Two Red Books: The Shared Imaginal Realms of Jung and Tolkien

May 9, 2024

Author Becca Tarnas with CG Jung and JRR Tolkien.


How can the shared imaginal realms of Jung and Tolkien empower us to navigate our personal journeys and transform our understanding of self and community?

Introduction to the Imaginal Realms

In exploring the shared imaginal realms of Jung and Tolkien, author Becca Tarnas delves into a profound intersection of depth psychology and mythopoeic literature. Their writings transcend ordinary understanding, delving into the collective and personal unconscious. These narratives bridge individual experiences with universal myths, allowing readers and scholars to explore complex psychological landscapes. They function as metaphorical journeys illuminating human nature and the archetype’s role. Their explorations offer insights into how myths shape and reflect the collective human psyche.

Jung’s Red Book

Jung’s Red Book, Liber Novus, provides a detailed account of his explorations into the depths of his own psyche through dreams and visions. These profound experiences formed the foundation of his later theories on archetypes and the collective unconscious. His vivid illustrations and complex narrative structures invite readers into a deeply personal yet universally resonant psychological journey. This work demonstrates how personal psychic exploration can lead to significant theoretical insights.

Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch

Tolkien’s Red Book serves as the narrative framework for his extensive Middle-earth mythology, encompassing both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This mythopoeic creation not only expands the bounds of fictional storytelling but also integrates personal and collective histories. Tolkien’s approach to myth-making reveals his belief in the power of narrative to preserve cultural memory. His intricate world-building and linguistic creation offer a comprehensive mythos that has captivated readers worldwide.

The Role of Active Imagination

Jung developed the technique of active imagination as a way for individuals to consciously engage with their unconscious and its manifold characters and symbols. This method allows for a dialogical back and forth, leading to greater self-understanding and psychological integration. While not using the term, Tolkien engaged his imagination in creating Middle-earth’s complex histories and languages. Both men’s use of active imagination underscores its value as a tool for creative and psychological depth.

Encounters with the Imaginal

Jung and Tolkien documented their encounters with various entities within their imaginal realms, which they rendered in richly symbolic narratives and artworks. These encounters often featured archetypal figures and motifs, reflecting deep psychological truths and existential queries. Such experiences underscore the shared human capacity to access a rich inner world of symbolic meaning. These narratives serve as a testament to the power of the unconscious to communicate through images and stories.

Symbolism and Meaning

In their respective works, Jung and Tolkien use a rich tapestry of symbols to explore and express complex themes related to human existence and spirituality. Jung’s symbols often emerge from the unconscious as spontaneous manifestations, while Tolkien’s symbols are embedded within the crafted legendarium of Middle-earth. Both bodies of work use symbolism to delve into deep themes such as sacrifice, rebirth, and the battle between good and evil. Through these symbols, they address universal human concerns and provide insights into the structure of the human psyche.

Therapeutic Value of Myth

Jung viewed the exploration of myth and symbol as essential to psychological health, providing a means for individuals to connect deeply with the collective unconscious. Similarly, Tolkien saw myth as a way to recover a sense of enchantment and meaning in a disenchanted world. Both authors believed engaging with myths could heal and restore, offering a pathway to the psychological and spiritual truths often lost in modern life. Their works suggest that myths are not just stories but vital to the individual psyche’s health and wholeness.

Collective Unconscious and Myth

The concept of the collective unconscious, central to Jung’s theory, posits a layer of the unconscious mind shared among beings of the same species and is the source of archetypes. Tolkien’s narratives tap into this collective reservoir through their universal appeal and exploration of archetypal themes such as heroism, loss, and redemption. The resonance of these themes across cultures underscores the existence of shared psychic structures. Both Jung and Tolkien illuminate how myth connects us to a broader, shared human experience, echoing through our collective stories.

Archetypes as Universal Patterns

Jung identified archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. In Tolkien’s work, these archetypes are embodied in characters such as the hero (Frodo), the shadow (Sauron), and the wise old man (Gandalf). These figures and their journeys reflect universal patterns that can be found across cultures and ages. Understanding these archetypal patterns helps us understand ourselves and human nature’s common threads.

Impact of Personal Experience

Jung and Tolkien’s works were deeply influenced by their own lives—Jung’s through his psychological explorations and encounters with patients, and Tolkien’s through his experiences in the trenches of World War I and his scholarship in mythology. These personal histories informed their creative and theoretical work, blending lived experience with scholarly inquiry. Their individual journeys deeply enhance the authenticity and depth of their explorations into human nature and the collective unconscious. This blend of personal and universal insights makes their work profoundly impactful on both an individual and a collective level.

Transformation and Individuation

Jung’s process of individuation involves the integration of the conscious and unconscious mind, which he saw as essential for personal development and wholeness. This transformative process is mirrored in Tolkien’s characters, who often undergo significant personal growth and self-discovery. Their journeys symbolize the individuation process, where confrontation with the self and the shadow leads to greater completeness. Through these narratives, both authors illustrate the importance of self-awareness and personal growth in achieving a fulfilled life.

The Function of Language

In both Jung’s and Tolkien’s works, language is not merely a tool for communication but also a transformative power that shapes reality. Jung’s exploration of the language of the unconscious reveals the power of words to shape our understanding of the self and the cosmos. Tolkien’s creation of entire languages for his fictional world showcases his belief in language’s power to create and define worlds. Their use of language demonstrates its integral role in shaping human consciousness and culture.

Visions and Dreams

Visions and dreams are central to Jung’s analytical psychology, serving as direct communications from the unconscious to help guide the conscious mind. Tolkien also infused his narratives with visions and prophetic dreams, providing his characters with guidance and foresight. These elements highlight the importance of the imaginal and the visionary in accessing more profound layers of reality and truth. Both men’s works suggest that visions and dreams are essential for understanding our deeper selves and our place in the cosmos.

Psychological Depth in Narrative

The depth of psychological insight in Jung’s and Tolkien’s works offers a rich terrain for readers and analysts to explore. These narratives provide a map of universally relevant inner psychological landscapes. They offer entertainment and deep reflections on the nature of the human psyche. Engaging with these works can lead to profound insights into the complexities of the self and the intricacies of human psychology.

The Power of Storytelling

Jung and Tolkien demonstrate storytelling’s profound impact on individuals and cultures. In their works, storytelling serves to communicate profound psychological truths and foster a connection with the transcendent. Their stories act as therapeutic and educational tools, helping to illuminate the paths toward psychological and spiritual enlightenment. Through storytelling, they engage the imagination and invite a deeper engagement with the mysteries of life.

Legacy in Depth Psychology and Literature

The exploration of imaginal realms by Jung and Tolkien has left a lasting legacy in depth psychology and fantasy literature. Their innovative approaches to understanding the human psyche and its narratives have influenced countless thinkers, writers, and practitioners. They have provided tools and frameworks that continue to inspire explorations into the psychological underpinnings of myths, stories, and personal growth. Their work remains a cornerstone for those seeking to understand the interplay between mind and myth.

Cultural and Spiritual Dimensions

Beyond their psychological insights, both Jung’s and Tolkien’s works engage with cultural and spiritual dimensions, proposing that the imaginal realm is a space where culture and psyche intersect. This intersection enriches our understanding of cultural phenomena and spiritual experiences, showing how deeply intertwined they are with psychological processes. Their works invite us to consider how myths and stories shape and reflect individual identities and cultural and spiritual communities.

Challenges of the Imaginal Journey

Jung and Tolkien depict the path through the imaginal realms as fraught with challenges and obstacles that mirror their characters’ existential and psychological struggles. These challenges serve as metaphors for the difficulties we face in our psychological journeys, emphasizing the importance of courage, resilience, and insight in overcoming them. The journey through the imaginal is depicted as essential for growth and understanding, reflecting the complexities of navigating the human condition.

Integration of Shadow

Both authors stress the importance of confronting and integrating the shadow—a concept in Jungian psychology representing the unconscious aspects of the personality. This integration is crucial for achieving psychological wholeness and is often depicted in their narratives through characters facing their darker aspects or enemies. By exploring these themes, Jung and Tolkien provide a framework for understanding how confronting personal and collective shadows is essential for personal development and societal harmony.

Universal Appeal

The universal appeal of Jung’s and Tolkien’s explorations into the imaginal realms lies in their ability to articulate deep, enduring truths about the human experience. Their works offer pathways for exploring the depths of our own imaginations and uncovering the universal truths that reside within our psyches. As we navigate their imaginal landscapes, we find reflections of our journeys, encouraging us to explore deeper into the mysteries of life and psyche. Their enduring influence ensures that new generations continue finding value and insight in their visionary works.


“I was walking to the beach with a large group of people. It felt like a school trip. There was this pervading idea that going to the beach would be educative in some spiritual or intellectual way. We got to the beach, which was completely yellow/gray—the sand, the sky, the water. There was such a strong sulfurous smell that I nearly vomited. I saw others walking around, bobbing into the water. The smell was too strong for me. I turned away from the water toward a wooden plank on the sand and saw many small bugs crawling on it. Another woman my age and I left the beach and walked toward a cabin. We entered the cabin and idly chatted; it was friendly and pleasant. We agreed that we wouldn’t go back to the beach. However, I did go back eventually and, with a large group, walked to the shoreline and entered the water. I ducked my head underneath. To my surprise, I could no longer smell the sulfur. I opened my eyes underwater, expecting to be illuminated by some beautiful sight or newfound knowledge. It was just cloudy and that same gray/yellow color. I was slightly disappointed but not surprised. I bobbed my head above water and noticed the sulfur smell again, but it was much less strong.”

Rebecca Tarnas

Rebecca Tarnas is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Her research includes depth psychology, archetypal studies, literature, philosophy, and the ecological imagination. She is an editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology and author of Journey to the Imaginal Realm: A Readers Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. She is researching and writing a biography of Stanislav Grof, a co-founder of transpersonal psychology.

For more information about Becca, check out her website: HERE


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  1. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Joseph, Deb and Lisa,
    Thank you for this interview. It’s always great to hear Becca Tarnas speak. I’m looking forward to many years of her work. Your discussion brought up a lot of ideas that have been swirling around in me for a while. In Vedanta, there are 4 “levels” of existence although they all “exist” at once. The highest level is Brahman or Turiya (also called “The Fourth”) – the eternal, the absolute existence-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is transcendent of all names and forms. It can’t be spoken about or thought about because it’s not a “thing”, and it’s not even a “level” but it is that which is the ground or foundation of all “levels.” Without this the others could not “exist.” It’s amazing that this transcendent is called “The Fourth” as the number 4 – the number of WHOLENESS. It also brings to mind the axiom of Maria Prophetessa – “out of the third comes the ONE as the FOURTH.” So the ONE and the FORTH are BOTH the same and different! The one and the many are all the same! So I think it’s amazing that Jung realized this archetypal significance of the number 4 and that in individuation we are truly seeking this WHOLENESS (which I would say is Brahman.).Then we have the MIDDLE level – Brahman + Maya. Maya is the projecting and veiling function of Brahman. Brahman PROJECTS itself and VEILS itself. This is why we don’t “see” Brahman- our true Self. So, I would call this Brahma + Maya the archetypal realm. Vedanta calls it Saguna Brahman or Brahman with form. Here we have all the God-images & archetypes. I believe Jung said that he did not know or could not say whether there was anything beyond this level. That’s why he refused to say if there was a “God” by which I believe he meant a TRANSCENDENT God. He distinguished between the transcendent God and the God-image. But in his later years, he seems to have intuited that there was. And this Brahman can only be INTUITED. It also makes me think that the archetype is EMPTY at its very essence. It is a METAPHOR for the transcendent, and the transcendent can never be spoken about. I think of that Goethe quote – “All transitory things are metaphors.” The archetype is empty but also pregnant with the possibility of all forms. We could say that Brahman is BOTH empty and full at the same time. This is why the archetype is essentially empty and full. If it were not both empty and full at the same time, it could not be both ONE and MANY at once. One archetype but many forms. For example, we have the archetype of the Wise Old Man but it comes in many forms. Next we have what in Vedanta is called the Hiranyagarbah or the Cosmic Mind. This is Consciousness + Maya + the subtle universe. The subtle universe is our minds, feelings, memories. Last there is what’s called Virat – which is Consciousness + Maya + Subtle body + our physical body and the physical world. I think of Jung’s collective unconscious as the Hiranyagarbhah. We can also relate all these levels to waking, dream sleep and dreamless sleep.
    Deep sleep (no dreams) = Saguna Brahman (Brahman + Maya) Nothing is appearing to consciousness but consciousness (Brahman) is there as the ground of being.
    Dreaming = Hiranyagarbah
    Waking world = Virat
    So, you might say that in dreaming we are connecting with the Hiranyagarbah which is Jung’s collective unconscious (memories, feelings, emotions, mind and images since it includes Maya). Brahman makes all of this possible. We could not have any of these levels if it weren’t for that sat-chit-ananda that underlies, pervades and IS it all. And Vedanta says that we actually ARE this sat-chit-ananda. So we ARE Brahman, Saguna Brahman, Hiranyagarbah and Virat all at one time and no time. Paradox.
    So, I often feel that it is this middle realm – the Hiranyagarbah that we are working with when we interpret dreams and images. So, when Lisa asked if it’s an actual space or feature of our psyche that generates images, I thought of this image realm as the Hiranyagarbah. Images are projected by Brahman (pure consciousness) and human beings (the Virat) have access to this MIDDLE realm – the Hiranyagarbah. And it’s not really that we “have access” to it. We ARE all of these at the same time. We ARE pure consciousness (Brahman) but we are ALSO Virat (human beings). So, in relating Vedanta to Jung’s work, Jung was working with this middle realm. Had he gone just a bit further, he may have spoken more about the transcendental realm. However,
    there are many times in his works where he comes close. I think of individuation as paradoxical. It’s becoming who you were meant to be in the ego and unconscious realm but it’s ALSO becoming who you are in the TRANSCENDENT realm – that is to say coming to know yourself as Brahman. It’s a self knowledge that is BOTH TRANSCENDENT AND IMMANENT. Interestingly, this also coincides with Jung’s notion that we actually have an EFFECT ON GOD. We might say that it is the nature of Brahman to project itself. “It” learns about itself that way. It’s kind of like when we project a dream. So our dream is a projection of our unconscious and by thinking about it we change ourselves. So we might say that through Brahman’s projection of itself, “it” comes to know itself. So in this case Jung was pointing to this co-creation or participation between “God” and human beings.
    So, being a lover of both Jung, Vedanta and all mystical traditions I’ve thought a lot about how they all interconnect. In his introduction to the Bhagavad GIta, Aldous Huxley gives a very nice summary of the Perennial Philosophy and how the Bhagavad Gita is, “the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy.”
    There are 4 fundamental ideas or doctrines of the Perennial Philosophy (which I believe every religion has at its core regardless of the dogma that veils it):
    The physical world is a manifestation of the divine ground of being without which the physical would not exist.
    Human beings can know this divine ground through direct intuition.
    Human beings are both transcendent and immanent.
    The human purpose of life on earth is to KNOW oneself as this eternal Self. In Hinduism, Brahman is called the Self.
    So, I would say that Jungian/depth psychology helps us to know one aspect of ourselves as Brahman through the forms, names and images and how they work through us on the physical plane. It teaches us about the IMMANENT. Vedanta, on the other hand, teaches us about what we truly ARE beyond all those names and forms. It teaches us about ourselves as the TRANSCENDENT. And we need BOTH because we are both IMMANENT and TRANSCENDENT.
    Thanks again for your work and another great podcast!

  2. Carla-Rose Häkkinen

    Thank you for this wonderful episode! As a life-long lover and fan of Tolkien, this was such a delight, and your guest Becca Tarnas spoke so eloquently and with such deep knowledge on the subject. One of your very best episodes <3

  3. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello again,
    I went back and listened again to some old lectures that Becca Tarnas gave at Oregon Friends of Jung. In one of them she talks about the astrological influences of both Tolkien and Jung (and the wider astrological issues in the world at that time) in an answer to a listener’s question. I’d love for you to have her back to discuss this in more depth. Thanks again!


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