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A Myth for Our Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Imaginal Realm

A Myth for Our Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Imaginal Realm

Course Description

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien has been a beloved story to several generations since its publication in the mid-1950s. The story has a timeless quality to it, and engages with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. The Lord of the Rings blends otherworldly romance with the high rhetoric of epic mythology, at times interwoven with the internal depths of the nineteenth century novel and the political climate of the twentieth century. As Tolkien’s close friend and colleague C. S. Lewis once said: “Nothing quite like it has been done before. This book is like lightning from a clear sky . . . here are beauties which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron.”

The Lord of the Rings is treated by many as a sacred text, one to be returned to year after year, or read aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings has become a myth for our time. This course offers a deep reading of Tolkien’s magnum opus, in which we will explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of Tolkien’s epic story, connecting The Lord of the Rings to the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and situating Tolkien’s process of writing within his own powerful experiences of the imaginal realm. 

The final class will demonstrate parallels found between Tolkien’s legendarium, called within its own imaginal history The Red Book of Westmarch, and C. G. Jung’s Red Book—two projects that began within the same potent period in history, just before the onset of the First World War. There are many synchronistic parallels between Jung’s and Tolkien’s Red Books: the style and content of their works of art, the narrative descriptions and scenes in their texts, the nature of their visions and dreams, and an underlying similarity in world view that emerged from their experiences. The two men seem to have been simultaneously treading parallel paths through the imaginal realm. Such parallels hold deep consequences for modernity’s assumptions of a disenchanted world, and bring to the surface implications concerning the nature of imagination and its participatory relationship to the collective unconscious.

Image credit: Alan Lee

Weekly Schedule

Week 1 • The Fellowship of the Ring

The opening class focuses on the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, interwoven with a discussion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s biographical and historical context, the composition of his earliest mythic stories of Middle-earth, and the curious book of symbolic and imaginal sketches known as The Book of Ishness.

Week 2 • The Two Towers

The next class focuses on the second volume of The Lord of the Rings, paired with an exploration of Tolkien’s theory of imagination, which he called sub-creation. Tolkien’s use of terms such as fantasy, Faërie, enchantment, secondary belief, and Elven Drama will also be illuminated.

Week 3 • The Return of the King

The penultimate class will focus on the third volume of The Lord of the Rings in conjunction with a dialogue regarding the multiple languages of Tolkien’s invention, such as the two dialects of Elvish known as Sindarin and Quenya, the human language Rohirric, and the Dwarvish and Orcish forms of speech.

Week 4 • The Two Red Books

The final class will explore the numerous parallels between Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch and The Red Book of the depth psychologist C. G. Jung which was created at the same time as Tolkien’s Book of Ishness and his Book of Lost Tales.

Note on Course Reading

Students are encouraged to read The Lord of the Rings before they begin the course, as the three-volume book can take between 3 weeks and 3 months to complete depending on how quickly one reads works of fiction. For those who desire additional guidance in reading The Lord of the Rings, the instructor’s own reader’s guide, Journey to the Imaginal Realm, is recommended as a complementary text.

Required Reading

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition.

Optional Reading

  • Jung, C. G. Liber Novus: The Red Book. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • Tarnas, Becca. Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Reader’s Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Seattle, WA: Revelore Press, 2019.

 Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course students will have:

  • learned how to read the subtleties of Tolkien’s writing, noticing how he blends genres and styles of English, as well as working with languages of his own invention;
  • gained a better understand Tolkien’s writing process and how his story developed over the twelve years of its composition;
  • gained insight into the mythological background of Middle-earth, connecting The Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s other stories such as The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, and The Hobbit, among others; and,
  • be able to engage with theories of imagination and concepts of the imaginal realm, which can be applied to their own creative processes.

Requirements for enrolled Degree students to earn 1 Credit:

  • Required Reading
  • End of course essay regarding the learnings in this course using APA style.
    • For BA students – 6-9 pages in length
    • For MA students – 10-15 pages in length
    • For PhD students – 20-25 pages in length


Becca Tarnas, PhD, is a scholar, artist, and editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology. She received her doctorate in Philosophy and Religion from the California Institute of Integral Studies, with her dissertation titled The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C.G. Jung and J.R.R. Tolkien. Becca received her BA from Mount Holyoke College in Environmental Studies and Theatre Arts, and MA in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at CIIS. Her research interests include depth psychology, literature, philosophy, and the ecological imagination. She teaches in the Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and for online platforms such as Nura Learning, PsicoCymática, and the Astrology Hub. Becca lives in Nevada City, California, where she has an astrological counseling practice.

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