Friday, May 9, 2014

The Ring and the Shadow

Over the course of our three classes on creativity and free will, good and evil, we have arrived at several clear definitions of evil by analyzing the choices of the Ainur, the Númenoreans, and the main characters of the Lord of the Rings. We might classify our definitions by those analyses:
I.                 The choices of the Ainur: Evil is the active, willed alteration of Creation to replace God’s plan with one’s own. In other words, evil is active resistance against God/Iluvitar.
II.               The choices of the Númenoreans: Evil is the resistance of a corrupted will against one’s true nature, and the limitations of that nature.
III.              The choices of LotR characters: Evil is the enslavement of the free will of others, an active attempt to replace another’s free will with one’s own.
The unifying theme of these three definitions is that each version of evil consists in challenging the divinely ordained path of creation by subverting God’s/Iluvitar’s plan with one’s own. Yet each of these definitions also captures the fundamental contradiction between free will and a divine plan, forcing us to question how free will can be a part of a divinely ordained fate without inherently subverting that divine law.

There is another possible definition of evil that was not exhaustively discussed in class: the problem of incorrect worship. In lecture on April 30, Prof. Fulton Brown explained that this problem is never directly addressed in Tolkien’s works, but that the problem of greed for one’s own creation (as exemplified by Fëanor’s love of his Silmarils) is a sort of proxy for the conversation on incorrect worship. In his letters, however, Tolkien gives a much more direct answer to the question of evil in the Lord of the Rings:
“In my story, I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. …In the Lord of the Rings, the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom,’ though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Númenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants (footnote: …he claimed to be Morgoth returned); if he had been victorious [at the end of the War of the Ring] he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world.” (Letter 183, p. 243-244)
Here, Tolkien explicitly tells us that the central problem of evil that he addresses in his stories is that of incorrect worship, and goes on to explain that this is an absolute moral judgment that determines the “good” or “evil” of both sides in the War of the Ring: even if the means used to defeat an Enemy seeking to become a God-King are as ethically disgusting as can be imagined, the side that resists this usurper is inherently on the side of Good, as that end will always trump the means they use. We can postulate that the reverse is also true: Even a benevolent God-King, as Gandalf as Ring-Lord would no doubt be, can never be justified against, say, a horde of Orcs who oppose him because they recognize the One True God, Eru. This is then the primary reason that “Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron,” because he would be benevolent and would “order things for ‘good,’” but would have done so as a false god. It would be all the more difficult to resist such a false god if he works “to the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom,” as comfort is more dangerous to freedom and justice than tyranny (Letter 246, p. 332-333).

Our original three definitions of evil fit quite easily under this greater one, evil defined as incorrect worship of false gods: the unifying theme of the three definitions from our three discussions is the subversion of God’s plan through the incorrect exercise of one’s free will, and to achieve such a subversion, one can argue, a person must first assume that God’s divine honor and ordained plan is inherently wrong. This assumption shifts worship away from God and toward another object, whether that object be one’s own creation, one’s own will to power, or the will of another seen as more right than God’s. Fëanor’s love of his own creations is therefore, as Prof. Fulton Brown has said, a prime example of incorrect worship, but so is every other sinful or evil choice we have discussed: Melkor’s attempted subversion of Iluvitar’s will, the Númenoreans’ desire to achieve godlike immortality and rejection of the divine gift of mortality, and the many choices of characters in the main trilogy who sought to subject others to their own wills.

Le Guin gives us a different way to analyze the problem of good and evil in Tolkien’s work in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” in which she borrows an analytical lens from Jung’s psychoanalysis and adapts his theory of “the shadow” to literary analysis. Adding this analysis to what we’ve already discussed here brings us away from the (incorrect) notion that there is an inherent binary between Good and Evil in Tolkien’s works, by demonstrating that every individual has the potential for good or evil according to the degree to which they can understand and embrace their own shadows. If the shadow is “the dark brother of the soul,” an archetypal guide and temptation all in one, then it is our inner desires that we must understand and face before we can achieve enlightenment at the end of our metaphorical journey. To understand the shadow means to explore our own psyche, and to guide our inner desires by exercising our rational will over them. In this view, the Númenoreans’ mistake was to allow their shadows to lead their wills, rather than the other way around, as Iluvitar wants them to do. In the same way, the danger of the Ring is that it gives the inner shadow the power to subvert the will of its wearer, which must be done before the bearer of the One Ring claims it and becomes its wearer. Perhaps the Ring is itself the very Shadow of Sauron, who poured all of his dark desires for domination into its creation.

If this is true, then there’s a very good reason that Sam is the only Ring-bearer who can also reject it even after wearing it for a short while. Sam’s inner shadow and his rational will are one, and become so over the course of his journey: He fully desires to serve Frodo as a faithful vassal, to live the good life of a Hobbit, and has no interest in the domination of others. His will and his shadow are already in agreement, so the Ring cannot tempt his shadow to betray his will. Gollum, on the other hand, was split in two by the Ring, becoming Smeagol, the reflection of the free will he once had, and Gollum, the embodiment of his nasssty little shadow. It is only by merging the free will with the shadow that one can defeat the temptation of the Ring, and this is the healing journey that Frodo is finally able to achieve when he sails for Valinor, a land of healing where he can again become whole. 

-Morgane Martinet


  1. These are some very astute observations, and I think it would be profitable to think more on how the two core insights, regarding improper worship and our shadows, might be related. Why is it that mastering our own shadows, reconciling it with our rational wills, allows us to avoid the temptation of false worship? What's the link between being whole, and proper worship?

    Two additional brief notes, I think the idea of the ring as in some sense embodying Sauron's shadow is very compelling. It helps account for how the ring seems to have an agency throughout, perhaps even why that agency seems at times to be opposed to Sauron himself. Finally, it's very interesting that Tolkien's notion of evil seems to reduce to a violation of the first commandment, I'm not quite certain what to do with this, but I'm sure there's additional room for exploration there.

  2. I really liked your point that it is necessary to merge one’s free will with the shadow to resist evil, which is certainly echoed in The Lord of the Rings when Galadriel tells Frodo explicitly that the rings gives power according to the measure of its bearer. This could be interpreted as power, or, as in this case, it could mean an inner desire. Also, as you point out, this makes Sam an excellent ring bearer. In fact the only other individual whose shadow and will seem to be one is Tom Bombadil, but then this seems to imply that in order to resist evil you either have to be Tom Bombadil or not set your sights too high in life. This might be why there is a parallel between improper worship and evil, to answer the question of dyingst.

    Perhaps improper worship is the result of being too fearful or ambitious to be satisfied with proper worship and therefore one seeks another means to overcome one’s shadow. As you mention, the Numenorians were dissatisfied with their predicament of mortality and therefore turned to Melkor worship when Sauron claimed he could offer them an escape from death. Perhaps the only way to overcome evil is to them emulate the example of Tom Bombadil and be happy with everything.


  3. Hey Morgane,
    I like your analysis of the different types of evil that we see in Tolkien's works, and it's good to see it all laid out even if we didn't get to it in class.
    With regards to exactly the behavior of the Ring, I wouldn't be surprised if it simply brought out the shadow and gave it dominion over the soul of the bearer through psychological temptation. This definitely gives us a hint as to what is to be done about the shadow. Sam's rather unique ability to resist evil is easily attributable to him not only being in harmony with his shadow but also simply knowing it and what it desires. The Ring tempted him with visions of grandeur that seems almost comical because we, along with Sam, already know his shadow desires, and we realize that Sam couldn't be tempted with such things.
    But, I think there would be ways to tempt Sam that the Ring might ultimately "figure out" as Sam bore the Ring. Perhaps Sam could be tricked into behaving in a certain way in order to serve Frodo that instead led him down the path of evil. Indeed the Ring would have to be much more clever with tempting Sam-- he doesn't exactly fit a one-size-fits-all doctrine of world domination that the Ring seems to "believe" always works.
    This issue of the shadow and its relation to the Ring is certainly very interesting and merits further examination.