Friday, May 2, 2014

The Politics of the Dark Side: Navigating the Division Between the Secular and the Spiritual

           This title was difficult, primarily because “Dark Side” was a term that I was unsure about. What ultimately drove me to use it was Flieger’s description of the fallen Elves and their Darkness as something substantial: “…the addition of mor, “dark,” to the base noun is not just a modification but a complete reversal of the original derivation of speech from light. In this context, Tolkien’s capitalization of the word Separation is worth noting for it gives the even its own identity and place in history”[1].
            But this is also not a post about the Dark Side—it is about the politics surrounding the Dark Side. The line between Light and Dark is a fine one—as we see in the Silmarillion, and City of God. Both documents need to condemn their main antagonists, but also do not want the Fall to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either offering a permanent place to salvation, or offering no place to salvation makes this doctrine meaningless.
            Owing to certain structural processes, whenever we discuss spiritual topics, or theologies on a whole, we tend to think of them in terms of Christian thought. However, I would like to discuss this theology of the Fall as one that is separate from Christianity. This might be one way to make sense of how Tolkien characterized the religious elements of his stories. On one hand, a main critique of Arthurian legend focused on the specificities of Christianity: “…it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion”[2]. On the other, we have Tolkien asserting the story as “fundamentally Catholic”[3]. How do we make sense of this?
            We often use our own “literal metaphor” to understand the general theology that Lord of the Rings espouses as indirectly Christian. While we draw connections between the Silmarillion and Genesis, multiple secondary sources tend to focus on Tolkien as theologian, rather than strictly Christian. As Father Rutledge said, “When this happens, something emerges that is even more compelling than a story of creaturely growth and spiritual development. The human growth and development that form such a gripping part of the plot would not be possible without the unseen, but often obliquely identified intrusion of the ‘finger of God’”[4]. In reference to Chesterton and Tolkien’s writings on a whole, Alison Milbank wrote, “Most centrally the two writers share a view of art as revealing the createdness of the world”[5]. She further wrote, “The theology emerges within and through the stylistic modes and tropes that they employ to tell their stories”[6]. In this fashion, the Fall is where human growth and development occurs, where we see how the art reveals createdness. And it is the Fall that transcends the experience of Christianity. But, like any good “literal metaphor”, it seems we cannot separate how we think about it from the Christian value-system.
            This is where I turn to the Dark Side. The process of corruption, and the power by which one turns from the Creator, is a central problem in theology. The most distinctive description of the Dark Side is within the comparison between Aulë and Melkor. The beginnings of the Silmarillion tell us that Melkor’s corruption came from his impatience: “But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself”[7]. Compare this to the description of Aulë’s transgression: “For so greatly did Aulë desire the coming of the Children, to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and crafts that he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Ilúvatar”[8]. These descriptions are structurally the same. Yet, the piety of Aulë allowed for his salvation, whereas Melkor seemed to drift further into the Dark Side.
            Perhaps it is the role of piety that mediates salvation. But if this is the case, if all one has to do is show piety after transgression, then Melkor must still be capable of salvation. This is a position that is untenable within Tolkien. To show this, I would like to turn to Augustine’s discussion of the fall of Angels and the Individual. On the Angels, in 11:33 of City of God, there is no salvation possible: “Certain Angels sinned, and were thrust down to the lowest depths of this world, imprisoned until their final damnation on the day of judgment”[9]. These are the angels who were given the name “Darkness”, most famous among them, Lucifer. For the Individual, this process of turning inwardly is also demonstrable: “That, when a man lives according to man, and not according to God, he resembles the Devil”[10]. This is the choice faced by Adam, whose fall had been predicated by the corruption of his will. But he still may find salvation through his labors and repentance. This is a choice that is never accessible to Lucifer.
            While Tolkien does not has an immediate reflection on whether Melkor can be saved, it is clear that he is a parallel for Lucifer, or at least Evil. And it is not enough to assert that Melkor was not born evil, for all things created of God, in Augustine’s view, are born with grace. If we accept this delineation, then we must figure out why Aulë is saved, but Melkor is not. There is no clear line as to what makes salvation possible—to say Aulë’s humility rendered him salvageable is to say a similar door is open for Melkor.
            I do not actually have an answer. But the point of this discussion was not to present one—it’s a fascinating problem, and one that shows how theology specifically permeated the Secondary Reality of Lord of the Rings. I would go further and suggest that these political questions about salvation are not strictly restricted to Fantasy and especially that of theology—they also cross into the secular world. Such distinctions between spiritual and secular might be seen at the very least as arbitrary, and, at the most radical position, irrelevant. The presence of such a politics around the Fall is an indication of a consistency that transcends the locality of religious interaction.
            I will try to give an example of such an arbitrary question within another fantasy world. The Dark Side is most famously associated with its context in the Force. As Jedi Master Thon once stated: “It is not simply enough to know the light… a Jedi must feel the tension between the two sides of the Force… in himself and in the universe”. This tension, within the history of the Jedi, most famously came to light in the story of Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One. The choices that mediated his fall were not strictly political, but they did produce political results—ones that re-oriented the power of the Jedi and the Sith for over two decades. What is most interesting about his story is the mode of redemption: he is saved because he saw his son, Luke, about to die at the hands of Palpatine, his Sith Master.
            I suggest the choice of the father-son relationship as meaningful in a secular context is completely arbitrary. Palpatine himself murdered his entire family on Naboo within the context of his Fall. Anakin nearly killed his wife during his own Fall. Yet, for some reason, the power of the parental relationship is enough to break the Dark Side, and redeem the prophecy set millennia before, surrounding Skywalker. The arbitrary nature of this choice is meant to reflect what would be credible for the Primary World. That is to say, the people watching Return of the Jedi.
            This is not to suggest the separation is without merit, nor undermine the many distinctions that it has developed since the Early Modern period. However, we need a more careful analysis of the relationship between the secular and the spiritual and how aspects of their worlds are characterized as such. The power of personal and social relationships may not have always proceeded from a rational social construct, which is something important to keep in mind when navigating the Dark Side both of the fantastical and the every day.

--Marley-Vincent Lindsey 

[1] Flieger, Verlyn, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, rev. ed. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002), page 82.
[2] Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), page 144.
[3] Ibid, 171.
[4] Rutledge, Fleming, The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in the Lord of the Rings, (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), page 8.
[5] Milbank, Alison, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), page xiv.
[6] Ibid, 25.
[7] Ed. Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1985) page 16.
[8] Ibid, 43.
[9] Trans. R. W. Dyson Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pages 493-494.
[10] Ibid, 586.


  1. Dear Marley,
    Thanks for this discussion of the ramifications of Tolkien's fantasy project and the emergence there of religious and (specifically?) Christian themes. In this, you nicely underline the tension between Tolkien's view [Let. 131] that religious truth should not be explicit (as it is in Arthurian lit.) and Tolkien's statement that his story is "fundamentally Catholic." [Let 142]
    I'm glad to see you reading other scholars on this question (which might serve well as a research paper topic). But how are we to think about this apparent tension? Is there real conflict here? (The quotes by Milbank and Rutledge seem to make tension more acute, do they not?)

    Two quick points: The parallel impatience of Melkor and Aulë is well-spotted. But is it only piety that separates them? (As you quoted: Melkor desired to "increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.")

    Second, does the 'Star Wars' view of Good and Evil (tension between two sides of one Force) really parallel with Tolkien? Or does it serve to bring out a fundamental disagreement?
    (Also, thanks for a more accessible tone and post. I would be very happy to chat about the topics you raised here!)

  2. It seems to me that you are trying to think about two rather different questions under the same rubric: the Fall (or, as you put it, the turn to the Dark Side) and the relationship between the sacred and the secular. I see how the story of Anakin relates to the Fall, but not to the secular. Are you using secular as a reference to our Primary Reality? Like Robert, I would be happy to talk more with you about both of these questions! RLFB

  3. Whilst I do agree that the parallelism between Tolkien and Lucas's views on the duality of good and evil/light and dark have a lot of merit, I think Tolkien himself is a little bit more.....firm with regards to the process of redemption.
    He does seem to agree that redemption can be attained-but often it's just only by a small amount. Boromir attempts to atone for his actions when the ring corrupted him,
    Ossë was for a time in the service of Melkor before he redeemed his actions, but none of the "redemption" stories seem to offer a full descent into the Dark/Evil. They certainly address the fall-but very rarely the return to the light.

    Somebody like Sauron-who can be seen as the right-hand man to the Evil of surely had a great fall into evil. But we do not see any shred of light, any hope for the return, whereas the parallel of Darth Vader-a great warrior of the Light who fell into the clutches of the Dark Side, and would serve the epitome of the Dark Side in the Star Wars Universe (Sidious). But one offers a story of eventual redemption, while another offers a story of total destruction.
    Or to look beyond Vader, one can look at Darth Revan-once a great Jedi Knight who fell into the clutches of the Dark Side, and attempt to dominate the entire galaxy. But he would be redeemed, and would once again serve the light side, and defeat the armies that he himself had created. The avenue of redemption was again, secular-his love for the Jedi Bastila Shen.

    In Star Wars, redemption is seen as an option for even the most evil beings-and can be obtained no matter how powerful the Dark Side has corrupted them.
    In Tolkien's world, it is hard to identify if this redemption extends to all beings.
    Can the Orcs (whose origins point to a set of beings that have been corrupted by Darkness) ever be redeemed? In many ways they are painted as brute creatures of evil.
    Is there a route of redemption for them? Or-as said by C-3PO-is their lot in life to simply suffer? It's hard to tell.

    -Nathaniel R

  4. Dear Marley,

    I find your question of whether Melkor is open to salvation very compelling. As others have pointed out before me, I think a large difference between Melkor and Aulë is intention (as is the difference between sin and salvation in many christian denominations). I would recall Letter 131, when Tolkien discusses "Magic and Machine." In this passage, he explains what distinguishes Magic and Machine from the craft and art of the elves is the will for domination. Melkor intends his works to give him mastery and domination over others. Aulë is eager for the act of creation. While I suppose it would be possible for Melkor to change his tune, that might be beside the point. For if Melkor is simply an Aspect, perhaps he is incapable of transcending his lust for control and his will to usurp Eru as the root of all creation.

    Completely tangential to this point, your discussion of The Fall got me to thinking about Melkor's transition to Morgoth. Of course, Melkor experienced his fall long before he was deemed Morgoth, but then what inspires the change? Considering the role that names play for characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf, I can't dismiss this as insignificant. I can't believe Tolkien had no design for this detail. Melkor appears to become Morgoth as he becomes more attached and associated with this world. But is that all it can be? And where did the name Morgoth come from? Who gave it to him? I find this another interesting biblical parallel as well. In the Old Testament, characters sometimes change names and it is always very significant. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah when they pass God's tests and become his chosen people. Jacob becomes Israel after he wrestles an angel and reclaims leadership of the Jews. These all have some great, spiritual significance. Could the transition from Melkor to Morgoth be of the same brand? I would love to hear any thoughts on this.

    -Steven Vincent

  5. Oh wow, many comments! Sorry, I'm usually more on the ball about this, but I had my midterms week over the past week.

    I think the first question is the distinction is between Aulë and Melkor, and what else might separate them besides piety. I would still hold that the intention question is not particularly relevant. This, as I should clarify, draws on parallels from every example. In Augustine, the intention of the Angels does not matter--all that matters is the result. The only understanding we have of Lucifer, the Angel is through Scripture, that is, his antithesis. If we want a rigorous understanding of intention, then we must question every aspect of the sources that record intention, as they are recorded by his enemies. This isn't to cut off the question entirely, but lacking other evidence, it seems entirely reasonable to say that Melkor, or Lucifer felt they were improving the world, or saving it, or doing something else. The aspects of them being evil could be attributed to the structural nature of the sources themselves. Indeed, this fits neatly with Anakin, as throughout the entirety of his Fall, he believes he is bringing peace and order to the galaxy. Even as he strangles his wife, and hunts down his former master, these words echo throughout his rule: "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil".

    The second question that seems to be common is the relationship between the the Dark Side and this question of the religious versus the secular. I think, tentatively, I would say this relationship is explicitly involved in our day-to-day lives. Without dipping into the radical relativism of morality, we do have to make decisions every day that might challenge our values of power vs. integrity. You're sitting in a very important midterm, and no one will notice you look at the student ahead of you, who is always at the top of the curve. Do you do it? I think that is a Fall. And how we orient those sorts of decisions is based largely on the systems of morality, which in turn, is based on the dominant theologies of the time. If given more room, I think that is the route I would take in relating the secular and the Fall, by which we can decisions like Skywalker and Aulë can be made logical in a variety of ways.

    This is also where the distinction of Melkor from Aulë is clear, even if we are still unsure as to why they are distinct: Melkor would consistently cheat his way through the world, while Aulë may have cheated in elementary school. Yet, if we take the first question to heart, I don't know if there's a particularly useful way of separating the two intentions without bringing up what they did after the fact.

    I definitely think there is a value to the transition of names, although I might speculate on that later, as I haven't really thought much about it to this point.

  6. I like that you respectfully looked at how it was Aulë and Melkor received and didn’t receive salvation respectively. For whatever reason, I have a deep fascination and inclination towards Melkor, so I appreciate when people talk about Melkor without completely bashing his character.
    It does seem as if piety was a main factor in success for achieving salvation. While Aulë felt sorry and repented for his actions, Melkor may have been sorry but was bitter for how he was treated for his actions. This highlights how people function, in a way. While many people may be receptive to one type of treatment, others may need to be approached in different ways in order for them to comfortably accept things the way they are. While Aulë was receptive of Ilúvatar’s scolding and mending of his actions, Melkor was less so.
    In line with your description of the Dark Side being, “The process of corruption, and the power by which one turns from the Creator”, both Aulë and Melkor technically turned to ‘the Dark Side.’ This did not make them evil or dark by nature; simply, it showed that they deviated from what the Creator instructed them on. While one was willing to learn from the errors of his ways, the other was not.
    I like the angle in which you looked at things through your post.

  7. I agree that if Aulë’s humility gave him the chance to be redeemed from his fall, then Melkor also had that chance, but do you think some sort of predestination might have prevented Melkor from being reformed? The Valar existed outside the music because they helped create it and they had the ability to make decisions about how they wanted to shape the music, but upon entering into the world they were also entering into the music. Did this mean that they were perhaps stepping into roles that were dictated more by fate rather than by free will? And if so, does that mean that Melkor made his decision to rebel during the making of the Great Music and lost the chance to redeem himself upon his entry into the world?

    In response to Stephen: The name Morgoth, meaning means “black foe of the world,” was given to Melkor by Fëanor because he was so angry that Melkor had stolen the Silmarils. I don’t know if it has great spiritual significance exactly, but it certainly marks a moment where Morgoth becomes the enemy of the Eldar. Before his name change, if I remember rightly, some of the Eldar and Valar were wary of him while others listened closely to his teachings.

    -Jamie Keener

  8. And by Stephen I mean Steven. Sorry!