Five weeks in, what I’ve probably enjoyed most about this fantasy fan-fest we call Tolkien: Medieval and Modern is the fact that I consistently find myself mulling over our in-class discussions well after the lecture has been delivered. And it isn’t necessarily that I’m preoccupied with the specifics of Tolkien’s world twenty-four-seven (although my penchant for randomly quoting Gandalf might suggest otherwise); rather, I’m more likely to be stuck on some larger theme or societal implication. Divinity, dream, the very dawn of existence—we’ve dealt with some heavy-hitters in the past few weeks. Wednesday’s class ushered in yet another bevy of significant topics and extracurricular musings. Which works out, considering that I’m expected to blog about it.
I’ll pick up where we as a class left off: at the uncertain intersection of Evil and ethics. The pace of Wednesday’s discussion picked up noticeably—and understandably—when it was suggested that, in the case of Númenór’s downfall, the Sauron-induced practice of human sacrifice was in no way comparable to Ar-Pharazôn’s disastrous westward voyage. Never mind the modern reader’s initial reaction to the two, whatever that might have been; in terms of category and, by extension, permissibility, the latter alone constituted an evil act.
We’ve all seen enough Disney movies and sorted through enough political rhetoric to know that the concept of “evil” gets tossed around a fair bit in our modern lexicon. Wicked Witch of the West? Evil. Your teacher’s grading policy? Evil. Any given political opponent’s stance on healthcare reform? Evil (insomuch as it is socialist treachery/akin to Nazism). Clearly, the word is nowadays applicable to a slew of disparate scenarios and characteristics, all of which are generally understood to be reprehensible or harmful on some level. Human sacrifice would certainly seem to fit this bill. Moreover, when used to condone a given behavior, “evil” begins to sound a whole lot like immorality—evil and ethics, then, are closely linked by common usage, and human sacrifice appears to fall neatly into both categories. The question is, does any of this mesh with Tolkien’s decidedly scholarly understanding of the word? Given Tolkien’s borderline reverence for the lineage and significance of words, this isn’t a question to be taken lightly.
Enter Dorothy Sayers and her fortuitously relevant delineation of the terms at hand, as described in The Mind of the Maker:
“‘Evil’,” for our purpose, must not be considered as being moral evil. The human maker, living and walking within a universe where Evil (whatever it is) is part of the nature of things, is obliged to take both Good and Evil as part of his Idea. They are the medium with which he works. We can consider only the special type of Evil which may make its appearance in connection with his particular act of creation—the type which is briefly summed up in the expression ‘bad art.’”
Here, Sayers draws a distinction between “moral evil”—that is to say, evil as it regards the ethical behavior of human beings—and “a special type of Evil” which she associates with a supreme (or, in the case of her larger illustration, human) maker. The first notion is relatively straight-forward: Disney movies and philosophers alike discuss it, however imperfectly, whenever they assign human actions praise or reproach. Returning once again to the problem of human sacrifice, we see that society—not to mention half the class Wednesday—is fully equipped and more than willing to judge that act on moral grounds, provided that their particular system of ethics is so inclined (or, if you prefer Kant’s take on the matter, unconditionally, considering that human sacrifice violates the supreme moral imperative to value human life as an ends, never a means—the point being that systems of ethics can rest on rational as well as societal foundations).
All of which is well and good, except that Sayers tosses it out the proverbial window when she narrows her scope to include only the second category of evil. Her purpose all along has been to cast light, via the analysis of the act of creation, on that omnipotent Creator who is truly “beyond good and evil.” Hence, the talk of Ideas: in Sayers’ estimation, the Creator creates (as creators are wont to do) in order to give form to an idea. That which results is deemed “good” in that it embodies the Creator’s initial notion. Accompanying this creation is the previously impossible cognizance of what it means not to exist as said new creation—knowledge of the not-creation, in other words. Sawyer goes on to say that this simple lack of being goodness, so to speak, does not constitute evil; creation of good necessitates the possibility for a lack thereof, but this must be accompanied by malice—the “bad” in Sayers’ “bad art—toward the Creator’s original intent in order to be considered evil.
Which brings us back to Wednesday’s discussion, and the concern regarding the relative reprehensibility of the Númenórians’ two seeming crimes. To compare the two in terms of moral evil is to ground your judgement in the societal; considering first the true nature and intent of Creator and Creation, by contrast, is an approach which sets store by the divine (in a sense that transcends the religious standpoint of any given culture).
Are the two approaches incompatible? I’d like to think not. Sayers demonstrates that the two accounts of evil are not inextricably linked:
In the choice of words, for example, the “right” word will not be the morally edifying word, but the word which “rightly” embodies his Idea, whether the Idea itself is morally good, evil, or “beyond good and evil.”
Still, Tolkien might argue that the God’s Idea—his ultimate intent—is the moral imperative to which all of mankind’s disparate value systems ultimately must answer to. The former beget the latter, so that they need not disagree except in those (all too frequent) cases where human ambition interferes. Such logic holds nicely in the case of Númenór. Eru’s intent was for man to be mortal—any move in opposition of that will could only be considered Evil. Man’s own code of ethics reflected that Idea until Sauron’s deceit sparked inner rebellion. Rebellion beget malice. Malice beget Evil. The downfall of Númenór was sealed.
In the case of human sacrifice, all indications are that it represents a perversion of the Númenórians’ initial code of ethics. If not, they would have presumably been carrying it out well before Sauron’s arrival.
But did it also stand in violation of Eru’s supreme concept of his creation? That much is unclear—and regrettably so, considering that the act’s categorization hinges on that divine designation. Frankly, I don’t have the ability (nor the word space) to guess the mind of Tolkien’s supreme being. But I’m happy to settle for the potentially functional framework of Evil in its multiple forms spelled out by Sayers and illustrated by Tolkien.