It’s a potent week for podcasts! Gordon White and I had our third and perhaps most compelling and exploratory conversation yet on his podcast Rune Soup. We discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of Faërie, fantasy, and imagination, connecting the principles outlined in his groundbreaking essay “On Fairy-Stories” with his creation myth the Ainulindalë: theory and practice of the sub-creative imagination. In our discussion of my new book, Journey to the Imaginal Realm, we also spoke of how The Lord of the Rings provides a powerful mythos for facing the great challenges in our current era, which are reaching a new peak in 2020. The podcast is available for download or can be listened to directly below.
When I first started researching the parallels between Jung’s Red Book and Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch, I came across a wonderful 2011 interview with the Gnostic scholar Lance S. Owens, conducted by Miguel Conner of Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio and titled “Gnostic Themes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” The ideas set forth both affirmed and furthered my thinking on the two Red Books, and Owens became an essential source in my research.
Now, seven years after I first heard that interview, I had the great honor of being invited myself onto that same podcast to discuss my new book, Journey to the Imaginal Realm, with Miguel Conner. To listen, here is the interview: “Jung, Tolkien, and the Imaginal.”
We intimately understand the events and processes that allowed C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien to enter the Imaginal. Can we access those creative energies and charged symbols from the realm of archetypes to alchemically transform ourselves and the surrounding culture for the better? Our quest into the minds of these magicians of the imagination leads us as well to discover the deeper meanings in such hallowed works as The Lord of the Rings and The Red Book.
A dream came true for me recently, when I had the opportunity to co-present with my dissertation chair, Jacob Sherman, at the PCC retreat at Esalen Institute in late October. We spoke about the creation myths articulated by the 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the 20th century fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, demonstrating some of the extraordinary parallels between their cosmogonies. Jake presents on Hildegard in the first half of the talk, while in the second half I retell Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, the creation myth he called The Music of the Ainur, before we open into a brief dialogue together.
We spoke in the darkness of Esalen’s dance dome, illuminated by medieval illustrations of Hildegard’s visions and contemporary paintings of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë created by the artist Anna Kulisz, as well as one painting done by Tolkien himself. Between our presentations we played one of Hildegard’s remarkable musical compositions, “Quia ergo femina,” performed by the Bay Area women’s choral group Vajra Voices (with whom I had the privilege to play the harp several years ago, when I was part of Cheryl Ann Fulton‘s medieval harp choir, Angelorum). This presentation was such a delight to give, not only because I was able to present with one of my teachers who has been such an inspiration to me, but also because I felt I was able to sink into a mode of storytelling which I greatly value and enjoy.
Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien
From the time we arrive on the scene, human beings have sought to understand our existence and the existence of all things through myth, symbol, ritual, and story. But where do our creation stories come from and how do they change? Are they the product of inspired individuals, the creation of entire communities, or something else? In order to try to get some traction on these questions, Jake and Becca will consider two extraordinary creation myths, one given by the 12th century visionary, prophetess, and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, the other by the 20th century philologist and fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being separated by roughly eight centuries, both Hildegard and Tolkien produced creative cosmogonies that resonate remarkably with one another and remain peculiarly powerful today.
Many thanks to Chad Harris for filming, editing, and posting this recording.
For those who are in the area, I will be bringing my lecture The Synchronicity of the Two Red Books: Jung, Tolkien, and the Imaginal Realm to the C.G. Jung Club of Orange County! I will be presenting on Sunday, November 10 at 4:00–6:00 pm at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach.
For more information, please visit the website of the Orange County Jung Club.
Beginning in the years leading up to the Great War, both C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien independently began to undergo profound imaginal experiences. They had each stepped across a threshold and entered into another world, the realm of imagination, the world of fantasy. Jung recorded these initially spontaneous visionary experiences, which he further developed using the practice of active imagination, in a large red manuscript that he named Liber Novus, although usually it is referred to simply as The Red Book. The experiences narrated in The Red Book became the seeds from which nearly all of Jung’s subsequent work flowered. For Tolkien, this imaginal journey revealed to him the world of Middle-earth, whose stories and myths eventually led to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, a book he named within its own imaginal history The Red Book of Westmarch. There are many synchronistic parallels between Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books: the style and content of their works of art, the narrative descriptions and scenes in their texts, the nature of their visions and dreams, and an underlying similarity in world view that emerged from their experiences. The two men seem to have been simultaneously treading parallel paths through the imaginal realm.
The revelations of this research hold deep consequences for modernity’s assumptions of a disenchanted world and bring to the surface implications concerning the nature of imagination and its participatory relationship to the collective unconscious. This presentation will point to the possibility that Tolkien and Jung are preliminary guides on a journey to the depths of an ensouled cosmos in which imagination saturates the very foundations of reality.
• Explore the nature of imagination and its participatory relationship to the collective unconscious.
• Understand the relevance of Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books to modernity’s assumptions of a disenchanted world.
My first book, Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Reader’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is now available! The book was published by Revelore Press on September 22, a significant day in the history of Middle-earth: Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthdays, a day that is now affectionately known as “Hobbit Day.”
This book is the culmination of my love and devotion to Tolkien’s work, shaped by many years of study into the nature of imagination and a deep exploration of the imaginal realm. The book was born out of lectures created for the course I taught through Nura Learning last autumn, and I am so grateful to Jeremy Johnson for suggesting that this material was worthy of being published as a book. He and Jenn Zahrt, of Revelore Press, have been extraordinary to work with, and I am so honored to have this book published in their Nuralogical Series.
It is truly my joy and honor to share this book with all of you, and I am deeply grateful to every person who has supported me on the journey of bringing my first book into the world.
Journey into the world of Middle-earth, explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story, see The Lord of the Rings in the context of the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and delve into Tolkien’s writing process and his powerful experiences of the imaginal realm.
Beloved to several generations since its mid-1950s debut, The Lord of the Rings is a timeless story, engaging with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. Many treat The Lord of the Rings as a sacred text, returning to it year after year, or reading it aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings has become a myth for our time.
In Journey to the Imaginal Realm, Becca Tarnas guides you through each chapter of Tolkien’s magnum opus, drawing attention to subtle details, recalling moments of foreshadowing, and illuminating underlying patterns and narrative threads. Her close reading of the text is paired with relevant biographical information from Tolkien’s life. Journey to the Imaginal Realm is a celebration of Tolkien’s work, and an inquiry into the profound nature of an imagination capable of bringing forth a world as vast as Middle-earth.
Comprised of six main chapters with several interludes and an in-depth biographical introduction, Tarnas’s book canvases the landscape of Tolkien’s legendarium, accompanied by six newly commissioned illustrations by Arik Roper.
To read an excerpt from the book: “Sub-Creation: Tolkien’s Philosophy of Imagination“
As summer reaches its crescendo, we are starting to think about autumn and what the colder months will bring. For me, the falling of leaves and the chill mists on the evening air always draw me back to Middle-earth, with the desire to journey again through the imaginal realm.
Thus, it is my delight to announce that with Nura Learning I will again be teaching the course Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For those who were unable to attend last year, we gladly invite you to join us. We have also heard that some class participants from last year wish to repeat the annual journey, and we welcome you back with open arms. It will be such a pleasure to go on this adventure together with new and old travelers alike. We are also offering the course on a weekend this time, and at an earlier hour of the day, to be able to accommodate more people’s schedules both in terms of work commitments and time zones!
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien has been a beloved story to several generations since its publication in the mid-1950s. The story has a timeless quality to it, and engages with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. The Lord of the Rings blends otherworldly romance with the high rhetoric of epic mythology, at times interwoven with the internal depths of the nineteenth century novel and the political climate of the twentieth century. As Tolkien’s close friend and colleague C. S. Lewis once said: “Nothing quite like it has been done before. This book is like lightning from a clear sky . . . here are beauties which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron.”
The Lord of the Rings is a text treated by many as a sacred text, one to be returned to year after year, or read aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings has become a myth for our time. This course, now in its second year running, offers a journey through Tolkien’s magnum opus in a community of learning, guided by a scholar who has spent more than two decades engaging Tolkien’s writings and artwork. This course is designed both for newcomers to Tolkien’s narrative, and for veteran travelers through Middle-earth’s many realms. Together we will explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of Tolkien’s epic story, connecting The Lord of the Rings to the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and situating Tolkien’s process of writing within his own powerful experiences of the imaginal realm.
We are welcoming back students who took the course in Fall 2018, who might like to journey once more through the imaginal realm in a company of fellows, continuing the tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings as an annual ritual.
To learn more and register, please visit: Nura Learning: Journey to the Imaginal Realm
Teaching Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings through Nura Learning was such a wonderful success last autumn, that we are now offering a new course devoted to reading Tolkien’s less well-known and more mythic work, The Silmarillion. Having the opportunity to teach Tolkien’s works has connected me to an extraordinary group of students, a devoted community of learners who have loved Middle-earth as I have, and who have wandered the imaginal realm with courage and curiosity. Whether you were part of the course on The Lord of the Rings, or are a newcomer to Nura Learning’s extraordinary educational platform, it would be a joy to have you in this course on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.
Before Bilbo Baggins and the dragon, before Frodo and the Ring, before the love story of Aragorn and Arwen, Middle-earth had already been the scene of innumerable tales: of Elves and Dwarves, Valar and Maiar, dragons and balrogs, and a struggle against evil that started before the world was even created. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion begins with a cosmogony, and unfolds with an Elvish mythology and history that could rival the great myths and legends of the Norse, Greek, and Celtic traditions.
This course guides the reader through Tolkien’s sweeping saga of the First and Second Ages of Arda. The expansive vision and grand language can make The Silmarillion a more challenging read than The Lord of the Rings, so this course is designed to unpack the philosophical, spiritual, and literary meanings within Tolkien’s text. When Christopher Tolkien published the edited volume of his father’s writings in 1977, The Silmarillion was met with mixed reactions. Audiences had hoped for a book like The Lord of the Rings, but instead received a text that sounded, in the words of one disgruntled reader, like the Old Testament. Yet these stories were Tolkien’s most beloved—narratives that he had been writing and reworking since the First World War until nearly the end of his life. In this course we will view The Silmarillion through the lens of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation, coming to understand the imagination and creativity that stands behind a full work of mythology written down by one man.
To learn more and register, please visit: Nura Learning: Sub-Creating Middle-Earth
By the way, if you missed the course Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we will be offering it again in Fall 2019!