So far, in our attempts to better understand Tolkien’s definition of evil, it seems to me that we have used other texts discussing good and evil as ways to inch closer to his definition through comparison and analogies. While this comparative approach has certainly helped us all to better understand Tolkien, I believe that in doing so, we seem to have missed a potential point of exploration. Tolkien very much stresses the idea of building on existing traditions. Whether that is drawing from the soup to make new fairy tales, or taking older mythological legends of England and connecting them with his Middle Earth, Tolkien is not just a crafter, he is a builder; he builds upon existing foundations. Tolkien’s works deal with extremely philosophical ideas. The ideas of Free Will, Good, Evil, can be found in Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc. I venture to propose that we view Tolkien’s definitions of good and evil not as isolated creations but as building upon existing philosophical traditions. His definitions are not simply a product of influence, rather, he takes his creation one step further and applies it in his own way in The Lord of the Rings and The Simarillion.
I'm interested in using this as a backdrop to further understand Tolkien's treatment of evil, and connecting his work with a deeper philosophical tradition that heavily influenced medieval Western thought. We have talked a lot about Catholicism but not so much where some of these Catholic ideas came from. I was particularly struck by the similarities between Tolkien's treatment of rational beings versus evil (in particular his view stated in letter 183 that no rational being is wholly evil), and the heavy influencers of medieval Catholic ascetic thought. St. Augustine was one of them, whom we discussed in class, but so was Pseudo-Dionysius who actually influenced St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later. Both St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius can be viewed as Christian Platonists and Neoplatonists. While St. Augustine relates original sin to pride and disobedience, Pseudo-Dionysius specifically discusses evil in conjunction with rationality. To summarize a very intricate argument, he ultimately defines evil as “weakness, impotence, a deficiency of knowledge, of ceaseless knowledge, of belief, of desire and of activity in the Good” in The Divine Names. This idea of evil as turning away from reason, belief, and a result of deficient knowledge I find extremely relevant to the Lord of the Rings.
In light of this, I would like to use rationality as a framework for understanding evil, and ultimately, as the method for defeating it. Gandalf and Galadriel are each tested when they are offered the Ring. Tolkien, in letter 246, emphasizes just how dangerous the Ring in their hands would be. He plainly states that Galadriel was able to reject the Ring because “Galadriel’s rejection of the temptation was founded upon previous thought and resolve”. So we see that Galadriel here, exercised the utmost rationality in preparing herself for the inevitable test, and made the right choice when she chose rationally. Gandalf and Elrond reveal in “The Council of Elrond” just how much thought and contemplation have gone into the matter of the Ring when they tell Boromir the Ring cannot be used as a weapon (LOTR 267). Boromir, then, in this framework of viewing good and evil through medieval ascetic thought, can be seen as falling prey to evil through “deficiency of knowledge… of belief”. His knowledge of the Ring and its dangers is incomplete since he has no firsthand experience with it the way Elrond does, and his deficiency of belief in their advice leads to his downfall, his succumbing to his personal shadow in LeGuin’s words, if you will.
So what about the characters who do not have the luxury of time and Elven-lore to give them sufficient knowledge to make their decisions? The other characters in the book (Aragorn, Frodo, Sam) do not have great amounts of time to sit around and contemplate. Yet I think the most important thing to remember is that what inherently defines a rational being, is that they can make choices. And not just the choices where they blindly follow instincts like animals. They can make rational choices. And in the end, it is the choices the characters make that we see defeating evil. This is what I believe Gandalf is really talking about when he is in Bag End with Frodo.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
‘So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (51).
Gandalf is saying that we do not have a choice whether or not we live in a time where we are faced with great Evil. All we can do is make choices to the best of our abilities. It is the character’s choices that will ultimately shape Middle Earth and remove Sauron. Laying out one’s choices is the first act of reason, and we see all the characters either implicitly or explicitly doing so. This emphasis on making the best choice, in particular the best rational choice, we can under the given circumstances is reinforced when Gandalf consoles Aragorn in Fangorn. He says “Come, Aragorn, son of Arathorn!”…”Do not regret your choice in the valley of the Emyn Muil, nor call it a vain pursuit. You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just, and it has been rewarded” (500). We saw earlier how hard it was for Aragorn to make the choice to leave Sam and Frodo and how much reasoning he put into it. And Gandalf tells him that it was the right choice because he did so.
In Tolkien’s world, the Ring might be a powerful weapon, but rational choice is the most powerful one of all.