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.
This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of Re-Imagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.
“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.” With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?
On this last New Moon of 2015, I am sharing the introduction to my comprehensive exam on the works and context of J.R.R. Tolkien, the composition of which has been my primary occupation over the last seven months. This is the first of two comprehensive exams to be written for my dissertation on the Red Books of Tolkien and C.G. Jung. Because much of the material in the exam will be included in my dissertation I am not posting it publicly, rather allowing it to gestate until the full book is ready to publish. But I wished to share something of the labor of love in which I have been most recently engaged.
A Comprehensive Exam on The Works & Context of J.R.R. Tolkien
“On the edge of a valley one of Professor Tolkien’s characters can pause and say: ‘It smells like elves.’ It may be years before we produce another author with such a nose for an elf. The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity which is worth oceans of ‘glib’ originality.” – C.S. Lewis, Review of The Hobbit
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! We still remember, we who dwell In this far land beneath the trees, Thy starlight on the Western Seas. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
When Professor J.R.R. Tolkien of Oxford, England set out to write a mythology, he did not know he would end up writing one of the most beloved works of literature of the 20th century. Indeed, he did not know of Hobbits or the King of Gondor, or even of Mount Doom. But he did know about Elves, and Middle-Earth, the endless Sea, and the far shores of Faërie. He knew he wanted to write poems and tell stories that had a particular “quality of strangeness and wonder,” stories that would bring “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires”: the desire “to survey the depths of space and time” and “hold communion with other living things.” And this he did, penning thousands of pages that came to tell the many myths of Middle-Earth.
Over the course of his lifetime, Tolkien published the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the short stories Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootton Major, and the book of poetry The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. He translated the medieval English poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, and wrote scholarly papers on Beowulf and the Ancrene Wisse. But, except for the twelve long years dedicated to the composition of his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s primary creative occupation was writing and re-writing the cosmogonic myths and epic tales of the Silmarillion, a book never published in his lifetime. Indeed, when he passed away in 1973, he left behind him “the serried ranks of box files that contained . . . like beads without a string, the raw material of ‘The Silmarillion.’” As his publisher Rayner Unwin says: “although over the years some authors have written at greater length, few if any have left behind a more purposeful yet inchoate creative complexity than Tolkien.” But, thanks to the decades-long effort of Tolkien’s son Christopher, the world can now read these pages, published as a compact narrative in The Silmarillion, and in the vast drafts and retellings found in Unfinished Tales and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-Earth.
Who knows what form the Silmarillion may have taken if Tolkien had given it the same level of perfectionist revisioning that he gave The Lord of the Rings. But perhaps that is not how the tales of the Silmarillion were meant to be told. Perhaps they were meant to be received in the way primary myth is: with overlapping narratives and changing names, some stories drawn with great detail in both poetry and prose, others sketched as tales to be glimpsed in the background. Exploring the world of Middle-Earth can be like crossing a threshold into another realm, losing sight even of the pages in one’s hands, as far landscapes and poignant beauties pierce to the depths of one’s experience.
As his philological collaborator Simone D’Ardenne writes, “Tolkien’s personality was so rich, so diverse, so vast and so elusive” that to paint any portrait of his life will inherently be inadequate. Although born in South Africa in 1892, Tolkien spent the majority of his life in England, only going to the European continent a few times, or occasionally across the water to Ireland. But this does not mean he was untraveled. Tolkien arguably explored more distant lands than many, but they are lands only found in the imagination. In this comprehensive exam I seek to understand Tolkien’s life and work in the context of his imaginal experiences, and the people and ideas that supported him in having them.
I begin with Tolkien’s family and friends, the literary midwives who helped him bring his mythology to birth. From there I turn to Tolkien’s artwork, the paintings, drawings, and sketches that he made before his writing had begun to take shape. I focus primarily on the early years when he was illustrating The Book of Ishness, although Tolkien continued throughout his life to make beautiful works of art to accompany his stories. From these images I shift to language, the subject that was central to the person Tolkien was. Not only was he a professional philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon, first at Leeds University and later at Oxford, he was an artist of language as well, inventing words, grammar, and etymology for multiple languages of Middle-Earth. Finally, I turn to an exploration of Tolkien’s experience of the imagination, looking particularly through the lens of his theory of Sub-creation. To conclude, I touch on the connection between Tolkien’s work and The Red Book of C.G. Jung, the subject on which my subsequent dissertation will be focused.
Tolkien’s personality was multifaceted; one could encounter him as “the Christian, or the friend, the artist or the humanist, the father or the teacher,” as D’Ardenne writes. Many possibilities are open to us for exploring who he was. In an obituary written long in advance of Tolkien’s death, his close friend C.S. Lewis says: “He was a man of ‘cronies’ rather than of general society and was always best after midnight (he had a Johnsonian horror of going to bed) and in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary, and Christian.” If he was best in his small circle of intimates, perhaps that is the place to meet him first—among his own Fellowship.
 C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 209.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 78.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014), 4.
 Rayner Unwin, “Early Days of Elder Days,” in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-Earth, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 247
 C.S. Lewis, “Professor J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Hobbits and Inventor of a New Mythology” in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1979), 15.
Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010.
Caldecott, Stratford. The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2012.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
–––––. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
–––––. Tolkien the Medievalist. Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.
Croft, Janet Brennan and Leslie A. Donovan, eds.Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 2015.
Curry, Patrick.Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien. Zürich, Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2014.
I am not going to tell you a story of this world. And I am going to tell you a story of this world. It is for you to find out where the story came from. Or I will tell you. Or something in between.
For no apparent reason the One chose to become many. For no apparent reason. The key here is whether it was apparent, not whether it was without reason. How can one ascertain the appearances of the reason of the One? The One alone knows the reason for being, and from thence does faith in the One arise. A faith based on reason. But no apparent reason.
We are going to enter a world together. Likely it is a world with which you are deeply familiar. Or somewhat familiar if you have chosen me (or I have chosen myself) to be your guide into this world. But to enter the world together we must, on this day, begin outside it. Usually we awaken already within the circles of this world, if we have chosen to explore it. But today we shall suspend time—for who is more able to suspend time than that which (or whom) we wish to encounter on this journey? We shall suspend time and enter the imagination of a world before time, the world before the world, the world even before the waking into reality of imagination.
I wish to explore Creativity as Trickster. If, as Lewis Hyde claims, Trickster Makes This World, who makes Trickster? The ambiguity, the shape-shifting, the amorality, the potential and paradox: these qualities of the Trickster are birthed from Creativity. Is the Trickster really Trickster? Or does Creativity take hold for some time, and make Trickster what Trickster is?
The world into which were are entering is one that happened to be penned by a single author, or so it is often said. You probably already know his name if you know me. Can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? What must that have felt like? How many times has that happened in the history of our one species? How many beginnings have been retold of our world?
J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “sub-creation” to describe the desire to create and experience Art, what he saw as the shaping and crafting of imaginal experience into artistic form. Yet Tolkien used the term “sub-creator” because he believed the desire to create arose within created beings because they in turn were first created by a divine Creator. “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.” Tolkien saw himself as a sub-creator, making Art—an enchanted, Secondary World—under the creative imagination of God. But the Secondary World Tolkien shaped, a world called Arda, is one that tells the stories of other sub-creators, other divinely created beings who wished to create in their own measure and derivative mode. A world within a world, sub-creators under sub-creators. The desire to create itself, what we might call the embodiment of Creativity, has a Trickster form. Yet no single figure in Tolkien’s world remains Trickster for long: rather the Trickster energy appears to move on, igniting creativity and even chaos, yet ultimately bringing more beauty into the world for its disruption.
I would like to turn to Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, called the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur. Again, can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? The Ainulindalë began with Eru, the One, who first made the Ainur, spirits of divine thought. Eru, called also Ilúvatar in the world of Arda, inspired the Ainur to make music—and they did. Their singing, unbeknownst to them, shaped the world they would eventually build. The Ainur are the first sub-creators under Ilúvatar, shaping the divine imagining they received from Eru. The musical strands wove together and formed the first harmonies:
. . . a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.
But one among the Ainur wished not to be a sub-creator, one whose musical threads were woven into the melodies of all others seamlessly. He wished to be a creator in his own right. His name is Melkor, and at this moment he is the first embodiment of the Trickster in the Deeps of Time before the world of Arda is brought into being. “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own . . . . Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.” Melkor’s thoughts and desires began to give rise to a new music, a strand of melody that clashed with the harmonies already in motion. Some of the Ainur followed his lead and soon the music became “a sea of turbulent sound.” From amidst the “raging storm” Ilúvatar, with a smile, brought forth a new theme. Again Melkor’s discord ignited disruptive clashing and violent disharmony. And in response Ilúvatar drew forward a third theme. The two melodies played simultaneously, conflicting yet interwoven: “there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” Melkor’s music was loud, violent, drowning, and repetitive, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.” The rebellion of Melkor, the desire for individual creativity apart from the Creativity of the One, was ultimately woven into the very patterning of the third theme of music making it all the more beautiful. For it was the sorrow of the third theme, sorrow in response to the violence of the disharmony, that gave it its profound beauty.
Many Trickster themes are woven into this narrative, although the Trickster is not embodied by one being alone. The Trickster energy moved quickly from being to being, never settling but still creating the dynamism of the moment. In Melkor’s rebellion and Ilúvatar’s creative response, the Trickster moved between them, crossing the boundaries between Creator and sub-creator. The Music of the Ainur is the moment of Creation, when the world is first imagined into being. It cannot be done again, and there are no mistakes. Disharmony is part of the world’s story from the beginning, and the suffering it causes gives rise to greater beauty than if all were melodious. So it is that Trickster does indeed make this world, or rather shapes it, by being many agents of creativity in succession.
After the making of the Music, Ilúvatar showed another of the most powerful Ainur how the discordant Music of Melkor had reshaped his own Music, that which had made the waters:
Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heat and fires without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth!
To this, the Ainu of the Waters responded: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.”
In his rebellion Melkor became identified with the Trickster. He had wandered through the Void looking for the Secret Fire, that which grants true Being to the creative impulse. To Melkor is seemed “that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.” As Lewis Hyde writes, the Trickster “embodies and enacts that large portion of our experience where good and evil are hopelessly intertwined. He represents the paradoxical category of sacred amorality.” Melkor faced the darkness of the Void looking for the Imperishable Flame of Creativity, searching for consciousness in unconsciousness. As Tanya Wilkinson writes, “The archetypal Trickster faces both ways, toward consciousness and unconsciousness, embodying contradiction.” Melkor’s desire to create was the gift bestowed on him by the Creator, but it was a gift he sought to wrest to his own devices, and the violence of his attempt to rip away that gift and make it solely his own changed the course of all subsequent actions. Ilúvatar showed the Ainur a vision of their Music, that they might see how their melodies each unfolded into form. Ilúvatar then said: “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.” Perhaps here the One outwitted the Trickster, and became Trickster himself.
Melkor’s role in the beginning was ambiguous, as the role of the Trickster should be. He is the mightiest of the Ainur, “given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge,” and his desire to use those gifts walks the boundary of good and evil. The evils he caused served the ultimate good of Ilúvatar, sorrow and suffering making the poignant beauty of Creation. Only later, when Melkor’s fall was complete, when he became identified no longer as a sub-creator under the One but simply a being marring the sub-creations of the other powerful Ainur, did he lose his ambiguous position. No longer was he named Melkor, meaning “He who arises in Might,” but Morgoth, “the Black Enemy.” If the Trickster is to be found at the boundary, the place of ambiguity, then the moment Melkor chose not to remain in that ambiguity he ceased to be the Trickster. Creative Trickster energy moved on, and found its home in other sub-creators who walk the fine line between good and evil, following the ambiguous path of ingenuity and clever creativity.
Melkor has a foil among the Ainur, one who also desired to make his own independent creations: Aulë, who longed for beings to whom he could teach craft and wisdom. Like the other Ainur, Aulë had recognized that the third themes of the Music signified the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar and Edain—Elves and Humans—who would people the world. Yet Aulë was impatient for their coming, and instead crafted a new race of beings, the Naugrim, called also the Dwarves. In this moment Ilúvatar came to him, and we are able to see here most clearly the divine relationship between Creator and sub-creator. Ilúvatar spoke to Aulë saying: “For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?” Aulë replied with an explanation of his seeming rebellion, so like Melkor’s rebellion in many ways: it came not from a desire for power and lordship in his own right but from a desire for “things other than I am, to love and to teach them.” But it was the inherent desire to create, to be a sub-creator, that Aulë gave most convincing voice to: “Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.” This supplication of the sub-creator is not that of the Trickster, but its effect on the One is such that the Naugrim awaken with their own individual life and wills, independent of their maker. Something new is introduced that would have not existed otherwise, without the seeming rebellion of the sub-creator, or the unexpected move of the Creator to give them life.
A sub-creator shapes a world within a world, Art from the raw material of Imagination. A world within a world naturally has its boundaries, but while within the world it can be difficult to see where the boundaries lie, if it is possible to see them at all. Only when a new world is created do we see that boundary drawn, the moment sub-creator and Creator work together to breathe life into new form. The Trickster waits at the boundaries, the crossroads, the borders, leaping between those who dare to draw a line against what has come before to make something new and different.
In this world we have entered the Trickster seems particularly evasive, changing names and changing shapes, crossing from good to evil and back before there was good and evil to cross between. If he who seems to be a Trickster falls from grace, the Trickster energy moves on, finds somewhere else to be. The Trickster seems to be Creativity itself, the Imperishable Flame that gives life, that is within Ilúvatar and yet is not Ilúvatar. And what is the Imperishable Flame, the Secret Fire?
Why was there a great Music to begin with? Why were the Ainur brought into being? For no apparent reason . . . Is that not the sign of the Trickster?
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “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.
Wilkinson, Tanya. Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld. Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 145.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 15.
“But whoever looks from inside, knows that everything is new. The events that happen are always the same. But the creative depths of man are not always the same.” – C.G. Jung, The Red Book
As I have already explored in the essay “The Red Book and the Red Book: Jung, Tolkien, and the Convergence of Images,” C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien simultaneously underwent profound experiences of the imaginal realm, transformative encounters with the deep psyche that became the prima materia for their lifeworks. While I have previously analyzed the synchronicity of the two Red Books through the parallel images, symbols, and stories brought forward by each of their authors, I have not delved too far into the significance of their synchronic timing. Jung’s and Tolkien’s deep imaginal experiences both began around 1913 and continued until the end of that decade, although the particular vein of creativity set in motion during that time lasted for each of them until the close of the 1920s.
The primary experiences of active imagination for Jung were from 1913 to 1917, but his Red Book period is considered to have lasted until 1930, when he left off inscribing and illustrating his imaginal encounters onto the pages of the Liber Novus. Nearly simultaneously, from 1912 to 1928, Tolkien was illustrating The Book of Ishness, his sketchbook that contained a series of visionary drawings and paintings. The early years of this project were the most abundant, but he continued intermittently to add fantastical images until the end of the 1920s. Meanwhile during the heart of those years, from 1916 to 1925, Tolkien was primarily dedicated to the composition of his mythology, the great cosmogonic cycles that narrate the creation of Arda and the First Age of the world.
Why is the synchronic timing of Jung’s and Tolkien’s imaginal experiences important? Is it simply another coincidence? Or does it intimate some deeper, more profound implication concerning the nature of human existence in the cosmos? One hermeneutic method of unpacking the significance of this timing is archetypal astrology, which reveals the underlying archetypal patterns of the times through the correlated positions of the planets. When two or more planets come into geometrical alignment, the correlated archetypal energies can be seen unfolding multivalently in human and worldly events for the duration of the alignment. When the slower-moving outer planets of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto align with each other, whole epochs of history, lasting years to decades depending on the configuration, reflect the relevant archetypal qualities in myriad ways.
Archetypal astrology provides a lens that can shed new light on our understanding of Jung’s and Tolkien’s experiences during this time period. By looking at the world transits during the years of their imaginal encounters we will be able to see the larger archetypal gestalt in which these experiences were emerging, while touching on Jung’s and Tolkien’s natal charts will illuminate the archetypal patterning of their individual psyches and how this may have further shaped the character of their experiences. Furthermore, we will look at the unfolding personal transits Tolkien and Jung underwent during their Red Book periods, honing in on several significant dates throughout this time, to see how the same world transits interacted with their unique birth charts, indicating differing modes of creative expression for the same archetypal energies.
The planetary alignment that correlates most significantly with Jung’s and Tolkien’s awakening to the imaginal is the opposition of Uranus and Neptune that lasted from 1899 to 1918. The most potent time of both men’s visionary periods took place in the sunset years of this alignment, from 1913 to 1917. In the modern astrological tradition, 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.” Neptune “rules both the positive and negative meanings of enchantment—both poetic vision and wishful fantasy, mysticism and madness, higher realities and delusional unreality.” Furthermore, “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 articulates,
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 relationship with each other, personal and world events with increasing frequency tend to reflect their combined energies. Repeatedly throughout the world’s cultural history 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 first couple of decades of the twentieth century, when the Uranus-Neptune opposition was in effect, was a period of tremendous cultural and artistic innovation and creativity. As Sonu Shamdasani, the editor of The Red Book, writes, “On all sides, individuals were searching for new forms with which to depict the actualities of inner experience, in a quest for spiritual and cultural renewal.” Jung’s and Tolkien’s unexpected awakenings to active imagination and fantasy, and their subsequent outpourings of creative genius, perfectly exemplify the characteristic manifestations of Uranus-Neptune alignments. In Jung’s words, “Our age is seeking a new spring of life. I found one and drank of it and the water tasted good.” His use here of liquid metaphors and symbols—spring, drank, water—are particularly characteristic of the Neptune archetype.
Uranus-Neptune alignments also correlate with “cosmic epiphany” and the “birth of new forms of artistic expression,” which can be seen in the unique artistic format of Jung’s Red Book, and the new languages and mythological composition of Tolkien’s cosmogonic cycles.
If it were possible to briefly summarize the essence of the material that emerged for Jung and Tolkien at this time—an impossible task—one might say that it is an expression of “the quintessential Uranus-Neptune theme of a radical transformation of the God-image and a revolutionary new understanding of the divine will acting in history.” Jung’s Red Book can be seen as a participation in the death and rebirth of God, a renewal of the sacred through an encounter with soul. Similarly, the myths Tolkien began to compose during this same period are a new expression of the creation of the world, a reemergence of God’s creativity in an imaginal realm. As Shamdasani writes, “Jung held that the significance of these fantasies was due to the fact that they stemmed from the mythopoeic imagination which was missing in the present rational age.” Tolkien also would have agreed with this statement as is evidenced in his poem Mythopoeia, of which the following is a fragment:
Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Although human beings have fallen, in Tolkien’s view, and become estranged from the divine imagination by the emergence of disenchanted rationality, we are still able to become alchemical vessels for that sacred creativity, to refract the light of the mythopoeic imagination into our own fantasies and imaginal encounters.
During the primary visionary years of Jung’s Red Book period, the previously discussed Uranus-Neptune world transit was crossing his natal Sun-Neptune square (see Figure 1). In an individual’s birth chart, the Sun is an expression of the personal identity, the autonomous self imbued with conscious awareness, the personality and ego identity, the will to be and to exist, as well as what the individual identifies him or herself to be. Jung’s Sun square Neptune can be seen multivalently expressed throughout his life, for example, in his personal exploration of the archetypal realm, his permeability of identity to the imaginal and spiritual, his later understanding of the Self as an archetype, and his lifelong effort to bring individual consciousness and the archetypal unconscious into fruitful relationship.
At the time Jung’s imaginal experiences began, the Uranus-Neptune opposition of the early twentieth century was crossing not only his natal Sun-Neptune, but the Ascendant-Descendent axis of his chart, the horizon of his birth moment, initiating both a dissolution and liberation of his identity (see Figure 2). The Uranus-Neptune transit was activating and awakening Jung to the eternal vastness of the archetypal realm, drawing forward encounters with imaginal figures who confronted his personal assumptions about the nature of spiritual reality and the psyche, leading to a descent and dissolution of his Solar egoic identity in an encounter with his soul.
The same Uranus-Neptune opposition was also shaping the archetypal atmosphere of Tolkien’s imaginal encounters, but the transit was crossing a different part of his chart, and thus manifesting in a realm other than his Solar identity. When Tolkien wrote the first words of his Middle-Earth mythology in September 1914 the Uranus-Neptune opposition was crossing his natal Venus, whose corresponding archetype relates to art, beauty, artistic creativity, and aesthetic expression (see Figure 3). Because at this time Uranus and Neptune were widening in their orb, now ten degrees apart, Uranus was tightly conjunct Tolkien’s Venus, while Neptune had yet to come into potently effective orb with his Venus. However, over the next several years, from 1916 to 1922, when Tolkien’s mythology was pouring forth from a seeming wellspring of imaginative creativity, Neptune was in tighter opposition to his natal Venus. That the Uranus-Neptune opposition crossed Tolkien’s Venus, rather than the Sun as it did for Jung, is reflected in his chosen form of expression for the emerging material: Tolkien channeled the stream of imaginal energy into the artistic form of mythopoeic narrative, rather than using the experiences as tools to explore his own psyche and personal identity as Jung did. Interestingly, after 1915 all of Tolkien’s works of art were illustrations for his stories, unlike the earliest visionary drawings in The Book of Ishness which have no explanation for their origins other than their titles. Other powerful forces were coming through for Tolkien in those early years of creativity which we will explore later in this essay, but it seems that only once Uranus and Neptune activated his natal Venus did he find his preferred artistic outlet for the imaginal visions he was receiving.
While the long Uranus-Neptune transit crossing Jung’s Sun and Tolkien’s Venus reflect the larger gestalt of the experiences they were each undergoing, a deeper look at their individual transits will reveal the nuanced differences in their experiences and their individual expressions of those encounters. While the larger arc of this project is to show the uncanny convergence of Jung’s and Tolkien’s explorations of the imaginal realm, the current analysis of their divergence will help to unveil the cosmic underpinnings of their unique creative expressions.
A repeated vision shared in different manifestations by Jung and Tolkien was that of a Flood, or the Great Wave as Tolkien called it. While we know that Tolkien’s Great Wave visions came to him throughout his life beginning in childhood, primarily as dreams, we do not have specific dates for their occurrence. However, Jung’s first Flood vision took place on October 17, 1913 while on a train journey. He saw an immense flood that engulfed all the lands of Europe, destroying civilization and carrying floating rubble and corpses in its wake. The waters then turned to blood. Two weeks later he had the vision again; eventually he would come to recognize it as a premonition of the coming First World War.
Besides the Uranus-Neptune opposition on Jung’s Sun previously discussed, another major world transit was beginning to come into orb at this time: Saturn conjunct Pluto. As Tarnas writes, Saturn-Pluto alignments coincide with
especially challenging historical periods marked by a pervasive quality of intense contraction: eras of international crisis and conflict, empowerment of reactionary forces and totalitarian impulses, organized violence and oppression, all sometimes marked by lasting traumatic effects.
Less than a year after Jung’s Flood vision, World War I broke out in Europe when the Saturn-Pluto conjunction was in almost exact alignment. Yet during the previous autumn of 1913, Jung had been granted a painful premonition of that war as the wide Saturn-Pluto conjunction was in opposition to his natal Mars, the archetype of the warrior, of battle, anger, and violence (see Figure 4). Jung’s vision contained the combined Mars-Saturn-Pluto themes in the images of mass destruction and violent death, and the bloody wave of battle engulfing the continent. Yet the experience was also a precognitive visionary awakening reflective of the Uranus-Neptune alignment previously explored.
The same Saturn-Pluto conjunction that corresponded with Jung’s Flood vision and World War I was also transiting Tolkien’s chart, but in his case it was opposing his natal Mercury. The archetype of Mercury relates to language, speech, thought, writing, the intellect, education, and all forms of communication. Tolkien’s greatest love, it might be argued, was for languages, for their phonetic sound and resonant meaning, their evolutions and transformations, and their histories and lineages. Tolkien was born with his natal Mercury in an exact square to Saturn, which can be seen in his appreciation for ancient languages and literature (he disliked nearly all literature written after Chaucer, instead dedicating himself to medieval epics like Beowulf and the Norse and Icelandic sagas such as the Elder Edda), his meticulous attention to the details of language and expression, his painstaking and repeated revisions of all his manuscripts striving for an unattainable level of perfection, and his habit of what he called “niggling” over the finesses of his invented languages (see Figure 5). As Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “Tolkien had a passion for perfection in written work of any kind, whether it be philology or stories. This grew from his emotional commitment to his work, which did not permit him to treat it in any manner other than the deeply serious.” All this eloquently expresses the Saturn archetype of seriousness, the old and the ancient, precision, strict standards, revision and correction, meticulous attention to details, all in relation to Mercury’s realm of language and writing.
Pluto slowly transited Tolkien’s natal Mercury-Saturn from 1909 to 1919, the years which encompassed his education at Oxford in Philology, his deeply painful separation from the love of his life Edith Bratt (who later became his wife), the visionary drawings in The Book of Ishness, the composition of his first Middle-Earth poem The Voyage of Earendel, his fighting in World War I including in the Battle of the Somme, the deaths of two of his closest friends, and the earliest compositions of The Silmarillion stories including the cosmogonic myth called the Ainulindalë. As Saturn conjoined Pluto in the sky leading up to World War I, the powerful transformational energies associated with Pluto that had already been working on Tolkien’s mind found a Saturnian form and structure in his invention of languages and the creation of myths to accompany them. If anything truly sets Tolkien apart in the realm of fiction authors it is that he developed multiple, fully-fledged imaginal languages with their own syntax and etymology, languages that feel ancient and powerful in tone and character, with grammatical structures that trace their linguistic evolution through time—all Mercury-Saturn-Pluto themes. During these years it was as though his linguistic capabilities had been opened to the evolutionary stream of language itself, and he was able to participate in the generation and rebirth of new linguistic structures.
Interestingly, coming out of the ten-year transit of Pluto across Tolkien’s Mercury, Pluto then began to oppose Tolkien’s natal Sun, a transit that lasted until the end of the 1920s as he continued to compose the cycles of the First Age of Middle-Earth. Thus, the nearly twenty-year transit of Pluto across his wide Sun-Mercury conjunction entirely encompassed the years Tolkien was writing the myths of The Silmarillion. This was the time period when Tolkien was having the powerful visionary experiences that became the prima materia of his later, more refined works: The Red Book of Westmarch, known better as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
To return to that pivotal moment in the late summer of 1914, when Saturn was conjunct Pluto and the destructive wave of the First World War had been unleashed across the continent of Europe, another potent transit was in the sky, also activating significant aspects of both Tolkien’s and Jung’s charts. At that time the planet Jupiter had come into the Uranus-Neptune alignment, making a conjunction with Uranus that lasted from December 1913 to January 1915. Archetypally, Jupiter is associated with “the principle of expansion and magnitude, providence and plenitude, liberality, elevation and ascendency, and with the tendency to experience growth and progress, success, honor, good fortune, abundance, aggrandizement, prodigality, excess and inflation.” In time periods when Jupiter was aligned with Uranus, as Tarnas writes, “An expansively and buoyantly energizing quality characterized such eras, one that often engendered a certain creative brilliance and the excitement of experiencing suddenly expanded horizons.” As we examined earlier, at this time Uranus was opposing Jung’s Sun, while it was conjoining Tolkien’s Venus. Thus, when Jupiter entered the configuration the expansive, elevating, liberating, breakthrough qualities associated with the Jupiter-Uranus combination could be seen in the profound shift that took place for each of these men during this fourteen-month period.
Under the Jupiter-Uranus conjunction transiting his Venus (see Figure 6), Tolkien encountered the names Earendel and Middle-Earth in the lines of an old Anglo-Saxon poem, both of which played profoundly prominent roles in his mythology. After this discovery, Tolkien composed on September 24, 1914 the poem The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star, now recognized as the first written work in the Middle-Earth legendarium. Truly it was a breakthrough moment, as Tolkien was finding expression for the images and languages that had been coming to him for the last few years. After this point he began to write more stories about Middle-Earth and the peoples that inhabited this land, the Eldar, the many races of Elvenfolk living in the imaginal realm.
Coinciding with this same Jupiter-Uranus alignment, Jung’s Red Book visions were taking a profound turn. A new figure had entered into his imaginal experiences, a wise guide and teacher, one who instructed Jung in a caring, loving, and spiritually illuminating way. This figure was Philemon, the ancient alchemical wisdom-keeper who became Jung’s mentor in the realm of Soul. In Shamdasani’s words, “To Jung, Philemon represented superior insight, and was like a guru to him.” On the day that Philemon was first recorded appearing, January 27, 1914, a remarkable configuration of planets was in the sky. Not only was Jupiter conjunct Uranus in opposition to Neptune as previously discussed, but the Sun, Moon, Mercury, and Venus were also conjoining the longer Jupiter-Uranus conjunction (see Figure 7). This rare and powerful configuration was all crossing Jung’s natal Sun. Not only did this event occur at the new moon, when the Moon conjoins the Sun in a coniunctio of yin and yang energies, but the emergence of Philemon brought into Jung’s psyche a Solar figure representative of his higher self, or Self, whose teachings brought tremendous new insight and awakening, communicated with love, compassion, and wisdom. The transits on this day could be seen as the birth chart of Philemon, which itself would be a fruitful topic to explore in depth.
Finally, to conclude this brief archetypal study, I would like to look at one major aspect that both Jung and Tolkien carried throughout their lives, that can be seen not only reflected in their Red Book periods, but in the entirety of their lifeworks. This is the conjunction of Neptune and Pluto, which occurs when the long cycles of the two outermost planetary bodies align, a meeting that takes place approximately every five hundred years and lasts for about 25-30 years each time. Neptune-Pluto alignments have occurred at the rise and fall of civilizational epochs, the most pivotal moments in history when the entire paradigm of a culture dies and is reborn from the ashes, whether it is the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages, the dawn of the Renaissance, or the turn of the 20th century. As Tarnas writes,
the major Neptune-Pluto cyclical alignments appear to have coincided with especially profound transformations of cultural vision and the collective experience of reality, which often took place deep below the surface of the collective consciousness. 
The most recent Neptune-Pluto conjunction took place from 1880 to 1905, and Jung was born on the cusp of the transit in 1875. Jung lived the first thirty years of his life in Neptune-Pluto’s culturally transformative gestalt, while Tolkien was born in 1892 with the conjunction within 1° orb (see Figures 1 and 5). While a full study could be given to the ways just this single alignment is apparent in both Jung’s and Tolkien’s entire oeuvre, I want to particularly attend to how two specific themes of this most recent Neptune-Pluto conjunction came through Jung and Tolkien: these manifestations are, as Tarnas describes them, “the dying of the gods that had ruled the Western spirit for two millennia and more” and the simultaneous “powerful upsurge of ‘the unconscious’ in many senses.” The profound and transformative encounters with the deep psyche and imaginal realm that both Jung and Tolkien experienced in their lifetimes are highly reflective of the Neptune-Pluto conjunction they each carry. They both had an encounter of overwhelming potency with the collective unconscious by passing through the underworld gateway of imagination. The powerful visions of the Flood that initiated Jung’s descent, and Great Wave dreams that haunted Tolkien, are also clear expressions of Neptune-Pluto: consciousness being violently “flooded” by the unconscious with overwhelming images of decimating waters that destroy and subsume all in their path. Furthermore, the death and rebirth of God in Jung’s Red Book, and the rebirth of Creation and the fall from grace in Tolkien’s cosmogony are but a taste of the ways Neptune-Pluto manifested in their life works. In a time of disenchanted rational modernity these two men seem to have been chosen as alchemical vessels for a deep, cosmic truth to be reborn. As Jung wrote in the pages of The Red Book, “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.” This is the karmic task both Jung and Tolkien carried in their own ways, to encounter the gods in the archetypal realm, and to express their living truths on the pages of imagination.
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.
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.
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.