Friday, May 9, 2014

The Service of Samwise The Stouthearted

In his letters, Tolkien wrote on the problems that would have arisen had Gandalf taken the Ring: “Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron … He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’ and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom.” In the note at the margin of the page, Tolkien continues, “Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem Evil” (Letters, 333). From our discussion in class, the domination of another’s will seems to be an important aspect of Evil, no matter the intentions that guide the use of that power. The Valar often accomplish more Evil than good when they direct the wills of the Children of Ilúvatar: despite the safety and happiness of a number of elves in Valinor, the Elves become a sundered people, split into those who departed and those who stayed behind in Middle-Earth. It would seem that it is Evil to impose one’s will on another , perhaps even the Evil. Yet, the kings of Men perform this Evil quite often in the exercise of their duties (albeit perhaps to lesser and greater degrees). These kings order their kingdoms for the “‘good’ and benefit of [their] subjects”, and the only thing that seems to separate them from a Ring-Lord Gandalf is the lack of the Ring’s power. How can we reconcile the Evil represented by a domination of wills, with the apparent good that such dominion does within a kingdom?

In “The Choices of Master Samwise”, Sam’s consent to be a servant of Frodo differentiates their servant-master relationship from the evil domination exerted by Sauron upon his servants . When despairing over leaving his master behind, Sam says, “I got it all wrong! … I knew I would. … Never leave your master, never, never: that was my right rule. And I knew it in my heart. May I be forgiven” (IV.10, 741, emphasis added). It is important that Sam’s rule is one that he chose himself. He consents to be directed by Frodo because of their relationship as friends; Sam is not forced into servitude, he chooses it. This may be why Sam is able to turn aside from the image of “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land” (VI.i, 901): Sam never desired to be the master/hero in Frodo’s place. “In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm … the one small garden of a free gardner was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm.” (VI.i, 901). In strong contrast to Sam’s servitude by consent, Tolkien provides us Gorbag and Shagrat, both servants who serve because of the domination of their master. Gorbag initially says, “If we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s … no big bosses” (IV.i, 738). Yet when Gorbag is receives his orders he says, “I came at once” (IV.i, 738). It seems that Gorbag and Shagrat do not consent to the domination of Sauron, yet they continue following orders anyway. It is this relationship that is evil: the command that Sauron gives to his servants is not carried out by consent, but by fear and subjugation.

While consent seems to be an important framework of distinguishing between good and evil in a master-servant relationship, a new question also arises: what responsibility do servants (such as Shagrat, Èomer, Faramir, Beregond) have toward the moral good in relation to their master’s commands? In order to answer this question, it may be useful to extend Tolkien’s writing on the moral framework of Frodo’s choices.

In two of the letters we read (191 & 192), Tolkien answers questions about whether Frodo failed and his culpability for the failure: “No, Frodo, ‘failed’ … the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’” (Letters, 252). Yet Tolkien finds that resisting Evil is valuable: “Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further” (Letters, 253). As Shippey describes, Evil in Tolkien’s mythology is both Boethian and Manichaean: Evil is both an external and internal power. The Ring can put external pressure on an individual, but ultimately (as we discussed in class and with which I agree) the decision to do evil lies with the individual. Sometimes the external pressure on an individual can be insurmountable yet the individual is still culpable in turning to evil. However, culpability does not mean an individual is irredeemable. Frodo may be forgiven in the end because he gave all that he had in order to resist, we could not expect him to succeed , but he gave his best effort and is forgiven because of it (Letters, 253).
Returning to the responsibility of servants, we can use Frodo as a standard by which to judge the actions of those under powerful external constraints. Clearly, Gorbag and Shagrat cannot escape culpability simply because they were “just following orders.” They did not resist the will that exercised dominion over them; they desired only to escape it, if they could. In contrast, Èomer, Faramir, Beregond resisted: they ceased allowing their will (and those of others) to be dominated when that domination could no longer be given without consent. I believe we are meant to treat the reaction of these servants to the commands of their masters as the proper response to a command that goes without one’s consent. It seems then that in the good servant-master relationship, the servant is also responsible (i.e. exercises their free will) for following the commands of others.

Yet, a good servant-master relationship seems slippery when the relationship becomes binding. If relationship  between two individuals must be morally endorsed by both sides, why even have a binding agreement? Why do good individuals in Tolkien’s world ever agree to be subjugated to another if their wills align with the same moral framework?

In one of his letters, Tolkien clearly takes issue with the evil government can commit, particularly in the war in which Christopher Tolkien was fighting. The big plans of government do “an ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring … but the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs” (Letters, 78). It would seem that to fight Evil, one must engage in an evil, that of organizing and commanding according to a single will. Perhaps this is necessary. For LeGuin, a human must confront their dark self and use it in order to do good, without letting their dark self have the mastery (“The Child and Shadow,” 56).“What we need to grow up is reality, the wholeness which exceeds human virtue and vice” (“The Child and the Shadow”, 66, emphasis added). For LeGuin, humans cannot be wholly good nor wholly evil, and in fact they need to contain a mixture of both elements. In terms of the dominion of others, this means that rejecting command of others because there is a possibility it may be evil prevents good from ever being accomplished. Whereas dominating others against their will defeats any good that may have been accomplished by using that power.  When confronted with evil, good must act, which it cannot do without some recourse to evil. Only by balancing the good and evil within their actions may the kings of Men may hold dominion for the purpose of good without becoming evil.

Now that we have established that the power may be used for good, we can establish why such a slippery power should be used. In her work, LeGuin uses Carl Gustav Jung’s work to describe a “collective unconscious … one where we all meet [and is] the source of true community; of felt religion; of art, grace, spontaneity, and love” (“The Child and the Shadow,” 59). As she describes, the path to this collective unconscious requires an understanding of your ‘shadow’ so that you may understand yourself as a “whole” comprised of both good and evil.  I believe this meshes well with an idea presented in class, that a “collective free will” is required in order to overcome evil. Acting only according to his own will, Frodo would likely not have survived the journey to Mount Doom. Until the very end, Sam journeys with him. Sam’s presence, particularly as a friend and consenting servant, reinforces the good that Frodo intends to achieve. Sam’s influence props up Frodo’s courage and ability to do good. In the reverse direction, Frodo pities Sméagol despite Sam’s antipathy towards him and treats him with compassion. Frodo could not have made it to Mount Doom without Sam, and Sam would never have pitied Gollum at the entrance to Mount Doom if not for Frodo. Their relationship is mutually beneficial, and that relationship is channeled by the positions of master and servant (or perhaps the better word is vassal, as was suggested in class). Through their servant-master relationship, Frodo and Sam are better able to keep each other focused on attaining their aims without succumbing to the evil that they are confronting. This, I think, is the usefulness of command and dominion amongst the forces of Good in Tolkien’s mythology.

-- Justyn Harriman


  1. Dear Justyn,

    You nicely tackled here the very question I personally was considering and furnished a very insightful and involving treatment, weaving together many themes.
    As we have seen, negating another’s choice or will is a characteristic of the evil that the Ring embodies. Yet in the kingdoms of middle-earth, as you point out, kings need to command. How does this work, then? I think your idea of the consensual and collective free will is certianly on the way and sheds light upon the willful collaboration. But, can I press the question a little further: Can a king, for Tolkien, constrain the choices of rebellious subjects, without their consent or the good faith of ‘collective free will?’ For example, do Merry and Pippin constrain and command the wills of the bad men when they scour the Shire? Does Gandalf act evilly when he commands Grima Wormtongue’s silence?

    Tolkien’s comments about the ultimately evil trajectory of the war are startling. We might read those comments as suggesting the necessity of ‘doing evil to resist Evil.’ But do we find Tolkien’s characters prospering when they do evil in order to resist evil? Can we really find in Tolkien’s fantasy the principle, that seems to amount to, the ends justifying the means?

  2. First, I enjoyed this post greatly and agree with much of what it says.
    To continue the discussion, though, I think there is a marked difference in restricting the free will of someone evil or bad as kings do. If subjects are rebellious, then they are clearly rebelling against something that, at least ideally, supports the benefit of all. A rebellious subject is then restricting other people's free will and is giving up his protection. When one acts out of self-interest and imposes on or opposes directly another person, then that one is acting in an evil manner. And thus, they ought to be restricted. As an example, in the scouring of the Shire, Merry and Pippin lead the Hobbits against men who have been restricting them and destroying the land. Thus, these men have taken removed themselves from the protection of free will by doing evil.
    Also, we do not find the ends justifying the means. We do not see characters acting in any way to bring about some supposed good. For example, the kings Aragorn and Theoden, do not force their armies to fight in the way that Sauron forces the orcs to. These men have free will and they choose to fight against the evil. It is this that allows men to be heroes or for armies to be placed in tales. They chose to fight in a terrifying situation. Characters constantly seek after doing good to reach their goals. Leaders are not dominating, others seek to follow their good kings and leaders. I cannot think of a single instance where a character does evil for the advancement of their agenda, instead of choosing a path that avoids evil as much as they can foresee .
    ~Brendon Mulholland

  3. I wrote a blog post about how Sam Gamgee is a hero because he chooses to take on other people's burdens, and I think this relates to that very well.

    I find it interesting that both the idea of true heroism and the idea of evil are directly related to choice--heroism being choosing to take on more than your share and evil being to affect other people’s ability to make choices for themselves. I’d be interested to know what Sam’s actions late in the book are considered. He basically forces Frodo onwards by providing support as they get closer to Mt. Doom and, though the Ring ultimately contributes to Frodo making the decision not to destroy it, Sam has kind of dominated Frodo’s Ring- and injury-induced will in order to get him to the point where he has the option to make the choice about the Ring. Does this make those actions evil? Should Sam have allowed the quest to fail in the interest of Doing Good?

    --Micah Sperling