The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One book to rule them all, edited by Gregory Bassham (Philosophy, King’s College, Pennsylvania) and Eric Bronson (Philosophy and History Dept. Berkeley Coll., NYC).
Book review, by Dr.
Rupert Read, Head of Philosophy at the
Some readers of PHILOSOPHICAL PSYCHOLOGY will have been pleased when they heard that a book has recently appeared with the intriguing title, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Philosophy (edited by Bassham and Bronson). For The Lord of the Rings is a work which offers rich veins to mine, for philosophical psychologists. It is obviously a ‘quest’ book. It is natural to read it psychologically, then, as an account of a psychic journey as much as or rather than a real one. It offers psychological insights, when thus read, which sometimes attain the same depth as the psychological insights of other great ‘quest’ epics, such as the Arthurian legends, and Homer’s epics. Like The Odyssey, for instance, it is a rich magical psychic trip centred above all on one man (or, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, on one hobbit, Frodo), and posing / dealing at crucial points with paradoxes involving the temptation of that man; like The Iliad, it can easily be read as an allegory of a psyche under trial – in the case of The Iliad, the trial is perhaps primarily one of decision over issues of honour and of practicality; in the case of The Lord of the Rings, it is perhaps primarily one of anxiety and the various routes to dealing with it. The Iliad has been interpreted as yielding a fascinating though dubious historical philosophy of psychopathology by Julian Jaynes; recently, it has been given a brilliant more deflationary psychological reading by Leudar and Thomas. What of The Lord of the Rings?
The Lord of the Rings argues that the desire to achieve safety through the acquisition of power over one’s fellows, one’s life, one’s experiences, leads only to self-defeating fantasies, and that the hard route of ordinary ‘faith’, and renunciation of any quick-fix fantasy of safety, is the only route that will succeed. The routes to dealing with extreme anxiety – anxiety that makes one desperate for safety -- explored by the Lord of the Rings are: (1) a retreat away from the consensual world and deeper inside the mind (after the fashion of the patients central to Laing’s The Divided Self), a journey to the edge of psychosis, symbolized by the putting on of the Ring (and also arguably by retreat within the armed cities of Helm’s Deep and Gondor); (2) a ‘giving in’ to psychosis, a psychotic break, symbolized by the longed-for giving away of the Ring to the alienated part of oneself played by Sauron (the Lord of the Rings) and his surrogates; (3) a breaking of the power of one’s anxieties over one, through ordinary-faith-in-action renouncing the fantasized power of one’s would be anxiety-remedies, symbolized above all by the dissolving of the Ring back into the fires from whence it was forged; (4) the contemplation of (1) through (3), enacted for example by a thoughtful – one might say, a philosophical – reader/reading of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s book argues for (3) and (4), and against (1) and (2). In the course of doing so, it dramatizes and indeed investigates many philosophical issues of intense related interest.
For example, Sauron and his wraiths are the malicious demon of Descartes. They are the terrifying possibility that the world is godless, but for a god who is malevolent. They bring out what Descartes entirely fails to bring out: that the possibilities of philosophical scepticism are terrifying, an apotheosis of anxiety. The rapidity of Frodo’s encounters with the lidless eye, the searching, penetrating, judging ‘eye’ of ‘Sauron’, is a testimony to the rapidity of the possible movement to psychosis in the mind of a quick-thinking ‘meditator’. And psychosis can be simply lived solipsistic scepticism, as Louis Sass has argued.
How much of this is understood by
the authors in Bassham’s and Bronson’s book? Sadly, very little. There is some
intelligent discussion of the non-existence of pure evil, i.e. the
non-existence of Sauron, via Tolkien’s Augustinian moral-philosophical
worldview, for instance in Scott Davison’s essay on “Tolkien and the nature of
evil”. Evil as lack is also well-explored around p.174 of Thomas Hibbs’s “
There is some bright discussion of Gollum’s ‘split personality’ (e.g. around p.66 of Jorge Gracia’s “The quests of Sam and Gollum for the happy life”); but no investigation of Gollum as our putative nightmare, a living moral-nihilist, as our phantasized reduction of life to mere biological life, craving, pure addiction. Gollum lives in perpetual paranoid fear of Sauron; he is the image (though not the reality, for he is not lost – no-one is) of what we (Frodo) fears becoming; if he can get lost in madness, then so can we, for he was like us, once. Again, even this relatively obvious psychic and moral dimension of the text is largely absent from this collection.
There is some intelligent discussion of Tom Bombadil and of the different sense of time that is required by the ecological movement (in Andrew Light’s “Tolkien’s Green Time”); but Light neglects to connect this with the ecological consciousness of the Ents, intermingled with that of Merry and Pippin, expressed in their unwillingness, again for both moral and prudential reasons, to give up on any part of the natural Earth. An integrated mind is allegorised by Tolkien in the wholistic sense of the Earth and of its peoples that is writ large in the mutual aid that undergirds the unlikely victories -- unlikely in the sense of being achieved in the face of the overwhelming might of the enemy (the overwhelming urge to escape or retreat psychically, to give in to a flight of anxiety, being again psychologically central to Tolkien’s text, and still more so to Jackson’s recent film trilogy) – in the spectacles of dread and its overcoming at Weathertop, at Helm’s Deep, at Orthanc, at Gondor and on the Pelennor Fields, and so on.
Most crucially, there is no discussion at all of the points made earlier about what Sauron does to enrich our understanding of what Descartes’s demon is, about what the Ring means in psychopathological terms, nor about the advantages and disadvantages contemplatively and therapeutically of experiencing The Lord of the Rings.
The title under review is then a lost opportunity, and is moreover in parts almost as risible as its subtitle, One book to rule them all. It cannot be recommended, except as light reading, or as reading for philosophers-lite.
Which is a great shame. The Lord of the Rings still awaits a proper philosophical treatment. Its often subtle and powerful philosophical psychology deserves to be perspicuously presented to a public that I think senses it better than do a number of the authors in this collection.