The Road goes ever on: part three

A three-part investigation of the esotericism in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the author's mythos, legendarium and involvement with Occultism


In the first of these three articles we explored some of the esoteric themes in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the mythos that underlies it, and the hidden meaning in some of the poems to be found in the book. In the second part we explored the themes of Good and Evil, the Fall of Man, the symbolism of the Rings of Power and their properties and virtues. In our afterword to part two we summarised Tolkien's legendarium—the collection of legends and histories he invented—out of which the book evolved and which form the background to it. If you have not read the previous parts, we suggest that you do so before continuing or you will not reap the benefits of this investigation or fully understand the subjects discussed in it.

In this final part we consider the themes of Life and Death, Magic and the symbolism of some of the main characters, especially, Frodo, Gollum and Gandalf. We shall also discuss the enigmatic Tom Bombadil who was completely edited out of Peter Jackson's films. Our final afterword focuses on Tolkien's involvement with the 'occult' through his association with characters such as Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, who subtly influenced the formation of his complex mythos.

However, our main aim, as we discussed in part one, is to encourage readers unfamiliar with the book to read it with a seeing eye, for there is much concealed wisdom to be found and explored within its pages. None of this is to say that the book cannot and should not be read simply as a magnificent and engaging and delightful fairy-tale in its own right, for that was what the author intended.


Farewell to Lórien — © Ted Nasmith 1992 — Gouache on illustration board

Life and Death in Middle-earth

Tolkien's Elves bear little resemblance to the fairies of folklore or clairvoyant observation except insofar as they share the qualities of beauty of form, grace, closeness to nature and extended sensory perception. Tolkien's own descriptions of Elves are widely scattered throughout his books and letters, as well as in Christopher Tolkien's The Complete History of Middle-earth (see further reading list in sidebar). What these tell us is that Tolkien's Elves are immortal beings whose bodies do not age or suffer disease. They cannot be killed except through violence or accident. Their bodies could also become wholly spiritualised, rendering them invisible to all except those to whom they chose to reveal themselves. In this regard they are different to Dwarves, Men or Hobbits, and more akin to 'angelic' beings dwelling in material forms. This leads us to the questions of mortality and immortality and life and death, which are complex ones in Tolkien's mythos and legendarium, just as they are in occult science. In a letter written to a reader in 1961, he says: "The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality."

Death has a different meaning for each of the Peoples of Middle-earth. Elves, as we have seen, are immortal, while Men are mortal. But though Elves are immortal, they are not eternal, for as Tolkien tells us in another letter: "The Elves were sufficiently longeval to be called by Man 'immortal'. But they were not unageing or unwearying. Their own tradition was that they were confined to the limits of this world (in space and time), even if they died, they would continue in some form to exist in it until 'the end of the world'. But what 'the end of the world' portended for it or for themselves they did not know...they believed that it meant 'liberation from the 'circles of the world. . ." This not only sums up Tolkien's own ideas about immortality, but also comes close to the doctrine of occult science set forth in such books as The Secret Doctrine. Therein we may read that even the great Gods of the Hindu pantheon such as Brahmâ, Vishnu and Shiva have a finite existence, even though we may consider it 'eternal', since it lasts for untold billions of mortal years. Yet, eventually, it too has an end.

In the process of formulating the eschatology which informs his legendarium Tolkien invented the words fëa and hröa as synonyms for "soul" and "body". Both Elves and Men are described as existing in two parts: they have a "spirit" or "soul" called fëa, and a body called hröa. The former comes from the Secret Fire of Ilúvatar we discussed in part two of this investigation whilst the latter is of the earth—earthy. Here we have the Higher and lower selves or minds, albeit clothed in unfamiliar words and given a rather simplistic, Catholic 'makeover.'

To what extent Tolkien's ideas were influenced by occultists such as Charles Williams and Owen Barfield is open to question (see afterword), but that they encompassed some occult scientific doctrines, including reincarnation, is not in doubt. Tolkien tells us that the soul (fëa) of an Elf never leaves the world. Instead, it flees to the halls of Mandos, where it may rest and find release from the 'weariness of the world' as Tolkien calls it. 'Mandos' was his conception of the Judge of the Dead who presided over the fates of Men and Elves; a kind of cross between the Christian St Peter and the Egyptian God Thoth, an unlikely marriage which does neither any favours! After a time of waiting in Mandos' halls, the Elvish soul may, if it chooses, be reincarnated in a body identical to the one in which it dwelt formerly. But only in special cases were Elves sent back to Middle-earth, generally because they had some specific task to complete there.

There is not very much wrong with this conception from the occult scientific standpoint, but it is not complete and contains a number of errors. Occult science teaches that there is no 'release' from the 'weariness of the world' for the vast majority of mankind until or unless they have learned all that existence in a material body has to teach them, a process which on average, takes many thousands of cycles of incarnations. Nor are we reincarnated in the same body, though it is by no means clear if Tolkien meant this by his use of the word 'identical.' It is interesting to note that he originally considered rebirth as a child in a new body to different parents as an option for his reincarnated Elvish souls. Upon further contemplation, however, he decided there were too many problems with this idea and eventually abandoned it! Perhaps this is just as well, for it is not possible to explain the complex metaphysical doctrine of Life, Death and reincarnation in words which the average reader will not misunderstand.

In the second part of the book—The Two Towers, Chapter 1, The Taming of Sméagol—there is a revealing exchange between Frodo and Gandalf which touches on the themes of Life and Death which is worth quoting in full.

Frodo: 'What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!'
Gandalf: 'Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and mercy: not to strike without need.'
Frodo: 'I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.'
Gandalf: 'Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.'

These are commendable and true words. But they convey a deeper meaning too. For as Plato tells us, the soul (higher self in our terminology) dies when it enters into incarnation in a material body. It was the purpose of the Mysteries to raise the soul to life. But not all those who entered the Mysteries were liberated. Some were not ready, others failed the tests and trials of Initiation, while many more were simply not willing to learn the great Truths of Life, preferring, as they still do today, to cling to the illusory life of the body and senses. And no man, however wise, as Tolkien tells us, can see or know the ultimate destiny of any being: remember Melkor, once the greatest of the Valar, who was cast into the outer darkness!

Magic in The Lord of the Rings

In one of his letters Tolkien writes: "I am afraid I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word, though Galadriel and others show by the criticism of the 'mortal' use of the word, that the thought about it is not altogether casual. But it is a very large question, and difficult: and a story which is largely about motives (choice, temptations, etc.) and the intentions of using whatever is found in the world, could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philosophic disquisition!" It is a moot point whether Tolkien's use of the word 'casual' implies that he knew more about magic than he revealed in either the book or his letters. We incline to the view that he probably did, for later in the same letter, he writes: "I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether 'magic' in any sense is real or really possible in the world. But. . .there is a latent distinction between magia and goeteia. Galadriel speaks of the 'deceits of the Enemy'. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives." This echoes the wise words of Shakespeare who said: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." This suggests that, privately at least, Tolkien was aware of the distinction between what we would call Divine Magic—that is supernormal, but not supernatural powers, used for good—and sorcery, used for evil, but chose to conceal this in his letters. Why he did so we will never know, but given the unsavoury reputation 'magic' had in the 1950's and still has today, especially within the Catholic Church of which he was a life-long member, Tolkien's reticence is perfectly understandable.

Sauron is called 'the Necromancer' in several places in the book in recognition of his power over the spirits of the dead. A power he shared with the leader of the Ringwraiths—the Witch-king of Angmar—who wore a Ring of Power and had the ability to summon the Barrow-wights to the Barrow-downs to attack the Hobbits in their journey to Rivendell at the beginning of the book. This is clearly sorcery or black magic, in contradistinction to the white magic wielded by Gandalf and Galadriel. Though it is only fair to say that all magic—black or white—while differing in its methodology, depends principally for its effects upon the use of concentration, controlled imagination and will. 'Magic' wands such as Gandalf's staff, his use of spells and the rings wielded by the Elves, are merely aids in the accomplishment of the magician's will to either Good or Evil. The same may be said of the 'Palantíri', the 'Seven Seeing stones' made by the Elves and given to the Númenóreans, whose descendents brought them to Middle-earth.

The Palantíri are described as dark, perfectly smooth spheres of varying sizes which acted as a kind of 'magic mirror' to see what was occurring in the present at any distance from the viewer as well as into the past and future. According to Gandalf, it was beyond the skill of either Sauron or Saruman to make the Palantíri "lie" though they could cause them to display selective images to create a false impression in the mind of the viewer. This is significant, because clairvoyance, however exercised, is not infallible. It depends to a large part on the mind of the clairvoyant and their ability, natural or acquired through occult training, to correctly interpret what they may see or experience. Tolkien also tells us in his posthumously published Unfinished Tales that using a Palantír requires a person with great strength of will and wisdom. This is also significant, for no weak-willed person, or one lacking in the ability to concentrate and focus their mind to the exclusion of all extraneous thoughts, will see much if anything at all in a 'magic' mirror, whatever form it might take. For we should add that, contrary to fiction, any reflective surface can be used as a 'magic' mirror, be it made of metal, glass or even still water contained in a dark receptacle. This latter method was used at certain periods in ancient Egypt by seers, usually young women, who watched over the safety of the country and gave early warning of any impending danger, as you may read in Joan Grant's occult novel Winged Pharaoh.

In The Lord of the Rings the 'magic mirror' used by Galadriel is described as ". . .a low pedestal carved like a branching tree", upon which "stood a basin of silver, wide and shallow, and beside it a silver ewer." Galadriel fills the basin from a nearby stream and reminds the two Hobbits, Frodo and Sam that they wished to see "Elf-magic." Frodo asks: "What shall we look for, and what shall we see?" Galadriel's reply is worth quoting. "Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal...and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell."

Those of you who have ever practised real spiritual meditation, with or without a 'magic mirror' will know that here speaks the voice of Wisdom. Those who have not, must take our word for the fact that Tolkien, never mind how, correctly described the process of clairvoyance and the laws which govern it that we discussed earlier. Sam sees what is uppermost in his mind, the future of his beloved master, Frodo, and the despoliation of the Shire by the agents of Saruman. Galadriel's response to the shock and anger he displays at what he has seen is illuminating. "Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them. The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds." This explanation touches on the subject of fate and free-will which we discuss in great depth in our article about Fate versus free-will. It also reminds us that, as we said earlier, what a clairvoyant sees is largely determined by their own mind and the extent to which they are able to accurately interpret what they see. Without thorough training in the occult sciences, clairvoyance is a 'dangerous' guide, not only of 'deeds' as Tolkien tells us, but of everything else besides, for things in the Astral World are no less illusory than the things in this world, nothing being what it appears to be.

Tolkien's notions about magic reflect the common misconceptions surrounding this misunderstood subject, since popularised in the Harry Potter books and others. In a letter written to the author Naomi Mitchison, he says: "The basic motive for magia—quite apart from any philosophic consideration of how it would work—is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect." Although it is perfectly possible to perform feats which the average man or woman would consider miraculous through the use of magic, speed is not the motive behind them, especially since, as Tolkien admits in the same letter, "magia may not be easy to come by." Not only is it not 'easy' to come by, it requires a lifetime, or several, to develop anything like the powers attributed to such magicians as Apollonius of Tyana, Paracelsus or Jesus in the gospels. If 'immediacy' is the goal, it is better to employ sweat and toil, however disappointing this revelation may be to those who fondly imagine that the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid by magical means! Yet there is some truth in what Tolkien says. Magic when rightly understood and employed for either good or ill can reduce the 'gap between the idea and the result. . .', though 'will' would be a better word for the initial impetus to action rather than 'idea' or 'desire'. We might go further and say that the only difference between a magical act and an 'ordinary' one is that in the former the will acts directly upon matter, while in the latter, one or more intermediaries are required, such as the nerves or muscles of the human body.

There are far too many instances of magic in the book to discuss them all. The best we can do is to mention those that have some hidden meaning or confirm the teachings of occult science. Among the former are the magical 'Doors of Durin', also known as the West-door of Moria, a gateway that initially blocks the progress of the beleaguered Fellowship in their quest to destroy the One Ring, which they encounter in Chapter IV of Book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring. These doors, which gave entrance to the grandest mansions of the Dwarves—Khazad-dûm—could only be opened by speaking a magical phrase. Moreover, the doors themselves were invisible, as the Dwarf Gimli tells us in the book: "Dwarf-doors are not made to be seen when shut." Much the same can be said of the 'doors' to the Mysteries! But what principally interests us is the drawing made of these doors by Tolkien and printed as a black-and-white illustration in the book which we reproduce below. The Elvish inscription below the two pillars reads: "The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak friend and enter. I Narvi made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs." Now Narvi was a Dwarf but Celebrimbor was an Elf, the same Elf who fashioned the 19 magical rings discussed in part two of our investigation. This is noteworthy and suggests that the Doors of Durin had an occult significance over and above the part they play in the story.

doors of durin

Before we consider the hidden meaning of this gateway, let us dismiss at once the objection made by some fans that Tolkien's drawing has nothing to do with magic, and that the seven stars below the arch represent the seven Kings of the Dwarves and their seven rings. As the same seven stars appear on the banner of Gondor which has no connection with Dwarves this assertion falls to the ground. Tolkien himself supplies his own interpretation for the seven stars in the index at the back of the book, where he says they represented the asterism of the Plough or 'Big Dipper', which comprise the seven brightest stars in the constellation of Ursa Major or the Great Bear. In the Hinduism these seven stars are associated with the Seven Sages or Rishis who are said to be 'seers of thought', or in other words knowers of Truth, and the direct emanation of the creative intelligence, or First Cause. In ancient Egypt this asterism was called the 'Constellation of the Thigh' (which indeed it resembles). In the rectangular planesphere to be seen in the Temple of Dendera, the Thigh is depicted with the head of bull crowned with a lunar crescent surrounded by seven stars which is being speared by the God Horus. This relates to the incident in the Egyptian mythos when Horus cuts off the God Set's fore-leg and hurls it into the sky. This symbolism illustrates the strife between the higher and lower selves and is replete with hidden meaning.

If we look at Tolkien's drawing we see a symbolic arch supported by two pillars, each of which is embraced by a tree. Below the arch are the seven stars just discussed, surmounting a crown with five points. Below it is a hammer and anvil, and directly below that, an eighth star. Although the hammer and anvil have an obvious and superficial association with the Dwarves, they are also capable of a more esoteric interpretation, namely the trials and suffering of the Initiate who is quite literally 'hammered' on the 'anvil' of material existence. The two Trees also stand for the two pillars of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, whilst the eighth star, hammer and anvil, and crown can be said to represent the three highest sephiroth of the Middle pillar of the Tree, though we doubt whether this was what Tolkien intended!

The symbolism in the Doors of Durin is very similar to the Royal Arch of Freemasonry which also includes seven stars below the arch, while their arch itself contains the first seven signs of the zodiac—Aries to Libra. Often, but not always, the Masonic emblem also includes the coffin of Hiram Abif—a copy of the Egyptian God of the Dead—Osiris, whilst the left-hand pillar is surmounted by the Moon and the right-hand pillar by the Sun. These planetary symbols are apparently absent in Tolkien's drawing. We say 'apparently' because Tolkien's 'Two Trees' represent the Two Trees of Valinor in his legendarium, called Telperion and Laurelin respectively—the Silver Tree and the Gold that brought light to the Land of the Valar. In an early draft of this illustration made by Tolkien, the two pillars are surmounted by the symbols of the Sun and Moon. So we may say that these Trees represent the path of the Moon and the path of the Sun discussed in part one of our investigation.

All this suggests that Tolkien's drawing, whether consciously or not, is intended to represent the gateway of Initiation, and so we believe it does. Beyond the doors lay the labyrinthine halls and passages of the Dwarves, filled with hidden menace of all kinds, as the Fellowship discover in their journey through the darkness of the Mines of Moria which ends with the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog we discussed in part two of this investigation. Gandalf 'dies', only to reappear later on in the tale when he utters the enigmatic words: "Gandalf,' the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word.' Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf. . ." Recalling his ordeal he says: "Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done." These are the words of an Initiate, now grown to full Adeptship, such as we may read in Chapter 18 of The Quest of Ruru. Here we must regretfully call a halt to our survey of this drawing, for we have yet to discuss some of the main characters in the book.

But before we leave the subject of Magic, we would like to say a few words about the magical land of Lothlórien or Lórien as it is also written in the book. "Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien." Attentive readers familiar with Chapter 6 of The Golden Star will recognise that J Michaud's description of the World of the Astral Fire has much in common with the Elvish paradise Frodo enters after his hellish journey through the mines of Moria. As the Fellowship enter this fairy-realm Tolkien tells us "on the land of Lórien no shadow lay," while one of the Elves says: "Here bloom the winter flowers in the unfading grass." We learn that "No blemish or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain." Later on, we read that "the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair." Clearly, we are now in a higher realm, far removed from the sorrow and ugliness which blight even the fairest spots on earth. The correspondences with The Golden Star are unmistakable, for in that book we may read that the dwellers in the World of the Astral Fire are dressed in white, "carrying wreaths of roses and sprays of lovely flowers in their hands. Never before had Ma-u and Ma-uti seen beings so happy and so beautiful. An Essence of utter purity, love and goodness, seemed to stream out from them with an aura of golden rays, as if they were alight within."

Before the Fellowship leave Lothlórien, they are presented with gifts by Galadriel, many of which are significant. To Aragorn is given a silver broach "in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings," an emblem of the Spiritual Sun whose hidden powers are the secret of those who conquer in the name of that Luminary. Sam receives "a little box of plain grey wood," which contains soil from Galadriel's own garden. Later, Sam uses this precious gift to replenish the Shire which has been laid waste by the servants of Saruman. So do the Gods give their gifts unto worthy mortals, that they may use them for the greatest good of the deserving few, and woe betide those who neglect such gifts or misuse them for their own personal gain, for the payment for such base ingratitude and selfishness will be heavy indeed.

All the Fellowship receive the gift of Lembas—the waybread of the Elves. We are told that only one small cake of this magical food will "keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour." We do not think it is stretching allegory too far to say that Lembas can be said to stand for the Biblical 'Manna from Heaven', or the True Teachings, which can indeed sustain us during our 'days' of 'long labour' or incarnations on earth. The Fellowship is also given magical cloaks, which, among their other virtues, allow the wearer to "keep out of sight of unfriendly eyes." Some of our loyal readers will know what is meant by this! The most significant gift of all is given to Frodo; a "small crystal phial" which Galadriel tells him "will shine brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out." This requires no explanation, except to say that we all carry such a light with us at all times, for it is the veritable Spark of Life, the gift given to all mankind by the Creators to illumine the way Home.

Symbolism of some of the characters

As we learnt in the previous parts of this investigation, Gandalf was a 'servant of the secret fire' and a direct emissary of the Valar, or gods. In one of his letters Tolkien writes: "But Gandalf is not, of course a Man or Hobbit. There are naturally no precise modern terms to say what he was. I would venture to say that he was an incarnate 'angel'—strictly an angelos." The word 'angelos' means 'messenger' in Greek, and Tolkien's use of it confirms that he was a Divine Messenger, much like Neteru-Hem in The Golden Star, and this is the role he plays in the book. He does not, as the films of Peter Jackson portray, indulge in fisticuffs with the servants of Sauron, wielding his staff like a cartoon superhero! His contribution to the conflict is one of inspiration, encouragement and wise counsel. On those rare occasions when he does participate in the battles between opposing forces, it is as a leader and advocate not as an active combatant.

The Wizard Saruman was also a messenger, and in the beginning of the tale, Gandalf's superior, but he falls 'into darkness' and uses his abilities to undermine the Fellowship in pursuit of personal power and self-aggrandisement. Among these abilities is hypnosis—or the magical power of suggestion—which he uses to great effect at several points in the story. Yet in the end it fails him, leading Gandalf to say: "But you, Saruman, I understand now too well. I keep a clearer memory of your arguments, and deeds, than you suppose. Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed, I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council." Late in the book there is a telling exchange between Frodo and the now, defeated and dejected magus, whose servant, the aptly-named Wormtongue, has tried unsuccessfully to stab Frodo with a concealed knife. "A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword. '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.'

"Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. 'You have grown, Halfling,' he said. 'Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!" So do the mightiest fall through pride and self-will and the humblest rise to the greatness of wisdom. Yet, as Frodo tells us, even the wickedest of men or gods may be 'cured' if they truly desire it. Here is food for thought indeed.

Of all the characters in the book, Frodo is the one that carries the heaviest burden in the form of the Ring and the one who undergoes the greatest change, becoming in the end more like an Elf than a Hobbit. His passage through the Doors of Durin we discussed earlier may with every justification be regarded as major step in his Initiation which began the moment he accepted the task of bearing the Ring to its destruction in the fires where it was forged. His quest begins in the Shire, when Gandalf explains what must be done and why: "I do really wish to destroy it!" he cries, adding, "or, well to have it destroyed. I am not made for such perilous quests." If we regard the 'ring' as in some ways emblematic of the lower self and its power to tempt and deceive us, Frodo's desire to get rid of it without imperilling himself sounds all too familiar and human. It is one thing to wish to master the lower self and quite another to actually take up the task! So it is not surprising that Frodo expresses both fear and reluctance when he tells Gandalf: "But I feel very small, and well—desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible." And so it is, when we have not learned to control the lower self. We shall return to subject of the two selves a little later when we discuss the character of Gollum.

Later in the book, at the Council of Elrond we discussed in part two, Frodo finally realises the magnitude of his task. "All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. 'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way." These are powerful and moving words, filled with hidden import which remind us of other words, spoken long ago. "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29). "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). Cross or ring, it amounts to the same thing; the human body and the lower self. So long as we live, we must carry that burden, whether to glory and liberation or slavery and darkness, the choice is ours.

The most enigmatic character in the book is Tom Bombadil, whom we referred to briefly in part one of this investigation. In one letter, Tolkien wrote: "And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)." What did he mean by this? To answer that we need to draw a distinction between the origin of the character, which was a rather silly Dutch doll belonging to Tolkien's second son, Michael whom his elder brother John, flushed down the lavatory (!) and the enigmatic figure who appears in The Lord of the Rings. We are happy to say that the doll was rescued and none the worse for its insalubrious baptism! This prompted Tolkien to write The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, originally published in the Oxford Magazine in 1934. His later suggestion that Bombadil's story could be expanded into a sequel to The Hobbit was met with indifference by his publishers. But Tolkien was loathe to abandon Tom and he was resurrected for the second time to appear in Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien admitted to being baffled by the evolution under his pen of a child's doll into the profound mystery the character assumes in The Lord of the Rings. In one his early letters he called Bombadil "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside," whilst at the same time confessing that the reason he couldn't bring himself to keep him out of The Lord of the Rings was that he represented something larger, though he hesitated to look too closely at what that was.

We are not surprised that he said this. It may also be one reason why Peter Jackson kept Tom Bombadil out of his films. Tom is neither Elf, Dwarf, Man nor Hobbit. Nor is he a wizard like Gandalf and Saruman. So what is he? In Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo shows Tom the One Ring. "Then Tom put the Ring around the end of his little finger. . .For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!" Frodo is so perplexed by this that he wonders whether Tom has not played a trick on him, and putting on the Ring himself promptly vanishes! But unlike the hobbits, Tom can still clearly see him creeping away from them. Now, there is no character in the book who is not affected by the Ring. Even Gandalf is not immune to its power for earlier in the book, when Frodo offers him the Ring he exclaims: "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself." Later still in the book, Galadriel also refuses to take the Ring when Frodo offers it to her in Lothlórien. Yet over Tom Bombadil the Ring has no power either to tempt or corrupt. What are we to make of this? Who IS Tom?

The keys to the enigma are provided by Tolkien himself in the book. There we may read that Tom is "the Master of wood, water, and hill." The word 'Master', generally capitalised, is mentioned several times in Chapter 7, so we may regard it as significant in itself. When Frodo asks Bombadil who he is the reply is revealing. "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? You are young and I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. Tom was here before the river and the trees. . .He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside." We may then say that Tom is the personification of a Power which is both within and outside the world of Middle-earth. To say any more would be to presume to spell out the nature of that 'something larger' which Tolkien was not prepared to 'look too closely at'.

We also learn that Tom is a great singer. It is through song that he finds and rescues the Hobbits trapped by the wicked willow trees in the Old Forest. Later still, when they are imprisoned by the Barrow-wights—the evil shades of departed warriors—it is Tom's singing that once again rescues them. Now, the ancient Druids of Britain styled themselves 'Singers', and Tom's singing reminds us of the magical use of words for which the Druids were widely respected by Julius Caesar and others. In The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids we may read about a great Druid Chief, Cynvelyn, who declaims: "Were I to compose the strain—were I to sing—magic spells would spring." In other words, were he to sing, as Bombadil does in the book, then, magic spells do spring, and the stones of the barrow in which the Hobbits lie imprisoned, come tumbling down. The Barrow-wights sing too, but theirs is a dark enchantment that binds the Hobbits to them. So once again we see that Tolkien unconsciously reprises many of the truths of occult science and clothes them in his own inspired manner.

Frodo and Gollum: the higher and lower selves

What of Gollum? In many ways he is the most complex character in the book; a tormented creature of conflicting desires for good and evil. Unlike Bilbo who found the One Ring in The Hobbit and assumed ownership of it with pity and compassion, Gollum, whose original name was Sméagol, obtained it by killing his friend Déagol and claiming it as his birthday present. As like attracts like in the moral sphere, the Ring immediately gained evil ascendancy over him, whereas it did not do so with Bilbo or Frodo. In this we can see a parallel with the relative ascendancy the lower self has over the higher; greater in some, lesser in others. Yet, in spite of his evil deeds, it is Gollum who saves Middle-earth. If he had not pursued Frodo and snatched the Ring from him at the very moment when the Hobbit was about to claim it for his own and challenge Sauron, the quest would have failed and Middle-earth plunged into a new dark age.

If we regard Frodo as the higher self engaged in a quest for liberation and enlightenment, then Gollum may be considered as his lower self. For we should not forget that each self has many aspects. The higher self is not entirely good because tainted by matter. Neither is the lower self entirely bad because influenced by its better half. We see this in the complex relationship that develops between Frodo and Gollum as the story unfolds. Tolkien tells us that before he obtained possession of the Ring Gollum was a Hobbit-like being, not dissimilar to Frodo. Later in the book Gollum exhibits his own duality when he engages in debates between his better part—Sméagol—and his own worst instincts as Gollum. Here we gain a further glimpse into the complex relationship and interdependence between the two selves or minds. Whether Tolkien was consciously aware of this and what it portended is doubtful, but for those who know something of the two selves and their mutuality, the debate which Gollum holds with himself in Book 4, Chapter 2 of The Two Towers, is worthy of study.

'Sméagol promised,' said the first thought.
'Yes, yes, my precious,' came the answer, 'we promised: to save our Precious, not to let Him have it—never. But it's going to Him yes, nearer every step. What's the hobbit going to do with it, we wonders. . . .'
'I don't know. I can't help it. Master's got it. Sméagol promised to help the master.'
'Yes, yes, to help. . . .the master of the Precious. But if we was master, then we could help ourselfs, yes, and still keep promises.'
'But Sméagol said he would be very very good. . .'
'Very very good, eh, my precious? Let's be good. . .but to ourselfs. . .'
'But the Precious holds the promise,' the voice of Sméagol objected.
'Then take it,' said the other, 'and let's hold it ourselfs! Then we shall be master. . .'
'Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day. . . ; fresh from the sea. Must have it. We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!"

In this and similar ways do the two selves in us strive for mastery. It is amusing to note that Gollum's desires soar no higher than eating fresh fish every day. We can think of quite a few people we know in 'real' life whose ambitions don't even aim that high, showing just which self rules their roost!! In most people sometimes one self is in the ascendant, sometimes the other, but what the final outcome of the struggle may be depends upon the combatants themselves. The Germans have a saying that describes this conflict perfectly: "Sich selbst bekriegen ist der schwerste Krieg, sich selbst besiegen ist der allerschönste Sieg." To fight oneself is the hardest fight, to be victorious over oneself is the greatest victory. This internal war was well known to the wise Egyptians who allegorised it in the battles between Horus and Set that we referred to earlier. In the Egyptian Mythos it is Thoth who comes to the rescue of both combatants. He quietens the 'stormy one' (the lower self) and washes the 'ruddy one' (the higher self). Ruddy on account of the association of red with the Sun-God, Ra, who was the father of Horus—representing the higher self—in one phase of the mythos. Thoth here stands for the Divine Soul which we discuss in the final article in our occult studies course. This is the 'still small voice'—'the Voice of the Silence' as it has also been called—within us, and it is by hearkening to it that we learn to make peace between our two warring selves, so that both may be liberated and receive their appropriate reward.


Here we must reluctantly end our survey of the esoteric themes in The Lord of the Rings. In conclusion we would like to emphasise that first and foremost the book is meant to be read as a compelling tale in its own right with the power to move us to laughter and tears. Whether or not it is 'the greatest book of the 20th century', as the poll we mentioned in part one suggested, is a matter of personal taste. We are in no doubt that it is one of the finest mythological romances ever written with stands comparison with the works of Ariosto, Dante and Milton.

Some readers may wish we had said more about their favourite chapters. Others that we had discussed Aragorn who plays such a pivotal role in the book, or written more about Galadriel, who embodies the compassion, love and penetrating spiritual vision of the truly Wise. Yet others may be disappointed that we have not mentioned the very pretty Elf-maiden Arwen at all, who is of little importance in the book, but who has been given great prominence in the films conceived and directed by Peter Jackson! To all these readers the writer tenders his sincere apologies in the same words Tolkien used to express his agreement with the only criticism of the Lord of the Rings he ever fully accepted: "it is too short." It is impossible in a short investigation to satisfy all tastes, desires and inclinations. If we have managed to encourage you to read the book, or read it again with heightened attention if you have read it before, our labours will be amply repaid, for we have neither the time nor desire to say any more.


If you have not read the first and second parts of this investigation, or wish to re-read them, please follow the underlined links shown here.

© Copyright Article published 3 September 2017. Updated 3 February 2024.

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