Neoplatonism and J.R.R. Tolkien

by Oct 30, 2003Critical Viewpoints

Neoplatonism and J.R.R. Tolkien

Throughout the past century, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien provided the world with a vast amount of ideas and pleasure with his literature. He took us on many journeys to his world of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, and in arguably the most famous novel of the 20th century, the epic three-volume, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. These books are even popular to this day, as they continually sell millions of copies and have sparked the creation of movies, radio programs, and even cult followings. However with all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s success, he is still criticized for deriving his stories from other sources. He has been accused of taking stories and characters from other religions, folk tales, and philosophical ideas such as Neoplatonism, and used them to influence his novels. While Tolkien may be a well rounded scholar in all sorts of historical backgrounds and his vast knowledge would definitely show through in his writings, he did use Neo-Platonic ideas to influence the construction of his world, Middle Earth, in his famed The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

To understand how Tolkien used Neoplatonism in his famed writings, we must first get a brief understanding of what Neoplatonism is. The formation of Neoplatonism, or “New” Platonism, was credited by Plotinus in the 3rd century A.D, based off the teachings of Plato as well as Aristotle. However, many would say that Neo-Platonism or the “New Platonism” was developed the day after Plato died, due to fact that everyone who studied and interpreted Plato’s writings would in fact be “new.” In other words, Neoplatonism, as well as Platonism, has been interpreted in many by different scholars in many ways throughout history. However, Plotinus is generally credited with its founding.

Plotinus’ Neo-Platonic ideals are essentially a type of idealistic monism, where the ultimate deity of infinite, perfection, and indescribable existence is: The One. “The One is all; it is universal power, of infinite extent and infinite in potency, a god so great that all his parts are infinite. Name any place, and he is already there, but it has not deserted its creation for a place apart; it is always present to those with strength to touch it” (Plotinus, The Enneads I 1).

From this ultimate One, or the Good, originates the rest of the universe composed of lesser beings in a pyramid of hierarchy known as Cosmos. The first, being the perfect One, or Pure Intelligence (nous). Then, from Intelligence derives the Soul or Nature (the Form of the Creator or eidê), this is the intermediate between the Pure Intelligence and the material world. Finally, dividing from the Soul, there are all of the lesser souls, which are comprised of the material world including humans. Plotinus uses a metaphor to describe this development of Cosmos in that “God is the sun from which the light radiates without loss to the sun….the farther we are from the sun, the source of light, the closer we are to darkness (matter)” (Godelek, Neoplatonist Roots par. 6). Plotinus also stresses the importance of creation to practicing Neo-Platonists, such as music and art. This is apparent through the ideas in the formation of the Cosmos, or the ladder of being; the Soul is derived from the One by the One sub-creating it through song. As well as the lesser souls were sub-created by the many higher spiritual “beings” on the ladder of being, or the Soul, through the creation of music dedicated to and in unity with the divine One. This shows the ionic relationship that all of Cosmos has with the One, “As Above, So Below. As Below, So Above” (Armstrong, There and Back 3). This is why it is very important for humans to sub-create, whether it is art, music, language, or myth. It puts humans in unity with the One and attempts to lift their soul higher to reach nirvana with Pure Intelligence. Tolkien put this “As Above, So Below. As Below, So Above” concept in his writings about the Middle-earth world.

“Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all crannies of the world we filled with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sowed the seed of dragons — `twas our right (used or misused). That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we’re made.” (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories 74)

Plotinus, as well as Plato, believed that humans were the highest on the hierarchy of lesser souls, as they were the link between the material and the immaterial worlds (lesser souls to Soul, then to The One). Humans could reach this salvation or connection by reflecting upon nature; during this the Soul is capable of reaching enlightenment to the essence of Intellect (nous). Historical philosopher, Fredrick Copleston’s described Neoplatonism as “the intellectualist reply to the… yearning for personal salvation” (Coplestone History of Philosophy 216).

Neoplatonism had an unsteady association with the Roman Catholic Church and was eventually banned in 529 A.D. by Emperor Justinian I, as well as dogmatists condemned it for its unconventional system of beliefs. Through these times, Neoplatonism evolved immensely. Later philosophers of Neoplatonism evolved Plotinus’ works by eventually adding hundreds of intermediate gods and beings as deity links between the One and the lesser souls (humanity). This created an even better link between humans and the spiritual world.

The ideals of Neoplatonism, although looked down upon early by contrasting religions such as Roman Catholicism, did later influence many popular religions such as: Christianity, Paganism, Gnosticism, and Judaism. Saint Augustine, an early Father of the Christian Church, admitted in his Confessions to being greatly influenced by Neoplatonism in his own religious thinking, as well as he acknowledged its contribution to the evolution of Christianity. Eventually, by the 15th century Neoplatonism was accepted for its contributions and ideals.

Many of these principles are present in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work; you just have to know where to look. The more you investigate Neoplatonism, the more you can pick out pieces of Tolkien’s world that he used from it. Before, you would have read right by without noticing these very significant details.

The main parallel to Neoplatonism that can be found in Tolkien’s writings of Middle-Earth are found in his originally unpublished, The Simarillion. This was a collection of five separate pieces of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work that was later, posthumously, standardized and published by his son Christopher. In the first chapter of The Simarillion- “Ainulindalë”, Tolkien writes about the creation of Tolkien’s universe, Eä, in which Middle-Earth is apart of.
“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long time they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest harkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet even as they listened, they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.”
(Tolkien, The Simarillion 15)

This Tolkien universe, Eä, draws almost identical principles to that of Neo-Platonic thought in respect to the universe, how it was created, and its Cosmos. Tolkien’s supreme deity or One, is call Eru Ilúvatar (or the One who is the Father of All), he is not mentioned by name in any of The Lord of the Rings, but is alluded to as “The One” a few times throughout the trilogy. From Eru, Tolkien branches down to the creation of lesser spirits called Ainur (The Holy Ones), paralleled to the Soul in Neo-Platonic principles. Then, after the immaterial- Holy Ones, came Tolkien’s material world, Arda, which a piece of it is, Middle-Earth. The fact that Tolkien uses this exact structure and idea of Neo-Platonic Cosmos is proof upon itself that he obviously was influenced by Neoplatonism in his writings.

We must also keep in mind the arrangement of the Ainulindalë (translated to Music of the Ainur), the first chapter of The Simarillion is similar to that of Christian Biblical form of the book Genesis dealing with God’s creation of Earth. This also shows that Tolkien had influences from other sources than Neoplatonism such as Christianity in his writings.
Another similarity to Neoplatonism is, during the first Lord of the Rings book, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his fellowship were devastated by the loss of their wizard, Gandalf the Grey. He was slain by the Balrog in a great battle at Khazad-dûm. It isn’t until we find out later in the second installment of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, that Gandalf was not dead but almost reincarnated and more powerful than ever before as Gandalf the White. This relates to the Neo-Platonist idea of the Soul and body, “the Soul is a divine essence, the source of all existence. It is immortal, infinite, and separate from the body. The body is a cage where the soul is trapped, and it can be freed when the body dies. The soul, by its nature, always tends toward perfection, beauty, goodness and exaltation” (Godelek, The Neo-Platonist Roots 3). On the other hand as Kamuran Godelek states about the body, “The body is mortal, temporary, and not divine. What is beautiful, good, valuable and divine is not body, but the soul…The body is a cage for the soul. The body is created from the earth, and will go back to the earth, and decay there. For this reason, the body is not important, and a person should not follow the desires of his/her body, but rather should turn from sensuous life to thought, and through it, to God” (Godelek, The Neo-Platonist Roots 3). This idea is evident through the description Tolkien uses when describing Gandalf’s return. In the novel, Gandalf depicts the epic battle with the Balrog through the air, and then on a mountain top, until he ultimately becomes victorious, but exhausted and eventually dead. Then, he talks about how he somehow left his body and rose up into the great bright, divine white light but was returned to finish his task, naked and more powerful than before. This depiction not only shows Neo-Platonic thoughts on the Soul and body, but also of the existence of supreme beings, or gods, who ultimately control the actions of the lesser souls on Middle-Earth.

This idea of a spiritual hierarchy is also evident in Tolkien’s writings about the Rings of Power. There were nine rings given to the Men, seven rings given to the Dwarves, and three rings for the Elves. The ring-bearers knew that the rings were forged by the Noldorin Elven-smiths of Eregion, but there was much uncertainty of how they received their power, as stated by Elrond and Gandalf to the Fellowship at Rivendale. These Rings of Power had to be getting their power by some Supreme Being or spirit, something more powerful than any being in the material world. This relates back to the Neo-Platonist theory of Cosmos and all things emulating from the “Good” and returning to it.

You also have to look at how the Neo-Platonist hierarchy comes into play in the journey of the Fellowship and the Ring of Power. How something so powerful and important could fall into the hands of a lowly creature like Gollum, or a mere Hobbit. There must be someone guiding Frodo or even The Ring for that matter on their separate paths. This is apparent when the Fellowship begins their journey in Rivendell and Elrund’s Council all ponders why such a lowly Hobbit was “entrusted” with something as great and powerful as the Ring of Power. All of the council quickly turned against one another and argued that they alone should carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, as they were all engulfed with selfishness and hunger for power at only the mere sight of The Ring. It wasn’t until Gandalf the Grey said that Frodo had “stumbled” upon the ring for a purpose greater than any of them, and that the powers above had guided The Ring to Frodo, as they did to Bilbo Baggins before him. This and this alone was faith enough for the Elrund’s Council to let Frodo continue to be the keeper of the all powerful Ring. This is another example about how Tolkien, and the world he creates, believes in a spiritual god above them and in the powers that be.

You must also look at the notion that not only was Frodo guided to find the ring, but the ring itself was guided to find Frodo. Just as the other Rings of Power were guided or given to their owners. In this case, it is not Frodo’s fate to become a ring-bearer, but to instead journey to Mordor and destroy The Ring. Frodo was also bestowed a special gift that no one else he encountered throughout his journey had, the gift of resistance and self perseverance to resist the temptation of The Ring. This shows that Frodo was indeed created by the “Good” to do just that, good and finally end the war over the Ring of Power in Middle-Earth.

Another example of Tolkien’s use of Neoplatonism influences in Middle-Earth is when Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring stopped in Lórien and met with Noldorin princess Galadriel. Galadriel had great power due to the fact that she was given one of the threes rings bestowed to the Elves at the time of its forging. She had the power to see Sauron’s doings, but also to block him from seeing her and those around her. Somehow by the spiritual power of the ring the woods in Lórien where Galadriel resided stood still. It was outside time itself, in a purely spiritual place where no evil could get in, except The Ring. Everything about Lórien and Galadriel was peaceful and surreal, until Galadriel turned on Frodo because even she was drawn to the power of The Ring. Eventually even Frodo, who was given this amazing ability to succumb to the temptation of The Ring, is struck with a sense evil and great attachment concerning The Ring as their journey grows closer to Mordor and Lord Sauron. This reinforces the idea of supreme spiritual beings, as in Neo-Platonic thought, by not only showing that the “Good” pulls and guides the ones who are under his “light”, but that there are also supernatural “evil” spirits that have strayed too far away from the One’s “light” that they turn against the Cosmos and the One. This is shown through the spirits, such as Sauron, that turn the lesser souls (Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, Wizards, etc.) against each other and start great wars over the power of The Ring.

This idea also comes into play in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and the story of Sauron. He was born “good” under the One (Eru), but turned evil when he was led astray from the light into darkness to serve the wicked Melkor. In Neo-Platonism the idea of “evil” is that there is no true form of evil. Everything is born good under the One, however certain ones fall away from the light into darkness and can’t be seen by the Good’s light any longer.

Another piece of proof comes from the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien, himself was a member of the literary and idealistic group of writers known as “The Inklings” at Oxford. Who for decades were recognized as Platonic and Neo-Platonic writers and frequently discussed philosophy together while at Oxford. The most famous of the Inklings being C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and often times, Owen Barfield, and Dorothy Sayers. However, Tolkien’s writings were always harder to pin down and classify due to his ideas being much more complex, as he draws elements from Neo-Platonism, Platonism, Christianity, and many other mythologies. (Mary C. Rose, The Christian Platonism 7).

In Conclusion, while I do agree that Tolkien had influences from many different elements other than Neoplatonism. Although, it is fairly obvious that if you dissect all of his writings pertaining to Middle-Earth you can draw the conclusion that he did indeed have a heavy influence from Neo-Platonic principles. He made parallels with Cosmos, the One, life and death, creation, timelessness, supreme beings, sub-creation, and magic to Neoplatonism. Therefore, would I say that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was in fact himself a Neo-Platonist? No, but lately with the reemergence of Tolkien’s popularity through film, it makes you wonder that maybe J.R.R. Tolkien’s own Soul reached nirvana with the One and is now guiding the whole world back in search of The Ring.
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

*This is simply a first draft that i developed in 3 days, having no prior knowledge of Neoplatonism and only having read the Hobbit and watched the 2 Lord of the Rings movies that have come other words, i didnt know much and i did as much research as i could in 3 days (because i procrastinated) and this is what i got out of it…i am expecting some changes and i will update it as i get feedback from you, my professor, and my peers. thanks for reading*

1 Comment

  1. dionysius


    Thanks for this great article.

    The influence of Patonism and Neoplatonism on Tolkien is a subject that deserves much more scrutiny. I am glad that you have brought the subject into the discussion about the potential influences on Tolkien. You indicate some evident points of contact.

    If I might suggest and avenue for further exploration… The relationship of Neoplatonism and the Christian Church is more complex than you suggest. As you say, that relationship has indeed been unsteady, but even the decree of Justinian I is not straight forward.

    The decree of 529 is directed against the non-orthodox (small o) teaching of heretics and extends to the doctrines of “Samaritans, Jews, and pagans.” Thus, the prohibition was general and not directed toward a particular school. Further, as a condemnation from an emperor, which was not later confirmed by an ecumenical council, over the course of time it did not have a major effect on the way ancient culture affected Christian discourse.

    At the time of the decree, the influence of pagan philosophy, and particularly of Neoplatonism, was wide-spread and, in effect, permanent. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Pontus, Diodachus of Photice, and of most importance both in East and West, Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius), were all deeply influenced by the Neoplatonists, especially Plotinus. In particular, Dionysius quotes Proclus and in so doing revealed that his claim to have been “the” Dionysius who met St. Paul in the Areopagus, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, to be impossible. This is noteworthy because in virtue of that claim Dionysius had unquestioned standing among the theologians of the Middle Ages. (The direct influence of Proclus on the Dionysian corpus was not discovered until the 15th century.) Even Augustine in the West was influenced not only by Plato but also by Plotinus as well.

    The relationship of Christian theology and faith to philosophy was a matter of ongoing debate into the Middle Ages and beyond, but that there was a valid relationship was a de facto datum because of the integration occurring virtually from apostolic times. Some argue that John’s gospel is not free from such influence.

    It would be interesting to know from where Tolkien was deriving his Neoplatonism, whether directly from the pagan philosophers, or from one of the Fathers, or perhaps from some medieval interpreter.

    In particular, I wonder if his appeal to the Evangelium as piercing “the very web of story,” betrays a Neoplatonic, rather than a quasi-Jungian bent. The common patrimony of story that belongs to us humans as sub-creators, which seem to be part of a collective unconscious, may from Tolkien’s point of view be rooted in a creation myth that has more in common with Athens and Jerusalem than the North, though that web of story has no boundaries.

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