Friday, May 5, 2017

Making Sense of Evil

I found Tolkien’s discussions and conceptions of good and evil very compelling, as they differ from commonly conceived ideas about good and evil.  These two concepts have been relatively difficult to define, as we have discovered from our class discussions, which has been interesting because of my history with Tolkien’s works.  In my childhood, influenced by Sunday School, Disney movies, and other such mediums where good and evil are clearly defined, I saw The Lord of the Rings as a similar struggle between these two forces.  Good defines the party that you’re supposed to root for.  Evil defines the party that tries to destroy the good.  One of the reasons Tolkien’s works have been so enduring is because of the clear triumph of good over evil by the end of The Lord of the Rings, which inspires and speaks to many readers.  However, now that I have a more nuanced point of view than I had when I was first exposed to the series, the triumph of good over evil becomes less clear.  The climactic, fiery destruction of the Ring seems to signify the subduction of “evil” for the time being, but Frodo’s hesitance in Mount Doom raises questions about whether there even was any triumph of good over evil.  What actually constitutes the “evil” forces in Tolkien’s works? What actually constitutes the “good”?

In the traditional, moral conception, good is associated with a sense of altruism or generosity.  In a Christian sense, good is characterized by helping the poor and societal outcasts, as well as loving God and one’s neighbors.  However, Tolkien’s good seems to point to a different quality than love and altruism.  The good in Tolkien’s works is less active and more innate.  As creations or sub-creations, good comes from being created in the image of a certain maker.  In this sense, the “good” is manifested not through actions and reactions but through embracing the divinity in being.  Through this acceptance of the creator’s role in defining our own good, we are able to create our own world of culture and traditions.  This allows us to make sense out of the world and begin labeling forces as “good” and “evil”.

So, if good is found in the reflection of the creator, where does evil come from?  Through reading Tolkien’s letters and class discussion, I feel comfortable arguing that evil is the domination over others’ free wills.  Free will is an important part of Tolkien’s conception of good, as being able to express one’s own free will is an integral part of reflecting the creator or sub-creator.  Therefore, dominating over others’ free wills regardless of whether the initial intent is to save or destroy is also dominating over the divinity in others and ultimately causes harm regardless.  Evil is a result, not a process or a trait.  Although it is embodied by the Nazgul, by the Orcs and Uruk-hai and other purely destructive and dominative forces, this embodiment of evil is driven by the desired end result: the dominion of others.  The Ring, the truest embodiment of evil,   This became clearer when musing on whether Gandalf would have made a worse Ring-lord than Sauron.  Tolkien makes it clear that he believes Gandalf’s desire to do good in the world would have made him a worse dictator because it would lead to the imposition of his will on Middle-earth.  Regardless of what his “will” is - whether the initial desire is to do good or to destroy - the intent to impose one’s will on others results in evil regardless.

I find this intriguing in reference to my religious education and the “paradox of evil” that used to consume me in my childhood.  Was evil also created by God, or the Creator?  What “good” Creator would create evil?  If evil wasn’t created by the Creator and developed on its own, was the Creator powerless to stop it, or did the Creator chose not to stop it?  However, when framing good and evil in terms of free will, the paradox of evil becomes easier to understand.  The development of evil seems an inevitable consequence of having free will.  Individuals will develop viewpoints over the courses of their lives that lead them to desire dominion over others.  Therefore, even if the Creator decided to eradicate evil in the minds of everyone, this would also eradicate their free will, which is the definition of evil.  This framing makes evil’s existence easier to conceptualize.

Returning to Frodo’s hesitance at Mount Doom and what that means for good and evil, I agree with what was discussed in class about Frodo being the site for a micro-level struggle between good and evil.  The Ring constantly pulls at him, slowly eroding his free will, while other “good” characters such as Gandalf and Sam try to remind him of who he is and empower him to finish his quest as the Ring Bearer.  It takes several different forces to allow Frodo to destroy the Ring.  It takes Sam’s goodness to physically carry Frodo to the site of the Ring’s destruction, but it also takes Gollum’s violent persistence to end the Ring’s influence over Frodo and produce the end result of the destruction of the Ring.  Therefore, it took both good forces and destructive forces to subdue evil.  This isn’t the triumph of good over evil that I wanted to see in this series as a child, but rather a more complex relation of these values that seems more a more genuine and honest reflection of the complex values that we see in the people all around us.


1 comment:

  1. Lovely meditation on the complexities in Tolkien's representation of the struggle between good and evil. I am happy that our discussion helped you see the book as something more complex than it seemed at first! Exactly: to be created with free will is a greater good than not to have free will, but if creatures have free wills--to be truly free, they need to be able to turn against their Creator. But what is it that leads individuals to desire domination over others? Is the Fall inevitable just because it is possible? (Tolkien would say yes, but why?) RLFB