The Lord of the Rings is a mythopoeic saga that contains hidden mythology and Jungian Archetypes that are still relevant in modern times
We’ve already talked about how Tolkien established the rules of his mythology in the Silmarillion. But the prolific writer created a story within that mythological background, fleshing out the myths and tales of his Legendarium.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he dives deep into the details and brings his imagination to life. Like a true bard, he pens down a functioning word, with heroes, gods, monsters, and human psychology, all elements interacting with each other, outlining a surprisingly vivid reality.
But before we unveil the hidden mythology and archetypes behind the Lord of the Rings books, we need to understand the context of these masterpieces. Some of the symbolism and meaning are relevant to the time they were written.
Lord of the Rings and World Wars
Myths always stem from real-life events. They’re an attempt to immortalize and rationalize significant moments in human history symbolically. We might have forgotten the true historical events behind Norse mythology and Arthurian legends, yet we have a vague idea of what happened.
(Homer’s Iliad, for example, is based on a war between Troy and Greece that truly happened in the past)
In the case of the Lord of the Rings, we can pinpoint exactly what inspired these books, even if it was an unconscious process for the writer. Tolkien himself has stated that his books are NOT allegorical. Yet, one can’t help to notice a lot of parallelisms, given that he did start writing the preliminary material when he was in the trenches.
- The influence of the Ring on Gollum, and the very nature of Gollum, seem to represent the psychological trauma many of the soldiers suffered during and after WW1.
- When the Hobbits return to their homes, everything seems different. The Journey has changed them, the same way war changes a man and his perception of reality.
- Gandalf’s phrase “You shall not pass” is derived from a WW1 battle cry “They shall not pass,” which was famously used at the Battle of Verdun.
- The WW2 and the fall of the authoritative regime is a central plotline in the books, with Sauron representing the ultimate evil; Hitler.
And many many more!
In a time when a whole generation needed a “break” from the war, LOTR came to be a powerful tool for escapism.
Tolkien often talks about the benefits of escapism, citing it as a valid way to heal psychological trauma:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
The Hidden Mythology Behind the World of Lord of the Rings
From the very first chapters of the books, we’re exposed to an eclectic mythological world.
- Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Humans. Tolkien, inspired by the epic poem Beowulf, gave flesh and bones to mythical races we find in old English literature and Germanic folktales.
- The narrative of the One Ring is very similar to the Völsunga saga and the cursed, Andvaranaut ring. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was also inspired by the same texts.
- Sampo, an object of power that appears in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, seems to be another source of inspiration.
- Greek mythology is weaved into the world, from Plato’s Atlantis and the submersion of the Island of Numenor to the Olympian Gods and the Valar.
- Language plays a very important role in the story. In this case, Tolkien “flaunts” his literary skills and creates many different, functioning languages that ornate the world, similar to the European languages and the imaginary borders they raise between nations. Sindarin and British-Welsh, Quenya and Finnish phonology and Greek/Latin grammar, Khuzdul and Hebrew.
Tolkien was a devoted Catholic so a lot of Christian narratives are embedded in this mythopoeic saga.
- The battle of Good vs Evil. Even though this is a universal trope, it is imbued with the moral theology the writer was raised with.
- Humility over Power. Only a humble Hobbit was able to resist the temptation to gain Power using the One Ring. Perhaps one of the most redeeming qualities of the Hobbits is their resistance to corruption.
- Grace and Forgiveness. The downtrodden creature Gollum found redemption through his relationship with Frodo and Sam because they were able to slowly accept and understand that he was simply an instrument of fate.
The books are dense and rich with these mythological parallelisms. The Jungian undercurrent in Tolkien’s character development provides an extra layer to the plotline.
Let’s break down each book of the Trilogy.
The Hidden Mythology and Archetypes Behind the Fellowship of the Ring
In old tales and myths, prophecies are often catalytic. They jolt the Hero to his Journey.
Tolkien cleverly uses the prophecy trope to bind the fate of the whole world to one creature, a Hobbit named Frodo. An Odinic wanderer, Gandalf or Mithrandir – the Grey Wanderer – brings him the news and offers guidance.
Frodo is to embark on the Hero’s Journey and destroy the One Ring. But to do that, he must travel across the world, to the most dangerous place in existence; Mordor.
(A common theme in the monomyth is that the protagonist is knowingly heading to unknown dangers. Even if he survives the challenges and tribulations along the way, his problems just began!)
The ring-bearer won’t travel alone. A company of heroes will accompany him.
Each member of the Fellowship of the Ring represents a Jungian archetype. From the Magician
(Gandalf) and the King (Aragorn) to the Fighter (Gimli) and the Explorer (Legolas). They all have a unique role that pushes the plot forwards and forces the reader to discover how these archetypes manifest inside him.
The symbolism in the first book is abundant. For example, the first “scar” our Hero gets from the Nazgul will be permanent, both physically and mentally.
But perhaps the most significant is the descendence into Moria, the descendant into the darkness, the unknown. It’s the event that sobers up the company and presents the dangers of their endeavor.
Gandalf vs The Balrog
One of the most intriguing dialogues in the whole trilogy is the “exorcism” Gandalf attempts:
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
It’s important to understand the context here. Both Balrog and Gandalf, from a mythological perspective, are avatars, manifestations of Tolkien’s God, Iluvatar. When the wizard is talking to the beast made out of fire and shadows, he’s talking to his OWN shadow. His dark side, the side that was corrupted by the quintessential rival God, Morgoroth.
The Hidden Mythology Behind the Two Towers
The second book in the trilogy breaks up the Fellowship of the Ring. Each separate group has to deal with their own problems.
The title, Two Towers, refers to the Barad-dûr and Orthanc, Mordor and Isengard. What’s interesting here is that Tolkien wanted to present the two sides of Evil.
- Mordor is “natural evil”, the kind that exists in the world regardless of humanity. It’s also the dark side of our personality.
- Isengard is the “human evil”. It’s what we’re capable of doing if we let our repressed emotions and traits subconsciously consume us.
Their respective masters, Sauron and Saruman, also reflect this dichotomy.
- Sauron seeks to destroy “all that is good” in Middle-Earth because it’s his nature.
- Saruman (from saru which means cunning) believes that he can use the Power to change the order of the universe according to what he thinks is good. He’s essentially corrupted.
Eventually, Orthanc -which means the Ent’s Fortress in Beowulf’s mythology- was destroyed by living trees; the Treebeards. In Greek mythology, Gods usually punish the mortals who commit hubris. The Wizard was punished by the same nature he took advantage of.
(Interesting fact: The palantír, a crystal ball, Saruman is using was inspired from a technique called scrying, allegedly used by witches to see the future or communicate with each other)
As the plot progresses, we find that our heroes have to make a stand in Helm’s Deep. Outnumbered and cornered, they’re saved by deus ex machina, Gandalf, a divine intervention.
And it truly is the divine that is helping the mortals. Gandalf the White has returned and he now possesses the strength to make a change. Not by choice, “they”, the Valar, gave it to him so he could serve humanity better.
Tolkien is very careful to not give his characters everything they need immediately. The progression of the plot is intimately connected to the character development, something that we’ve observed a lot in the Iliad.
The Hidden Mythology Behind The Return of the King
While all of this is happening, Frodo and Sam are carrying the Ring to Mordor. But a creature is accompanying them, a creature called Gollum.
We can hypothesize that once upon a time, it was a Hobbit that got corrupted by the power of the Ring. Tolkien always wanted to manifest everything internal to the tangible, physical world. Smeagol is Frodo if he let the Ring corrupt him.
We see this transformation happening slowly, changing him and the way he interacts with the world. At the same time, we also see Smeagol changing back to his more human self.
A big focus of the third book, perhaps of the whole trilogy, is the concept of friendship. Throughout the pages, we’re witnessing the deep connection between Sam and Frodo. Eventually, Sam is the one who manages to save the Ring and save Frodo, sharing the burden.
Tolkien himself has called Sam the “chief hero” of the book. A Hobbit, so pure and loyal, that it’s not corrupted from the Ring.
After all, the author was of the Catholic denomination. He purposely inserted a pure soul in the story, in juxtaposition to the constantly decaying Mordor.
Of course, the very title of the book is fulfilled. Aragorn, the King, does return. And he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Again, we see a familiar plot from Tolkien. He gives power to those who are willing to give it all away. Gandalf, Sam, and now Aragorn.
One Ring to Rule them All…
We’ve mentioned the Hero’s Journey a few times already. It’s the monomyth, a common way to tell a story. From Greek and Norse mythology to Eastern traditions, folklore tales, and bard song it has been used for 100s of years.
One of the key characteristics is that the Heroes don’t just physically complete their Journey. They undergo a psychological transformation.
In the case of the Lord of the Rings, we’re seeing multiple Heroes and multiples character arcs happening at the same time.
But Tolkien took things a step further and changed the world itself!
The final pages of the books note the coming of the 4th age, the Age of Men. Middle-Earth will never be the same again.
P.S – Did you know that according to the Legendarium we’re now at the 6th age?