Originally printed in the November - December 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Vachet, Helene. "The Lord of the Rings and the Journey to the Heart of the Universe." Quest 90.5 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2002):204-213.
By Helene Vachet
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadow’s lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
There is a road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it leads tothe very heart of the Universe. I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inward only, and closes fast behind the neophyte forevermore. There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer; there is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through; there is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. For those who win onwards, there is reward past all telling—the power to bless and save humanity; for those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.
EVERYONE HAS ACCESS to at least two worlds—the one in which we live and the one in which we dream and imagine. In fantasy literature, we can directly enter the world of dreams and find a place so real that we can learn and grow from our experience in it. Experiencing a great story can transport us directly into the inner recesses of the universe within ourselves, which we all share, and can open the door to the mysteries of that inner world. This transformational process can be seen especially in a reader’s encounter with The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Written mainly between 1937 and 1949 (which places most of the writing during World War II), The Lord of the Rings did not become a best seller until the 1960s. Despite that late start, it can arguably be called the greatest work of fiction of the twentieth century. Its main themes—good versus evil, friendship, the importance of the individual, and reverence for nature—are as relevant today, during the current campaign against terrorism, as when the book was written. Every chapter has passages that students can interpret in various ways according to their religious and philosophical beliefs. Mary McNamara, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, said, “50 million copies of the trilogy and 40 million copies of its precursor, The Hobbit—have been sold in 35 languages, which puts the Tolkien oeuvre somewhere between the Bible, ‘Mao’s little Red Book’ and that boy wizard [Harry Potter].” New Line Cinema has spent $300 million, hoping that their efforts to translate the story to the screen will produce the films of the century.
The Lord of the Rings is the story of “the fellowship of the ring,” consisting of the wizard Gandalf the Gray, two men (Aragorn and Boromir) the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, and four Hobbits (small people with great hearts Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo the “Ring Bearer”). The book follows the adventures of the fellowship as they set out to destroy the One Ring, the ultimate symbol of evil. If they do not succeed and the war to gain control of it is won by the Dark Lord, Sauron, life as it was known will end and the free people of Middle-earth will be enslaved.
To save Middle-earth, the One Ring—the Ruling Ring—fashioned ages ago by the Dark Lord,Sauron, must be destroyed by throwing it back into the Cracks of Doom, where it was originally forged. No one, not even a great wizard or warrior can wear the One Ring without being corrupted by its seductive powers. Frodo reluctantly volunteers to carry the ring to its destruction. Elrond, the immortal, bearer of the greatest of the Elven rings—Vilya, the Blue Ring—agrees that this quest is Frodo’s destiny: “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will.”
The great War of the Ring cannot be detailed here, but the encounters of some of the leading characters with the One Ring as they journey to the Cracks of Doom can be briefly treated. Because we, ourselves, have not yet destroyed the products of the One Ring—our desire for power, our greed, selfishness, pride, and lust—we can learn from the reactions of these characters as they encounter the Ring. The characters fall into two categories, like those in Blavatsky’s passage above—“those who win onwards” and “those who fail,” and there is also a shadow.
The shadow is a psychological manifestation of the occult and scientific concept of polarity. Ed Abdill, a Theosophical writer and speaker, says that all polarities derive from the initial polarization of the One, which results in the breaking of the primordial unity of all things to form the universe. From this act, come such polar opposites as space and substance, inner life and outer form, positive and negative, and good and evil. Without polarity, there would be no universe, no struggle, no contrast, no limitation, no growth, and no shadow.
One of Carl Jung’s great insights, one that particularly resonates with The Lord of the Rings, was that the ego (our conscious sense of ourselves) and the shadow (the unconscious or repressed aspects of our personality) come from the same psychological source and that they exactly balance each other. To make light is to make shadow. One cannot exist without the other. This concept is critically important in understanding one’s danger in joining a spiritual organization, in doing good deeds, and in following a spiritual path. The shadow also explains why so many converts are disillusioned when they join a spiritual organization. They want to make spiritual progress, and they ignore their shadows at their peril. In The Lord of the Rings, the truly wise are attentive to their shadows.
Maria Louise von Franz, the Jungian writer, identified the shadow with the entire unconscious,everything that is not known consciously. If we fail to acknowledge our shadows and pretend that we are more advanced than we are or if we fail to realize that we have unfinished karma waiting to surface and neglect to integrate our shadow, it will regress as time progresses. If the shadow becomes too powerful, it can take over the conscious personality. The Ruling Ring is utterly evil and acts as a triggering mechanism to unleash the shadow when anyone possesses it or desires it. That is the price one pays to access the Ring’s power. To its wearer, the One Ring gives mastery over other living creatures, in proportion to the evolutionary stature of its owner.
Those Who Win Onwards
The Hobbit Frodo has inherited his dwelling, his riches, and a magic ring from Bilbo Baggins, his uncle, who many years previously had gone on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf and twelve dwarves to regain the treasure taken by the dragon Smaug. During his adventure, Bilbo encountered a Hobbit like creature called Gollum, who had lost a magic ring that Bilbo had just found. The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the trilogy, begins with Bilbo’s one-hundred and eleventh birthday party and the passing of that ring to Frodo.
The experience of the ring, which Frodo learns is in fact the One Ring, provides a catalyst that expands Frodo’s consciousness so that he is able to transcend his own experience. Its power enables him to understand others, and the importance of his mission gives him the courage to proceed on his journey to destroy the Ring. However, the power of the Ring keeps Frodo so ensnared that he cannot relinquish it without assistance.
In Lothlórien, the idyllic land of the Elves, Frodo meets the Lady Galadriel, and, with his heightened awareness, he is able to perceive her Elven ring. Galadriel says:
It cannot be hidden from the ring-bearer, and one who has seen the eye. Verily it is in the land of Lórien upon the finger of Galadriel that one of the three remains. This is Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, I am its keeper. He [the Dark Lord] suspects, but he does not know—not yet. Do you not see wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.
Although Frodo is not able to release the ring without help, his martyrdom in carrying it, and the increased understanding he displays particularly at the end when dealing with the corrupted Saruman and Wormtongue, earn his passage to the Undying Lands across the great sea. One can compare Frodo’s hesitancy and timorous questions at the beginning of the quest, when he finds out that Sauron may be seeking the ring, to his growth at the end of the trilogy. At first he is distraught:
“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo “far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature [Gollum], when he had a chance!”
Near the end of the last book, Frodo responds to Saruman’s failed attempt to kill him in a different way:
“No, Sam!” said Frodo. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case, I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us: but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”
Frodo, in his journey to the Cracks of Doom, that is, into matter, has passed beyond what life in his comfortable world of the Shire can teach him. He is ready for the next step in the evolutionary journey, like the Fool of the Tarot cards. The Fool carries a pouch, which can symbolize a bag of memories, the essence of all his past experience, carried forward from one incarnation to another. We must use spiritual sight as a means of unlocking the secrets of that pouch, not the ring of power made by Sauron; instead, we must look within to find the path to the heart of the universe.
The apotheosis of the Wizard Gandalf begins in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book ofthe trilogy, and is a continuing theme. Near the beginning of the story, Frodo guilelessly offers the Ring to Gandalf, saying that bearing it is too great a task for him, but Gandalf refuses the Ring:
With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and—more deadly. . . . Do not tempt me. I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength.
Gandalf’s insight reveals that he understands the nature and peril of the shadow. From his refusal to take the Ring, Gandalf gains the increased strength of will to resist and help break the power of Saruman, the Balrog, the Orcs, the Ringwraiths, and other evil beings in Middle-earth and to complete his task of heading the forces of good against Sauron, the Dark Lord. In the process, he transforms himself from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White; and, in the end, earns the right to depart by sea to the Undying Lands. So the power to do good stems from our strength, which is the result of winning the battle against temptation—:in other words, facing and integrating our shadow.
Gandalf can be compared to the Tarot card of the Hermit. Its number is nine, which stands for completion or attainment, meaning that control has been established over the beast in us, our animal nature, symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by the Balrog. The Hermit carries a lantern, the light in which appears as two interlaced triangles, symbolizing human consciousness in contrast with Saruman’s degeneration at Orthanc.
In the course of the great adventure, Frodo and the company of the Ring pass into Lothlórien, where Frodo offers the One Ring to the Elven Queen, Galadriel, after she shows him his future in her magic mirror. This episode is similar to Frodo’s offer of the one Ring to Gandalf:
“You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel. . . . I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”
“. . . And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! . . . I pass the test. . . . I will diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”
In Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, Galadriel is described (before her arrival in Middle-earth) as having dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage, but what saves her from being seduced by the Ring is her noble and generous spirit and her reverence for the Valar, the godlike beings of the Undying Lands. Also she has a marvelous gift of understanding and insight into the minds of others, and, unlike the Dark Lord, she uses her power with mercy and wisdom. Tolkien says that in reward for her service against Sauron and, above all, for her rejection of the temptation to take the ring when offered to her, her prayer is granted, and she is allowed to take a ship to the Undying Lands, a place suggestive of the after-death kingdom of Devachan. It almost seems that Frodo was meant to offer the one Ring to both Gandalf and Galadriel to give them the opportunity to face and integrate their shadows.
There is a connection between Galadriel and the Star card of the Tarot. The goddess depictedon it is pouring substance from a pitcher into a pool, reminiscent of the Mirror of Galadriel.Thus naked star woman, earth mother goddess, and Aquarian water-bearer is the same eternal Isis whose identity is kept secret from us by invisible veils of maya. However, she reveals herself voluntarily through greater insight into her workings to those who have proven their worthiness, like Frodo. This is evocative of what Joy Mills, a noted Theosophist, has said about Yoga. The practitioners of Yoga remove the veils that bar the profane from knowing, but the veils are there to force us to go through the process in order to raise our consciousness to the point of knowing.
Those Who Fail
Sauron was one of the Maiar, an angelic being, comparable to Lucifer, the fallen Angel of theJudeo-Christian tradition. Sauron, like Melkor, his teacher—an earlier personification of evil, did not sing to the same tune as Iluvator, the divine Creator of The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic mythology of Middle-earth. Sauron’s desire for individuality and power engulfed him in many schemes to gain the secrets of the Elves and to control others. His selfish desires closed his inner ear and kept him from hearing the beauty in Iluvator’s song, which expresses the harmony of the world and the brotherhood of all beings.
In early times, Sauron’s beauty of face and form masked his corruption, just as the wisdom of Gandalf and the beauty and intuition of Galadriel masked the potential for evil in their shadows. What saved them was their ability to look inward. Sauron deceives not only others but also himself. Eventually, his treachery and evil deeds completely corrupt his vision, and he is unable to retain and manifest the beauty of form that was characteristic of his kind, so he degenerates into a hideous creature with a yellow lidless eye. He becomes so obviously evil that he can no longer deceive anyone by his appearance. We can learn from Sauron’s downfall to look within for a true inner vision of the universe and not be deceived by outward appearances, however compelling they may seem. His lidless eye is always looking for the Ruling Ring, outwardly, away from Mordor, because it was inconceivable to him that anyone would take the ring, unused, to the Cracks of Doom in Mordor in order to destroy it.
We also learn from Sauron that Tolkien’s view of evil is cyclical, as is the Theosophical view of all life. H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (2:189) writes, “those glorious thinkers, the Occultists, trace cycle merging into cycle, containing and contained in anendless series.” Gandalf says to Frodo, “always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.” Sauron is a shape that rose again from being the vanquished Necromancer of Mirkwood to becoming Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor.
There is a link between Sauron and the Tarot. Each card of the Major Arcana of the Tarot deckis related to a Hebrew letter. The name of the Hebrew letter ayin, which is associated with the card of the Devil, means “eye” and signifies “outward appearance.” Sauron is depicted as a lidless yellow eye, ever moving and searching. The Devil has been called the “father of lies.” In Jewels of the Wise (Holy Order of Mans, 1974), the unknown author writes, “The Devil, called ‘father of lies,’ is holding up his palm to full view, trying to tell you that what you see before you is all there is . . . in contrast to the Hierophant, who told you that there is always more than is seen or can be revealed.” The Hierophant’s message relates to intuition and inner hearing, keynotes of Gandalf and Galadriel.
Saruman is head of a secret order, Wielders of the Flame of Anor. He is one of the Istari, theOrder of Wizards, to which Gandalf also belongs. In the Unfinished Tales, Tolkien says the Istari have the ability to incarnate at will. Wizards were sent to Middle-earth by the Valor. They were not to rule others or overpower them with majesty of form, but rather, in the guise of humble, aged men, to advise and persuade humans and elves to be good and to unite in love and understanding. This sounds like the Great Brotherhood of Masters in esoteric tradition.
Saruman, also known in The Unfinished Tales as the White Messenger, who was skilled to uncoverall secrets, fell from his high mission and became proud, impatient, and enamored of power. In fact, he became a rival to Sauron, the Dark Lord, and sought to overthrow him by gaining the One Ring, but instead was ensnared by that mightier dark spirit. In The Masters and the Path, C. W. Leadbeater says about the Path, “There is the possibility of falling back. . . . if there is the least tinge of pride in the man’s nature, he is in serious risk of a fall.”
There is a correlation between the Tarot card of the Tower and Saruman with his fortress of Orthanc. The tower can signify an attempt to build a link from earth to heaven instead of from heaven to earth. In other words, to build an earthly structure to a far-off God, instead of preparing the temple of our own vehicles, fit to hold the indwelling God already there. Another interpretation that fits this situation is the imprisonment of ourselves within the narrow strictures of our self-imposed beliefs instead of realizing that the bricks of our tower are composed of the clay of Adam and therefore vulnerable.
In Jewels of the Wise, the author also compares the Tower card to the athanor, the alchemical vessel in which the alchemist transmutes base metals into gold. The athanor is “a furnace used by the alchemists, in which a constant heat was maintained by means of a tower which provided a self-feeding supply of charcoal” (Oxford English Dictionary). In other words, in the athanor our base human natures are transformed into spiritual natures, unlike at Orthanc, where spiritual aspirations have given way to pride and baseness is encouraged. It is curious that athanor and Orthanc share the middle letters -than-.
The Hebrew letter peh, meaning “mouth,” associated with the Tower card, is drawn like the letter kaph “closed hand,” except that a small tongue has been added. It is as though peh gives utterance to that which was comprehended by kaph. Saruman had the power to enchant and ensnare others by his voice, and as he became corrupted, so was his message. It is fitting that his servant and messenger is called “Wormtongue.”
Saruman, like Sauron, degenerated in proportion to his greatness. He was the head of the White Council, but his true metal soon became apparent to the bearers of the Elven rings. Cirdan, the shipwright at the Gray Havens, gave Gandalf, not Saruman, Nenya, the Red Ring; and Galadriel says that if her advice had been followed, Gandalf, not Saruman, would have been made head of the White Council. Therefore, to the discerning or intuitive, the seeds of evil or self-destruction can be perceived early. Saruman’s downfall, like that of Sauron, the Dark Lord of similar name, was brought about through pride, contrasting with Gandalf’s humility. His desire to be important caused him to settle at the fortress of Orthanc and to specialize in the study of the lore of the Ring.
Saruman’s link to Sauron stems from his study of subjects similar to those of Sauron, and the final connection between them was a palantir, a seeing stone, by which the ancient race achieved telepathic communication. This linking of his mind with that of Sauron, who had the master palantir, completed the task of corruption. Éliphas Lévi wrote that the Astral Light (which H. P. Blavatsky said is used for telepathic communication) can be “a tempting Demon . . . and the inspirer of all our worst deeds.” Saruman degenerated into Sharkey, a fallen wizard, who amused himself by causing as much destruction as possible in Hobbiton and by ordering his underling, Wormtongue, to resort to cannibalism.
According to Robert Johnson, a Jungian scholar, the shadow, when left alone, regresses to aprimitive state. This regression would also apply to the collective shadow and explains hate crimes, serial murders, periodic wars, and terrorism. It also explains why certain larger than life figures, both in reality and fiction, emerge as princes of light and darkness who can grow into great heroes or degenerate into great or petty criminals. The regression of the shadow explains the degeneration of Saruman, Sauron, and Gollum.
Gollum is enigmatic. In many ways, he is the most complex character in the whole work. He is a creature of conflicting desires of good and evil. Unlike Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle, the Ring finder, who assumed ownership of the One Ring with pity and compassion, Gollum assumed his ownership by killing his friend Deagol and claimed it as his birthday present. The Ring immediately gained ascendancy over him. Yet, in spite of his evil deeds, Gollum saved Middle-earth. If he had not pursued Frodo, the quest would have failed. Why was Gollum like an agent of karma who was born and lived in a period that positioned him to assume this role? It seems that evil is a necessary part of the eternal equation. Would someone totally corrupted have been placed by the universe in such a position?
Gollum’s role is foreshadowed from the beginning when Bilbo had difficulty parting with the Ringand later when Frodo’s reluctance to show it to anyone who wanted to see it went further than mere caution to protect it. Gollum guided Frodo and Sam to Mordor on the treacherous path through Cirith Ungol, which was the only way that Frodo could enter Mordor undetected by Sauron. The selection of this path was dictated by Gollum’s desire for Shelob, the great spider, to kill Frodo, from whose discarded body Gollum hoped to retrieve the Ring. But that evil desire does not negate the good that was achieved by Gollum’s intervention at Mount Doom. There he bit off Frodo’s finger to gain the ring, but he destroyed it as he fell with it to his death in the Cracks of Doom. Although Gollum failed in terms of personal redemption, surely his deed, however unplanned by him, generated enough good karma to insure a new existence in the eternal life cycle under better circumstances. Only the wise know.
There is a relationship between Gollum and the Tarot card of Death. Death can be considered a change or transformation from one state to another. Michael Stanton, professor of English literature at the University of Vermont, calls Gollum a classic case of split or dual personality, a doppelgänger. The split is between that aspect of the poor creature whose original name was Smeagol and who speaks of himself as “I” and the aspect of what he has become, called Gollum, who speaks of himself as “we.” The “we” side of his personality is ensnared by the Ring; the “I” side is the reflection of an originally free being.
The transformation that Gollum brings about in Middle-earth is much greater than his personal psychological change. His act of biting off Frodo’s finger brings an end to the reign of Sauron and the beginning of the new age of human beings. The symbol associated with the card of Death is the Hebrew letter Nun, meaning a “fish,” coincidentally Gollum’s main dietary staple. When Gollum finally leaves the caves where he was hiding from the sun, he finds his way into the forest of Mirkwood where he catches unwary prey and sucks their blood like a vampire—one of the undead.
In facing one’s own shadow, one reaches a holy place. That is the reward. The once hidden nextstep in the journey is now possible. In The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin, the boy wizard Ged finally faces the shadow that has been pursuing him and calls it by its name, which is his own,and he is then able to achieve his destiny—to become the Archmage of Earthsea. We must not, like the pair in Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, wander the earth in search of fulfillment when it is in our own backyard. What we avoid in our own life will provide the clue to our great battle—to recognize and name our shadow.
Without the challenge of the Dark Power, Frodo, Gandalf, and Galadriel would not have grown.We develop only by going against opposition and facing our shadow. All the characters who won“onwards” found their key to the path to the heart of the universe by looking inward, to the Godwithin, which unlocks all mysteries. If we are successful, there will be no “dweller on thethreshold” to confront at death. There will be no secrets of character yet to face. The only secret will be the next unknowable journey.
Cited books by J. R. R. Tolkien:
The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1937.
The Lord of the Rings. 3 vols. (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return ofthe King). London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1954–55.
The Silmarillion. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1977.
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Helene Vachet, a retired educator who taught “Myths and Magic” in the Los Angeles School District, is a third-generation Theosophist and a past president of the Besant Lodge in Hollywood. She last appeared in the Quest in November-December 2001 with her article on “Harry Potter and the Perennial Quest.”