rounding and smoothing under the centuries of rain and snowfall. Yet still they are great majesties.
It began to rain. Sunlight seared through the falling water creating a world of white and platinum, the road and trees cast silver in the shifting light. A tumbling river tore through the rock on the left of the road, sparkling in the sun’s rays. Then, without warning, we left the shadow of the rainstorm and entered a dry realm higher still. Red barns and soft meadows, indigo lakes and laughing streams. We crested over a pass between the mountains, then descended into a wide grassy plain, the High Plains filled with horses and foals, likely an ancient lakebed drained long ago. I saw a highland cow, a red, long haired, horned creature I had only ever seen in the Scottish Highlands. Yet here one was in the Rockies. We were taking an alternate route, along highway 285, because there was a sink hole in the usual road to Aspen on 24. Though it was 25 miles longer, we would never have encountered the High Plains if we had gone the normal route.
After the plains we passed the town of Buena Vista, and saw several signs protesting a Colorado Springs plan to dam this valley for a reservoir. It was hard to imagine these canyons and valleys sunk below placid waves, a lake that would most likely surrender to silt build-up in less than a century. Our route turned on to 82, and we circled a still, blue lake, reflecting the high peaks in exact mirror image. The road climbed ever higher, making sharp turns on the mountain’s face, leaving the bottoms of my feet with that hollow tickle that accompanies a slight fear of heights. The evening sun rises and sets constantly in the mountains as new views open beyond each passing peak. Yet at last it set for good, and our road became ever dimmer.
Finally, no more mountains obstructed our view and we rose above the world at Independence Pass. We stepped into the crystal air at 12,095 feet. Immediately we were short of breath as we walked about a glass pool reflecting the dusk sky, the tundra foliage bedecked in miniscule wildflowers. The descent into Aspen grew ever darker, and the road twisted and turned beneath overhanging rocks and aspen branches. Moths flew continuously into our headlights. Then, out of nowhere, a pale brown bunny leapt into our path, so close to the car there was literally no way to avoid it. We hit it instantly and I prayed it had died quickly. I cried all the way into Aspen. There was literally nothing we could have done, yet I could find no way to justify it. I have seen many things on this trip that humanity cannot justify, and this one act I felt so personally.
Rarely have I felt the kind of exhaustion we both felt upon arrival in Matt’s aunt’s beautiful home, decorated with exquisite relics from her world travels. We ate peaches and cherries, a sweet relief from American road trip food. I long to go on the kinds of adventures that I see captured as memories in every part of this house. But for now, my only adventure will be into the dreamworld of sleep.