Tolkien and the Primordial Tradition

Joscelyn Godwin

Although Tolkien lived two streets away from my home in Oxford, I had never heard of him until my fellow student James Webb (author of The Flight from Reason, The Occult Revival, and The Harmonious Circle) lent me The Lord of the Rings. In the 1970s I taught a course called “Tolkien, Wagner, and Jung.” Soon after that, Tolkien disappeared from campus culture, until Peter Jackson’s genius brought him back again.


When it becomes normal for people to cease believing in what they cannot reach with the senses, and when the established authorities on the supersensory are as contradictory and ignorant as is the case in our present civilization, then the truths that belong to all mankind — the Perennial Wisdom — must find other ways into the hearts and minds of men. Fortunately those who have been born into Western civilization have not been deserted entirely by the powers which look to the education of the human race (education in the original sense of drawing out the wisdom innate in every man). Like so much good teaching, their work may take place unconsciously, but its effect is not thereby diminished: rather the contrary, since society and upbringing have imbued many people so strongly with modern prejudices that the conscious entertainment of traditional wisdom is an almost unthinkable heresy for them. In such cases it is sometimes the Arts that take on an instructive, even an initiatory role. Not everyone is aware, for instance, that much well-known poetry, music and painting embodies elements of pure mysticism — and I use the word not as a critic’s label, but as something literally and experientially true. But through these and other arts the liberally educated Westerner, however profane his conscious beliefs, has actually received a subliminal education in realms that might surprise him. Shakespeare’s dramas have introduced him, all unknowingly, to the Hermetic Tradition. In classical architecture his soul has experienced the Divine Proportions and the geometry that lies at the foundation of the manifested universe. The French Impressionists have taught him something of the Metaphysics of Light, and of the mystery that underlies the very perception of an external world. Music has opened up to him new dimensions of time and space; and in the secondary worlds of the great epics and fantasies he has learned of cosmoi which may well be closer to the truth than the world of his daily experience and superficial convictions.

Grounded as it is in the metaphysical, the Primordial Tradition also took for granted the irrational, the invisible, the esoteric and the occult; with which it prescribed the means for a satisfactory relationship through symbolism and ritual. The Arts of traditional civilizations, so vividly recreated for our time in the writings of A.K. Coomaraswamy and Eric Gill, always had something symbolic and ritualistic about them; and one could say as much for traditional Crafts, for Science, and even for Real Life, to mention four divisions whose very existence as separate domains is entirely a modern phenomenon. Every sort of human creativity was recognized as a vehicle for the symbolic embodiment of archetypal truths, which human skill could then imprint upon humble matter in word pictures, sound patterns, colour, stone or ceremony. The artist worked in harmony with society and with his own gifts and destiny, content to express universal Truth and Beauty for the benefit of his fellows. He had no need for innovation or ego-expression: for what can be new, what personal, about the Archetypes? He imitated the best masters, reproduced with all his skill the traditional models, and gave society what they both wanted and needed.

It is consequently only in the post-traditional period that the artist has had to take on the novel role of Outsider. The very notion of artists feeling at home with the collective values of our own times is laughable: it evokes, at best, visions of vast murals in Workers’ Palaces, or of television performers summoned to the White House. That is because collective values are no longer a fit subject for human creativity. The place of a true artist in a world as publicly insane as ours can only be that of a rebel, overt or covert, recalling to their senses those who will hear, read or see.

So we come to J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford professor who in his spare time wrote one of the manifestos of the Aquarian Age. Did he know that the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are replete with traditional wisdom and esoteric lore? Was he as knowing as Dante or Blake, or was he more of a mouthpiece, as we may assume Shakespeare to have been? I leave the answer for his biographers: it does not matter greatly. Questions of influence and of intentionality are fascinating to pursue, indeed are essential if a full picture of the subject is to emerge, but they have been somewhat overworked by modern scholarship, one of whose major shortcomings is the lack of a vertical dimension in its tracing of sources. What matters most is that the cosmic and world view set forth in Tolkien’s fiction accords remarkably with that of the Primordial Tradition, and that through its great popularity the souls of millions of readers have been instilled with certain universal truths. If this is escapist literature, then the escape is only from the false into something approaching the real. In what follows I will merely give some examples of the ways in which Tolkien has embodied this ancient wisdom. Each one would suffice for a paper on its own; and no doubt these papers will be written some day.

His epic begins, as it should, at the Beginning of all things (The Silmarillion, London, 1977, p. 15; hereafter S). Eru or Ilúvatar is the One whose Mind contains all things manifested and unmanifested. He is not the Absolute — not Brahma Nirguna, or the Ain Soph, or the Thrice Unknown Darkness — but the supreme Deity in its active mode: Brahma Saguna; Eheieh: the Universal Mind. This is clear from the fact that he emanates the Ainur, ‘the offspring of his thought’. The Ainur whom Ilúvatar instructs and who make him glad with their song are the Demiurgic Powers (now called archangels or gods, depending on one’s tradition) entrusted with the creation of the Universe, both formless and formed.

Tolkien is by no means the first to describe a Creation through sound or song. This is a very widely distributed metaphor, found on the one hand in all theologies of a creative Word or ordering Logos, and on the other in the image of Music of the Spheres. Tolkien resembles speculative music theorists of the Renaissance (Fludd, Kepler, Kircher, etc.) in likening Evil to a discord through which the cosmic music as a whole is enriched: for as a skilful composer knows how to resolve dissonance into consonance, so Ilúvatar causes the evil intentions of Melkor to evoke harmonies still more wonderful from the Divine Mind (S, p. 17). This explanation of evil, difficult to accept when one is suffering from it, is nevertheless the only one intellectually acceptable to esotericists. The Indian sage Ramakrishna, asked by a disciple why God allows evil, replied disconcertingly: ‘To thicken the plot!’

The four stages of Creation in The Silmarillion accord well with esoteric cosmogony. The first act of the One was the emanation of the Builders, the Ainur. Secondly, there followed in their music the idea of a possible cosmos, created according to their own nature and limitations, with a definite beginning and a definite cadence marked by Ilúvatar himself (S, p. 17). Thirdly came the vision in which the Ainur saw the World that their music had made: a world as yet unmanifested, ‘For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing’ (S, p. 20). Fourthly Ilúvatar himself gave substance to the ideal, resulting in ‘Eä, the World that Is’, on which the Ainur had to labour afresh. Do we not find here the four degrees of Archetypal, Intellectual, Imaginal, and Physical existence; or, equally, the Four Worlds of the Kabbala: the Atziluthic World, in which dwell the archetypes or the aspects of Deity; the Briatic World of the Archangels and their ‘musical’ emanations; the Yetziratic World of their ‘visionary’ creations; the Assiatic World of physical formation?

Obedient to the purpose of realizing their vision in Time and Matter, certain of the Ainur descended to Earth, henceforth to be called the Valar. Yet apart from them Ilúvatar had created directly his own Children, Men and Elves, whose ultimate destiny not even the Ainur knew (S, p. 18). Compare the Gnostic cosmogony, according to which the Supreme God made Man as an essentially divine being, yet placed him in the world seemingly beneath the Aeons — or Ainur — to whom the business of physical creation and overseeing was entrusted. Melkor, the Evil One who enviously wished to subdue to his will both Elves and Men (S, p. 18), rejects this arrangement, like the Satan of Islamic teaching who refused homage to Adam. The Valar themselves, who are able, should they wish, to assume human shape (S, p. 21), recall the Demiurge of Genesis, the anthropomorphic Lord God who walks in the Garden and makes rules for Adam and Eve. We are in a very Gnostic atmosphere with these early chronicles.

The Valar, like certain of the Gnostic Aeons, have their queens, who in the Hindu theology would be called their Shaktis, the creative powers through which they act. Subsidiary to them are the Maiar, who seldom appear in visible form (S, p. 30). Here are the uppermost links of a Great Chain of Being: from the One, to the gods and goddesses to, shall we say, the angels? Beneath the Maiar (though in some mysterious way transcending them) come Men and Elves, the highest of them godlike, the lowest little more than beasts. As demiurgic creations there follow the Dwarves, made by Aulë, one of the Ainur who most resembles the classical Vulcan (S, pp. 27, 43). Beneath them are animals, plants and stones, even the humblest links in the chain showing, by their virtue and in some cases intelligence, that they are anything but dead stuff. Such a hierarchy of beings, or of states of being, is a universal postulate of the traditional cosmos, as is the special position of Man on the chain.

As regards the planets, I will only mention that the Earth’s creation, as in Genesis, preceded that of the Moon and the Sun (S, p. 99). The Moon was placed first, the Sun shortly after, and both were guided by Maiars: the planetary intelligences acknowledged in almost all traditional cosmologies. The planet Venus appeared much later (S, p. 250), which will please only Velikovskians.

Tolkien accords to Man a unique position and a relationship with death that seem to find their closest echo in Buddhism. Of all the beings of the Universe, according to Buddhist doctrine, only Man can achieve Enlightenment and final liberation from the Wheel of Existence. Even the Long-Lived Gods who dwell in bliss, for a myriad of years must eventually descend and take on human incarnations in order to become enlightened, or else must continue to be reborn on the Wheel in inferior and even hellish states. When Ilúvatar decided to make Men he promised to give them a new gift: ‘Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else (S, p. 41). ‘It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.’ (S, p. 42).

This gift of death, with its mystery and its sense of transcending even the imagination of the Ainu, suggests at least the possibility of it bringing a supreme release in its wake. ‘Some say,’ in a later passage, that Men when they die ‘go to the halls of Mandos (the dwelling of the Plutonic Ainu, Namo); but their place of waiting there is not that of the Elves, and Mandor under Ilúvatar alone save Manwë knows whither they go after the time of recollection in those silent halls beside the Outer Sea. None have ever come back from the mansions of the dead (S, pp. 104-5). The language with which Tolkien describes the sojourn of Men in these halls is reminiscent of the Catholic Purgatory, and the whole question of the posthumous fate of Men as he envisages it could be treated again as a reflection of a Catholic point of view. Much would hinge on the precise way in which a sympathetic critic himself reconciled the Eastern and Western doctrines on this matter, presuming that a single tradition and a single truth underlie them all.

The Elves, unlike Men, are coeval with the Earth (S, p. 42). Their ultimate fate is unrevealed, too, but one doubts that it is the same as that of Men. They may leave the Earth for the Halls of Mandos if their bodies are destroyed or if they are particularly world-weary, but they may return again (S, p. 42). One cannot avoid wondering what is the posthumous fate of Hobbits, and whether Frodo’s taking of the path to the West was not his supreme sacrifice, like a Bodhisattva’s vow, binding him to the world as long as it should last.

The cosmos spun out of song and then built by the Ainur is only one possible one, and it has a definite end. Allusion is made once to a Second Music of the Ainur (S, p. 42) in which Men shall join; could this be a ‘new heaven and a new earth’? The implication seems to be one of successive creations, similar to the manvantaras of Hindu doctrine: the great cycles after which all things return to pralaya, non-manifestation. Within such a period the Purāṇas calculate an elaborate hierarchy of cycles within cycles, whose principle also occurs in Tolkien’s books as the various Ages of the World. His is a cyclic view of history, though within each turn of the wheel time seems to be linear and progressive. The First Age ended with the overthrow of Melkor in his incarnate form as Morgoth; the Second with the downfall of Númenor and the first dissolution of Morgoth’s vassal, the Maiar Sauron; the Third with the achievement of Frodo’s Quest; and in the Fourth, we are given to understand, you and I are still living.

Each manvantara is divided in the Purāṇic system into four Ages: the Kṛtā, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali Yugas. The Greeks used the more evocative epithets of the Golden, Silver, Brass, and Iron Ages. Both mythologies relate that the sanctity and pleasantness of the Earth and its inhabitants are at their height during a Golden Age, after which they decline with accelerating rapidity until the Iron Age, shortest and most wretched of all, during which human life, correspondingly abbreviated, is beset by wars, plagues, famines, and all the disasters that impiety brings upon the planet. Then at the very darkest hour comes the Apocatastasis and the Age of Gold returns once more. Tolkien’s Ages each witness the growth of evil, leading to a bloody confrontation, after which a season of peace and plenty ensues. The closing chapters of The Lord of the Rings certainly seem to usher in a new Golden Age. But of course evil is never vanquished for ever: these cataclysms mark the periodic resolutions of discord into temporary concord. Only at the end of the manvantara will all conflict cease, but how and when this will be, not even the Ainur can tell.

Occult prehistory, elaborating upon tradition, has had much to say about the former ages of our Earth, to which it attributes a cataclysmic rather than a quietly evolutionary habit. The fall of the Morgoth at the end of the First Age (S, p. 252) was accompanied by terrestrial upheavals and the disappearance of the River Sirion, In the next Age there arose from the sea the land of Númenor as a dwelling for the Edain between the undying land of the Valar and Middle-earth (S, p. 260). When we hear later of Númenor’s inundation (S, p. 279-80), we scarcely have to be told that in the Eldarin tongue it bears the name ‘Atalantë’ (S, p. 281) in order to remember the Atlantis legend: the geographical situation is the same, as is the reason for the cataclysm — the corruption and hybris of its inhabitants. Traditional authorities apart, there are few revelations of occult seers that enjoy so much consensus as the story of the Atlantean civilization: of the unsurpassed splendour at its height; the divisions between the followers of the Left-hand and the Right-hand Paths; the flight of the chosen ones to found colonies and, eventually, new civilizations in the continents to East and West of the doomed island; the Deluge that swallowed up the last of the Atlantean islands, as recorded by Plato. All of this is closely reflected in Tolkien’s account of Númenor. Moreover, he describes how the Numenoreans came to the lands of Middle-earth bringing gifts to the Men who dwelt there in a benighted state. They introduced corn and wine, taught crafts and skills, and their new subjects revered the memory of the tall Sea-kings, and when they had departed they called them gods, hoping for their return’ (S, p. 263). Occult lore similarly suggests that the man-gods Manu, Osiris and Quetzalcoatl were Atlanteans who, coming respectively to the Himalayas, Egypt, and Mexico, brought such gifts to the inhabitants and were later deified in popular memory.

The corruption of the Numenoreans is described by Tolkien as it proceeded gradually from their rejection of the Gift of Death, leading to the practice of mummification (S, p. 266), through the ‘worship of the Dark’, (S, p, 272), to the institution of a satanic Moon-temple and its rite of human sacrifice (S, p. 273). Whether or not Tolkien drew the Numenorean episode from the reading of occult writers such as Blavatsky and Steiner, his account agrees both in outline and in details with theirs.

In the course of the post-Atlantean Age, Man has become less and less sensitive to the immaterial denizens of Earth, all but losing the clairvoyant faculties which must formerly have allowed him knowledge of, and commerce with, the elementals and nature spirits whom we might well assimilate to Tolkien’s Elves. In this sense, we live truly in an Age of Men. But some of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s Third Age still enjoy a degree of extra-sensory perception akin to that of certain atavistic, or purer, races of our own time; and for all his characters, good or bad, Magic is a fact of life, even if a rare one. The supernatural world impinges on them in prophetic and telepathic dreams, visions, synchronous events, and above all in the magical powers of objects: sword, stone, staff and ring. Such was the condition of archaic man, living in a time when the physical world was more transparent, matter less solidified. This, too, is a state which the Primordial Tradition takes for granted.

The ancient wisdom teaches that in every Age there take place descents of divine beings from another plane who voluntarily take on the burden of human incarnation for the good of Men. They are called variously Avatars, Saviours or Bodhisattvas. I would be inclined to see this doctrine reflected in Tolkien’s Wizards, who came over the Sea when Sauron began to stir again in the Third Age (S, pp. 299-300). The Elves said that they were messengers sent by the Valar. The perversion of Saruman, of course, does not fit the avataric parallel, but rather reminds one on a smaller scale of the arrogant gnostic demiurge, Ialdabaoth, who became convinced of his own supremacy and denied that there were any gods above him, enslaving mankind for the satisfaction of his own greed for power. Gandalf, on the other hand, like so many saviour-gods and heroes, lives a life of service devoid of personal ambition. Like Hercules, Orpheus and Christ he passes through the gates of death; like Dionysus and Attis he is reborn in transfigured form, after which he does not die as a mortal but, his task fulfilled, departs forever from the circles of Middle-earth. Such a being is both god and man: he has superpowers and knowledge, but is not permitted to use them for his own benefit, nor to attempt to change the destiny of others. (Gandalf could, for example, have warned Boromir of the dangers into which ambition was leading him.) He cannot compel, only attract followers who recognize his superior wisdom and virtue, and follow him of their own free will. In drawing the Wizard’s character, Tolkien has managed in a marvellous way to show what such an enlightened being can be like. No one can fail to be profoundly stirred by Gandalf’s humility, his compassion, sense of humour, and the tragic background of the immense burden he is carrying.

Certain monarchs who have held crucial positions in the destiny of humanity may also be regarded as avatars of a minor order. Such is certainly Aragorn: the type of the perfect Ruler working in consort with Gandalf, his spiritual adviser, as it were, each managing his own domain for the good of the world. Aragorn is the man of action, called to a warrior’s hard life and the heavy duties of kingship; Gandalf’s is the way of insight and contemplation, only occasionally erupting into magical action when physical means have failed. Yet this pair, so exemplary in their representation of spiritual authority and temporal power, are not set within any tradition, for religion is kept severely out of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf may be a Magus: he is certainly not a Pontifex. Obviously any attempt to supply the inhabitants of Middle-Earth with a religion would have foundered on the shores of parody, or even, to Tolkien’s Roman Catholic conscience, blasphemy. To have written a work of spiritual value dissociated from any religious tradition is an achievement peculiar to modern times. (One could name quite a number from the past two hundred years.) This again is an example of the extraordinary function taken on by the Arts in our time. If their task is subtly to infect people with the seeds of spiritual knowledge, they must do so autonomously, not trailing the banner of any tradition. For those who are already drawn to a tradition, there are of course more explicit means, and the arts to go with them.

At the centre of Tolkien’s epics, as at the centre of our own, is the quest of the individual. The cosmos he has imagined, with its hierarchies and cycles, is nought but a setting for the exercise of individual freedom, be it that of a god or a hobbit. Remove this, and it would be as dead as clockwork. Tolkien’s true genius, to my mind, resides in his capacity to convey the tension, and the balance, between destiny and free-will, between collective fate and personal choices. As one moves through this vast expanse, crowded with incident, one senses most powerfully what I can only describe as the web of Karma. This is not just the fate one is born with: it is the fate one constructs at every moment. The human condition itself — even the succession of the Ages — are karmic circumstances brought about by aeons of wilful activity; yet however much an individual may seem a prisoner of these circumstances, he is still free in his reactions, which in turn condition his future state, thereby influencing the course of the whole world. The scope and scale of Tolkien’s story are what enable him to bring such a feeling to life in the reader. If his work has a single theme at its core, I would say that it is the relationship between individual action and cosmic event. And that is high praise of any work of art.



This is a revised version of a paper read at the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, at Florida Atlantic University, March 18–21, 1981.