J.R.R. Tolkien and the Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness

Although Middle Earth could easily be characterized as a product of the intensified trajectory, J. R. R. Tolkien, staunch Catholic, Oxford don, one of the most brilliant philologists of his age, gives scant evidence of a shaman adventurer. “I am in fact a hobbit,”1 he once wrote, describing his conservative and simple tastes.

(Since the webzine Reality Sandwich just ran this excerpt from our The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, we’d like to share this contemplation on the shamanic character of Tolkien’s mythopoeic vision here as well.)

Like Bilbo, he preferred to hear the singing of his kettle as he puttered around in his garden, leading his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, to ask:

Should we not wonder at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life; that a man whose soul longed for the sound of waves breaking against the Cornish coast should be content to talk to old ladies in the lounge of a middle-class watering-place; that a poet in whom joy leapt up at the sight and smell of logs crackling in the grate of a country inn should be willing to sit in front of his own hearth warmed by an electric fire with simulated glowing coal?2

Yet it is precisely because Tolkien was a visionary that he was content to lead a life that to some, like poet W. H. Auden, appeared so appallingly staid. For Tolkien, Numenor was as real as, if not more real than, Oxford town. Although he himself may have disguised and felt ambivalent about that, psychologically Middle Earth existed as a literal place that he journeyed to. Whenever Tolkien found an unresolved mystery in the etymology of his Elvish languages or the history of the various races that populated his mythos, he would state, “I must find out” the answer, as would any intrepid empiricist seeking objective data in this world.

What is certain is that Tolkien’s quest, often couched in the language of his discipline of philology, was to retrace the route of the development of modern consciousness back to that primal mind, “alive with mythological beings,” which he termed Faery. Given the obviously visionary component of Tolkien’s work, it is odd that more attention hasn’t been given to this aspect of its nature.

Part of the problem may be Tolkien’s presentation itself — he was not a man inclined toward the language and concepts of psychology, which he no doubt found superficial and “modern,” and therefore degenerate. Consciousness, in the way it is being discussed here, was not a concept Tolkien would have been inclined to embrace, yet we can see a remarkable correspondence between Lewis-Williams’s intensified trajectory and Tolkien’s own descriptions of inner journeying, especially in his last creative work, “Smith of Wootton Major.” In this deceptively simple tale, Tolkien left a veiled autobiographical account that might as well be, in the words of Tolkien scholar Paul Kocher, of “any practitioner of the White Art who travels far ‘from Daybreak to Evening’ and in his old age comes home, tired, to hand his passport on to his successors.”3

Considering that the old master laid aside work on his treasured Silmarillion to compose this guide to the realm of Faery, it is worthy of far closer attention than it is usually given.

Fortunately, along with the tale itself, Tolkien left an unpublished essay to accompany it — one very revealing of his intimate experience of the visionary realms his work records. In it, he attempts to describe the subjective experience of Faery.

Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar — a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic, (sub)creative. This compound — of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived — this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.4

As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”5

In “Smith of Wootton Major,” it emerges that Tolkien was deeply concerned with the issue of intensified consciousness. Indeed, he was struggling to define its workings, especially the experience of time alteration: “Entry into the ‘geographical’ bounds of Faery also involves entry into Faery Time. How does a mortal ‘enter’ the geographical realm of Faery? Evidently not in dream or illusion . . .”6 Clearly, Tolkien is groping toward a model of consciousness, unaware that while existing as a geographical locale in the heart of the forest, Faery also can be interpreted by some as a function hardwired into the brain.*

Indeed, intensified consciousness appears to be the missing key to Tolkien’s long-standing struggle to reconcile human and Faery time.

There must be some way or ways of access from and to Faery . . . but it is also necessary that Faery and the world [of Men], though in contact, should occupy a different time and space, or occupy them in different modes. Thus, though it appears that Smith can enter Faery more or less at will, it is evident that it is a land or, world of unknown limits, containing seas and mountains; also it is plain that even during a brief visit (such as one on an evening walk) he can spend a great deal longer in Faery than his absence counts in the World; on his long journeys an absence from home of, say, a week is sufficient for exploration and experiences in Faery equivalent to months or even years.7

That Tolkien chose to mark the entrance to that enchanted forest of the tale with “a stone with a worn and faded carving of three trees and the inscription, Welcō to þe Wode”8 is no accident. The Middle English wode, denoting both “wood” and “madness,” as in the wodewoses, or wildmen of the medieval imagination, clearly points to something outside the realm of ordinary human experience.

“My symbol is not the underground,” the usual entrance to the fairy world, Tolkien explains, “but the Forest: the regions still immune from human activities, not yet dominated by them. If Faery Time is at points contiguous with ours, the contiguity will occur in related points in space. . . . At certain points at or just within the Forest borders a human person may come across these contiguous points and there enter F. time and space-if fitted to do so.”9

Given Tolkien’s earlier evocations of the nonhuman sentience residing in the heart of forests (Tom Bombadil, the realm of Lothlórien), including those entirely vegetal (Old Man Willow, the ents and huorns of Fangorn), we may take the liberty of beginning to fill in the gap left in Tolkien’s fecund mythopoeic imagination by that abstract phrase “points contiguous with ours” with ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes’s “resident plant divinity.”

While Tolkien might be surprised to find his fantasy works compared with the enthnography of Amazonian Indians drinking psychoactive brews, his depictions of Aragorn’s doctoring skills in the bush are distinctly shamanic and use a resident plant divinity for healing purposes. After Frodo is stabbed by the Morgul-blade on Weathertop, Aragorn sat with the weapon and “sang over it a slow song in a strange tongue. Then setting it aside, he turned to Frodo and in a soft tone spoke words the others could not catch. From the pouch at his belt he drew out the long leaves of a plant.” This plant, athelas, he explains, “is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle Earth.” He throws the leaves into boiling water, and the hobbits find “the fragrance of the steam refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared. . . . Frodo felt the pain and also the sense of frozen cold lessen in his side.”10 The divine provenance of athelas, which responds especially to the hands of a rightful king, is made clearer when Aragorn performs a type of soul retrieval on Faramir, who has been gravely sickened by the Black Breath of the Nazgul. “Taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them,** and then he crushed them, and straightaway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy.”11 The divine realm within the plant manifests, “like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”12 Faramir awakens, summoned, and speaking softly, says, “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?”13

To each his own with such medicine. In Aragorn’s treatment of Lady Éowyn, who is not of Numenorian blood, she awakens not to breezes wafting from Valinor, the Undying Lands, but instead to a wind bearing the pure elements of Middle Earth: a “keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”14 Merry awakens, fittingly, to “the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees”!15

Aragorn’s style of doctoring is in keeping with anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff’s description of shamanic consciousness as the locale where fairy and human time meet. This “power of penetration” is

The capacity to enter a trance and to undertake the magical flight that permits the payé to leave the biosphere and penetrate to another existential plane. A payé is at bottom a specialist in developing this rupture of levels in a spatial, ecstatic sense as well as in the sense of passing from one conceptual unit of time to another: ecstasy is equivalent to death and is, therefore, a process of acceleration of time.16

“Smith of Wootton Major” may, therefore, be justifiably read as it was intended: as a guide to those wishing to explore the realm of Faery.

The tale is set in motion by a traveler between realms, the Master Cook of a medieval town who, much like Bilbo, suddenly declares he is in need of a holiday and sets forth.

Upon returning some months later, he has changed from a serious to a lighthearted man, and brings a quiet, but quick-witted, young apprentice back with him. He also bears a mysterious thing — a small silver star, a fay-star, for it turns out the adventurous Cook has been sojourning in Faery.

After a short time, the Cook departs, this time on a permanent holiday, leaving his apprentice Alf to eventually step into his role. The fay-star ends up being baked into a cake with a quaint little figure of a fairy queen on top, a cake that is traditionally offered to the select good children of the village at a feast held only once a generation. There, a boy named Smithson unknowingly ingests the fay star.

The entheogenic properties of the star take a while to manifest, but when they do, all the hallmarks of the gift of shamanic song and seeing are there. It comes at dawn months after the feast, on the boy’s tenth birthday, when he hears the voice of wild nature, “the dawn-song of the birds beginning, growing as it came toward him, until it rushed over him, filling all the land around the house, and passed on like a wave of music into the West.”17

Upon encountering, as if for the first time, nature’s great song, the boy hears himself say, “It reminds me of Faery, but in Faery the people sing too.” At that moment, just as may occur in the receiving of an icaro or other sacred song, “he began to sing, high and clear, in strange words that he seemed to know by heart.” The star falls from his mouth into his hand, glistening and quivering. It begins to rise as if to fly away, but the boy intuitively claps his hand to his forehead, where the star remains for many years.

Smithson becomes Smith, in time, taking up his father’s trade, and learns to sing the otherworldly virtue of the star he bears in his body, much like an Amazonian shaman will icarar the marirí of the plants into manifestation in the world. “His voice, which had begun to grow beautiful as soon as the star came to him, became ever more beautiful as he grew up. People liked to hear him speak, even if it was no more than a ‘good morning.'” As well, his workmanship as a smith excelled, and along with kitchen tools, horseshoes, and pothooks, he made things for sheer delight: “he could work iron into wonderful forms that looked as light and delicate as a spray of leaves and blossom, but kept the strength of iron, or seemed even stronger.” Of course, “he sang when he was making things of this sort; and when Smith began to sing those nearby stopped their own work and came to the smithy to listen.”

The star has also given him the power to journey into the land of Faery, where we can see illustrated the work of harnessing the visionary capacity of the human mind.

Tolkien describes how, upon first entering Faery, Smith’s “briefer visits he spent looking only at one tree or one flower” as he sought to bring into focus the new landscape. Smith also, as is often reported upon entering stage three of the intensified trajectory, experiences the sheer speed and wealth of the visionary landscape as bewildering, yet deeply transformative: “On longer journeys he had seen things of both beauty and terror that he could not clearly remember nor report to his friends, though he knew that they dwelt deep in his heart.”

Eventually, Smith, as do all navigators into the primal mind, begins to take hold of the intensified trajectory, to master the art of transcosmological travel and preternatural sight. He perceives “things he did not forget, and they remained in his mind as wonders and mysteries that he often recalled.” As well, he begins applying his otherworldly knowledge to this realm: “in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom,” but Smith does not fall into the trap of seeking power to dominate others. Instead, “it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrowhead.”

Smith begins to go native. He is called Starbrow by the inhabitants of Faery, and, as his explorations deepen, he becomes more intimate with the realm. Starbrow sees the elven mariners, “tall and terrible” with a “piercing light in their eyes,” returning from battle in the realm of Unlight and falls on his face in fear as they march past him. He is rescued by a “blessed birch” tree, which sacrifices itself and weeps from all its shorn branches, to protect him from the Wind that is hunting the trespassing Starbrow. He beholds the King’s Tree, the axis mundi, “springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky, and its light was like the sun at noon.” Yet these visions come as gifts, not as a right, for, search as he will, he never encounters the King’s Tree again.

Eventually, Starbrow penetrates to the heart of the realm, Evermorn, “where the green surpasses the green of the meads of Outer Faery as they surpass ours in the springtime,” and brings a gift back to the human world. In this place, where wild nature is at its most concentrated and radiant, he dances with an elf maiden who puts a flower in his hair, a flower that never withers in our world and is treasured as an heirloom within Smith’s family for many generations. Starbrow has begun to serve as a bridge.

So it is that Smith goes from passively experiencing marvelous visions to discovering his innate capacities in both worlds.

Starbrow finally sees the great pattern within which his life is woven, when he is summoned on a long journey to the Queen of Faery, who is a vision of nearly unbearable majesty. That is, until Starbrow recognizes her as the elf maiden he had danced with. “She smiled, seeing his memory, and drew toward him; and they spoke long together, for the most part without words, and he learned many things in her thought, some of which gave him joy, and others filled him with grief.”

As often happens at the conclusion of a powerful visionary experience, Starbrow undergoes life review in light of the new knowledge he has received, and he recognizes the Queen’s image in the little dancing figure on the cake that had contained the fay-star.

Rather than reducing the Queen’s vast cosmic purport to a material cause, Smith recognizes the terrible folly of such reductionistic anthropomorphism, which distorts the great powers of the cosmos to the size of human miniatures, intellectual concepts, or hallucinations. Smith lowers his eyes in shame. Laughing, the Queen says, “Do not be grieved for me, Starbrow, nor too much ashamed of your own folk. Better a little doll, maybe, than no memory of Faery at all.”

The Queen then gives Starbrow a message to deliver to the King, whose locale is unknown, and then strips away the last foreignness from his sight, giving him a native view: laying “her hand upon his head, a great stillness came upon him; and he seemed to be both in the World and in Faery, and also outside them and surveying them, so that he was at once in bereavement, and in ownership, and in peace.” When Starbrow finally comes to, the field is empty, the Queen is gone, and he hears a distant echo of a trumpet in the mountains.

Bereaved, Starbrow finds his way back to the outskirts of Faery, where he encounters a hooded figure to whom he is inspired to entrust his message to the King. It is Alf the apprentice, the King in disguise. The King receives the fay-star back from Starbrow, who literally removes it from his forehead to pass on to the next generation, and Starbrow, now Smith, is given the option to serve as a bridge between the worlds one final time and choose his successor. By story’s end, as a child of the next generation is illuminated by the fay-star, the cycle of interaction between Faery and the human world fully emerges, illustrating the vital, fertilizing, and hidden role of spiritual activity in the staid, and entropic, realm of human affairs.

As we can see, for Tolkien, ordinary consciousness is illuminated by the larger meanings bestowed on it by a divinely infused, sentient cosmos as experienced in the intensified trajectory, rather than reducible to hallucinatory epiphenomena of mere neurological activity. We are justified, therefore, in reading his final story as Tolkien’s own passing on of the fay-star: as a guide to the realm of Faery.

*”Trip reports” of Tolkien’s contemporaries on the vast alterations in time and space lived within the orbit of extreme opium and cannabis intoxication, while not in tune with Tolkien’s thinking, remind us that altered states of consciousness were as great an interest to his age as our own. Opium eater Thomas De Quincy reported visionary excursions in which he seemed to have lived a hundred years in a night. Lord Dunsany described such a fantastical, perilous hashish journey that it bears quoting at some length: “It takes one literally out of oneself. It is like wings. You swoop over distant countries and into other worlds. . . . I have seen incredible things in fearful worlds. As it is your imagination that takes you there, so it is only by your imagination that you can get back. Once out in the aether I met a battered, prowling spirit, that had belonged to a man whom drugs had killed a hundred years ago; and he led me to regions that I had never imagined; and we parted in anger beyond the Pleiades, and I could not imagine my way back. And I met a huge grey shape that was the Spirit of some great people, perhaps of a whole star, and I besought It to show me my way home. It pointed, and, speaking quite softly, asked me if I discerned a certain tiny light, and I saw a far star faintly, and then It said to me, “That is the Solar System,” and strode tremendously on. Somehow I imagined my way back, and only just in time, for my body was already stiffening in a chair in my room; at last I could move one arm, and reached a bell, and at last a man appeared, and they got a doctor; and he said it was hashish poisoning, but it would have been all right if I hadn’t met that battered, prowling spirit” (Dunsany, “The Hashish Man,” 121-22).

**Breath is used in shamanic practices to activate and direct the powers of the plant, as well as to imbue the medicine with the shaman’s particular virtue. See the example of Casimero Mamallactas’s breathing of the jaguar spirit into a patient as described later in this chapter.


1. Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien, 179.
2. Ibid., 118.
3. Flieger, Question of Time, 233.
4. Ibid., 246–47.
5. Ibid., 247.
6. Ibid., 249.
7. Ibid., 248–49.
8. Ibid., 250.
9. Ibid., 249.
10. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 198–99.
11. Ibid., 866.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 868.
15. Ibid., 869.
16. Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos, 126.
17. All quotations in the following section are from Tolkien, “Smith of Wootton Major,” 12–23.

2 Replies to “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness”

  1. Wow, this is a great piece– and a breath of fresh air for this Tolkien fan.

    I recently found myself at a Denny’s restaurant and to my horror, discovered that they have partnered with the Hobbit movie to create a menu of food items with Middle Earth-themed names. The “Ring Burger” and “Gandalf’s Gobble Melt” are a couple examples.

    I was disheartened that modern culture has polluted Middle Earth with its factory farmed meat and GMOs–as if contaminating our world wasn’t enough. I imagined J. R. R. rolling over in his grave at the commercialized appropriation of his sacred journeys into another realm.

    So, it is delightful to discover this excerpt, which shows that intelligent and soulful people are still involved with Tolkein’s stories. Thank you for this insightful and informative article.

  2. Thank you for your kind feedback, Sarah.

    Of course, Tolkien dreaded the day “the Americans” would get a hold of his work, but had accepted in advance our inevitable and general incomprehension of his work. I’ve been turning the issue of the film adaptations of Tolkien over in my mind for some time — I noted in Jackson’s TLotRs a perverse tendency to degrade mature masculine wisdom: Elrond, Gandalf, Faramir, Treebeard, Theoden, even Denethor, all of those mature figures who knew to what cosmic order they belonged and served heroically are treated as panicky, wavering, even cowardly in the film versions. Meanwhile, the perky wisdom of Hobbits with their New Age blather take front stage. As a boy, growing up in the general masculine corruption of the Reagan-era, Tolkien’s work was medicine. Here in TLotR were examples of men with integrity, whose masculine power and wisdom nurtured and supported life on Earth! Little of that archetypal power transfered to the films.

    Can you rewrite Shakespeare? No. Tolkien should, in my mind, remain similarly inviolate. But, of course, we’ve already crossed that line. The question now is: Will the memory of the films die away and Tolkien’s vision remain preserved and uncorrupted into future generations? Or have “the Americans” committed commodicide, death by being tranformed into a commodity, upon it?

    It’s worth quoting Walter Benjamin here, considering the issue of film in his classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

    “…their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most palpable in the great historical films. It extends to ever new positions. In 1927 Abel Gance exclaimed enthusiastically: “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films… all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions… await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.” Presumably without intending it, he issued an invitation to a far-reaching liquidation.”

    Certainly, Tolkien’s work is now threatened with liquidation, unless we read the stories to our children before they go to bed!

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