Friday, May 9, 2014

Gandalf's Evil and Sam's Plain Hobbit-Sense

After our readings and class discussions on the nature of evil and the power of the Ring, I was left pondering the difference between what it was that Gandalf and Samwise saw themselves doing when they were tempted to take the Ring. Gandalf feared that his righteousness would become self-righteousness--as we said in class, he believed he would become worse than Sauron himself because he would act on his self-righteousness to eliminate free will. Though for ostensibly good purposes, this would still be an act of domination and of tyranny, one made worse by the fact that, because he appears good, few, if any, would oppose him not because the others were too afraid, but because they would not be able to see that he needs to be opposed. However, though seeming fair, a Gandalf in possession of the Ring would still be evil, partially through his very possessing of it. As I brought up in class, there is some aspect of the Ring which changes the bearer's very nature, coercing him to act in ways he would believe unspeakable otherwise. In the case of Gandalf, he is able to resist using the ring--for good or for ill--as long as he is not in possession of it. Though it would be quite easy for him, at any point, to overpower Frodo and take the Ring for himself, Gandalf is never as weak against this temptation as, for example, Boromir is when he tries to take the Ring. However, Gandalf acts as though his using the Ring for his own ends (albeit seemingly good ends) is inescapable should he ever have the Ring in his possession for longer than the second it takes for him to hurl it away. Were he the official bearer of the Ring, Gandalf would act for good and inevitably do evil.

Here we reach the first of the two main questions I was left with after this reading and this class: Is Gandalf evil only because he seeks to dominate wills, or is there something inherently evil in the destruction of anything, even evil itself? It can be assumed with reasonable certainty that, were Gandalf to shape the world as he saw fit under the power of the Ring, he would eliminate all the which appears 'evil'--all the discordance and chaos--until 'good' was all that remains. The need for contrast aside (there can be no good without evil just as there can be no night without day, thus by destroying evil, Gandalf would essentially also destroy good), is Gandalf doing evil by destroying that which Melkor once represented? When Melkor first attempted to sew discord into the theme of Ilúvatar, Ilúvatar informed him that "no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me" (The Silmarillion, 6). All things stem from Ilúvatar, Melkor and the evil he brings with him included, and nothing can exist without his acquiesance. Therefore, all evil too ultimately stems from Ilúvatar, for all creation of good also creates the evil that is the corruption of that good, as expressed by Sayers in the reading we did for earlier this week. To do evil is to destroy or corrupt anything that is pure creation is evil--but is evil not a pure creation of Ilúvatar? Therefore, Gandalf's destruction of all evil as such from Middle Earth would be the complete destruction of something created by Ilúvatar himself as Sauron could only dream of destroying all good, thus rendering him both more effective and "worse" than Sauron.

My second question addresses a different side of the conundrum of the Ring's temptations--the vision Samwise sees when he bears the Ring along the path to Cirith Ungol. As Frodo did upon Amon Hen, he feels torn between two different parts of his mind, leaving him with the choice of either forswearing the ring or claiming it. Sam resists the urge to claim it, better than any others in the tale, for he is the only character to wear the Ring and yet not be corrupted by it (though, of course, he bore it for far less time than did Frodo). We discussed in class how this may be a product of his servitude to Frodo, and that he is able to avoid the temptation because he only takes the Ring out of his love for his master, as the text blatantly states. However, I feel that Samwise's strength to avoid this temptation lies elsewhere as well: in the very dream with which he is tempted. Throughout the course of The Lord of the Rings, we have never seen any other character's visions of the world if he or she were in possession of the Ring. We have only heard descriptions: Gandalf of his self-righteousness, Boromir of the victory of Gondor, Galadriel of her own Queen-hood. Frodo, interestingly, seems tempted merely by the wearing of the Ring and the visions which it offers and never by anything beyond that. Those who do have plans to use the Ring, however, all have plans to use it to dominate the free-will of others in one way or another. Sam, however, sees himself as a hero briefly (only insofar as he needs to defeat Sauron in order to reshape the world) and then as a larger version of what he is: a gardener. He does not dream of making the people of Middle Earth do his bidding, as even Gandalf wishes to do, but merely to control the dominion of flowers. There is strength in this humility, I believe: even when given the oppurtunity of unlimited power, Sam seeks only beauty that would benefit all and not to force others to enjoy his garden. This is essential Sam's very nature, the foundation of what allows Sam to love Frodo enough to use his love to resist the power of the Ring, because it is in this nature that we can trace Sam's "plain hobbit-sense" (The Lord of the Rings, 881), which does not allow for even the dream of dominion over wills. Merely the passing fancy of dominion over flowers.

Alex Hale


  1. Building off of your comments on Gandalf:

    I am also interested in this question of Gandalf's supposed evil. I am particularly confused as to where is the line between just good and doing-evil-thru-good. So, what makes Gandalf’s domination evil, and Aragorn’s not evil? As a king, Aragorn dominates the wills of others, and arrays the world according to what he sees as good. It’s not altogether different from what Gandalf would do with the Ring. Ditto for Theoden and Denethor. Denethor is a particularly good example of this, as he dominates his servants to such an extent they were going to immolate the still living Faramir. Yet Denethor was not evil, he was merely pants-on-head crazy, and full of despair.
    Furthermore, our current definition of evil as domination of wills is also problematic for Shelob. Shelob is commonly identified as evil, but she never seeks to dominate wills. She just eats people. There is no enslavement, simply predation. If Shelob is evil, does that not make every carnivore in Middle-Earth also evil? If we posit that her assistance of Sauron (through inaction or at least by extension) makes her evil, would that make Radagast also evil, for his role in tricking Gandalf?

  2. I absolutely agree with your thoughts about Sam. The one thing that kept running through my mind in class was that Sam doesn't want anything the Ring can give him. As you said, Sam does not seek to impose his will over others, only over nature, and the Ring has no mastery over growing things. The Ring cannot guarantee Frodo's safety, the only other thing which would tempt Sam into taking it up (for at this point in the text Sam still believes Frodo dead). With his master out of the picture, Sam has nothing to gain from anything the Ring offers him. He can no longer help Frodo in any way except for fulfilling his quest.
    However, would Sam still make this choice if Frodo lived? I'm not sure of the answer, but it is a thought. If Frodo had not been seemingly dead, but paralyzed, able to speak but unable to move, and Sam had taken the Ring from him at his behest, what would the Ring have shown him? Frodo, healed and happy and whole, back in the Shire, if only Sam will accept the power that is given to him?

    And would he have taken it, now that he has somebody to lose?

    -Emma Pauly

  3. Dear Alex,
    I enjoyed your examination of the two major contrasts on posture toward the Ring in Gandalf and Sam. They take such different tacts that it is very interesting to compare them.
    However, I think you move too quickly through suppositions and speculations in your first question. Would Gandalf – as self-righteous, despotic Ring-bearer – really see himself as destroying or eliminating evil? Is a doctor evil for eliminating an infection or disease? I wonder if the trouble lies not in the End (i.e. correction of ills and the right ordering of things) but in the coercive Means?
    On this note, can we gain insight into what fallen Gandalf would have been by examining the rhetoric of Saruman? Saruman (in account in ‘Council of Elrond’) speaks of using the wicked means of Sauron for good, “deploring maybe evils done by the way” but ultimately gaining a better end. Can we imagine the despotic Gandalf to justify himself in a similar way? Or are fallen Saruman and hypothetically-fallen Gandalf of different stamps?

  4. I disagree with the idea that the Ring can fundamentally change people. If Gandalf had taken it, he would have used it always to do what he though was best. The shift from “righteous” to “self-righteous” is the difference between Good and Anti-Good. Gandalf without the Ring is righteous because he serves Ilúvatar. However, with the Ring, he would do what he thought was good, but it would always be in service of himself, not in the service of Ilúvatar. In this way, he would put himself in opposition to Ilúvatar. This is what Sayers meant by the Anti-Good (or Anti-Hamlet). It is something that is active, and opposes the original, not just exists separately from it. The reason Gandalf never took or accepted the Ring is not because he would be too tempted to use it, but because he saw no point in having it if he would never use it. In other words, he would have only taken it if he planned to use it. So a Gandalf that would accept the Ring is already a different Gandalf than the one we know.