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Jungian Psychology - Returning the Archetypal King

I just received the DVD of the second movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and am preparing to go to the theater to see the last, “The Return of the King.” The popularity of this work of fantasy stirs some thoughts with me about the archetypal themes that play out in the story. It struck me as I heard the third movie advertised that the very title is archetypal. Since prehistoric times in one way or another, in various cultures and religious practices, mankind has looked for the return of the king that would restore peace, order and goodness to the realm. We need only to hearken back to the legends of the fisher king or to the customs of ancient Egypt to be reminded of the archetypal significance of the king. And perhaps at this period in history when kings as actual rulers are a bit out of fashion, we turn to fantasy to fulfill some need for an archetypal experience.

The Jungian study group to which I belong has just been studying “Rex and Regina” in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis. This work is concerned with the later stages of the alchemical process, the sacred marriage. Since Jung saw alchemy as symbolic of the individuation process, he saw great significance in the coniunctio. This is the integration of opposites. Earlier stages of alchemy represent the necessary precursors, the separating out and recognition of the opposites. But after the long work or preparing, the coniunctio is like a culmination of the process.

However, in this article, I want to concentrate on what the “rex” or king part of the sacred couple represents. I went first to The Penguin Book of Symbols. So just what does the idea of king denote? In ancient cultures the king was the intermediary between Heaven and Earth or mankind. To the ancient Egyptians, he was the incarnation or embodiment of the god. In far eastern cultures he was identified with the world axis, the hub, the center of the wheel. Thus, the role of the king was one of initiating and regulating; his duties involved establishing justice, peace, balance and harmony on earth.

In Celtic culture the king was a warrior but was closely associated with the druids and carried out the will of the druids, the priestly group of the society. His color was “white” which in the Indo-European world indicated a religious significance and sacred character. It may be from this background that later European kings came to the idea of “the divine right of kings.”

However far removed from the original notion of the king, the idea of king still carries with it an ideal, “a projection of higher ego” (Chevalier, 569), making the king an archetype of human perfection. In Arthurian lore the idea of the land falling into darkness and decay when the king died or was not well represents for us what happens in the absence of the ideal. Indeed, if we look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we find exactly this scenario played out. The rings as symbols of power, which have the power to corrupt, have fallen into the wrong hands, and all Middle Earth is enshrouded in the shadow of evil. It is an unlikely band of lowly heroes whose task it becomes to destroy the evil power and restore the rightful king to the throne. Tolkien’s hobbits, dwarf, elves, and other creatures could be seen as various aspects of a person or a society. All the elements have been differentiated at the beginning of the trilogy, and at first they are not so willing to work together. Some even are desirous of stealing the ring and having the power. But it is in the coming together of all the unlikely partners that it is possible for the group eventually to restore the king.

So it is in the course of the individuation process. The parts of ourselves that may begin as enemies must come together if the ideal of the king within ourselves is to be reached. Parts that are at odds and don’t like each other – the earthy dwarves and the more magical elves, the peace-loving hobbits, and easily tempted men – have to become integrated into an inner “fellowship” to achieve the ultimate goal.

Today in a world where division, polarization of opposites and fragmentation threaten our well-being, the idea of the return of a king may carry a deeper significance than we realize. Somewhere within us we all could be looking for the restoration of the archetypal king to restore some order, justice and peace in a world where, to paraphrase the words of William Butler Yeats from almost a century ago, “the center [seems not to be able to] hold” (Yeats). But we may have to follow the difficult path individually, like Frodo, and find it in ourselves one by one in order to bring the archetype of king to world and restore the land.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Chevalier, Jean and Gheerbrant, Alain, Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. by John Buchanan-Brown. London: Penguin Books 1996

Jung, C.G., Mysterium Coniunctionis. Vol. 14 of The Collected Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Yeats, William Butler, “The Second Coming”