Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Good, Evil, and Ilúvatar’s Gifts

            In class, we discussed the idea of good versus evil.  What makes something evil?  I thought that out of the many definitions we discussed, Sayer’s definition as evil being something that actively opposes good as the most interesting.  We then tried to apply this idea to the Númenóreans, and their breaching of the ban against sailing west to the Blessed Realm.  Can the Númenóreans be considered evil for breaking this law and going against the Valar, or was there some factor that can redeem the Númenóreans?
One way to look at this question is by considering the motivations that led the Númenóreans to undertake their journey into the west.  While Sauron did significantly influence the Númenóreans, for a long time beforehand, the Númenóreans had wished to extend their life into eternity.  However, the gift of mortality was given to Men by Ilúvatar, and by rejecting this gift, the Númenóreans are actually going against the will of God, their creator, and rejecting their very nature.  In this sense, if Ilúvatar is to be considered good, while for example, Melkor would be considered evil, then by rejecting their gift, the Númenóreans are actively fighting the good of Ilúvatar, and committing an evil act.
This is an interesting prospect, but seems too simple to be the entire story.  At the very end of class, we brought up the idea of free will.  The concept of free will drastically changes this simple story of good and evil, and brings the sinking of Númenor and the fall of its people into a new light.  Ilúvatar not only gifted Men with death after life, but he also, “willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else” (Silmarillion, 41).  Men can create their own fates, and shape their futures, unlike the Elves that are tied to the Music and the Earth.  The free will of men continues to push them beyond their borders to discover new things and find their own way in the world.  Men are not built with the desire to accept the world as it is, but to shape it in a way of their choosing.  This aspiration is the key difference between Men and the Elves.  If Ilúvatar made Men’s nature this way, then how could it be a surprise to him that the Númenóreans attempted to achieve the impossible and sail to the Blessed Realm.
However, in exchange for free will, Men were given death to compensate for their powerful gift.  Death sets a limit on the time man has to shape his world, and this factor also influences many of the decisions and choices that Men make, especially the Númenóreans.  Maybe by seeking the one thing that they were not allowed to have, an escape from death, the Númenóreans may have crossed a line.  The Númenóreans desired to posses both free will and immortality at the same time.  Ilúvatar made the world so that Elves have immortality, and Men have free will, but neither of them can have both.  It is not because the Númenóreans broke the Valar’s law against sailing west that they were punished, but that they desired both free will and immortality.  Maybe if the Númenóreans had only wanted to see the Blessed Realm, to explore new worlds, they would not have been so harshly punished.  However, by wishing for too many of Ilúvatar’s gifts, the Númenóreans had to be punished for their presumption.
This creates an interesting paradox for the Númenóreans.  The Númenóreans have within them the free will and drive to go against the Music of the Ainur, which would eventually lead them to seek for what they do not already have, immortality.  However, Ilúvatar had to punish the Númenóreans because they desired too much even though it was his gift of free will that caused them to desire immortality in the first place.  Ilúvatar must have known that his gift would cause the Númenóreans to search for immortality, and by giving them the free will to choose this path despite the Valar’s warnings, he made this outcome inevitable.  Not only was it expected of Men to shape their own world because of their gift, but that this gift would eventually lead to their downfall in the drowning of Númenor.
Now, returning to the initial argument; can the Númenóreans be considered evil?  Are they actively going against Ilúvatar’s will in an attempt to oppose him and his gift of mortality to Men?  In a sense, yes, the Númenóreans wish to achieve immortality, which Ilúvatar clearly does not want Men to possess.  On the other hand, it is only with Ilúvatar’s other gift of free will, that the Númenóreans wish to change their lives and seek immortality.  Furthermore, Ilúvatar expects Men to make mistakes and try to find the impossible, and this makes the fate of the Númenóreans and their island inevitable.  Ilúvatar also says that even though Men will make mistakes, “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work” (Silmarillion, 42).  Everything in the future will eventually represent Ilúvatar’s will, so maybe no act can be considered completely evil.  Some good can come from the Númenóreans’s actions, and even if they acted in the wrong, they only exercised their free will, and did in fact, drastically shape the world around them.  Their actions cannot be considered completely evil since they did act within the nature that Ilúvatar gave to Men.
-S. P.


  1. Is it proper to say that free will *caused* the Numenoreans' quest for immortality? It surely made it possible, but I think that attributing causation is going a little too far. It might be productive for your argument to consider the distinction. Most notably, I think that if we say that the gift of free will causes all this suffering, then we're lead to the sort of "wait, does this mean that Eru intended for their to be evil?" questions that you discuss. I think something Tolkien wants to emphasize from Melkor down to Frodo is that the cause of evil ultimately lies in the exercise of the individuals will, rather than something inherent to will itself. In this way, as I believe you gesture towards at the end, we might see Eru's actions as using evil exercises of the will to nevertheless bring about good results. In this way, they're corrective adjustments (such as arranging things so a certain hobbit finds a certain ring) and largely allow the individuals involved to use their own wills to counter the discord in the great music.

  2. I think another issue that you have stumbled across is the individualization of evil. You say things like, "Can the Númenóreans be considered evil for breaking this law and going against the Valar, or was there some factor that can redeem the Númenóreans" and "how could it be a surprise to him that the Númenóreans attempted to achieve the impossible and sail to the Blessed Realm." These comments seem to convey that the Numenorians set sail as one, massive, unthinking machine, all tied together is a single thought process. This cannot possibly be the case. There remained the followers of Elendil and his sons; different Numenorians must have had different reasons for going. It's like all emigrations, there is not a single motivating force. We also know that it is not inherently evil to sail west. Earendil did it. Instead, it is evil to sail west with the intention of gazing with pride/ malice/ greed, upon Valinor. A sailor who was impressed into the navy for the expedition and did not want to commit to the voyage cannot be deemed evil for being forced to sail west. Basically, we can judge Ar-Pharazon and hose that distinctly followed him as committing a deeply evil act, but we cannot place that mantle of evil universally.
    --Elliot Mertz