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”.
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”. On the other, we have Tolkien asserting the story as “fundamentally Catholic”. 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’”. 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”. She further wrote, “The theology emerges within and through the stylistic modes and tropes that they employ to tell their stories”. 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”. 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”. 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”. 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”. 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.
 Flieger, Verlyn, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, rev. ed. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002), page 82.
 Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), page 144.
 Ibid, 171.
 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.
 Milbank, Alison, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), page xiv.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ed. Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Del Rey, 1985) page 16.
 Ibid, 43.
 Trans. R. W. Dyson Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pages 493-494.
 Ibid, 586.