Friday, May 5, 2017

Ring-Lord Gandalf

       One thing that seemed to me an inherent contradiction that I just couldn't shake after reading was in letter 246 when Tolkien states that "Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron."  Tolkien is making a pretty bold claim here.  Sauron by any definition we have come up with in class is absolutely evil, he is a shadow upon Middle Earth in more ways than one.  Tolkien in the margin of letter 246 writes, "thus while Sauron multiplied evil, he left 'good' clearly distinguishable from it.  Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil."  While this is fine to say, one reason this seems to me an inherent contradiction is that I am having a hard time imagining what Tolkien means by Gandalf as Ring-Lord being "far worse" than Sauron, since Sauron as Ring-Lord seems like the worst of all the possible futures for Middle Earth.
        Sauron as Ring-Lord would have completely dominated Middle-Earth.  All the humans, hobbits, and good things of the world would have been killed or enslaved.  Sauron's thirst for power would have spread out indefinitely and none would have been able to oppose him.  Gandalf on the other hand hand would have continued to rule and order things for 'good', and to the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom which was and would remain great. Gandalf as a Maiar is a lesser angel, and therefore a certain amount of self-righteousness seems pretty reasonable out of him. Therefore why would it be such a bad thing that Gandalf, the only one who could take Sauron in a straight up 1v1, rule over Middle Earth in the name of 'good'.  What does it mean for good to be detestable and seem evil?
        If i had to make a guess I would tend to go back to the question posed a couple classes ago of, 'would you rather be good or evil'?  While the general answer was somehow yes, the 'being  evil sounds a lot more fun' argument holds quite a bit of sway.  Gandalf as Ring-Lord and ruler would continually tried to "order things for 'good'".  While his wisdom is great, is it possible that by trying to order the world for good, Gandalf would in turn be limiting the people of Middle Earth's free will.  This was one potential definition that was brought up for evil, but does preventing people from being evil or going down an evil path by limiting their free will to do so count as an evil act?  Illuvatar gifted humans with a certain amount of free will and power to shape their lives and histories, so does Gandalf limiting this count as evil?  Could this be what Tolkien means by making good detestable and seem evil?  Or could it be something even more vicious like Gandalf forcing humans to be like the angels and sing praises to Illuvatar all day every day?  To me such a good doesn't seems so much as evil rather it seems like evil itself.
       The question of how the ring would work on and dominate Gandalf also seemed to boggle my mind.  Gandalf seems to think that upon bearing the Ring he would have "power too great and terrible" and that he could "become like the Dark Lord himself".  One suggestion that was made of how the ring works is that it somehow uses one's shadow or gives more power to one's shadow to control how we act.  As Le Guin writes, our shadows are " all the qualities and tendencies within us that have been repressed, denied, or not used."  Gandalf is very righteous, therefore would he have quite a terrible shadow? or little to no shadow at all?  As a lesser angel, does Gandalf have to continually repress all that is bad in order to remain righteous, or as a Maiar is he so righteous and good that he simply doesn't have to worry about evil thoughts?  Melkor was able to corrupt Maiar, therefore we know that Maiar certainly have the ability to be turned thoroughly evil, and Saruman was certainly evil at time in some senses.
        I would tend to lean towards the opinion that Gandalf's shadow is not too great.  Gandalf is good, he is certainly the most good of any character we meet in the Lord of the Rings, therefore i would think that he is not repressing some huge inner evil inside himself, rather there is little to no evil to be repressed.  The ring would certainly have a some sort of sway over Gandalf, however as he says, the way for the ring into Gandalf's heart "is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good."  While it is impossible to know whether or not Gandalf would have somehow slowly become like the Dark Lord himself, it seems like his desire to do good would have a difficult time being dominated.
      In summary i am unconvinced by Tolkien's assertion that Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron as Ring-Lord.  Gandalf may have created a world that was not overly enjoyable for humans to live in, but at least they would have had a world to live in.  Perhaps i am not thinking into this deep enough, but my instincts have a hard time believing that someone who deep down desires good ruling the world would create a "far worse" world than someone who is pretty much evil incarnate.



  1. Perhaps it helps to put the question in terms of totalitarianism: those who desire to create utopias inevitably create only hells. Tolkien is meditating on the way in which well-meaning leaders insist that they are tyrants "for your own good." They lie even as they mean well. RLFB

  2. I agree with you that it seemed wierd, but I think what Tolkien was trying to get at is this:

    Sauron as ring-lord would have been obviously evil. That is, he would have ruled Middle Earth in a way that most of the peoples of Middle Earth would not have liked. He would have limited free will, killed and tortured, and made the world awful to live in.

    Gandalf would be imposing his will/limiting free will by trying to order the world for good, as you said. Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely. Gandalf as ring-lord would limit free will to force people to work together, to put an end to war, etc. Yet a peaceful, harmonious land, where no one gets to choose how they act and, presumably, any dissenters would be crushed for disturbing Gandalf's imposed peace is not a state that many would want to live in.

    I agree that it doesn't seem WORSE than Sauron, but I feel that it verges dangerously close, or is even with Sauron's evil as Ring-lord. Either way, there is an imposition on free will (as is Tolkien's definition of evil--or at least a major part of it--as we discussed in class). The way that Gandalf becomes more dangerous than Sauron is that people wouldn't question it. There would be resistance against Sauron, even if it is weak and ineffectual. The danger of Gandalf as Ring-lord is the creation of Huxley's Brave New World--a state where free will is curtailed, but where no one questions it. Few would resist Gandalf the Ring-lord, and would follow his "good" decisions almost blindly, unknowing about their loss of free will. The question is not "who would more destroy Middle Earth?" That is Sauron pretty clearly. But rather, the question should be "is curtailing free will by force and constantly fighting to keep control, as forces of "good" continue to try to fight to free the world, worse than or better than the the forcible loss of free will and widespread acceptance of that loss?"

    Ring-lord Sauron preserves some good in the world in opposition to him and his evil. Ring-lord Gandalf imposes his will and gets away with it, because what he does he does for "good".

  3. I think you could also find an explanation for why Tolkien considers Gandalf a worse Ring-Lord than Sauron by taking a look at the various types of governments that exist in our world. Dictatorship is the fastest and most efficient form of government while democracy is slow and inefficient, filled with redundancies, checks and balances. With a good ruler, dictatorship could theoretically be more beneficial for the governed, yet we overwhelmingly balk at the idea of dictatorship (although that also partially has to do with the fact that essentially all of the dictators in history have ended up oppressive rather than benevolent). However, all dictators, even the most benevolent ones, are subjugating the will of their people as they work towards a vision of a “better” world. That is what Tolkien finds the ultimate evil about rule by the Ring-Lord. What is worse about Gandalf is that in his desire to rule for the good of the peoples of Middle-Earth, he could create an illusion of good and happiness to mask the lack of free will, and with his skill he could make this illusion something easy to succumb to and difficult to resist, for such a system could be unknowingly upheld by the very people it is controlling. Tolkien’s comments in his letter remind me of Vaclav Havel’s political essay “The Power of the Powerless” on post-totalitarian rule. In it, Havel states that ideology provides people “both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe… Human beings are compelled to live within a lie.” It sounds scarily like rule by Ring-Lord Gandalf.

  4. I don’t necessarily agree with the explanations provided so far for Tolkien’s assertion that Gandalf would be worse than Sauron. Namely, Gandalf with ultimate power ruling for good cannot be the reason why he would be worse. I don’t think that Tolkien takes issue with the concept of dictatorships, since Gondor and Rohan, as monarchies, are essentially dictatorships. I see no reason why Gandalf ruling over the world in a manner aimed at promoting peace and prosperity would be any worse than Aragorn ruling over Gondor in a manner aimed at promoting peace and prosperity. It seems more or less as though Tolkien is saying that Gandalf would do something apart from just rule. Gandalf taking away people’s free will could be what Tolkien is referring to, however I don’t understand how taking away people’s ability to do bad things and achieving peace is a bad thing. That is essentially the purpose of laws in society, to discourage people from doing bad things. I think that there is no way that Gandalf could remain good and still be worse for Middle Earth than Sauron. My only conclusion is that the Ring would eventually corrupt him and turn him evil through its use, and that would make him worse than Sauron because he would be evil operating in the guise of good, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  5. I think Tolkien may be correct and accurate in saying that Gandalf would be far worse than Sauron had he taken the ring for himself. But what about the reverse? What if Sauron were to become good? Would he be even better than Gandalf then? I tend to think that goodness here lies on a kind of absolute value scale. Someone who is really good would turn into someone who is really bad. Likewise, someone who is only kind of good would turn into someone who is kind of bad. This may be caused by a number of different factors such as someone’s natural disposition or how much free will they actually have power over. Gandalf shows a tremendous amount of strength when Frodo offers him the One Ring to keep but he refuses instantly. He is able to sacrifice personal achievement and power for the greater good. In the same vein, if he turned evil, he may use that same restraint to sacrifice his own selfish power in order to attain the greatest evil.

    Peter L. (Blog post #4)