If I were to pick a public intellectual least likely to have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, Simone de Beauvoir may not be the first person I would think of. There’s a good chance, though, that she would make the shortlist.
French thinker Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir is best know for her clarion call, The Second Sex. This book tracks the history of oppression of women in intimate detail and launched the second wave of feminism–the one that we saw emerge after WWII and rose in the 60s and 70s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is perhaps the most influential and accessible of the early books of the movement. Simone de Beauvoir is also known for her non-institutional sexual relationship with Jean-Paul Satre, the father of 20th century existentialism, and later (incongruently) a Marxist.
Free love, feminism, existentialism, Marxism, French philosophy–these are hardly things to bring up in a Lord of the Rings blog. To be blunt, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex landed on Index Librorum Prohibitorum–the Vatican’s infamous list of banned books. Sure, I believe that there is subversive quality about Tolkien’s work that puts it in conversation with parts of feminism and egalitarianism (see here), but there can hardly be a significant link, can there?
And yet, Tolkien quotes from de Beauvoir, going so far as to say that de Beauvoir’s words were the “Keyspring” of The Lord of the Rings. Here is the entire quote:
“There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation” (Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death)
Did Simone de Beauvoir help inspire The Lord of the Rings? Well, no. I don’t think so–despite what seems like a obvious nod by the creator of Middle Earth himself. And despite the fact that Tolkien calls her “Simone,” by her first name. Though I’m sure an entire conspiratorial new theory could spring from the connection, I don’t think it is the case that de Beauvoir was an influence as we understand influence. After all, these words were not published until 1964, a decade after LOTR appeared to the world.
Instead, I would suggest that Tolkien and de Beauvoir are tapping into the same, crucial problem in the universe: death is both very much natural and entirely unnatural. Resignation to death–even earnest submission to it–does not remove the sense of violation. Death is an iconoclast: she reaps where she cannot sow. Death will always be a taking.
Thinking about The Lord of the Rings from this perspective deepens, I think, the depth of thought behind the heroes of Middle Earth. I am reading The Return of the King to my son. I do not know to what extent Nicolas understands what it means for each character to, in time, take a breath, put a hand to the sword’s hilt, and steel himself or herself toward the battle ahead. Yet, I very much want him to see these characters struggle with the choice. That choice is, in my mind, the only response to the paradox of death and being; it is an absurd response, to use Albert Camus‘ word.
You can hear the mumbling Simone de Beauvoir reference near the end of part II of this half hour BBC “In Their Own Words” documentary. I also wish I knew who the other commentators in the film are: if you know, please fill me in.