Friday, April 29, 2011

Good and Evil: Or, Why Making Human Sacrifice to Illuvatar is Better than Worshipping Morgoth

Had the Numenoreans sacrificed human captives to Illuvatar, it would have been morally far “better” than worshipping Morgoth. Even worse than worshipping Morgoth, breaking the ban of the Valar and attacking Valinor would be the ultimate possible sin. It is for this reason that the Numenoreans are unpunished for all of their ‘evil deeds’ until they sail to Valinor, at which point Illuvatar utterly destroys their civilization.

These claims might seem controversial, but they actually follow quite directly from Tolkien’s conception of Good and Evil. In Tolkien’s mythology, the prime source of evil is rebellion against God, and seeking to usurp his divine authority is the ultimate sin. This follows from a Christian (and particularly Augustinian) belief that “good” is conformance to divine will, and “evil” is deliberate divergence from divine intentions.

Tolkien makes this point quite clear in letter 183. He argues that the “rightness” and “wrongness” of a side is determined by the cause that each side fights for, rather than by actions undertaken in the pursuit of the cause. Tolkien claims that “in The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God … Sauron desired to be a God-King … if he had been victorious, he would have demanded divine honor”. Thus, the central conflict in LOTR is a religious conflict, with the West indisputably on the right side (since they fought for the true God). Tolkien goes on to say that even if the West had bred orc armies to ravage Sauron’s men allies, their cause would have remained “indefeasibly right”. Even if the West had lived in squalor and fear while Sauron’s allies enjoyed “peace and abundance and mutual esteem and trust”, the West would still have been Good and Sauron would still be Evil. The fact that the good people were “kind and merciful” is “quite besides the point”.

Thus, if the Numenoreans had made human sacrifices in honor of Illuvatar, they would have been, in some important sense, “on the right side”. Worshipping Morgoth, on the other hand, was evil no matter how they conducted themselves. Certainly, the Valar and Illuvatar would (probably) not have been overpleased by the human sacrifices, but it would not have been much of an issue: had they followed Illuvatar, he (or the Valar to whom he had delegated divine authority) could have simply told them to stop. It would have been a mistake moreso than true evil.

Breaking the Ban of the Valar was far worse than either the human sacrifices or the worship of Morgoth because it broke the only divine edict upon the Numenoreans. Illuvatar never demanded worship, nor gave the Numenoreans moral commandments. Because the Ban was handed down by the Valar, to whom Illuvatar had delegated Authority, it was the only divine law upon them. Breaking it cemented their rebellion against God in a way that human sacrifices and Morgoth-worship could not (because Illuvatar had never really told them not to sacrifice people and not to worship Morgoth). Thus, doom hung by a thread when Ar-Pharazon wavered before setting foot on Valinor. Up until the Ban was fully broken, he still could have repented and be saved.

Now, if this moral view seems problematic to you: I agree. In particular, framing the Lord of the Rings’ conflict as a religious war strikes me as quite problematic. The vast majority of the “good people” were fighting for their homes, or families, or freedom from Sauron’s oppression, etc. Perhaps Elron and Gandalf were privately motivated by a desire to see Illuvatar given due honor. But given the lack of overt religion it seems strange to see the conflict as basically about God. Frodo certainly wasn’t motivated by theological concerns – he wanted to save the Shire (and all free people) from Sauron’s malice and oppression.

To drive the point home: it seems to me that if Sauron had been patiently and genuinely working to uplift the peoples of Middle Earth while simultaneously positioning himself as a God, then the people of the West would not have opposed him. Similarly, if Sauron had tried to conquer and oppress everyone without involving a religious agenda, the war would have happened pretty much the same. So it seems to me that characterizing the war as religious in nature doesn’t describe the causes of the conflict well.

I can think of two possible ways that Tolkien would respond to this. The response would be that my hypothetical is impossible and misses the point. Tolkien might argue that Sauron could not have patiently worked to uplift ME while advocating his own Godhood: that as a consequence of claiming to be a God he would inevitably become a repressor. Likewise, given that Sauron was seeking absolute dominion over Middle Earth it was inevitable that he would seek to usurp Illuvatar’s divine authority.

The second response is that even if religion does not characterize the causes of the war or the motivation of the actors, Tolkien is fair to say that it is basically about religion because religion is morally the most important matter at hand. Essentially, Illuvatar’s right to divine honor is way more important than the specifics of whether or not Hobbits are enslaved, so regardless of how Hobbits feel about the dispute divinity is still the heart of the conflict.
I think that within Tolkien’s Augustinian moral framework these responses hold up pretty well, but I also think the whole exercise serves to reveal the flaws inherent to a ‘divine will’ understanding of morality. The structure is too rigid and too absolute to conform with human moral intuition, and leads to seeming contradictions like “sacrifice isn’t totally evil so long as you sacrifice to the right God”.

Tolkien dodges these issues by having the “good guys” behave morally like “good guys” (forgiving and merciful) while the “bad guys” behave in morally bankrupt ways. Thus, we aren’t forced to face the contradiction between divine and human-intuitive morality. However, they’re lurking in the background, in the moral and philosophical fabric of the text. How do you feel about these issues? Can Tolkien’s morality be reconciled with our feelings that human sacrifice is bad in all cases, that the ends do not always justify the means, and that hobbits can fight for freedom without really fighting for Illuvatar?



  1. I think you have put the (apparent) paradox extremely well. Is it possible to worship the true (understanding of) God incorrectly, e.g. through human sacrifice? This is, of course, a question that confronted the 16th-century Spanish missionaries in Central and South America directly: was it right to convert the natives by force given the form that their religion took? The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas argued, no: offering human sacrifice in ignorance of the true revelation of God was, in fact, rational and, from within a purely natural situation, pious. What better to offer God in sacrifice than the most precious thing of all, a human life? The practice can only be condemned (Las Casas argued) once a people has received the gospel and knows the kind of worship that God wants. So, yes, Tolkien would (if he had been reading Las Casas) agree: incorrect worship of God is not as bad as worshiping something other than God.

    As an aside, it seems ironic, given the way in which people sometimes talk about the oppressiveness of religion, that Ilúvatar never demands the very things that typically are invoked as most oppressive: any particular form or consistency of worship or the imposition of a moral code other than the one command. And yet, the Numenoreans went against the ban.


  2. I do not think it is merely coincidence, or “a dodge” that the characters fighting on the right side demonstrate right behavior, either in Tolkien’s works or in most other Christian-influenced fiction. While my own grasp of theology is not sufficiently developed to trace the entirety of what we consider good behavior from the original edicts of Augustinian divine will, one generalized instance can be readily applied to Tolkien’s universe. Although it is true that the only real law the Powers relayed to Numenorean society was the Ban, Iluvatar granted gifts to his individual Children that cannot be overridden by tenets applicable only to groups of them. In the case of Men, these gifts are free will (also shared by the Elves) and death. During the many centuries during which the Numenoreans held Iluvatar sacrosanct, these gifts were beautifully combined: the kings and their people chose the time and manner of their inevitable deaths, willingly forsaking life in a most dignified manner. It is only as corruption sets in that the kings grasp onto life until the bitter end, as we do today, and thus die less gracefully.

    Throughout Tolkien’s works, especially in The Silmarillion, the forced removal of these gifts is held quite reprehensible. For example, Mandos and the rest of the Valar strongly condemn Feanor’s followers after the Kinslaying, as they have deprived unwilling Elves of their analogue to Mens’ death, everlasting life in Arda. While I agree that the edicts of Iluvatar, according to Tolkien, outweigh moral sentiment, forcible human sacrifice may be equally reprehensible as Morgoth worship because Iluvatar’s gift of free will is removed. The interactions between man and God mirror each other: a bottom-up obligation of Men to honor God versus a top-down gift of free will to Men from God. Morgoth worship and forcible human sacrifice (the victim must be unwilling) are equally evil, though the first violates God’s right to sole honor more directly. The removal of free choice – Melkor is a master of thralls – amounts to an affront to God, a contradiction of Iluvatar’s wishes for his children. The abhorrence of human sacrifice lies in the unwillingness of the victims, not in the death itself. Hence the possibility of noble human sacrifices, undertaken willingly by the victim and for a cause greater than the self.

    Philip R.

  3. I’m not sure that Tolkien’s theory of evil does correspond to Augustine’s. If, according to Augustine, ‘good’ is going with the Divine and ‘evil’ is going away from it, the Numenoreans were already doing evil when they moved away from Iluvatar by sacrificing human beings and by worshipping Morgoth; the breaking of the ban would then be an even greater evil. But Tolkien’s concept of evil seems to be not merely moving away from the Divine, but actively trying to destroy it. For example, when Melkor tried to create his own music apart from that of Iluvatar and the other Ainur, it was not fundamentally evil (he was not punished or stopped), but when he began to destroy the creations of Iluvatar, his actions became undeniably evil. By this way of thinking, the Numenoreans behaved badly, but did not do evil until they attempted to conquer (in a way) the Divine.

    That said, you are absolutely right that Tolkien felt people’s motivations mattered more than just action. As in our discussion of whether or not Frodo ‘failed,’ Tolkien maintained that Frodo’s failure was not a moral one, that Frodo was not responsible for it, and that, because the cause ultimately succeeded and Frodo made that possible, he succeeded. You make an excellent connection between this idea and the sins of the Numenoreans, that, because intent matters more, it would have been better for them to sacrifice people to Iluvatar. (Not, you know, great, but better.)


  4. The problem of good vs. evil in the Lord of the Rings was originally never a problem for me perhaps partially due to the fact that I first read them at age where I did not particularly think about good and evil. The idea that humans and elves (us and “pure” beings) were fighting orcs and evil wizards who were mostly described as ugly, wormlike, and disgusting seemed like the “right” thing to do. As we move to the story of the Fall of Numenor, we also understand that the men are acting badly when they start to worship Morgoth but we were told by the backstory that Morgoth is evil and has evil intentions. I always struggle with the idea of not knowing whether I would know if I was doing something wrong if I were fully immersed in the situation. Would I recognize that people were still “right” if I saw them using Orc armies to kill armies of Men? It seems tricky to judge people and their intentions not based on the actions that I can see and just based on the “end” that they are trying to achieve.
    Brian W.