Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings

Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex 5If 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?

Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy DeathAnd 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.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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56 Responses to Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings

  1. jubilare says:

    “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.” I tend to think children understand a lot better than modern society thinks they do. I know I understood a lot more that most adults thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I remember hearing it was a common enough old Anglo-Saxon thought even to view having to sleep as a sort of insult and humiliation (!) – but never followed this fascinating subject up!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had forgotten Tolkien’s reference to Simone de Beauvoir in that interview until I read your fascinating piece this morning and read the comments. By the way, I agree with Jubilare on children and understanding. We owe it to them to introduce them to the best that we can in any way possible. My own take on Anselm and the ontological argument (my daughter is taking a philosophy exam today and has been studying this) is that if you seek the best in everything then eventually you will encounter the Living God.
    I will watch the video you posted and have a go at identifying the contributors.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Stephen!
      What an interesting take on Anselm. I can understand him when the text is in front of me, but then the text walks away if a bird flies across the window or the furnace turns on or my nose itches.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And then you would have to pursue the experience of watching the bird fly across the window as far as you could take it! Something tells me that Lewis had something to say about this principle of exploring but I can’t remember where.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I read somone (or a couple different people?) noting the prayer-context and form of the Proslogion – I see there is a Wikisource transcription of the translation by C.C.J. Webb (who is treated interestingly in James Patrick’s Magdalen Metaphysicals (1985), and whom Lewis acknowledges generally in Surprised by Joy and with reference to ‘Oyarses’ in The Allegory of Love and cf. Out of the Silent Planet!). Not far into the first chapter, St. Anselm says, “Say now, O my whole heart, say now to God, I seek Thy face; Thy face, Lord, do I seek. Come now then, O Lord my God, teach Thou my heart when and how I may seek Thee, where and how I may find Thee?”

          Liked by 1 person

        • Well, I was kind of echoing the Viking idea of life–a bird that flies through a barn, from night to night, in a flash. That’s how much Anselm sticks with me!
          Lewis probably said something about everything!

          Liked by 1 person

      • In watching the film again I found steam coming out of my ears as I watched it. All that arrogance posing as intelligence. The kind of opinionated sneering that Tom Shippey describes in his The Road to Middle-earth. One young woman stands out as intelligent and sympathetic.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A fascinating nestling – Tolkien quoting a newspaper clipping – from what seems to be a review of a book about Carl Maria von Weber in which the book’s author quotes Simone de Beauvoir with reference to Weber’s death at 39 (during an invitation to compose and then mount a production of Oberon in London) from tuberculosis.

    Une mort très douce was published in 1964, an English translation by Patrick O’Brian in 1966 as A Very Easy Death. My guess is the book reviewed is John Warrick’s Carl Maria von Weber (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968). (Had one libraries enough and time, one could check the book, if it is the right one, see if he quotes the O’Brian translation (publishers of official translations do not always like it if you translate it afresh yourself, and can (try to) prevent it*), and maybe even discover which review it was (e.g., TLS? a national or local paper?)…!)

    I wonder what-all of Weber Tolkien knew – piano music played by Edith? Der Freischütz? Oberon? (Silvana, Euryanthe, and Die drei Pintos (finished by Mahler!), all sound less likely to me – in my pretty profound ignorance or performance histories, however.) If he knew the fairy-tale-like operas, it would be interesting (with On Fairy-Stories in mind) to know what he thought of them! In any case, an interesting glimpse of Tolkien’s musical taste.

    Quoting de Beauvoir (and, as you note, calling her ‘Simone’!) seems a brilliant stroke on various levels – especially in the context of this BBC production. (My French is about nil – I tried to read the French Wikipedia article about it – but it sounds like a creepy book in a lot of ways – and at least two of her earlier books were on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but it was abolished on 14 June 1966: and then, what Tolkien is commending is the incisive insight of this observation quoted. Debra Bergoffen’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on her has an interesting little section, “All Men are Mortal, A Very Easy Death, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre : Finitude, Passion and the Body”.) By this time, Tolkien had produced the very interesting things about death and mutability published posthumously in Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth, vol. 10: 1993).

    Patrick O’Brian (if it is his translation) provides an interesting little side-track. I wonder if Williams knew him, as his Hussein: An entertainment was published in 1938 under his birth name, Patrick Russ, when he was 23, and his Wikipedia article says, “It was notable for being the first book of contemporary fiction ever published by the Oxford University Press”! I wonder, too, if the other Inklings knew any of his later work. (I also wonder if he, or any other novelist of naval operations of the Napoleonic period, has written about the hiding of the Santo Caliz (the Holy Grail?) in Alicante, Ibiza, and Palma de Mallorca, to keep it out of the hands of the invaders!)

    *When I was in Sir Jonathan Bate’s production of Sartre’s No Exit when we were grad students at Harvard, he wanted to improve the official translation in a couple places (having read and compared the original, Huis Clos), but the copyright owners put the kibosh on that in no uncertain terms!


    • What a crazy stream of literary sleuthing! I haven’t libraries or time, yet in your little garden path you created a likely-unlikely connection, haven’t you? It is likely that Williams knew/knew of Russ/O’Brian, and thus the Inklings by chance. Yet the most likely situation is that the eye fell on the page and found the words. In those long columned papers of the time, it might be Tolkien was reading it fully–was he a paper reader? Maybe at that age. But his eye fell, and he clipped it, and he pulled it out at the right time. What does that say about his character?
      I think source of quote in this case was almost irrelevant. He liked it, regardless of who said it. I only know “Simone” as The Second Sex, and as part of her role in that Satrian movement. I’m lacking in all other reading.
      They just did “No Exit” here on campus (which I missed–it was during my mother’s late illness). They changed the text without asking!

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “What a crazy stream of literary sleuthing!” – yes! Internet is wonderful (including Wikipedia a lot of the time)! I’d never heard of A Very Easy Death (as far as I can recall) till I read this post (and, like Stephen, had once been struck by, but then forgotten, this wonderful moment in the film).

        I’d really enjoy a ‘docu’ on the making of this ‘docu’!* How did they plan it all out, what was the time scheme? Would Tolkien have been briefed (a bit?), or simply on the look-out, thinking things like ‘what are they likely to ask? what will this give me an opportunity to say?’

        You’re probably right about Tolkien liking it, regardless of who said it, but I can imagine him finding it somehow encouraging that she had said it, and also something piquant to produce in the circumstances (which might include characterizations of him as ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’, ‘out of touch’, ‘escapist’, etc.).

        I don’t know if Tolkien read the papers, or, say, the book reviews by exception – maybe Lewis, in his outspoken remarks about not keeping up with the news, had Tolkien in mind as one of the people who did and would tell him if anything really important had happened, or was going on (!)

        It sounds like we start at about the same level of familiarity with “Simone”: I was astonished to read in Debra Bergoffen’s article a ref. to “her 1946 novel, All Men Are Mortal, the story of Fosca, a man who chooses to cheat death. His desire for immortality, however, is driven by his desire to realize the abstract ideal of humanism.” Wow! That sounds interesting to compare and contrast with Rider Haggard’s She series, Dracula, Shadows of Ecstasy, That Hideous Strength, and TLoR! (I have read something dismaying but prima facie persuasive about her and Sartre as a sort of appalling team of sexual predators – though I’m not sure I could find it again.)

        “They changed the text without asking!” Does that make them a sort of Occupy Hell movement? I remember Jon Bate in a moment of wry frustration wondering if he might re-translate the whole thing himself and call it ‘Wee Clo’. I was the Demon Butler and it was distressingly attractive to practice infernal politeness backstage on the other actors…

        *It is tantalizing not being able to place any of the other people in it – I can’t imagine nobody’s done the homework on this, but how to find out? (Maybe Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull’s Tolkien Companion and Guide?) It’s fun in various ways, but I can’t help thinking, what a wasted opportunity for quiet, long, detailed, respectful literary interviewing…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Troelsfo says:

    As for the idea of “influence”, I think Tolkien’s introduction to the quotation is quite telling – he found it “in the paper the other day” and merely found it resonated with his own thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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  31. Jessica says:

    I am…very late to the party here. I was listening to a Tolkien documentary today and astonished to find him quoting de Beauvoir. I love both him and de Beauvoir because I am that kind of person, and was curiously googling them together and came across this post.

    I just wanted to say that I read Une mort tres douce in a French literature class in college. It’s a memoir about de Beauvoir taking care of her mother as her mother is dying. It is a very touching and sad book. So she is reflecting on her own mortality while she is also watching her mother die, and that is the context of the quote.


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