Friday, May 5, 2017

Tolkien's Christianity and the Nature of Evil

Letter 183 contains one of the strangest (but also most interesting) passages we read for the last class. In it, Tolkien at one point says that he thinks that "even if in desperation 'the West' had bred or hired hordes of orcs and had cruelly ravaged the lands of other Men as allies of Sauron, or merely to prevent them from aiding him, their Cause would have remained indefeasibly right." At first glance, this seems to be an endorsement of Machiavellianism (which would be strange to hear from Tolkien, a devoted Catholic), but if it is it's a Machiavellianism that comes with a number of preconditions and whose actions don't escape judgment at the hands of the Creator. Tolkien seems to be defending these hypothetical actions as oppositions to Sauron, a being he says "represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible" (Letter 183) within Middle Earth (as it seems he doesn't believe absolute evil is a possibility in the real world, and Middle Earth is our world as far as Tolkien is concerned). This is because ultimately these actions would have come about only because of the threat of Sauron and his legions, and even these atrocities would not have undone the fact that their cause of preventing Sauron from asserting himself as a God-King over Middle Earth was a just one. Tolkien doesn't seem to be making a judgment statement about the men's actions in this hypothetical scenario, but instead about their cause, which he takes to be unsulliable by detestable actions by its champions.

As a result, while initially seeming contradictory to traditional Christian teachings, such as "turn the other cheek," this world view begins to make more sense as a natural consequence of believing in the natural evil of man. If we're willing to accept that "the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'" (Letter 191) and that there is a God who is absolutely good, then it only stands to reason that even if men who follow His will falter and do awful things in His name that God Himself is still absolutely good, and therefore these men's cause (i.e. following the will of God) is just, even if their actions may be reprehensible.

I'll take this as a segue into another topic we discussed in the last class, Frodo's "failure" at Mount Doom. The idea of Frodo succumbing to addiction to the Ring's power or having his will corrupted by that of the will of the Ring was both brought up in class, but I'm less sure now that either of these were Tolkien's intention with that scene. Frodo, like every other being in Middle Earth, is ultimately not wholly good (as he isn't the creator, Illuvatar), is hence flawed, and cannot resist evil. It seems as though Tolkien's intention wasn't that Frodo was overcome by an external evil like the Ring, but "a power of evil which is too great for [the good, even the saintly] to overcome – in themselves." (Letter 192) Frodo wasn't overcome by the Ring or by his addiction, but only by his own natural inclination to evil, an inclination all beings in Middle Earth possess. Frodo was certainly tempted by the Ring's power, but I don't believe that Tolkien's other writings give any indication he thought that Frodo's failure was anything other than a failure of his own will.

This isn't to say that Tolkien thinks that we should look down upon Frodo, as he doesn't see Frodo's failure of will as any different from if his legs had been crushed by a large rock in Mount Doom, leaving him unable to cast the Ring into the lava. As a created being and not the Creator, Frodo's will was never going to be strong enough to allow him to finally cast the Ring into Mount Doom. Their only hope was that once he got to his destination other forces would intervene. Moreover, Tolkien's lack of condemnation for Frodo's failure is very much in line with Christian ideas of salvation and forgiveness. Yes, Frodo was ultimately unable to resist the temptation of the Ring, but this is ultimately a forgivable action, as to do otherwise would be to refuse forgiveness to anyone's sins (as Tolkien seems to be of the opinion that the Ring's power is a temptation too great for anyone with a finite capacity for good to resist once reaching the inside of Mount Doom). Consequently, it seems to me that Frodo's failure in Mount Doom is meant by Tolkien to show us how ultimately we too are doomed to give into the temptation of sin, and it is only by divine providence that we, like Frodo, are saved.



  1. It seems to me that Tolkien takes morality out of the question of failure only on the literal level of the story. The "pressure of the Ring" (Letters 246) is subjugation. Since Frodo's free will was diminished, he afterwards has "no guilt" for his failure, so that on this level, his failure is not moral.

    I agree with your analysis, however, when I look at the story on a metaphorical level. I agreed with your point that every free-willed "being is ultimately not wholly good...and cannot resist evil." Frodo's struggle, when viewed as an analogy for good vs. "a power of evil which is too great for [the good, even the saintly] to overcome – in themselves" (Letters 192), has everything to do with moral failure. While the literal failure is not moral, it can be taken as a symbol for moral failure in general.

    Now, on redemption: while forgiveness, pity, mercy are the roots of redemption, I think that failure or near-failure is necessary. Consulting one of Tolkien's Catholic influences, St. Augustine, we find further illumination on the struggle against sin in every soul. In his Confessions, St. Augustine relates that his internal struggle greatly intensifies in the moments leading up to his conversion. Comparing his sinful life to a fever, Augustine describes this period of intense temptation, fear, and doubt as the "critical onset" of the fever. This advanced stage of fever, in which body temperature rockets and the fever culminates in near death, is actually a sign of improvement and a necessary stage of recovery. I thought that Frodo's "failure," viewed on a metaphorical level, was a reflection of this age-old Catholic idea of the ultimate moments of darkness driving the joy of redemption or conversion.

    (blog comment #2)

  2. Yes, Tolkien is trying to illustrate something about the irresistibility of sin given that (by Catholic teaching) we live in a fallen world. He says more about how exactly Frodo is saved: not just by "divine providence," but more precisely by grace. The puzzle is how he imagines grace working in a period before the Incarnation and salvation through Christ's death and resurrection. There are clearly penitential elements in the description of Sam and Frodo's trek to Mt. Doom, but Gollum's presence is critical. Did Gollum act with free will? RLFB

  3. I entirely agree that Frodo only “failed” insofar as he was in some sense fallen and subject to sin, not by some personal weakness. Even more than this, however, Frodo was in fact special and was able to be the Ring-bearer to the very end (perhaps not Ring-destroyer; one could argue Eru alone deserves that title) because he was, as much as a fallen being can be, a fundamentally good and devoted person. This is a point Tolkien makes very explicitly in several places, most poignantly I think in Letter 192:

    "In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted… 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. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), 'that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named'".

    While he in the end succumbed to sin as anyone would have, Frodo was somehow rewarded or redeemed by divine grace because of his dedication to his quest and above all the mercy he showed Gollum, causing the ring to finally be destroyed by Gollum’s actions. Far from criticizing his failure, then, we should look up to him.

    On another note, the passage you cite from Letter 183 is troubling to me, especially since I can’t reconcile it with his assertion elsewhere that Gandalf as Ring-lord would have been worse than Sauron. If Gandalf would have acted with the intention to follow Eru’s will and oppose Sauron in the name of good, how could this be so?

    H. Bell

  4. Your reference to Letter 183 couldn’t help but remind me of a similar moral justification made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer regarding his involvement in the (failed) attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He argued that, in a fallen world, we are occasionally not faced with a clear cut choice between good and evil, but must choose between greater and lesser evils. He made clear that, in his mind, this problem didn’t absolve agents of the lesser evil they chose: it was still evil to attempt to kill Hitler. He relied on God’s grace and took full responsibility for the evil he was doing.
    Tolkien’s theoretical justification for orc-invocation seems slightly weaker, or at least less well thought through than Bonhoeffer’s. While Tolkien’s justification seems to invoke the original reason for an atrocity as a partial cover for blame for agents trying to mitigate that atrocity, Bonhoeffer’s view doesn’t allow that kind of blame-shifting.
    Indeed, Tolkien seems to adopt a view closer to Bonhoeffer’s when discussing Frodo at Mount Doom (which this post captures nicely). On this account, Frodo’s failure is still a failure, but one which can be forgiven. Maybe it’s unfair to be too critical of Tolkien, as his treatment of Frodo’s weakness seems in line with the best moral practices of Christianity.

    --Santi Ruiz