Where the Shadows Lie

Where the Shadows Lie: A Jungian Interpretation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pia Skogemann. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2009. Trade Paperback. xxi + 210 pp. ISBN 978-188860245-6.

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Reviewed by Edith L. Crowe

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.3/4 (#109/110) (2010): 179–83.]

Jungian interpretation by literary scholars has rather gone out of fashion—especially in mainstream academic criticism. Even in the more compatible territory of fantasy criticism, it no longer enjoys the flurry of interest it did in the late 1970s to early 1990s. Mythlore doesn’t seem to have published any in about fifteen years, for example, and Gergely Nagy has referred to the “mystical Jungian paradigm” as “hopelessly dated” (176). Carl Jung’s theories remain of considerable interest in the formative history of psychology, but the mainstream of psychology as academic discipline and clinical practice has moved in the direction of evidence-based treatments, neuropsychology, and hard science in general.

It may well be argued that the “analytical psychology” developed by Carl Jung in the early years of the last century was always more an art than a science anyway. Jung was intrigued by the imagery of dreams and waking visions experienced both by himself and his patients, and how this same symbolic imagery appeared repeatedly in religion, mythology and alchemy—areas of which the patients in question were most often ignorant. His concept of archetypes and archetypal imagery has permeated our culture, especially in the arts and humanities. There remains something irresistibly fascinating about how closely fiction, especially in the fantasy genre, often unconsciously illustrates Jung’s archetypes. (Ged’s journey in the first three Earthsea novels is, for example, an almost textbook case of Jungian individuation—even though Le Guin was not familiar with Jung at the time.) Skogemann expresses surprise that no Jungian had previously published an analysis of The Lord of the Rings. She is aware of O’Neill’s 1979 book-length study, The Individuated Hobbit, but notes dismissively that he “seems to have no professional training in analytical psychology” (x). That much is true, although she fails to mention that O’Neill was a professor of psychology. Skogemann is certainly immersed in analytical psychology, having been a Jungian analyst for over thirty years and a co-founder of the C.J. Jung Institute in Copenhagen. Interestingly, her own educational background is not psychology but comparative religion, in which she has a Master’s degree. She has published a dozen books and a long list of articles, although Where the Shadows Lie is her first work in English (it was originally published in Danish as En Jungiansk Fortolkning af Tolkiens Ringenes Herre, by Forlaget Athene in 2004.)

With these credentials one might expect to find in Skogemann a much more detailed Jungian analysis of Tolkien than that found in O’Neill. The books are similar in page count but the latter assumed no real knowledge of Jung’s theories on the part of the reader and spent quite a few of his pages providing a primer of analytical psychology for the uninitiated. One of the most disappointing aspects of Where the Shadows Lie, however, is the surprisingly large percentage of the text (my rough estimate is eighty to ninety per cent) that is comprised of lengthy direct quotes or paraphrased retellings from The Lord of the Rings (and occasionally The Silmarillion). This leaves very little room for actual analysis. Skogemann is clearly a great admirer of Tolkien’s work; her expressed aim “is to illustrate how C.G. Jung’s theory of archetypes offers an important key to understanding the imagery of Tolkien’s masterpiece—and thereby a key to understanding ourselves” (viii). Like Shippey (the only Tolkien scholar to whom she refers frequently) Skogemann sees Tolkien as a modern writer whose work reflects the “collective unconscious of this era” (viii).

Of the fourteen chapters, several focus on a single archetype of personification (such as Trickster, Hero, Anima, Old King, among others). Playing “spot the archetype” with Tolkien’s characters is a game that many scholars have played with relish—although if Skogemann is aware of this literature she does not acknowledge it—and the primary interest in these chapters is to compare the conclusions of others to hers. Chapters that deal with the so-called archetypes of transformation, or more general concepts, are often more interesting and/or satisfying. In the first chapter, “Faëry or the Collective Unconscious,” she argues that Tolkien and Jung’s early experiences with the Perilous Realm (whether one calls it Faërie or the Unconscious) had much in common, even to the style of the language in which their experiences were expressed. She offers an alternative and non-literary explanation of the “archaic and humorless style” (2) of The Silmarillion, in that Jung found such language to be characteristic of archetypes (as he recorded in his journal, synchronistically called “The Red Book”). More generally, she argues that Jung and Tolkien both felt that a serious problem with the modern era and the art that grew to express it was a lack of any means of spiritual transformation, of that necessary connection to an inner life that was being overwhelmed by science and technology. In her view, Tolkien has created that kind of art.

The Jungian concept of individuation is tailor-made for studying the coming-of-age story, and The Lord of the Rings is rife with such stories. In “The Archetype of Consciousness: The Hobbits” Skogemann examines the four hobbits first as a kind of group consciousness with each individual representing one of the four Jungian psychological functions (thinking, intuition, sensation, feeling). She then provides a more detailed analysis of each separately. This is a satisfying chapter, particularly her insights about how repeated literal losses of consciousness and subsequent awakening of the hobbits correlate with the awakening of the various psychological functions, and are perhaps even indicative of Tolkien’s writing process. (I encourage those who are more familiar with the chronology of composition to address that.) Another satisfying chapter is the third, “The Journey Out: Archetypes of Transformation.” The chapter deals with the landscape of Middle-earth and the actual journey of the Fellowship through it. The places and experiences having particular archetypal significance are discussed in most depth: rivers and forests; descent (death and rebirth); changing of the wind; and man-made towers. Her discussion of the importance of borders, crossroads, river crossings and other points of decision, and their relationship to the Unconscious, is interesting and rather convincing. An otherwise solid chapter is marred by her surprising contention (with no evidence offered) that Tolkien’s “so-called trench fever” was actually PTSD. She attributes his ability to portray Frodo’s suffering so well to his own experience with this disorder. Unfortunately, the fact that the cause of trench fever is known to be the Bartonella quintana bacterium rather undercuts her argument.

One serious misstep in O’Neil’s otherwise enjoyable and readable book was his identification of the thoroughly evil One Ring with the Self, based on its superficial symbolic characteristics. In a chapter on the One Ring and the Three, Skogemann provides a useful correction to this, and gives us a much more satisfying and nuanced view of both of the Self archetype and the relationship of these rings. The number four is very significant in analytical psychology. Elsewhere Skogemann argues convincingly that the Fellowship is not really nine but eight, divided into two quaternities. In this chapter she relates the three Elven rings plus the One Ring to Jung’s “analysis of the Christian age in the light of alchemical symbolism, with the good Trinity and Satan or the Antichrist as the hidden fourth” (149).[1]

The last few chapters switch focus from the archetypes of personification and transformation primarily in relation to individual psychological development, and turn more toward the broader social and cultural stage. “The Collective Shadow” looks at evil in relation to Sauron. She considers, in relation to opinions expressed by both Jung and Shippey, the nature of evil as privatio boni—the absence of good—as opposed to a force of its own, and concludes that Tolkien seems to suggest the latter (though not necessarily on purpose). While admitting that The Lord of the Rings is in no way an allegory of World War II, she believes historical reality affected the conception and portrayal of both Mordor and Sauron. In an impassioned digression that would be of interest to a scholar of postcolonial bent, she declares that “Mordor is a true representation of the white man in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century” (162), based on the legacy of genocide perpetrated both by colonial powers and the Nazi regime. She makes an interesting comparison between Stockholm Syndrome and the effects of the Ring—“the normal identity disappears and is taken over by the norms and values of the guardian or leader” (166). Chapter 12, “The End of an Age,” discusses eschatology, although her view of people’s attitude toward religion in the contemporary West is perhaps a better fit for Europe than the United States. She traces a route from early animistic beliefs through Christianity to modern science, a trajectory that leaves people cut off from the idea of nature as alive and mythologically significant. Here Skogemann looks briefly at a number of other fantasy novels in terms of their treatment of time and death. The last two chapters: “Anthropos: The Cosmic Man” and “The Renewal of the Shire” focus on the social implications of the Fellowship’s journey and what Joseph Campbell would identify as the Return phase of the hero quest. Aragorn is discussed as both a personification of the Self archetype and the Green Man. The hobbits, with the exception of Frodo, are now fully individuated and mature characters who can revivify the Shire.

Although Where the Shadows has significant drawbacks, it should still be worthwhile reading for anyone interested in Jungian interpretations of Tolkien. The Tolkien scholar (or any well-versed Tolkien reader) may find the extensive quoting and paraphrasing of the original text frustrating—it’s rather like having to burrow through a great deal of tissue paper to get to a present (and one finds one doesn’t always like the present). Analytical psychology acknowledges the importance of the spiritual life, but is not tied to a specific religion. Those focused on Tolkien as a Christian author might find Skogemann’s alternative psychological explanations thought-provoking or infuriating (or more likely some of each); others may welcome such an alternative. One of the most problematic aspects of this study is the failure to acknowledge any of the periodical or dissertation literature undertaking Jungian analysis of Tolkien. Whether the author is unaware of such literature or believes studies by those who may have “no professional training in analytical psychology” are not worthwhile, her failure to engage with this literature—even to refute it—is a significant weakness.

Works Cited


  1. Jung discusses this in Aion (1951); found in volume 9ii of his Collected Works published by Princeton University Press.

Where the Shadows Lie: A Jungian Interpretation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pia Skogemann. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2009. Trade Paperback. xxi + 210 pp. ISBN 978-188860245-6.

Buy Online

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