Wednesday, May 3, 2017


What is sin? What is evil? There are as many definitions as there are long-winded philosophers. Sin seems to be defined slightly differently in each religion's major texts, and often differently within the texts as well. Of all religions, Tolkien was influenced primarily by the Christian religion, so that is the religion I will be focusing on. In Christianity, the primary sin, Original Sin, is the eating of the fruit by Adam and Eve. Throughout the Bible, Evil seems to be those who act on sin and those who encourage it: the snake, the devil, and any sinful actions humans take. These stories are unambiguous; but the definition, the most basic law that is being broken in an evil act, is not clear. There are several possible reasons for why eating the fruit is a sin, and which one is correct is debated. I would argue that all those reasons are in some ways correct, because they are all based on the same major evil, an evil that also underlies the seemingly different sins of Tolkien's work. Tolkien's sins often mirror those in the Bible. However, they seem to focus on the intent of the actor rather than the act itself. And in Tolkien's work too, there is a theme that connects the seemingly disparate sins of his stories. Even if the many Christian sins and Tolkien's sins have two different prerequisites and all seem unconnected, they have one component in common: the sin is in the effect on the world.

The definitions of the Bible's sins and Tolkien's sins are slightly different for one reason: the difference between action and intent. Christianity focuses on the action. Original Sin is the first sin, and although there are many explanations for why it was a sin, those explanations all center on the action. The first possible definition of Original Sin is the most obvious: the disobeying of God. The reason God gives for casting Adam and Eve out of Eden is that they went against his directive, and ate the fruit. The second possible definition of Original Sin is listening to the snake. Eve listened to the snake instead of God, to another being instead of the creator. The third possible definition of Original Sin is gaining knowledge. The reason God did not want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of that tree in particular was because it was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating the fruit meant that they now knew that Evil was possible and what it was. For example, one of the first actions of Adam and Eve after eating the fruit was to clothe themselves. Upon eating the fruit, they realized they were naked, meaning that they suddenly understood the concept of being naked and that being naked left them vulnerable to others. They felt shame in being naked and felt the need to be clothed. They understood that evil could happen, and how. This knowledge of evil was not supposed to be theirs, and the gaining of it was their sin.

All three of these reasons are possible definitions for the meaning of sin in Christianity. However, Tolkien seems to define sin slightly differently. Unlike the Christian God, Eru does not seem to immediately dislike disobedience to directives. When Melkor first begins to sing something that goes against what Eru laid out for the Ainur in the Great Music, Eru seems pleased. He is happy with the invention, even if it contradicts his dictates. Eru only seems to be angry when Melkor's discordance seems to become its own song, separate from the Ainur's and trying to drown it out. And yet, even then, Eru does not label this as sin. He accepts it as a part of the vision for Arda. To Eru, Melkor's sins begin when, on Arda, Melkor destroys, or attempts to destroy, the other Valar's works. Interestingly, while both the dissonance and the acts on Arda are attempts to overtake, it seems to be the feelings upon which a being is acting that determines if it is a sin. In the original song, Melkor is only acting out to be noticed. He is acting out of pride and ambition. On Arda, though, he is acting out of jealousy and anger, and purposefully destroying others' work to hurt them. Another example of sin for Tolkien, of intention over action, is the making of the dwarves by Aule. Eru originally sees this as sin, as Aule trying to create beings he can control and on which he can force his will. Eru only relents once he sees that Aule is trying only to create beings he can help, teach, and nurture. The intention is not submission, but growth. Humanity's sins in Middle Earth appear to be similar to Adam and Eve's second possible sin: listening to evil. They were abandoned by the Valar because they were deceived by Morgoth. But again, their acts were intentional. Some men did choose to fight with the Valar (the Edain), but because they chose to follow Morgoth with the intention to fight for him, the greater part of humanity is not allowed the rewards that the Edain receive. Finally, the sins of the Numenoreans are threefold: the act of disobedience in trying to sail West and gain knowledge that should not be theirs (eternal life), the acceptance of evil as a guide (Sauron), and the acts of evil visited on others in Middle Earth. They acted selfishly, and with the intent to hurt others, either by exploiting them (the men of Middle Earth) or casting them down (the Valar). The actions were all similar to those of Adam and Eve, but Eru's (and Tolkien's) focus is on the intention, not the action.

Despite the differences in focus, however, there is an underlying theme to both Christianity and Tolkien's works that defines all these sins and evils. The meaning of sin, of evil, for both philosophies, is corruption, the unmaking of creation. All of the actions marked as sins, in both Christianity and Tolkien, are corruptions of positives. For example, disobeying the directive of God marks the use of free will. As Aule, and even somewhat Melkor showed, that disobedience can lead to wonderful invention, rather than evil. In Christianity, too, free will is the biggest gift God gave humanity, and exercising it even against His rules could be good. The Bible is more strict about this than Tolkien is, so examples are rare (possibly nonexistent) in text, but modern times have given us a perspective on morality that is less black and white than God's commandments. For example, I would argue that it is not a sin to kill someone in order to protect another. If killing is the only option, than the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' can be put to the wayside (although, in fairness, some might disagree; this is my opinion). Exercising free will is not the evil; evil is using that free will to corrupt the world. Morgoth sins not because he is acting, but because his actions destroy the creations of the other Valar. Adam and Eve's actions are not bad because they choose, but because the choice leads to corruption of their purity.

Listening to a being other than God or Eru for advice is also not an evil. There are many sources of wonderful and helpful support in the world and even listening to evil can be good in that it gives insight into its plans and actions. The Numenoreans are more than welcome to consult with the Eldar and use their knowledge to better themselves. The Numenoreans even provide this for the humans on Middle Earth as well. Additionally, Ar-Pharazon bringing Sauron to Numenor and listening to him is originally an attempt to keep Sauron under control and protect Arda. In Christianity, there are hundreds of Saints, angels, and even regular humans whose counsel or aide was beneficial to the protagonist of whichever story you are reading. There are also several stories (such as Jesus in the desert) where listening to the temptations of the Devil is a test, and successfully rejecting him makes the listener stronger. The issue is when that counsel pushes the advisee towards corruption. Listening is not the problem; even listening to the Snake or Sauron is not the problem. The sin is in allowing them to influence your decisions and corrupt your actions. The sin is in allowing their counsel to cause destruction, whether of Middle Earth's humans or of Eden's innocence.

Finally, searching for knowledge is not bad. Most heroic epics consist of the hero going into the unknown to bring back knowledge or a revelation or salvation. Earendil sails into the West and the unknown, against Eru's laws, to give the people who would become the Numenoreans salvation. Bilbo and Frodo both travel beyond their 'known' (the Shire) to help fight an evil, and to bring back greater experiences and wisdom. In the Bible, Moses travels to the mountains to find God and receives the commandments. The issue with knowledge is how one uses it; and in many cases, that knowledge can be harmful. The Numenoreans were looking for knowledge of the location of Aman and a way to 'defeat' the Valar and take their immortality for themselves. Adam and Eve gain the knowledge of Good and Evil; but with that knowledge comes the ability to know what is evil, the expectation of it from others, and the ability to commit evil. Before they ate from the tree, neither of them knew how to be evil, because they did not know what it was. I would interpret that as not only did they not know which actions were evil and which were not, but that they did not know that those evil actions existed. In other words, not only did they not know murder was a sin, they did not know what murder was. The concept, the fact that anyone could actually kill, was completely foreign. Their sin was that they learned how to corrupt.

Corruption's importance to Tolkien is due to the centrality of creation to his worldview. Corruption of life can take many forms. It can be the destruction of another being's creation, hurting another being, the taking of someone else's free will. These are all sins that attack creation and try to unmake it. Because Evil is not the opposite of Good. Often, the opposite of good is nothing or no one, because good is creation. Instead, evil is the undoing of good. Evil is the undoing of creation. The creation may be God/Eru's (beings with free will who are then subjugated), another powerful being's (the Valar's creations on Arda that Melkor tries to destroy), or man's (Middle Earth's fledgling society that the Numenoreans exploit), but any sin committed is committed against a creation. Tolkien is influenced by this belief throughout his work, because his focus on creation is a focus on 'Good'. As we previously discussed, in the lessons on the Sub-Creator and the Elf-Friend, one of Tolkien's main themes is that exercising one's right as a creator, especially a sub-creator who explores a world for the benefit of a reader or listener (e.g. the elf-friends like Aelfwine, Bilbo, and Tolkien himself). Tolkien views creation as a basic right, the definition of being a person, and the most beautiful action, and he sees the destruction of that creation as evil. Evil and sin is the loss of creation.

- Fiona Helgren

Works Referenced

The Bible - no specific edition referenced
Tolkien, J. R. (1977). The Silmarillion: the epic history of the elves in The Lord of the Rings. Boston.: Houghton Mifflin.
Tolkien, J. R. (1978). The Fellowship of the Ring (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Tolkien, J. R. (n.d.). Tolkien's Legendarium (V. Flieger & C. F. Hostetter, Eds.). London: Greenwood Press.


  1. Good use of our discussion to wrestle further with the problem of defining sin. Is it in fact the case that Genesis makes the action primary rather than intent? Surely disobedience involves intent, as does listening to evil. Otherwise, all Adam and Eve did was eat some fruit! The real difference in the Genesis story is its relative spareness as a narrative: it is easy to fill with all sorts of nuance, which is one of the things that makes it compelling. Does Tolkien give us the same latitude? How does this affect the way we understand his stories of sin? RLFB

  2. I would agree with RLFB above, in the Genesis story it seems like the action of eating the fruit, while important, is less important than the intent Adam and Eve had of knowingly disobeying God. It seems in this post like you do not really differentiate Sin and Evil. In Christianity as well as in Tolkien's world it seems like there is a distinct separation between Sin and Evil. Sins can be committed from many different angles and can be at very many different levels, while Evil seems to be something much more sinister and malicious. All humans are sinners but that does not make all humans evil, I would not even go so far as to say that all humans commit some evil actions. For Tolkien I whole-heartedly agree with you that destruction of another being’s creation as well as taking away of someone’s free will constitutes evil. I have a harder time thinking about sin in relation to Tolkien’s work just because I do not know if he wanted that Judeo-Christian concept to be a part of his work. I think that Evil can exist and be thought about separately from needing to think about the concept of Sin. -John Francis