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.
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.
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.