“The Land of Fairy Story is wide and deep and high.... In that land a man may (perhaps) count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very mystery and wealth make dumb the traveler who would report.... The fairy gold (too often) turns to withered leaves when it is brought away.
All that I can ask is that you, knowing all these things, will receive my withered leaves, as a token at least that my hand once held a little of the gold.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien (draft manuscript of “On Fairy Stories”)
J.R.R. Tolkien has emerged as one of the most important and enduring literary figures of the twentieth century. His masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, possesses an intriguing quality of "depth" and veracity that has evoked a sense of wonder in generations of readers. Those qualities have made it one of the most-printed and most-read books in history.
Most of his fans know that Tolkien was a philologist and professor of English language at Oxford. However, very few readers appreciate the intensity with which Tolkien explored the beauty and perils of his imaginative world before ever starting down the road that led from the Shire to Mount Doom – the decade long labor of writing LOTR, begun by Tolkien in 1937. These three lectures examine the broad span of Tolkien's life and work, with focus on Tolkien’s experience of imagination.
Tolkien understood his imaginative gifts and inclinations were unusual. Though rare, they are however not entirely unique. In the final lecture, we consider Tolkien’s place in the Western imaginative tradition, with special attention to the work and experiences of C. G. Jung and his "Red Book" – a work kept hidden for decades, and just finally released for publication in 2009. Tolkien also had a "Red Book" – The Red Book of Westmarch – and the similarity of the experiences behind these two imaginative "Red Books" is quite extraordinary. (The relation of Jung, Tolkien and their imaginal experiences is discussed in greater detail in the audio interview with Lance Owens conducted by Miguel Conner, listed immediately after the lectures below.)
These three illustrated audio lectures were offered as a prologue to Dr. Owens' in-depth lectures on C. G. Jung and the Red Book; they were presented at Westminster College, Salt Lake City, during February and March of 2009.
If you have questions or comments, you may email
J. R. R. Tolkien: An Imaginative Life
Lecture I: The Discovery of Faerie
View the Illustrated Lecture on YouTube
Around 1914 while still a student of philology at Oxford, Tolkien began exploring an imaginative dominion he named "Faerie". His creative excursions started with the invention of imaginary languages. But as the languages evolved in depth and complexity, he discovered his linguistic meditations were opening upon a very strange panorama. The languages were not just “his invention”, but became native tongues of the Elves. And Elves had many stories to tell; their languages came replete with myth and poetry.
In the trenches of the Great War, amid the horrific battle of the Somme in 1916, and then in hospital for over a year after, Tolkien turned to the task of recording the languages, history and legends of the Elves. These initial creative visions, recorded in several private journals collectively titled “The Book of Lost Tales”, are the foundation for his later creative writing.
In this first lecture, we considers Tolkien’s discovery of the realm of Faerie.
(Due to problems with the recording equipment, this lecture of is of much lower audio quality than I would wish. The subsequent lectures are in better quality.)
Lecture II: Tolkien at the Crossroads
View the Illustrated Lecture on YouTube
By 1938 Tolkien had been exploring the world of Faerie for over two decades. He had recorded in prose and verse hundreds of pages of legends, setting them in English, ancient Anglo-Saxon, and in Elvish tongues. He called this creative activity his “secret vice”, a private matter shared only in small part with a few close friends.
Publication in 1937 of a little volume written casually for his children, The Hobbit, brought Tolkien first public recognition. After the success of The Hobbit, his publisher was eager for more tales of Hobbits, but apparently uninterested in the vast corpus of creation already stacked in his study – it was simply too strange, too arcane.
At this critical juncture in his creative life – stuck with a Hobbit company at the Prancing Pony in Bree, and struggling to see the direction his new literary journey would take – Tolkien delivered his celebrated lecture “On Fairy Stories” at St. Andrews University.
With the help of this seminal essay on creative imagination, we examine the middle-years of Tolkien’s life.
Lecture III: Tolkien and the Imaginative Tradition
Late in life as he contemplated his years of work and journey in the land of Faerie, a revealing and very personal myth came to Tolkien: Smith of Wootton Major. The short story is a thinly veiled testament to the gift Tolkien had received, and the treasure he now passed on to others.
Tolkien understood his creative gifts and inclinations were unusual. Though rare, they are however not entirely unique. In this final lecture, we consider Tolkien’s place in the Western imaginative tradition, with special attention to the work and experiences of C. G. Jung and "The Red Book" or Liber Novus -- a work kept hidden for decades, and just now finally being release for publication.
Tolkien, Jung and the Imagination - An Interview with Lance Owens
Based on interest in these lectures, Miguel Conner conducted an hour-long interview with Lance Owens in April 2011. In this interview Owens gives a more extensive discussion of the relationship between the imaginal worlds of Jung and Tolkien, and their "Red Books." The general subject was "J.R.R. Tolkien, C.G. Jung and Gnostic tradition."
The interview is available here in mp3 format for listening or download.
Suggested Readings for this Series:
Tolkien - End of the World, c.1912
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth
Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories (currently published ONLY in Great Britian - check amazon.co.uk for best price)
Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator
Lesser known works by Tolkien referenced and recommended:
The Book of Lost Tales Part 1
(The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 1)
The Book of Lost Tales Part 2
(The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 2)
Leaf by Niggle
Smith of Wootton Major