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Analogical Meaning in Lord of the Rings

by Mark Murdock

Biography and

part 1 of 6

“Listen. I have discovered a path out of this world and into another. It’s here, in this story. It’s in every story... But it’s hidden inside the pages, between the lines. There is another journey here with another map, and another adventure. This one is for you, for each of us. We need only to have the eyes to see.

But be warned: This journey is full of real danger. It’s the greatest secret of all time, and powerful forces wish to keep it so. You will risk everything: your family, your friends, and most of all your life as you’ve come to know it. But in return you stand to gain something so precious that when you finally glimpse it, you will be forever transmuted to gold.

It is your true destiny. It is who you were born to be.”

— Anonymous quote scrawled on the library walls of the Murdock Asylum for the Exegetically Insane

J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings has been voted the most popular novel of the last century, and in one poll, the last millennium. Recently the novel’s sweeping vision was successfully brought to film with writer-director Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed trilogy. Countless millions have been captivated by the story of Frodo Baggins and his journey to destroy the ring of power, defeat Sauron and save Middle Earth.

Since its publication, many have attempted to wrestle an underlying meaning from the tale. Tolkien himself discouraged such speculation, chiding readers not to read the novel as an allegory. However it is my belief that authors are not in full conscious control of the creative process (as many will attest).

Just below the level of conscious awareness a mysterious, collective source communicates through the language of symbols. This language is not a code per se; there is no single, correct interpretation. Rather, symbols are ever pregnant with new meaning. All readers bring to bear their own experience, analogies and context to interpret symbolism and raise fresh meaning to light. If the meaning is relevant to the times, its effect will be felt by others.

Therefore it is with the greatest of apologies to Mr. Tolkien that I respectfully reserve the right to read his novel as an allegory.

The enduring and wide popularity of The Lord of the Rings led me to suspect that there was a rich symbolic landscape underneath the fantasy. And what I have learned confirms this. Buried inside The Lord of the Rings is an initiatory process, a spiritual journey to a state of consciousness that the ancient mystery schools called Gnosis. There is a process here, a journey, a map and a set of expectations to guide us along the way.

And the journey begins, as does the novel, with the re-discovery of the ring.

But before we step forward we must first look back and ask a fundamental question, perhaps the most important question of all:

What does the ring of power symbolically represent?

I suggest the ring represents the ego, or what the Greeks referred to as the eidolon — the false self, the counterfeit consciousness, the apparent identity we believe ourselves to be.

The ring is an ancient symbol of links and bonding; it simultaneously binds and isolates. It is also a circle which delineates an outside from an inside. This is a perfect symbol for the ego, an island of consciousness, a ring of self-awareness. It binds us inside as a separate individual, and also isolates us from something greater outside, the universe.

When we are born, we have no sense of separateness from our mother. We are simply a natural extension of her, a relationship termed a dyad. Not until months later does our individual awareness slowly begin to emerge. As the Jungians tell us, this is all very normal and necessary for our psychological development.

This process of ego creation is akin to forging a ring. Not until the ring closes in on itself like the ouroboros have we created a separate space; a separate awareness; a separate individual. It is at this moment in each of our lives that we first suffer a death. Our connection to the outside world is severed. We are isolated, disconnected. For the first time in our lives, we suffer deep insecurity and fear.

What we now desperately desire is the security of the former state, the oneness of the dyad. It is from this single base desire that all desire flows. To satisfy and regain security we need to control and influence events in the world outside of us. And to control we require power.

The ego therefore can be seen as a self-aware, power-seeking psychological complex.

The ego is a ring of power.

And if the reader accepts this interpretation, then the ramifications are enormous. For if the ring is the ego, then the each of us possesses a ring of power, and Frodo’s story is our story.

Let’s see if this symbolism holds in The Lord of the Rings. What does Tolkien tell us about the ring of power?

It was forged by Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom in the black land of Mordor.

While we shall put off the symbolism of Sauron and the nine rings for the moment, we can clearly see Tolkien’s connection of the ring to death. Doom is a ruinous fate or death. And Mordor can be translated as ‘death’s door’. A good fit for the ego, born in the pit of fear, of the doom that we experience when our rings are first forged.

Anyone who wears the ring obtains the power of invisibility but is ultimately cursed to forget his true name.

And what is it that disappears when we wear our rings of power? Isn’t it our true nature, our true selves? We are not our egos; we are something far greater. The ego, the ring, acts as a portal to a dimension slightly out of phase with this greater reality. When we wear the ring, we shift, we fall into another world. We disappear. Over time, our true nature is forgotten. We lose our true names.

Wearing the ring keeps you artificially young.

Identify with the ego and we identify with youth. For the ego is terrified of its own death, and will stop at nothing to postpone it. This is because the ego’s death is permanent. We can see countless examples of this obsession with youth in our modern life, from cosmetic surgery to health clubs to genetic engineering.

So far, the ego fits fairly well as the ring. The novel begins with a similar revelation. For if not for the discovery (or re-discovery) of the nature of the ring, there would be no story.

It is Gandalf the Wizard who first identifies the ring of power. And it is Gandalf who recognizes its danger. This is a watershed moment in the life of any individual — the moment they realize they are not who they pretend to be. It is at this moment and not before it that we can dare to remove the ring and take a tenuous step outside our ego awareness.

But like Bilbo and Gollum before him, we keep the ring near, for it is truly precious to us. After all, it embodies everything we believed ourselves to be for many, many years. It lays claim to our memories and experiences of a lifetime. Without an identity, we fear something new, our annihilation into the oneness like a raindrop in the ocean. We fear the ego’s death.

Or do we? Might we simply sense the desperation of the ego? For as Tolkien tells us, the ring possesses a will of its own.

And so the story begins. Frodo sets off on a journey to destroy the ring of power and save the world. To begin this process on an individual level, we must recognize that there is something inside us that is dangerous, and separates us from some greater reality.

It is this separateness, this ring of false consciousness that must be destroyed.

Alas, to save the world we must first save ourselves...

To be continued...

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Murdock

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