The Individuated Hobbit, by Timothy R. O’Neill

I think the book is a hidden gem. I don’t think there are recent editions, though the early edition sells for over $100. The quiet, growing field of studies of Tolkien certainly holds its surprises: a treasure trove, a dragon hoard, among which this one was for me quite a find.

Timothy O’Neill published this work not long after The Silmarillion was published. He had, therefore, enough raw material to go on and had, moreover, quite an original idea. The idea was to present a sketch of psychological approaches first, select the Jungean next, and use this to explain the power of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. To explain, in fact, all of Tolkien’s published work. He succeeded.

That may seem off-putting to some, especially if there is no interest in Jung to begin with. If there is, at the very least what you get, if you are a devoted reader of Tolkien, is a way to understand the Jungean view. You get an explanation keyed to the figures and circumstances that you have already mastered. It is a quick way to explain something complicated since you already have a complex frame of reference which serves for an analogy. So at least this book does that.

But it also explains various harmonies and contrasts in the work, making it more intelligible. You don’t have to accept the Jungean view to do so either. I have read somewhat in the scholarly literature that attends The Lord of the Rings, and I have never yet encountered a better explanation for Beorn and Tom Bombadil. It really is extraordinary, and they are not the only LotR characters illumined by this book, not even the most illumined. His expression clear and witty, but that is probably owing to the fact that O’Neill’s grasp of the cosmos of Middle Earth, the point of each of the enormous list of characters is firm and clear. His is not a muddled mind. The book at least offers an interesting meditation on a beloved subject for those who desire that, like a good conversation with another person who cherishes anything Tolkien.

His last chapter is an apology for the whole enterprise of subjecting something so wonderful to a Jungean analysis. O’Neill is fascinated with the mythical dimensions that Tolkien’s work achieves, and the analysis explains something. It explains exactly what Tolkien wanted to do. Tolkien was a student of mythical literature, specially that of the northern world, the myth mediated to men by bards singing in mead halls or on firelit beaches under the stars, strumming their harps and singing in chants that rose to wails. Tolkien wanted to give what those things gave to ancient northern men to the generations that sit in arm chairs in houses with glazed windows and indoor plumbing. He wanted to reproduce the transmission of mythic lore, the mythic mind through the modern device of the novel. O’Neill describes Tolkien’s achievement as “the subcreator’s stream of consciousness flowing eagerly through the watercourses of primordial affect, and these images emerging into enchanting reality for him and for millions of readers.” He does this precisely, convincingly, exactly.

As for the Jungean aspect, the Jungean view is a feature of modernity, and as such it leaves behind something. What for Tolkien was much more than anthropology, but anthropology within an analogical cosmology, is stripped of that outer transcendence. There is a Kantian refusing of Metaphysics, or a substitution of psychology for metaphysics. The Jungean studies the microcosm as the only thing that can be understood. It is not entirely misguided to consider Man a microcosm, but I am pretty sure Tolkien would affirm the macrocosm which clarifies and substantiates what the microcosm gestures at. I do not understand Jungeans to affirm anything but an agnosticism regarding a macrocosm of metaphysics. The concern is microcosmic, but this still contains much.
The dualism of the Jungean does get annoying. Jung was famously curious about Gnosticism. I think his dualism is more of a Manichean approach, Manicheanism 2.0, a considerably improved approach. I call it an improvement because there is a predilection for the good that denies the absolute dualism which was the dominant feature of the Manichean system. The Manichees achieved an absolute dualism by refusing to take anything but this feature of absolute dualism absolutely seriously. This is why St. Augustine became disillusioned and was delivered by the Platonists. If you are going to think, you need an ultimate point of reference. If you are going to evaluate, you need to identify an ultimate positive standard. Manichees made that ultimate standard the fact of dualism, the ultimacy of positive and negative both, which denied them the power of really evaluating and so of having a viable intellectual system. The Jungean approach does not make that mistake. While it pulls heavily toward balance and harmony and complements and contrasts, it is relentlessly driven by evaluation. Its aim is evaluation, and so it must opt for light over darkness, coherence over confusion, and I think even male over female, oddly enough. And yet, throughout, the dualism persists. So much are the Jungean’s dualists that O’Neill expresses unease with the concept of the Trinity and then breathes a sigh of relief when the Blessed Virgin Mary is deified to form a more Jungean quaternity! It is too much for this old Platonist, never mind that I’m a Christian Platonist.

But the book seldom fails for all that. I only really found one failed conclusion in the whole interesting and engrossing book, when O’Neill summarizes the four ages of man in the whole cycle of Arda. One of the things that is lost in the Jungean approach to those four ages, which O’Neill interprets in terms of the development of the integrated self, is the gentle and pervasive regret, the never-ending sense of loss which is like nitrogen in the atmosphere of the air breathed inside of Tolkien’s mind. It is rather lost on O’Neill, as his asides about Elrond eloquently demonstrate. The fourth age is not the achievement of something lasting, but is for Tolkien a temporary respite from the long retreat. But then, that conclusion makes sense if taken for what it is: this is Tolkien appreciated by Modernity, and Modernity is obviously not adequate for Tolkien altogether.

I hope I haven’t given you the impression that O’Neill’s is an uninteresting book. It is a tribute to the power and ability of Tolkien. It draws you in, it is interested in the right object, and it stimulates reflection.

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