Friday, May 27, 2011

Tolkien, Freud, and Christ

Let me start of by saying that none of the forthcoming analysis is something that I think Tolkien intended or would particularly want. We have in Tolkien's letters a remarkable luxury as scholars of his texts. Tolkien was, perhaps above all else, a very intentional and self-aware writer. The very writing of the letters and his self-commentary serve (1) to demonstrate an incredible amount of awareness and intentionality in his work, and (2) to point the reader in the right direction. We, as literary analysts, often ask the question “what does this mean?” and in Tolkien, we have the luxury in many cases of having a relatively ready answer at least to the question “what did Tolkien mean by this?” Therefore we know what sort of analysis and interpretation Tolkien would tend to invite. But intentionality is never the whole story.

Someone in class pointed out that the reader of Tolkien probably does not become aware of the heavy religious quality of the work by panning out nuggets of religious symbolism or allusion. Indeed, Tolkien himself stated that it was not his original intent to write a religious work. Just as the tendrils of religious devotion enter unintentionally into the work, so too do they rise out of the work and settle in the mind of the reader, almost before the reader notices. This is an example of communication that can occur between the author, the text, and the reader, while going completely unacknowledged. Owing to Tolkien's remarkably self-reflective process, it is not unacknowledge in this case. However, as Tolkien noted in his letters, it was only upon revision that he became aware of the trend. If either he had not revised so extensively, or had been less self-reflective generally, the systematic presence of undeniably religious themes would have gone unacknowledged by the author. Tolkien's religious consciousness is strong, partially as a result of his religious education. Therefore, it is not surprising that he noted and strengthened the religious aspect of his text. However, there are certainly other themes and aspects of his own consciousness in which Tolkien is decidedly less interested, which begs the question- are there other unconscious dialogs between the trinity of Tolkien, the text, and the reader that in fact has gone unacknowledged, while all the while not only being present, but perhaps unconsciously influencing our reading of the text? Certainly, the conscious author and the text are not the same thing- even a writer as meticulous as Tolkien is nonetheless beholden to certain unconscious tendencies in his own mind. To that end, what follows is essentially a Freudian analysis of Biblical allusion in The Lord of the Rings, with emphasis on the Ring and the Mt. Doom sequence.

I spoke a little bit in class about a particular passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to
lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in
his heart. And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out
and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of
thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body
be cast into hell. And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it
off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one
of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole
body go into hell.” (Matthew 28-30)i

Here, the term “scandalize thee” is of paramount importance. In the original Greek it reads skandalidzei se (σκανδαλίζεισε)ii which essentially means “causes you to stumble” or, here, “causes you to sin.” In the Mount Doom sequence, we have a relatively literal reenactment of Jesus' advice: Frodo casts away (although unwillingly) what causes him to sin. Notably, however, it is not just the Ring that is cast away, but Frodo's right ring-finger as well. This is of course a relatively close parallel to the right hand that Jesus suggests be cut off. Through this parallel, we get something else- Jesus suggests that we cast of that which causes us to sin. In this case, that is not only the Ring, but Frodo as well. While the Ring is evil and 'scandalous' insofar as it subverts wills and induces sin, it requires participation. The Ring is not exerting power if it's simply placed next to a rock, nor can it fly away to Mordor on its own. So it is both the Ring and Frodo's desire for it- participation in its evil- that creates the sin.

However, both Tolkien's text and the associated biblical passage invite a certain Freudian interpretation. First, there is the quality of the very act that can be called sinful here- putting on the Ring or, phrased otherwise, poking a part of the body into a round hole. The imagistic similarities to the sex act cannot be escaped. If we read the episode in this light, the story becomes about castration. A little more exegesis on the biblical passage reveals notes of the same. Specifically, proximity of the suggestions that one casts off parts of the body that causes them to sin with the renewal and strengthening of the commandment against adultery. It does not take a great leap of interpretation to merge the two. What part of the body, after all, causes a man to commit adultery? What body part's removal would stop the sinful adulterous act and, in perishing, preserve the man from that sin?

One may object of course that Tolkien is actually quite a fan of sexuality and certainly subscribes to the “be fruitful and multiply” imperative, what with Sam's 13 children and the conception of marriage as a vehicle for child-bearing. However, this is not quite applicable to disprove the point. Notably, Tolkien's view of marriage and sex as a tool by which children are produced confines the sex act to the only Biblical approved use of it. This role assignment maintains the Biblical view of sex as inherently sinful but also totally negates the power of the sex act as a thing unto itself. In fact, the strength with which Tolkien ties sex, marriage, and childbearing can well be read as evidence of his (almost certainly subliminal and unrealized) conception of sex as inherently sinful and something to be feared. His appeal to multiplying as the validation for the occasional engagement in the act is therefore an appeal to the Bible as a talisman against that very evil. After all, if we accept that the quest to Mount Doom and the climax of the book represents the ultimate good AND if you're willing to go along with me for a moment and indulge the interpretation of that scene as a castration narrative, then castration becomes the ultimate good. This association could only emerge from a fear of sexuality which (incidentally) is heavily encouraged by the Catholic Church.

E. Moore

Citations:

i. Holy Bible, Translate from the Latin Vulgate, Published with the approbation of His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore. Trans: English Colleges at Douay and Rheims. Philadelphia, Pa. Douay Bible Publishing Co. 1899.

ii. Robinson, Maurice, and William Pierpont. The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform. Southborough, MA: Chilton Book Pub. 2005.

Notes:
1. I really don't mean this as an indictment of Tolkien's work in any way.

2. I chose this edition of the Bible(instead of the RSV) because it was(1) contemporary to Tolkien's life and upbringing and (2) the primary translation relied upon by contemporary traditional English speaking Catholics.

9 comments:

  1. Wow. That kind of made me step back. The scene at Mt. Doom as castration? Neat! I'll buy that. If we look at Frodo as this very pure being, basically asexual and acting only as a servant, he's almost like a eunuch. Frodo fulfills his role as ring bearer, but does not fulfill other basic human roles. He is not a father or husband or really anything other than a vehicle to deliever the ring back to it's place of origin. Does this make him any less of a man (er, Hobbit)? We are told repeatedly that Hobbits are childlike, but Sam certainly found some uh...verility, didn't he? Perhaps by making Frodo eunuch-like, the implication is that the only person capable of bearing the ring is the one who casts all other desires aside. For Tolkien as a Catholic, this would certainly hold true. Frodo is certainly a Christ-like figure, and Christ never gave himself over to the "sins of the flesh". His work was too great. Likewise, Frodo has a task too great to be lost due to personal interests or desires. Frodo IS his mission. Honestly, I lose all interest in him after he's destroyed the ring. I feel like he's fulfilled his purpose, and we have no other need of him. Unpopular opinion, I know.

    A. Demma

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  2. If we take the metaphor a bit further, and interpret putting on the One Ring as falling from grace, then at the endgame Frodo finally succumbs to temptation and falls from purity into sin. He cannot redeem himself on his own; he needs the help of someone who has fallen long ago and is steeped in sin for the actual act of casting off the offending limb.
    Tolkien's unconscious desire for castration, then, cannot be self-inflicted; he desires external help and thus the absolution (I wonder if that is even a word...) of responsibility for his own actions. Poor Tolkien's psyche.
    On another note, Sam put on the Ring (fell from grace?) but rejected it because he had no desire for it. Does that actually imply anything about Tolkien's psyche?
    -Prashant Parmar

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  3. Well, this is quite an interesting blog post! It hadn’t occurred to me at all how sexually charged the image of putting a ring on can be. Certainly, Frodo losing his ring finger is reminiscent of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that you cite.

    This brings up a question I’ve been wrestling with throughout this class – namely, how to interpret works of art, and how much ‘weight’ to put on individual interpretations. Your interpretation of the ring as a parallel for sinful sexuality is interesting, but how much weight should we put on it?
    It seems to me that the best way to judge an interpretation is to look at in terms of breadth and depth. Breadth – does this interpretation work throughout the book, or does it make sense only in one particular scene or context? Depth – does the interpretation reveal a lot of new meaning or provoke a lot of thought, or only highlight a superficial similarity?

    I won’t share any judgment on how ‘useful’ an interpretation this is, since I think it’s a personal decision and I’m not even that sure myself. There are other potential parallels between the ring and sexuality; for example, Gollum guards after the Ring much like a jealous lover.

    However, there are a lot of places where this interpretation doesn’t seem to fit. (What does the fact that Sauron created the Ring mean in the context of the sexuality interpretation? Would Sauron be like the serpent, introducing temptation to the world?)

    On a broader note, do you agree with the framework for evaluating interpretations that I’ve put forward here? Do you think my approach (evaluating how ‘useful’ the interpretation is in reading the text) even makes sense?

    An aside – as I was writing this blog post, I found myself unconsciously gripping my right ring finger with my left hand. Ooh boy, Freud would have a field day.

    -DWM

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  4. My first reaction is, "Well, maybe, but why is this reading so appealing to you?" Although that might in itself be a little too Freudian! But, in truth, why should a sexual reading be more or less satisfying than a religious one? I agree with A. Demma that Frodo is something of a sexually neutral character, not, like Sam, raising a family, but I also agree with DWM that we need to think more about the other aspects of the Ring's symbolism, particularly that it was intended for dominating other wills. Should we therefore read Boromir's desire for the Ring as evidence of his desire to sexually dominate Sauron? I'm not so sure. And how then do we read the other rings, e.g. the one that Galadriel wears? Does it make her male to stick her finger through the hole of Nenya? An intriguing problem you've posed here!

    RLFB

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  5. Professor,
    I think it actually might lend interest to Emma's argument that Frodo is viewed as a sexually neutral character; question is, when do we start to view him this way? I feel like it is actually during his quest, as the ring consumes him more and more, and then finally, when he is unable to integrate into normal Hobbit family life upon his return to the shire, but perhaps not; evidence as to his sexual nature before the quest doesn't really come up.

    Emma,
    Could the metaphor of castration not symbolize an actual act of sexual repression or denial, but perhaps an ultimate sacrifice? Many men in ancient mystery cults throught history have castrated themselves for their goddesses, or in exchange for some greater good. Couldn't Frodo's loss of a finger, or metaphorical castration simply represent his higher purpose of pursuing the destruction of the ring no matter the cost?

    Additionally, what does it say about Gollum? Frodo does not do it himself, as the bible passage suggest one should do. His finger is is forcibly removed not by Frodo himself, but by a character who symbolizes greed and obsession. Not quite sure what that would mean though. Any suggestions anyone?

    -Katie M.

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  6. Well, Katie sort of beat me to the question that struck me after reading this post: How does Gollum fit in? I agree with DWM, a reading like this must be supported by looking at the breadth of its textual evidence. As far as the "participation" required in the sin of the Ring, Gollum took a much larger part in this for a much longer amount of time. He had been using the Ring by himself in his caves for many years before it was taken by Bilbo and then passed on to Frodo. And the fact that he was the one to actually "castrate" Frodo's finger is...well, it complicates matters, I suppose. Perhaps it was an act of absolution for both Gollum and Frodo...Gollum, arguably a greater "sinner" than Frodo, helps them both cast off their sins.
    Well, it's certainly something to think about.

    Jen Th

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  7. Heavy stuff, this. Without having yet ready any Freud or brushed up on the particulars of Catholic theology, I don't know that I'm sufficiently equipped to take a definitive stance on this interpretation. That said, my immediate reaction would be to say that the vaguely phallic imagery you've identified is so uncharacteristic of Tolkien and his self-commentary that it doesn't have much bearing on the work's character, let alone importance. Granted, the point of Freudian psychoanalysis is, I suppose, to peel back the layers of "religious education" and "author's intent" in order to expose the true underpinnings of motivation. I can't help but feel that reading between the lines to that extent almost inevitably mangles the ball whose bounce we seek, but you're welcome to take that route. In any case, it's certainly a fascinating lens through which to view the Lord of the Rings. (On a tangentially related note, I can't help but wonder what would be left of the work if we took a similar approach, but with a Nietzschian bent. The whole thing reeks of herd mentality, I'm sure.)

    A final point: subconscious aside, I'm not so sure we should equate the so-called "Catholic fear of sexuality" with Tolkien's own stance on the matter. In a line from one of his letters to a son (Michael, was it?), Tolkien refers to human sexuality as being "out of joint," as opposed to inherently evil. For Tolkien, sex would seem to have a higher calling than that of mere appetite. Procreation => subcreation, perhaps? Just a thought.

    -H. Glick

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  8. Way to wade into the deep end! You’re definitely going out on a limb here, but I think that valid because, as you point out, no one can be fully aware of where their influences and ideas come from; of all the themes, archetypes, and symbols one inadvertently includes in a work. I often wonder this when I read a book or watch a movie that I think has blatantly ripped off a previous work; I try not to judge because so much seeps into the subconscious and then leaks out again in a different form that one is not always aware of “ripping off” an idea, but rather, the idea has recombined with other parts of one’s thoughts/imagination and come out as something new, but still connected to the old.

    You make a good point that the Ring, as connected to Sauron as it is, must rely on others; it cannot act on its own. We see this a few times in its history: it wants to get back to Sauron and so wills itself to be found, but didn’t intend Gollum to find it and horde it for centuries, and when it decided to escape Gollum, it had no intention of whatsoever of being picked up by that “unlikely” hobbit!

    Wild though it sounds, you may be on to something here. The ideal for hobbits is, clearly, to marry, have a house and a productive occupation, and have lots of babies. Frodo doesn’t do that. He never marries (or even seems to have any interest in it), he has a house but only because he inherited it (and he sells it, anyway, in order to go on a quest), he doesn’t seem to have any kind of occupation, and he never has babies (although Sam obviously makes up for Frodo’s lack in sheer numbers!). We talked in class about Sam and Frodo’s journey being a sort of pilgrimage; that they walk barefoot over great and difficult distances, they give up all their worldly possessions, they are deprived of nourishment and live only on (special, magical) bread and water, etc. Sam comes back from his pilgrimage to the life he’s supposed to have. Frodo comes back to even less than he had before. Is it possible that Frodo is a monk?

    Courtney

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  9. A Freudian reading of Tolkien! How..ballsy. =)

    Anyways, others have pointed out a few caveats to the castration interpretation, such whether or not it makes sense to have Gollum as a castrator. I'll add a few more: firstly, Frodo is exceptionally asexual even before he starts his journey. A glance at the family trees in the Appendices reveals that the majority of hobbits have their first child around their 40s; that Frodo hasn't even married at 51 is unusual for a hobbit. Secondly, I'm hesitant to immediately call a ring a vagina, simply because all pieces of jewelry--necklaces, bracelets, etc.--require sticking something into a hole. I suppose that a Ring of Power could instead be, say, a Sword of Power...but then we would lose the connections of jewels being carriers of the soul (and the interesting bit about the One Ring being the only one to lack a jewel/soul).

    Nevertheless, cutting off the finger = castration is a reasonable reading. Yet I would disagree that the overtones of castration present at Mt. Doom stem from a fear of sexuality. If Frodo's castration were a pure good, then Frodo would be enlightened, made better, by the experience. However, as others have pointed out, the Frodo who returns is a broken hobbit, unable to fully participate in the world. Healing is perhaps in sight, but "that transformation is withheld, for Tolkien's story ends before it can be shown" (Flieger 160), and that healing can only take place beyond the confines of the mortal world.

    Rather, I think that Tolkien uses images of fertility and asexuality to illustrate the end of the Third Age. All of the main actors of the Third Age have lost (or have never had) their fertility at the end of the book. As mentioned above, Frodo's atypically asexual before he even sets out; Gandalf is pictured as an old man, probably too old to have children; though Elves and Ents have multiplied in the past, there are no Elflings or Entings to be found within the time spanned by The Lord of the Rings. (By contrast, compare this to the appearance of little Bergil in V.1.) The creators of the Fourth Age, on the other hand, do bear children (in Sam's case, absurd numbers of them). This shift from asexuality in the dying Third Age to fertility of the new Fourth Age can be seen most clearly in Eowyn: it's only when she embraces her sexuality by falling in love with Faramir that she discards the suicidal tendencies that caused her to end up facing and killing the Witch-King and becomes capable of living a fulfilling life. The castration of Frodo isn't presented as an ideal; it's a sacrifice that must be made in order to bring about the end of an age.

    MoL

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