Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The concept of evil

The concept of evil in Tolkien's novel "The Lord of the Rings". 

This book examines the concept and presentation of evil in Tolkien's novel, "The Lord of the Rings". Although I have concentrated on the "Lord of the Rings", I have also made use of the Silmarillion which provides a 'background' and to some extent a dictionary which has aided my exploration of Middle Earth. In particular, the music of the Ainur proved a useful source of "themes" in the novel.

I have taken account of Tolkien's warning in his introduction to the novel -"As to any inner meaning or message, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical ... I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

The Lord of the Rings was published at a time when great events such as the Second World War, the growing threat of the atom bomb and a "Dark Lord in the East" called not Sauron but Stalin, were fresh in the minds of its readers. In some ways I think it has a greater appeal to readers of that generation than it would have had for earlier generations. For example, I think that the terror of the flying Nazgul and the aerial bombardment of Minas Tirith would have had a. special meaning for those who had experienced the Blitz in London and the flying shadow of the VI. To say this is in no way to suggest that the novel is about Fascism or Stalinism, but where I feel that a particular application of Tolkien's ideas illuminates those ideas I have indicated the fact.

Evil performs an aesthetic function in the novel by providing a background of contrast against which the good characters shine more brightly. The machinations of Mordor put the good characters to the test, in particular bringing out the bravery of the least "heroic" figures - the hobbits. Tolkien has managed, by his combination of a Quest and a Crusade in the plot, to make good appear more attractive and interesting than evil. Whereas Milton's Satan is in the forefront in the first two books of Paradise Lost, Tolkien's Sauron is never actually seen but remains "remote and yet a present threat". He is a purely negative figure and his narrowed vision is emphasised. The novel is so designed that the reader never gets close enough to Sauron to sympathise with him.

In the novel, the negative, uncreative nature of evil (which I deal with more fully in Chapter l) is ultimately self-defeating., as can be seen from Illuvatar's words to Melkor - “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite, for he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” Thus, to use Theoden's aphorism “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” (Chapter 4)

Although Tolkien's myth is not overtly Christian, I think that it can be shown to deal with the fundamental problem of evil in a Christian way. In Christian terms the problem is: how can evil exist among creatures created by, and in a world created by, a God who is wholly good? The aesthetic function of evil and its ultimately self-defeating nature are part of the answer, but they do not resolve the problem of the source of evil. St Augustine saw the origin of evil in Man's God-given free will: “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil - not because that is evil to which it turns but because the turning itself is wicked." (City of God XII 6) Thus Melkor, forgetting that his powers originated from Illuvatar , sought to create something which was entirely his own. Significantly the first things he created were "bitter cold immoderate" and “heats and fire without restraint" (Silmarillion p9) (see Chapter 2) which only served to enhance Illuvatar's original design.

Jung's theory of archetypes in the collective unconscious helps to clarify this issue. Jung saw "the old man" as an undifferentiated archetype - "beyond good and evil, the superior master and teacher, a pointer of the ways, the pre-existent meaning concealed in chaotic life which Western man tends to differentiate into "black and white magicians" (Integration of the Personality p86) This points to the importance of good and evil as man-made concepts (see Chapter 5) and casts light on the functions of Gandalf and Saruman.

Gandalf s adoption of Saruman's abandoned colour, his dramatic statement: "I am Saruman, Saruman as he should have been." (p5l6) and Gimli's "Like and yet unlike." (p60l ) emphasise the similarity of the two. However, Saruman's pride has led him to turn from the path of true wisdom (see Chapters 3 and 6 for a fuller treatment of the consequences) In turning from a higher good to a lower, Saruman is ultimately brought very low indeed and is only capable of “a little mischief in a mean way.” His refusal to leave the ruin of Isengard echoes Satan's idea that it is “better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" but Tolkien emphasises how squalid such a resolve really is.

We often refer to a desire to dominate others as a desire to “play God” but for Tolkien that is exactly what God does not do. Gandalf, who is a steward of the secret flame which is identified with Illuvatar in the Silmarillion, unlike Saruman or Sauron, rejects the domination of the wills of others which the ring would give him (see Chapter 7) (incidentally, it should be noted that desire for the Ring is fundamentally no less evil than actually using it - as the corruption of Boromir, Saruman and Denethor indicate)

The terms in which Tolkien sees the relationship between free will and determinism are clearly outlined in the Silmarillion where "the Valar perceived that the world had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it." (Silmarillion p20) Likewise Frodo, for example, was "meant to receive the Ring" but has to exercise his free will in renouncing it (why he does not finally do so is dealt with in Chapter 2) Gildor's unwillingness to give advice and Galadriel's warning about the visions in her mirror, Elrond's refusal to lay any burden on the Ringbearer, all emphasise the importance of personal choice.

I would not suggest that, Tolkien has actually achieved a resolution of the philosophical issue of free will and determinism (or divine providence in this instance). For example he does not explain why a creature created by divine goodness should turn from a higher good to a lower good. In fairness this was not his purpose and even those who have set themselves the task have never yet succeeded.

Mythology differs from legend in that it contains nothing which is “true” in the Gradgrind factual sense of the word. However, as I have attempted to show, Tolkien's myth contains a good deal of “truth” of another kind. For want of a better term I have tended to call this “poetic truth”. (see Chapter 3)
In a sense these truths are not new but, on the contrary, eternal:

Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear: nor are they one thing among elves and another among men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” (p459)

It is no accident that the last two chapters show the hobbit heroes rooting out the evil in the fields that they know. The transfer of the battle between good and evil from the romantic heights and depths of Gondor and Mordor to the “ordinary” world of the Shire brings home to the reader the idea that these high ideals of poetic truth (which are often expressed in simple aphorisms – see 'Conclusion') are relevant to everyday life.

It is significant that Tolkien rarely if ever draws any distinction between 'beautiful' and 'good' or 'evil' and 'ugly'. Although the distinction between appearance and reality is drawn in the presentation of Aragorn who 'looks foul and feels fair' (pl88) but is later transformed. Also Saruman undergoes a reverse transformation. However it is not a major theme. There is an almost symmetrical organisation of completely evil and completely good characters.

Compare, for example, the elves and the orcs. Elves have beautiful names, are fair to look upon, have a musical language, love living things such as trees and are slender and graceful. The orcs have names like 'Ugluk', ugly looks, a harsh guttural language, delight in destroying living things and are squat and bow-legged. The food of elves is delightful, that of the orcs would disgrace McDonald's! The attempts of Sauron (and later of Saruman) to produce a Master Race was the cause of these ghastly creatures and is a function of the inability of The Shadow to create. 

  1. Introduction
  2. The power of darkness
  3. The flame of Anor and the flame of Udun
  4. The persuasive voice of evil
  5. Oft evil will shall evil mar
  6. The role of nature
  7. Dark Satanic Mills
  8. The Ring of Power
  9. Conclusion

I am still publishing with Kindle. I do not know if other publishers are more or less creative with their tax returns. The daughter of a friend is trying to boycott all the tax dodging corporations. I can see how this could come unstuck because there really are so many of them. It has come out that more and more of them are dodging tax while exhorting the rest of us to be patriotic and accept the pain of austerity.

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