This is a long excerpt from a paper that I wrote many years ago. I came across it during a purge of my hard drive (a fun pursuit for a Friday night). It is no longer particularly representative of my thinking but I am posting it for a few reasons. One is that the characterization of Frodo as a shamanic figure still rings true to me. Another is that I hope my possibly naive reading of LotR will spark discussion but the most important one is that I hope it will prompt those of you better versed in Jungian psychology than I am (and you know who you are) to share your views. In any case, if you can trudge through this post, I would love to know what you think of it. (No pressure to any of you, of course.)
Among the early champions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was the poet, W.H. Auden. Auden recognized Tolkien’s “imaginary world and feigned history” for what it was, not a modern novel, characterized by the cynicism that often passes for verisimilitude, but an Heroic Quest that functions as “a symbolic description of our subjective personal lives.” Unlike traditional quest stories, however, The Lord of the Rings does not describe a journey to gain something but to lose it, not to acquire an object of power but to consign it to its immaterial origins. The quest is a quest of renunciation but also of awakening. When power is forfeited, wisdom is gained.
In the completion of this “quest in reverse,” Tolkien assigns each of the four peoples of Middle Earth a crucial part. In the natural order of the world Tolkien created, each race, each being has its role to fulfill. If, indeed, The Lord of the Rings, like all myth, serves as a metaphor for subjective human experience, then each of the four races and, in fact, each individual character, can be regarded as reminiscent of stages in human spiritual development. It is, thus, possible to use the story of the quest as a kind of guide to the process by which all aspects of the human psyche are shuffled into their proper place. In his lecture, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Gnosis for Our Day,” gnostic scholar, Stephan Hoeller, likens Elves, Men and Dwarves to the three soul types first postulated by the Alexandrian gnostic, Valentinus.
The Elves, the first born of all the races, the ones who walk in the glow of starlight, Hoeller likens to the pneumatics, people of spirit who are “really no longer of this world” but are “on their way to another, greater spiritual state.” Through the Elves, with their elegant language, songs and stories, Middle Earth retains a link to its numinous past. Men, though by no means a homogeneous group, can be characterized as psychics, people of “the mind-emotion complex”, of soul rather than spirit. They are practical, crafting tools and laws, building civilizations and consciously striving to shape history. Finally, the dwarves can be likened to the hylics, the people of the earth. They are often lustful, driven by the desire for material wealth, capable of sensing “some of the greater archetypal themes of life” but viewing these in “rather concrete terms.”
For the Hobbits, from whom emerge the true heroes of the tale, a special category must be reserved. Hobbits are a cheerful, comfort-loving race who make their homes in elaborately constructed holes in the cultivated ground of the Shire. Hobbits prefer family history to adventure tales, have a love for the conventional and a dread of anything beyond the tidy boundaries of home.They loathe water and the thought of the sea, the unexplored depths of which can be easily likened to the human unconscious, causes them to shudder. In Jungian terms, the smug, provincial Hobbits function as a suitable proxy for the unindividuated human psyche.
In C.G. Jung’s psychology, individuation is the “process by which a person integrates unconscious contents into consciousness, thereby becoming a psychologically whole individual.” It is an “expression of life’s inborn urge toward growth, expansion, and development of innate capacities.” A xenophobic culture, suspicious of new experiences, turning aside from all in themselves that is, in Tolkien’s words, “high and perilous,” is hardly the place one would expect to find examples of the full range of soul types. It is, nevertheless, among the Hobbits and their ilk, in the figures of Frodo, Sam and Gollum on the final grueling stretch of the quest, that we see the most telling interaction of the pneumatic, psychic and hylic personalities.
Frodo is the cousin and heir to the peculiar Bilbo Baggins, hero of Tolkien’s earlier tale. The unconventional pair are hardly representative of their fellow Hobbits. Both reside at Bag End, the finest specimen of a Hobbit hole in the Shire, described by a more typical Hobbit as “a queer place and its folks are queerer.” Bilbo and, thus, Frodo, are descended from the notorious Tooks, a family who, because of an adventurous streak and an inconceivable fondness for boats, are spoken of mostly in whispers. Bilbo, in part because of his “Tookishness,” was selected by the wizard, Gandalf, who is identified by Tolkien as a kind of “incarnate angel,” to assist in the recovery of some treasure from a dragon. As a result, Bilbo returned to the Shire with a great deal of wealth, an unprecedented reputation for strangeness and the Ring of Power secreted among his possessions.
It is not until Bilbo voluntarily, but not without struggle, passes his mysterious prize to his cousin, Frodo, that Gandalf begins to suspect the true nature of the Ring. It is, in fact, The One Ring forged by the evil Lord Sauron for the consignment of his own dark powers.The Ring, we come to learn, holds a disturbing sway over anyone who claims to own it. By developing a bond with its possessor that is not unlike a contemporary concept of addiction, the Ring becomes an object both hated and adored. It has the power to extend life at the cost of rendering the ego uncomfortably thin “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread,” and to raise its wearer to the greatest heights of power that can be conceived of by his own imagination. Gandalf concludes that, to ensure the safety of the Shire and all of Middle Earth, the Ring must be destroyed. This can be accomplished only by transporting the dreaded object far from the boundaries of the Shire to the place where the Ring was made to the foul land of Mordor and, ultimately, the volcanic mountain of Orodruin, where Frodo must cast the Ring into the fire that forged it.
As a Took and because of certain inclinations he shares with his benefactor, Frodo can be said to exhibit character traits that are as close to the pneumatic type as is possible for a Hobbit. Frodo, even before he takes up the quest, is different from his peers. He is “an Elf-friend” who speaks the high language of the Elves, has been known to walk alone in the starlight, and who, early in his adventure, begins to dream of the sea. Though he loves the Shire as much as any Hobbit, he recognizes that he will, one day, give into a compulsion to leave it. It was at the age of fifty “that adventure had suddenly struck Bilbo” and Frodo senses that his own fiftieth birthday is, likewise, a portent for change. He begins to look at maps and wonder about “the white spaces” beyond the borders of the Shire. Something, it seems, is calling to the Took in Frodo, just as it had called to Bilbo many years before.
Frodo’s personal insight and prescience bear comparison to the real-world experiences of other pneumatic types—saints, mystics and, perhaps the primal pneumatic, the shaman. In The Strong Eye of the Shaman, Robert E. Ryan describes the shamanic novice as someone who “appears aberrant and alienated from his general community” but who, nevertheless, accepts, for the sake of the community, a summons to “the shamanic vocation” that “traditionally comes from within and…speaks to the shaman with a compelling necessity.”As is the case with Frodo’s mentor, Gandalf, those who facilitate the call are “denizens of the Otherworld” who “work from the inside outward, galvanizing emerging realities innate in the shaman that it is his destiny to bring forth.” In acknowledging his natural inclinations, the shamanic novice destines himself to a life that is largely interior and in which he alone does battle with the forces of the unconscious mind that are too harrowing for others in the community to challenge on their own behalf .
Not long after his fiftieth birthday, Frodo accepts the call to bear the ring, “though [he does] not know the way,”and, on behalf of others, he expends “every drop of his power and will” but, like the shaman, his trial is largely internal, rendering his body an almost useless wreck. There is still the matter of the physical journey to the mountain of fire. There are marshes to cross, rocks to climb, food to ration and prepare and enemies to avoid or destroy. In this Frodo is well served by his unfailing, psychic companion, Samwise Gamgee.
Sam is, as Tolkien remarked, “a more representative Hobbit,” who “has, consequently a stronger ingredient of that quality which even some Hobbits found hard to bear: a vulgarity- by which I do not mean a mere ‘down-to-earthiness’—a mental myopia which is proud of itself, a smugness (in varying degrees) and cocksureness, and a readiness to measure and sum all things from a limited experience largely enshrined in sententious traditional ‘wisdom.’” “Imagine,” Tolkien goes on to say, “Sam without his education by Bilbo and his fascination with things Elvish.”
It may be that his fascination with the higher culture represented by things Elvish accounts for Sam’s initial devotion to Frodo and willingness to depart the Shire but, because he is a relatively unenlightened disciple, Sam’s simple love for Frodo ultimately trumps his fascination with all in the larger world that Frodo represents. The spiritual convictions of psychics generally depend on faith and discipleship rather than on the direct experience of the transcendent that is available to pneumatics. This principle is well illustrated in Sam’s first encounter with Elves in the forest of Mirkwood. Sam, who had longed to meet such radiant beings, could have been expected to lose himself completely in the experience of Elven food, song and story, but he never forgets his duty to remain near his master. Rather than allowing the Elves to carry him away to a high bower and a soft bed, he sits “curled up at Frodo’s feet”where at last he drifts off to sleep.
Many scholars, most notably Jane Chance in her book subtitled The Mythology of Power, have expressed mild discomfort with Sam’s role as Frodo’s servant but it is important to recall that, as a Fairy-story or quest tale, The Lord of the Rings depicts not a temporal but a spiritual hierarchy, the hierarchy that exists within the psychic potential of each individual and in which every role a human being may be called upon to play, whether servant or master, has its place. Within the spiritually advanced personality, the pneumatic is dominant, with psychic and hylic characteristics in service to greater, pneumatic goals. Certainly, without Sam’s psychic gifts—his awareness of the value of a good piece of rope, his thriftiness with food and water rations, his willingness to carry his debilitated master on his back and even, at one point, to bear the Ring himself because it was what he thought his master would have wanted—Frodo would not have survived the wasteland of Mordor and the War of the Ring would have been lost.
Sam is a good, loyal hobbit and a beloved character but Tolkien, probably because he was not bound by his readers’ unconditional affection for Sam, was able to acknowledge that Sam never really understood his master and was unable to follow Frodo “in his gradual education to the nobility of service to the unlovable and of perception of damaged good in the corrupt.” Thus, had Sam been given his way, Gollum, Frodo’s third companion through the end of the quest, would have been killed or abandoned to a slow death before Sam had a chance to cultivate compassion for the wretched creature.
Gollum is not exactly a hobbit but rather a pathetic (even in the older sense of the word) frog-like creature who is a kind of ancestor to the Hobbits. Gollum once possessed the Ring. It was from him that Bilbo obtained it, by honest means or not, and was able to pass it on to Frodo. The Ring corrupted almost utterly the very corruptible Gollum. Rather than using it to obtain power or wealth as a larger personality might have done, he used it to steal food, to stealthily capture the fish he liked to eat while they still wriggled in his grasp and to retreat from the Shire-like society that shunned him because of his baseness.
Yet, even after many hundred years of such debasement, Gollum is no mere animal. In spite of his long, dark solitude, he retains some of the vestiges of the culture from which he fled. He is, for example, not an entirely literal being but is able to recall riddles and simple songs. This suggests that he has not all together lost his sense of “the greater archetypal themes of life” that are often passed down by such means from parent to child. In contrast to the wistful Hobbit and Elven songs known to Frodo and Sam, however, the rhymes Gollum prefers tend to be about food and he is more likely to regard a stranger as a potential meal than a potential companion. Gollum refers to himself and the Ring as “precious” and values nothing more than the fleeting relief that the Ring provides from his hunger, anxiety and pain. As a sentient being reduced to an almost exclusively carnal existence, Gollum represents the depths to which the hylic personality can sink when its higher motivations are left entirely untended. Still, Frodo comes to believe, and frequently asserts to Sam, that Gollum is not irredeemable.
The Ring allows Frodo to see and sense a transcendent reality that others cannot. At Emyn Muil, the Elven rope he and Sam use to scale the cliffs seems to him alone to glow, perhaps because it has about it something of the Otherworld, something of that benevolent quality that Sam mistakenly calls Magic. Later, as they make their way through Mordor, Sam often spies Frodo with his left hand “raised as if to ward off a blow, or to screen his shrinking eyes from a dreadful Eye that sought to look into them.” The Ring also separates Frodo cruelly from physical reality. “No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass are left to me,” he confesses. “I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.” Frodo has begun to see, even with his “waking eyes,” the wrenching, eternal opposites that, within the average psyche, emerge from the unconscious mind mercifully softened through the lens of dream.
He, better than anyone, comes to know what it is like to exist with one part of yourself in the material world and another within the intangible realm from which the Ring draws its power. He understands how the Ring can tempt and torture and because of this he empathizes with the painful division of Gollum’s personality that is characterized by Gollum’s unusual way of talking to and about himself. “I will not touch the creature,” Frodo tells Sam upon capturing Gollum at Emyn Muil. “for now that I see him, I do pity him.” Frodo understands that, as Gandalf once foretold, Gollum is still likely to have a part to play in the Ring’s destruction.
In a personal letter, Tolkien remarked that “any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end.” Sam was certainly prudent and, of course, he was right about Gollum but Frodo’s wisdom was of a different kind than Sam’s and, as the story eventually illustrates, Frodo was also right. Sam is twice, once at Emyn Muil and, more significantly, at the precipice deep within Orodruin, allowed to see with the “other vision” that Frodo exhibited throughout the journey to Mordor.
At Emyn Muil, Sam perceives Frodo to be a great lord with Gollum sniveling at his feet. At Orodruin, perhaps because of his brief contact with the numinous evil focused in the object of the Ring, Sam’s revelation is similar to but more vivid and complete than his first. For a moment, Sam, the consistent median between the hylic and pneumatic extremes, sees Frodo and Gollum in full and as they truly are. Frodo, in spite of the almost broken body apparent to ordinary vision, is revealed as an unapproachable figure clothed in white but burdened by a terrible “wheel of fire.” Not surprisingly, Gollum appears as “scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage…” Sam’s momentary glimpse of the transcendent world in which Frodo wages his personal battle with temptation provides us some help in understanding why Frodo fails when it is at last time to relinquish the Ring.
At the crucial moment, Frodo finds that he cannot part with the object of the quest and it is only a vicious bite from Gollum and a providential loss of footing on the edge of a precipice that casts Gollum, the Ring and the third finger of Frodo’s hand into the fire. It was Frodo’s pneumatic empathy for Gollum that allowed the wretched creature to survive long enough to reach the place of the final struggle but, at the moment of crisis, Frodo becomes at last “untouchable by pity.” Instead it is Sam who, in an uncharacteristic instance of compassion, again brought on by his experience with the Ring, finds himself suddenly able to guess “the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever again in life.” Sam, poised with sword in hand over the pleading Gollum, chooses not to strike and Gollum is free to attack Frodo, thus consigning himself and the Ring to the fire.
In spite of his obvious, pneumatic tendencies, Frodo did not have it within himself to resist the spiritual forces to which he allowed himself to be subjected and no amount of internal warfare would have given him the resolve to destroy the Ring. Instead, it is what Tolkien called “Providence,” using each of the three companions as Its instrument, that achieves the necessary victory. For Tolkien, this was inevitable. “The power of evil in the world,” he explained, “is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’” but “the Cause” triumphs because “the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”
As for Sam’s part, sparing Gollum was not a prudent act, according to the psychic’s rational view of life. Of course, most of us, like Sam, never fully understand “the Cause” but devote ourselves to the service of those who do and, through our efforts, receive moments of understanding that allow us, in spite of ourselves, to do some good. Orodruin was not, as fate would have it, the end for Frodo and Sam and we see in the chapter Tolkien calls “The Scouring of the Shire” that Sam’s insight proves to be transitory. Instead, it is Frodo who is most significantly transformed by the experience of the quest. Rather than mere inclinations, Frodo now exhibits all the traits of a fully realized pneumatic.
Frodo’s behavior upon returning to find the Shire in the hands of wicked Men is heavy with compassion, the fruit of his transformation. It is Frodo who promptly recognizes that the noxious Hobbit, Lotho Baggins, is not, as it at first appears, to blame for the despoiling of the region and it is Frodo who urges restraint in the violence used to overthrow the interlopers. But, once again, pneumatic wisdom is not practical wisdom. The invaders are slain and it is not from Frodo’s shock or sadness but from the labor of Sam’s hands (with the help of a gift from an Elf) that the Shire is brought again into flower.
After an awkward attempt to readjust to his former life, Frodo comes to understand that, like the Elves who have already begun to cross the sea, he no longer belongs in the realm of Middle Earth but is destined for a more spiritual home. Frodo’s early dreams of the sea suggested that he was fated to have a relationship to the unconscious that was radically different from that of the average Hobbit. His long, internal battle with the Ring fulfilled that prophecy but the mind is too complex to be charted in a single quest. According to C.G. Jung, the unconscious can be divided into two layers, the personal and the collective. The collective layer is deeper and older than the personal. In Middle Earth, the collective unconscious has its fullest expression in the collective memories of the undying Elves. When Frodo’s mission is at last complete, the sea begins to call to him again and he makes the decision to leave Middle Earth for Elvenhome.
Elvenhome, located on the lost continent of Aman within the Blessed Realm, is the original home of the Elves. Aman was once part of the larger world but is now accessible only to pneumatics, in other words, to the ring-bearer and the Elves. Others who try to reach it will find themselves lost in deep, vast waters, just as the unprepared waking mind that ventures too far into the mystery of its own origin may find itself lost in the great sea of the undifferentiated unconscious. Because of his trial with the Ring, Frodo is now ready for the crossing. He makes certain, however, to put his affairs in order before departing.
While still lost in the despair of his struggle in Mordor, Frodo had an insight about his future. He recognized that he would never again have need of a weapon and gave to Sam his treasured sword, Sting. It is as if Frodo understood that, though it would no longer be his place to perform the brutish, physical work of defending his home, the time had not yet come when such work could be wholly set aside by others. “You are my heir,” Frodo now tells Sam before boarding the ship to Elvenhome, and he tries to comfort his friend with the knowledge that there is still much to be done in the Shire.
More than any other aspect of the quest, the ultimate fates of the three companions provide the most persuasive evidence of their spiritual status. In spite of Frodo’s stewardship, the hylic Gollum was unable to rally the spiritual resources to transcend the effects of the Ring’s corruption. The final disposition of his soul Tolkien allows to remain a mystery, never requiring readers to conclude that Gollum was entirely beyond redemption. Sam, however, remains “one and whole” as Frodo wished and settles down to a good psychic’s natural place in the world, to the reassuring performance of civic duties, the raising of a family and to the true fulfillment of his legacy–the completion of the book begun long ago by Bilbo after winning some treasure from a band of trolls and a dragon. When he returned to the Shire, Sam left the spiritual challenges of the quest far behind. This is not to suggest, however, that, unlike Frodo, Sam’s existence will remain forever confined to the temporal plane. As Frodo is careful to recall, Sam, too, was a ring-bearer once and, though his master departs for a place far outside his humble, hobbit-imagination, we are allowed to believe that Sam may, one day, be granted the grace to follow him.