Monday, July 9, 2012

Christian Psychology in light of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

One of the great strengths of a Christian approach to psychology is that it is less prone to be constrained to the discourse of the modern psychological sciences, which lean toward the reductive and sterile, or as is fittingly named—the clinical.  It’s not that the modern discourse of the psychological sciences is wholly bad or unhelpful, but simply that it is limited and incomplete on its own.  As Christian psychologists, we need to be turning toward the plethora of wisdom made available to us—the ancient and the modern, the philosophical and the theological, the scientific and the literary.  Perhaps one of the most overlooked treasures for a robust Christian psychology is the good novel—one that stirs the imagination.  As persons invested in the psychological sciences, we fear fiction because it is not scientific, and as Christians we fear it because it often engages the non-rational aspects of who we are—sides of ourselves that we have grown suspicious of, especially following the Age of Reason. 

Consider for a moment J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterful, high fantasy The Lord of the Rings.  In this extraordinary epic adventure, Tolkien introduces us to a world in which evil is casting its shadow across Middle-earth. The halfling hobbit, Frodo Baggins, has been chosen to be the "Ring-bearer." Frodo's mission is to carry the Ring to Mount Doom deep in the heart of Mordor and cast it into the fire from which it was forged, finally destroying the power of evil and bringing peace to Middle-earth, including his green and lush homeland, the Shire.  It is a calling that will lead him into many perils and adventures; Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith, chased by a Balrog, and paralyzed by a giant spider, among other run-ins with orcs. 

Now, before you cast this off as fantastical escapism and irrelevant to Christian psychology, consider the following comment from scholar Ralph Wood, who writes in his The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth: "This great work enables us to escape into reality.  Tolkien achieves this remarkable accomplishment by embedding the Gospel as the underlying theme of his book, its deep background and implicit hope" (Wood, 2003, p. 1).  Just as the weak halfling Frodo is used to save Middle-earth, it may be that this seemingly powerless fantasy novel could allow us to fully see and experience reality in ways we otherwise may not.

Frodo and Samwise are on an adventure.  It is terrifying and wonderful.  In our contemporary world, we are also desperate to find ourselves on an adventure, on a journey where our decisions really matter, where we risk death in pursuit of life.  As a clinical psychiatrist, I witness this deep longing every day in the life of my patients, in their undying desire.  However, the world of secular biomedical psychiatry is stripped of all such fantasy.  Evil is diluted.  We are simply altering neurotransmitters along with moods.  Life may be at stake (in the risk of suicide) but there is no adventure, no ascent of humanity to destroy evil and bring about goodness.  We can no longer tell the difference between inducing an apathetic numbness to life and alleviating paralyzing suffering.  It is all the same to the contemporary tools of psychotropic technologies, like a flatline on the cardiac monitor—lifeless.  We are desperate, more than we know, for someone like a Tolkien to wake us up to our real life adventures.

We see in Frodo and Samwise’s friendship some aspects essential to any good counselor-counselee relationship.  Samwise, known chiefly for his loyalty, is devoted to Frodo. While Frodo is called to be the Ring-bearer, Samwise is summoned to accompany the Ring-bearer to his destination.  Are not we, as counselors, called to guide and accompany our counselees to their destiny—to their uniquely fitted end? Is it such a stretch to understand each person who presents for assistance as bearing a burden—a hardship that has overwhelmed them, left them weak and despairing, just like Frodo and his Ring?

Samwise is not perfect at his task.  At several important junctures we see Samwise and Frodo’s enmity toward one another.  Their friendship, like all good human friendships, is an imperfect one.  They grow suspicious and angry with one another.  Samwise abandons Frodo at some fairly critical moments.  Frodo is hard to deal with; he is a “difficult patient” at times. 

This story allows me, and I hope others, to be honest about misgivings we may have about our life’s calling to care for those suffering psychologically.  The work of counseling can be a painful burden at times, one that we are all too prone to turn back from.  Sometimes this is as simple as a momentary dissociation in a counseling session as the pain becomes too much for us to bear.  Unfortunately, sometimes our abandonment can be much more disastrous and costly.  This is, of course, why we need our own Wonderful Counselor who is ever present (unlike us) and available to offer us mercy and grace when we fail at what we are meant to do—Someone who can help us to bear our Ring (or rather cross).

Near the end of the third and final part of Tolkien's work, The Return of the King, we find Frodo and his compatriot Samwise the Brave, ascending Mount Doom on the final leg of their journey.  Frodo has grown weary, perhaps even delirious, from having carried the Ring for so long: “Sam guessed that among all their pains he bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind"  (Tolkien, 1965, p. 914).  Tolkien lets us in on Samwise’s underlying psychology.  He is having an internal battle between his fleshly desires for comfort (a return to the Shire) and his aspirations to fulfill his obligation to accompany Frodo to Mount Doom.  It is not easy for him.  Regarding Samwise, the narrator reveals: “Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return.  But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless, in the midst of a terrible desert.  There could be no return”  (913).  Any counselor who has not experienced such despair at points has not tasted the impossibility of the task of counseling.  

And yet, the narrator continues, “Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue” (913).  Samwise is resolved to continue on in the face of seeming impossibility.  His character is such that he can do nothing less: “to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it” (913).  Are we willing to go to the bitter end with those in our charge?

Like many of those given into our care, Frodo finally collapses in exhaustion, physical and psychological.  But, like a good counselor who discerns when it is time to turn toward support, Samwise must come to his aid: "'Come Mr. Frodo!' he cried.  'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.  So up you get! Come on ..." (919).  Samwise carries Frodo for one piece of his journey until life returns to him.

Upon arriving above the Crack of Fire in the chasm of Mount Doom, Frodo is there at the end of his journey, a Ring's toss from victory.  Yet, Frodo says, "I have come.  But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is mine!"  (924).

Even Frodo, for all his cherished goodness and solid character, cannot do the deed.  He cannot finish the job.  He puts the Ring on his finger, turning invisible, only to be jumped by the creature Gollum, come to retrieve his “precious.”  Gollum bites the Ring off Frodo’s finger, but in his gloating and excitement, missteps and careens over the edge and into the Crack of Fire.  Gollum (and the Ring) are gone.  Evil destroys itself by grace.  Samwise and Frodo lie together in great joy, their quest finished, at “the end of all things.”

I have sometimes wondered what it must have been like for Frodo to be seen by his friend Samwise after this remarkable failure to toss the Ring.  Frodo has been exposed as someone who is desperately in need of grace—in need of some power beyond himself that can finish the job he has come to do but is powerless to accomplish.  As counselors, we witness our counselees’ failures in intimate and powerful ways.  To feel safe, they will have to come to know the power of our concern for them.  Ultimately, all of us stand naked and shamed.  But our mercy toward those we care for must mirror God’s infinite mercy.  May those we care for come to rejoice in our concern, just as the Psalmist rejoices in God’s love: “I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul.  You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place” (Psalm 31:7-8).

Let me commend to you Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a continuing education requirement for the Christian psychologist.  Tolkien’s fantasy will set your feet in a spacious place.  It is a grace to counselors and counselees seeking to engage in the adventure of life—a window into our fantastic reality.


Tolkien, J. R. R. (1965). The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wood, Ralph C. (2003). The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Andrew Michel, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

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