Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Be Evil

(Warning: It’s harder than it sounds.)

Would you know evil, if you saw it? Would you know evil, if you saw it in yourself? These are questions to which most of us, I would guess, would like to say yes. The idea that we are able to identify evil acts as a reassurance that we ourselves are not; it means that if we were evil, we would know. Yet rarely, in the world, does this prove to be true. Evil exists because it thinks that it is good.
Over the course of Professor Fulton Brown’s lecture, drawing from the readings by Sayers and Augustine, we defined evil as a willful opposition of God’s intention, an attempt to usurp power that belongs only to the creator. This presupposes two things: that in order to be evil, you must have free will, and in order to willfully disobey, you must know God’s intention. There are multiple problems that stem from these assumptions. For instance, what about the Eldar? In exchange for the gift (or curse, depending on who you’re talking to) of mortality, men were given a ‘strange gift,’ that 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, pg. 41). Men are given free will, specifically in contrast to the Elves, whose fate is determined by the Music of the Ainur. If this is the case and Elves do not have free will, can Elves truly be evil? From our readings so far, we have seen none that immediately present themselves such. The closest we come to ‘evil’ is Feanor, who is unwilling to let the Silmarils be broken in hopes of revitalizing the Trees.
Is Feanor evil because of his refusal? Because he incited his followers to kinslaying? Can he even be evil without free will? I do not think Feanor is evil, but I don’t think that because, according to Tolkien, he doesn’t have free will. In a short discussion after Monday’s lecture, Professor Fulton Brown helped me to clarify some of the tension I felt concerning this problem, specifically that fate might not necessarily be directly contrary to free will. The understanding I took away was that even within a fated path, there are still choices that we must make. Feanor might have been fated to create, lose, and swear to pursue the Silmarils, but he still had free will in how he chose to react to these events. How differently the story might have read if Feanor had wept before the Valar and explained the agony it would cause him to part with the Silmarils, instead of lashing out in anger and mistrust. The end result, fated, is the same – the Trees would not have been revived – but we would view Feanor very differently.
I feel the need here to make a defense of Feanor’s choice to withhold the Silmarils, destined or not. It is easy for us as readers and outsiders to blame him and call him selfish. It seems obvious that the right choice is to sacrifice the creations of one individual to bring light back to an entire realm; however, the Silmarils are not simply objects Feanor has created through artifice. “the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before,” (Silmarillion, 67).  I believe this passage gives particular insight into what about the Silmarils made them so impossible to part with: ‘they were indeed living things,’ they ‘rejoiced,’ they ‘received and gave back.’ The word choices Tolkien makes here do not describe the jewels as artifacts that Feanor has made, but rather as children whom he has brought into being, albeit with Yavanna’s help.
If the Valar had asked Feanor to give up one of his sons to bring back the light of the trees, I think readers’ reactions would have been wholly different. Even in Genesis, I find it almost impossible to stomach the scenes where God commands Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice; how then should we approach what the Valar ask of Feanor? For the Valar are not Eru, and we see that they do not always have a complete grasp of His will.
This brings us to the second problematic assumption in the definition of evil: How can you know whether or not you go against the will of the creator? It says in the Ainulindale that Iluvatar had woven into the themes things of which the Valar knew nothing, and even in the Christian tradition, the word of God is brought to us through prophets and their individual understandings. In both of these scenarios, there is a very large margin for error.
Take, for example, Melkor’s actions before the Music of the Creation. “desire grew hot within [Melkor] to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness,” (Silmarillion, 16).  Here we see the seeds of ‘evil.’ Melkor’s desire to create things of his own is what leads him to sing his own themes when Iluvatar commands the Ainur to make the great music; but is this desire to create apart from Iluvatar actually evil? The key phrase here is ‘it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought for the Void.’ Before the music, Melkor was not, according to our definition, evil, because he did not know the will of Iluvatar, and thus not knowing it, could not willfully oppose it. His evil only comes when he puts his impatience and pride before Iluvatar’s theme after it has been taught to him. His desire to create apart from Iluvatar is not evil; it is his desire to create contrary to what he has been told.
This is what we are left with using our criteria of free will and knowing opposition. What then of the creation of the Dwarves? Aule was also impatient, and this caused him to create apart from Iluvatar’s theme. Admittedly, the only way we know that it was against his will was because the Elves were called the Firstborn, and he created his people before their coming. Is Aule’s act of creation evil? If it is, is it only evil because he didn’t wait for the coming of the Eldar? I at least do not believe that Aule is evil; even though it was done in a willful opposition, it was done in the right spirit. He also immediately repented after being caught, so that while he may have acted contrary to Eru’s design, he expressed a desire to adhere to it again. This is the final, missing piece of our definition of evil, and the difference between Aule and Melkor’s rebellions. Aule sought forgiveness after being told that this creation was beyond his authority; Melkor, on the other hand, became filled with shame and anger instead of repentance.
This, I believe, solves the difficulty in adhering to God’s will, even if we have an imperfect knowledge of it. If, in ignorance or impatience, we go against God’s design, we are not evil. True evil comes from an unwillingness to admit that we may have been wrong, and a refusal to offer apology. Tolkien presents a comforting, hopeful portrayal of God: He is forgiving. This, at least in the context of the Silmarillion, means that you must actively try to be evil. You not only have to make the choice to go against His will, you then must follow your rebellion up by not accepting forgiveness. (And how many people would really be able to do that when confronted? To know that you have wronged God, and still be unwilling to say sorry?)
To be evil in Arda is harder than one might expect.

-- Murphy Spence


  1. Very nice insight into the Silmarils as not just artifacts, but, in a way, children--I think this puts exactly the right emphasis on what it was the Valar were asking him to do, thus Aulë's caution about forcing him. RLFB

  2. This is a wonderful meditation on the nature of evil and disobedience! I particularly like how you have taken a series of case studies and evaluated them on three premises—knowledge, action, and repentence. I find each of your conclusions persuasive, especially as pertains to Melkor. I like this line in particular—Melkor's creative instinct is not evil (he's not evil for going “off-book”), but rather in continuing once it is clear that he is working against the music: “His desire to create apart from Iluvatar is not evil; it is his desire to create contrary to what he has been told.”

    Your analysis of repentence and the creation of Dwarves puts me in mind of the manner in which the Church dealt with heresy in the middle ages—heresy isn't just ideas contrary to the teaching of the authorities of the Church. Heretical ideas must be obstinately held after an attempt at correction has occurred in order to legally constitute heresy. Ignorant error is not the same as learned opposition!


  3. Hi Murphy,

    This was a really well written piece about how Tolkien defines and represents the conflict between good and evil in his legendarium. I think the examples you used, particularly in regards to Feanor’s choice about the Silmarils makes a compelling argument about how one can define these two opposing ideas. It helps identify the fact that Tolkien, in his writing, made a very conscious to avoid portraying the concepts of good and evil as two distinct concepts but rather created a spectrum of good to evil and indicated that a lot of these differences are seen between the two sides simply because of difference in choice. Your definition of evil as a wilful disobedience of God’s intentions and wishes, and more importantly a refusal to apologize or atone was an interesting observation. It was interesting to think about this definition, particularly when thinking about your discussion about the idea of “true evil”.

    The most compelling argument for a character that personifies “true evil” is Melkor because it is he who plants the seeds of discord into Arda which eventually leads to war and loss. My question is whether Sauron and Sauron’s evil that follows, and the corresponding negative events that result from Sauron’s actions are equally or more evil than those of Melkor’s? Sauron started off as a willing subject of Illuvatar and obeyed the rules of Varda. However, he was easily swayed by Melkor in his quest for power and unlike Melkor, did not want to take over and destroy Varda, but wanted to take over the minds of the people of Arda. It was Sauron that encouraged Men to worship Melkor as an alternate God but can we say that this was Sauron’s evil or the evil derived from Melkor that influenced Sauron’s actions? Sauron, in his creation of the One Ring, enslaves many of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth but it can be argued that he was put on this path by Melkor. Does that then make Sauron less evil than Melkor? I suppose that my questions are rooted in trying to understand how Tolkien defines different degrees of evil. For me, personally, the enslaving of minds and a betrayal of the Valar is far more evil than Melkor’s outright disobedience. However, this evil is rooted in the original choice that Melkor made so can we honestly think about Sauron’s actions as a distinct from the original discord perpetrated by Melkor? Is this Tolkien’s intention in creating these forces of evil? This is a really challenging and interesting concept to parse through and try and understand and I think you did a great job in explaining and defining different aspects of this dichotomy.

    Thanks for a great read!