Philosophy & Tolkien: The Many Faces of Evil in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (part I)
Philosophy & Tolkien: The Many Faces of Evil in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’
What is evil? It’s a question philosophers have been thinking about since the 6th century before Christ. Back then, evil was defined as ‘not moderate’. A man who wasn’t moderate in his actions or his desires, was to be considered evil. Our concepts of evil have been refined constantly ever-since, discovering and developing new aspects of the human mind and the specifically human way of living.
Alongside moral codes and religions, philosophical concepts of good and evil were produced, designed to make these new codes and rules legitimate. Foundations of stone, in a way, for an entire justice system or religious rule book.
But no concept is strong and open enough to summarise the many ways we find evil in the world surrounding us. That is why, when we want to explain what evil is, we often refer – not to a philosopher or a quote from the Bible or the Koran – but simply to an event in our life, a movie or a book. Because the intricacies of life cannot be grasped within one concept.
In the following article I will try to discuss the many concepts of evil that have been developed over the centuries, both by philosophers and common people, in light of their re-appearance in the text and sub-text of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
At the same time I will also try to contrast Tolkien’s concept of evil with what he seems to consider ‘good’, and see if this dualism might shed a new light on the moral construction of Tolkien’s world.
The aim of this essay is more or less to roughly sketch the ‘use’ of Evil in Tolkien’s trilogy, and to come to a conclusion about the message Tolkien wishes to give about Evil throughout his work.
I will dig quite deeply into the text, and so some parts will appear complete gibberish if you’re not familiar with Tolkien’s universe. As for the philosophical side of things, I will try to be as clear as I possibly can. Everyone is always welcome to pm me with suggestions, questions and comments.
Finally, I would like to thank Professor Frans De Wachter, who taught me everything about the many faces of evil, but always proved his point that Kant is God. This article is born from a short paper I wrote for one of his courses, and I would like to dedicate it to him and to Immanuel Kant.
I would also like to thank atalante_star, for always being kind enough to pretend she actually likes reading my way too long, way too boring rants. I love you.
1. The Enemy: Sauron & the Orcs
Fantasy is often confused with the kind of black-and-white story where the unlikely hero gets the girl and slays the dragon, and the world is saved once more from a great evil foe. Of course, many fantasy books out there use this rather primitive scheme of good and evil to fuel their escapist fires. However, J.R.R. Tolkien’s view of the world was a lot more realistic than this, and the father of all fantasy would probably be horrified to see his complex universe reduced to such ordinary categories as ‘good vs. evil’.
Nevertheless, Tolkien’s trilogy, the centrepiece of his mythology, does contain an epitome of traditional evil: Sauron, the Dark Lord. Sauron is portrayed as a ruthless black power, swallowing everything that strays into his grasp and turning it to evil to serve him in obtaining what he wants: world domination.
The most important representatives of Sauron are of course the Orcs: goblin-like creatures that roam all over Middle-earth in search of the opportunity for mischief, plunder and bloodshed. They seem to have no motivation of their own, except to serve their master; and their greatest delight seems to lay in malice.
Traditionally, this is called ‘Absolute Evil’. It was first defined by Marcion in early mediaeval times, as one of the two dominant forces in life: there is a creature of darkness and a creature of light. Marcion identifies this first creature as the God of the Old Testament, and refers to him as a demon, the Devil or the heathen god Bahaal. The second creature is the God of the New Testament, the god that tries to rectify the wrongs of the first.
This dualistic view of the world is still the dominant view, to this day, that western societies have of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. A good example of this is the way we still ‘create’ enemies by polarising debates: Bush vs. Bin Laden, the free people vs. the terrorists, us vs. them.
Tolkien’s works clearly show some traits of this kind of thinking: not only in the traditional distinction between ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ (see §2 for more on this aspect), but also in the use of the ‘us vs. them’ tactic in explaining his story: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ documents the confrontation between the free peoples of Middle-earth and the Dark Lord Sauron and his armies of Orcs, traitors and thieves. ‘Us vs. them’ couldn’t be phrased more clearly and obviously.
One of the most recent re-discoveries of the concept of absolute evil took place after World War 2. With the uncovering of the horrors that occurred under the Nazi-regime, the need grew amongst thinkers, theologians and philosophers all over the world to find an answer to the question: how could this have happened? From very early on in the debate, the creature of darkness re-appeared as the sinner who commits an evil deed for no other reason than the pleasure he finds in doing it. Who breaks the law for no other reasons than that he can.
The crimes committed during WW2 were labelled as ‘inhuman’ and ‘amoral’. However logical this sounds to us – it is hard to believe the horrors of Auschwitz were the result of choices made by common people – this is a very dangerous use of terms. ‘Inhuman’ literally means not human. ‘Amoral’ means outside the domain of what is right and what is wrong.
This way, evil becomes something we don’t really take part in. We could never have been a part of Auschwitz. We could never commit such horrible crimes.
History teaches us that we can, and we do. No evil is ever inhuman or amoral: every criminal is a human being, and he or she always justifies his own actions to himself. As Eichmann – who organised the extinction of the Jews behind his desk – said during his trial in Jerusalem: I was just following orders.
Tolkien pulls a very similar stunt with his Orcs as philosophers tried to pull after WW2: he de-humanises them. They are no longer sentient beings with desires and wills of their own, they are completely controlled by Sauron, their master. They eat, drink and even breathe only to serve him. That way, they become objects, puppets. Them. We can in no way relate to them, they have nothing in common with Us.
This strategy becomes most clear at the end of the War, when Barad-dûr collapses:
“… even at that moment all the host of Mordor trembled, doubt clutched their heats, their laughter failed, their hands shook and their limbs were loosed. The Power that drove them on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them; and now looking in the eyes of their enemies they saw a deadly light and were afraid” [6.IV.]
The moral question here is, however, if the Orcs were never consciously and individually making the decision to follow Sauron, can we hold them responsible for their actions? And how do you punish such a crime? Is a massive slaughter the right way to deal with villains of this type?
Tolkien discerns two kinds of servants however: those who are completely at his will, and those who have a will of their own. In the same chapter, he writes that
“the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope. But the Men of Rhûn and of Harad, Easterling and Southron, saw the ruin of their war and the great majesty and glory of the Captains of the West. And those that were deepest and longest in evil servitude, hating the West, and yet were men proud and bold, in their turn now gathered themselves for a last stand of desperate battle.” [6.IV.]
Strangely enough, it seems that Tolkien has more sympathy for those of Sauron’s servants who chose to help him willingly than for those who were completely under his power: he describes the resisting Men as ‘proud and bold’, almost with respect.
This paragraph puzzles me, because it would seem that a decision to commit evil is worse than blindly following orders. [Much could be said about these lines in light of Hannah Arendt's notion of 'banal evil', which I won't discuss further in this article.]
Here, however, it would be good to take a second look at the definition of ‘absolute evil’:
- The evil person has no external motivation for his deeds
- Evil deeds are committed for the sake of evil itself, or at least the possibility of it
- The evil person can discern good from bad, and chooses bad over good
- We cannot pass moral judgement over such a person, because he is inhumane and amoral, which means he falls out of the category of a ‘moral human’
It should be clear from what I wrote that Sauron’s Orcs, at least judging by their portrayal in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, are designed to liken a form of absolute evil. The Men serving him, however, cannot be labelled in the same way. Their evil is of a different, most disquieting nature, as I will try to explain in §4 when I will discuss the concepts of guilt, desire, imperfection and ‘radical’ evil.
But do these criteria apply to Sauron? Tolkien does his very best to make Sauron fit into the category of absolute evil, even to the point of de-humanising him completely: Sauron is constantly referred to as a lidless eye – some similarity with a human being is kept, but only for the sake of representation. The passage in “The Two Towers” where Gollum describes him as having a hand with only four fingers on it, is often overlooked (as the movie-adaptation shows very well). Sauron has obviously chosen to be evil and do evil, and seems to delight in corrupting those who serve him to the point where they are so filled with hatred and malice that there is no way back.
However, it seems that there is at least one external motivation for Sauron’s actions, namely power. He seeks to dominate all life, to become the Lord of Middle-earth. In doing so, he is merely mimicking or finishing the work of his former master, the Vala Melkor or Morgoth. So Sauron cannot be called ‘absolute evil’: his evil has a purpose, a motivation.
The only possibility I see for a shape of ‘absolute evil’ in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ would be the figure of the Mouth of Sauron.
As far as we can see, he has no external motivation for his deeds. He quite openly enjoys hurting people: his entire conversation with Gandalf and Aragorn is one long insult, meant to destabilise the enemy, and at the same time obtain some information. But a person doesn’t become that good at insulting people if he doesn’t thoroughly enjoy it.
It might well be that the Man (because he is a human) did have external motivations for his choice, other than simply enjoying evil. However, the initial description of the character suggests otherwise:
“…he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc” [5.X.]
As is demonstrated later.
So it is often with Tolkien, as we will see most clearly when we discuss some of the villains from ‘The Lord of the Rings’: what appears to be one way, often is quite another. But it is a fact that Sauron and his Orcs are the closest thing to the caricature-villains from later fantasy sagas one can find in the vast expanse of Tolkien’s mythology. I suspect the reason for this is a purely literary-technical one: in order to provide an intrinsically complex epic tale such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with a uniting story-line, Tolkien needed to create One Plot to Rule All – and this plot needed to be as simple as possible, to provide the other, much more complex stories with a clear horizon and aim.
This is also suggested by Tolkien in a comment on W.H. Auden’s review of ‘The Return of the King’:
“In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil. (…) In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.” [Letter #183]
2. “Darkness Will Not Avail”: Natural Evil
In the previous paragraph I explained how the dualism of the creature of Darkness and the creature of Light still influences the dominant view of the world in our society. One of the clearest influences is the age-old connotation of darkness to evil, and light to the forces of good, which also translates into our use of black and white as symbolic colours.
Tolkien too, is aware of this dualism and uses it very frequently throughout ‘The Lord of the Rings’. In the next paragraph we’ll walk through a few shades of black, and then take a look at how ‘light’ is used to counter the evil darkness.
A. The Dark Places of the World
The amount of times something ‘bad’ happens at night is quite telling: Bilbo leaves Hobbiton at night, Fatty Bolger is attacked in Crickhollow at night, Merry’s encounter with a Ringwraith in Bree and the subsequent attack happen at night, the attack on Weathertop that leaves Frodo badly injured occurs after night-fall, Sam and Frodo look into Galadriel’s Mirror at night, Denethor ends his life on a pyre in the dead of an endless night…
But even more telling are the ‘dark places’ in Middle-earth: each of them filled with an old, festering menace; each in their own way a place of evil.
One of the most impressive places in Tolkien’s mythical geography is Khazad-dûm, the old stronghold of the Dwarves of Durin’s line. It is located deep under the Misty Mountains, and it protected the Dwarves against the outside world for a long time, while providing them with all the treasure they needed: mithril, the most valuable metal in Middle-earth.
However, by the time the Fellowship passes through Khazad-dûm, in the year 3018 of the Third Age, Khazad-dûm is named Moria in the Elvish tongue, which means ‘black pit’. All lights and laughter have faded from the vast halls and deep mining shafts, after the Dwarves delved just a bit too deep into the mountains’ roots and dug up a Balrog. Orcs thrive well there, now, and the last batch of Dwarves that went to reclaim the old city was slaughtered like a flock of injured birds. The darkness is symbolic of what Moria represents: murderous greed (the blackest of desires), but also the disappearance of an entire culture. The light has died in Moria.
In ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ Moria is the single most frightening and overwhelming place that the companions are dragged into, and it is also the place where the most dramatic event occurs: Gandalf falls into the abyss, after a fight with said Balrog.
A similar place is Shelob’s Lair. This tunnel, high up in the Mountains of Shadow, is the only path that Frodo and Sam can take to cross this natural border between Ithilien in the east of Gondor, and Mordor. It is a long tunnel, interspersed with an intricate system of smaller tunnels and caves. Tolkien’s description of it is, in my humble opinion, one of his most brilliant pieces of writing: the darkness here takes the shape of a suffocating, blinding weight that holds the hobbits back and helps Shelob to capture them, almost as a prolonged part of the spider’s mind. [In this light it is interesting to look at Ungoliant who fed on light and thus created darkness, or in Tolkien's own words: un-light. Could it be that the darkness created by Shelob is really tied in with her will, still? Or could this be a development throughout the ages, in which the darkness, which at first was merely a by-product of Shelob's digestion of light, became something living?]
Where the darkness in Moria is the result of the Dwarves’ own actions and thus more of a side-effect of evil than an evil in itself; the darkness of Shelob’s lair is quite obviously a natural thing (a product of Shelob’s malice, but one she can’t do without), and an actor with a will – whether Shelob’s will or its own.
A completely different kind of darkness is the darkness of the Dimholt. When the Grey Company travels the Paths of the Dead, Gimli is filled with an unbecoming fear:
‘Nothing assailed the company nor withstood their passage, and yet steadily fear grew on the Dwarf as he went on: most of all because he knew now that there could be no turning back; all the paths behind were thronged by an unseen host that followed in the dark.’ [5.II.]
This darkness is neither symbolic or an actor; rather it serves as a way of hiding something that should not be seen (yet). Here, the darkness plays one of its most typical roles: that of a veil, serving fear. Not the darkness itself is scary, but what cannot be seen in the darkness.
This is a very traditional definition of darkness: the absence of light. Nowhere is this so clear as on the Paths of the Dead: if Gimli could but see, he would probably be less frightened. It reflects a psychological insight that returns in most primitive mythologies, but also in many philosophical reflections on how fear operates: when we don’t know a thing, we can’t control it and it becomes a possible threat to us. We mostly know things through seeing them, so what can not be seen is always menacing (also see § 3, A).
If we accept this, it becomes much easier to understand the purpose of ‘the dawnless day’, one of the more mythical aspects of the trilogy. In the build-up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the days shorten and become darker; to finally reach a day with no dawn. This of course shows what clever psychologist Sauron (and Tolkien) really is: not only does the darkness make his presence tangible (look at how Tolkien describes the changing atmosphere in Minas Tirith in Book 5), it also ‘veils’ the city. This has a double effect: the Orcs, who cannot stand the light of day, are shielded and guided to Minas Tirith in safety; while the inhabitants of Minas Tirith can quite literary no longer see each other, let alone the host ready to assail them: it could be a few hundred, it could be a thousand or more. On a symbolic level, the darkness veils hope – and we shall see in what follows that light also returns hope. In hiding one Gondorian from another, it also limits the chances of co-operation.
There may be another concept hidden behind this ‘darkness’, as we can link it to something Tolkien writes in 1944, in a letter to his son Christopher: If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour.. [Letter #64]
B. “May It Be a Light to You”
In light of our previous conclusion about the function of darkness as ‘veiling’ a certain object to make it more threatening, it becomes fairly obvious that light will always be ‘unveiling’ something that is good, something that gives us strength. One such thing of course is knowledge: in the light, we can see, we can know. Knowing a thing helps us control it. When the light of Eärendil reveals Shelob, she is reduced from a hidden thing in the menacing darkness to a silly horned spider (I suspect that Tolkien made his description of here deliberately preposterous for this very reason). Thus there is a sharp contrast between places or moments of darkness and moments of light in Tolkien’s works.
One of the most magical things in the trilogy is the phial of Galadriel containing the light of Eärendil. It plays a crucial part in ‘The Two Towers’ and partly in ‘The Return of the King’; in two different ways. First of all there is the effect the light has on creatures of darkness: when Frodo shows the phial to Shelob, she recoils, almost in pain. Later, Sam will pull out the phial to sneak past the guards of Cirith Ungol, blinding them. These more fantastical moments of ‘enlightenment’ are countered by moments where the phial in turn hides the lure of the Ring. When Frodo is hiding from the Witch-King and his troops outside Minas Morgul, he almost takes the Ring but instead touches the phial, and ‘as he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind.’ [4.VIII.]
In both instances, the light of Eärendil doesn’t as much ‘unveil’ something, as ‘veil’ something evil. It is blinding to the evil forces that are threatening the hobbits: the enemy looses his grip on them because he can no longer see them. In using the light, the hobbits turn the tables on their enemies by taking sight, thus knowledge, thus control from them.
The light, at the same time reveals and hides those things that can influence fear.
When we discussed the dawnless day, we said that one of the things the darkness veils is hope: hope is drowned in a sea of dark despair. Symbolically, hope returns to the people of Minas Tirith with an invisible dawn:
‘And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry of war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn. And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns.’ [5.IV.]
‘[Théoden's] golden shield was uncovered and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died…’ [5.V.]
The end of the siege of Gondor is announced by day-break, and it is the way the Rohirrim look in the first light of the dawn and sound in the impenetrable darkness that lies over Minas Tirith that turns the tide. The darkness had worked as a shield for them, and now by chance or fate (which is never clear with Tolkien) their attack is accompanied by the wind.
The relationship between Arwen and Aragorn can also be placed in this scheme of ‘light revealing hope’. Arwen is called the Evenstar of her people, Undómiel. Aragorn’s Elvish name is ‘hope’, Estel. Arwen could be seen, symbolically, as the light revealing the hope of Men. Most directly this is suggested when the Black Ships of the Corsairs of Umbar sail in and the standard of Arwen unfolded: it is Arwen’s sign that heralds the return of the King, bringing hope to those on the battlefield.
The idea of light unveiling a hope that lay hidden in the darkness is also behind one of the most remarkable moments in Book 6, when Sam sees a star:
‘There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’ [6.II.]
This seems indeed a red line through the entire trilogy when it comes to the difference between darkness and light: light is first, natural, original and divine in nature. Darkness is secondary, an effect of something, and often created or at least used by something evil: the light in Moria is gone (meaning it was there before the darkness was), the Shadow is pierced by both the star and the dawn, the light of Eärendil can scare off the living darkness of Shelob’s lair… This dichotomy however, does not hold true in the greater scheme of Tolkien’s mythology, where darkness is primeval to light. [For more information on that one, try and read 'The Silmarillion'.]
3. Mythical Evil: Traditional Tokens of Evil
‘The Lord of the Rings’ is situated in a mythical context, and carrying the complex web of historical and political affiliations and intrigues is a long, equally complex mythology from which many traditions are derived.
In creating a ‘new’ mythology, Tolkien borrowed heavily from other existing mythological and religious traditions. In the following paragraph, I’ll try to list the mythical creatures Tolkien uses to portray or support evil in the trilogy, say something about their origin and try to summarise the concept of evil they represent.
A. Wraiths & Ghosts
One of the oldest creatures in almost every culture is the figure of the ‘trickster’. This is some kind of spirit that plays games with people, causes problems and is just generally trouble. The Scandinavian elves (and especially the ‘dark elves’) resemble this figure, and it also returns in myths about ghosts tapping on windows, goblins stealing babies from their cribs or more recently accounts of poltergeists and related phenomena. Puck, the rascally fairy who is featured in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a socially acceptable remnant of this tradition. Many folktales revolve around a ‘trickster’-figure.
The ‘trickster’ was later merged with the (in origin and nature quite different) figure of the ‘ghost’. A ‘ghost’ is a dead person who remains on earth (in the common world) in a (not necessarily) visible but intangible form. Ghosts are much less common and in some cultures this identification never occurred (in Greek mythology for instance, the dead are really dead – and the ‘tricking’ is left to satyrs and nymphs, or even the gods themselves). In Celtic and Germanic traditions however, this merging of two characters – the ‘trickster’ and the ‘ghost’ – did happen: think of the origins of Halloween for instance, where ‘ghosts’ wandered the earth for one night and had to be scared off with ugly pumpkins.
At the root, not all ghosts are evil. Many native American traditions for instance see the dead as having a place in the common world – we just cannot see them. They will turn to the spirits of their ancestors for guidance or help, as Catholics would pray to their saints.
However, in most European folklore a ‘ghost’ is never just a friendly neighbour who ended up on the wrong end of a sword dropping by to say hi and chat over coffee. Ghosts are either omens, tortured souls (who were murdered and never buried for instance) or just so very evil the underworld of your choice kicked them right back out.
That Tolkien’s mythology has its roots in the European mythological tradition becomes very clear when we take a look at the ‘ghosts’ that appear in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
- The Barrow-Wights are probably the most puzzling of Tolkien’s ghosts, mainly because he doesn’t tell us much about them. Are they the trapped spirits of the dead, were they placed there by Sauron, or did they hoard in the burial site because they didn’t have another place to go? They are obviously of the evil variety, and do little other than try and kill the hobbits and scare the life out of the reader.
- The ghosts of the Dead Marshes lean closer to the tradition of the ‘haunted ground’. In Great Britain, many legends and tales are told about the Moors, where large armies are supposed to be seen still fighting battles that were ended centuries ago. Many ghost stories involve ‘unfinished business’: bodies that weren’t properly buried, violent deaths that were never avenged, justice that still needs to be done… All these aspects can be found in the Dead Marshes, where the memory of the Battle of the Last Alliance is kept alive through the countenance of hundreds of victims. But these ghosts too have something of the ‘trickster’-tradition, and Gollum is very clear about how dangerous the corpses are: ‘But slowly, very slowly. Very carefully! Or hobbits go down to join the Dead ones and light little candles. … Don’t look at the lights!’ [4.II.] The corpses in the Dead Marshes are not just reminders, they are malicious in their own way.
- A similar tale is told of the Oath-Breakers that follow Aragorn from the Paths of the Dead. Here too there is some unfinished business: the traitors still have a debt to repay, an oath to fulfil. Here, another old mythical tradition is honoured: Kings and heroes often have the ability to command the dead, or to raise an army of dead. It also echoes an old non-canonical tale about Jesus Christ going through the circles of Hell and releasing the dead from their sins. In this respect, it may seem rash to place the Oath-Breakers in the same category of ‘evil’ as the Barrow-Wights, because their fate seems so tragic.
However, the reader doesn’t have any time to feel sympathy for our boneless friends: the Dead are described as menacing, fear embodied even. This is another common trait of ‘ghosts’, and it is even more clearly described in one of the most terrifying creatures in Tolkien’s universe, namely the Ringwraiths.
Though the Ringwraiths or Nazgûl are obviously ghosts, and show many typical, traditional traits; they are also the odd one out: they are ghosts, but they wear real cloaks and ride real steeds. They are not dead, either, their lives are prolonged to the extreme, literally wearing them thin. When they move on their own, they creep or crawl; and they can’t see a thing, only smell a little.
Their strength is tied to an external object, in this case the Rings of Power and the One Ring. This means that, getting closer to Sauron and / or the Ring, they become more powerful. The further from either, the more helpless they become.
Interestingly enough, the Ringwraiths also illustrate how Tolkien uses the common world much after the fashion of the native Americans: the common world is shared by both embodied spirits or people, and ghosts. But, you cannot see from one world into the other unless you are a powerful Elf (like Glorfindel, who could be seen as a powerful lord by the Ringwraiths while looking plain as day to the hobbits) or made ‘invisible’ by the One Ring. This invisibility is actually more like a ‘move’ from one level of the common world (the visible one) to the other (the so-called ‘wraith-world’).
The most fascinating thing about the Ringwraiths is that they are living Men, who have passed from one realm into the other, not losing their ‘body’ completely (they can still wear clothes, for instance) but still becoming invisible in this world. At this point, I’m starting to believe a study about ‘visibility’ and ‘vision’ in Tolkien’s works would prove most interesting.
B. Monsters & Beasts
Another type of mythical creature of evil is the ‘monster’, often an exaggerated version of a natural enemy of man (in Europe this often is a wolf, a bear or a bull) or a cross-bread of two animals or an animal and a human being. Unsurprisingly, we’ll find all of these in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Both the Watcher in the Water, the creature ‘guarding’ the West Door of Moria, and Shelob are of the first type: real-life predators literally blown out of all proportions.
The Watcher actually seems derived from a very old mythological creature known best as the Scandinavian ‘Kraken’, a sort of giant squid that thrives on innocent ships sailing by. Stories about these monstrous predators of the deep have been told by sea-faring peoples all around the world, and this tradition has found its culmination in the tale of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in Jules Vernes ’20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea’. These tales are not merely old fishermen’s stories: some squids and octopi can reach quite a size, but whether this is enough to attack a ship…?
As for the monstrous spider residing in the Mountains of Shadow – spiders have always had a prominent role to play in myths and stories all over the world. For some reason, our subconscious has taken quite a fright from our eight-legged friends. In mediaeval traditions, spiders were often associated with darkness, decay and witchcraft.
However, the spider has also been associated with ‘weaving’, craftiness and creation. Think of the Hopi creation myth, where a giant spider as an emissary from the Sun God has to bring the insects living deep under the surface of the earth to a higher level, thus creating the evolved animals (mammals, birds and reptiles). The spider was chosen because it understood the meaning of life. In ancient Greece Arachne challenged Athena, the goddess of craftiness, to a weaving duel and won, but Athena couldn’t forgive her her pride (or hybris, more about that in §4) and turned her into a spider.
The intricate weavings of Shelob’s tunnels probably refer to the spider’s web.
The second type of monster finds its counterparts in Tolkien’s oeuvre in the shape of the Balrog. The Balrog is a completely unique hybrid of the Russian Cernobog (a representation of Satan as a large horned beast with wings, which is also featured in the Disney feature film ‘Fantasia’), the classical mediaeval image of demons (as they can be found in the works of, for instance, Pieter Brueghel) and a bat – renowned for its association with darkness, virginity and vampires.
Tolkien describes the Balrog as a large man-like figure, made out of fire but with some sort of skin. It may have wings – it may not.
And this brings us to a very special trait of Tolkien’s depiction of evil, throughout his works: it’s never really depicted properly. Tolkien does this for the very same reason he uses ‘darkness’ so often (as we discussed in § 2): because we cannot control what we cannot see, what we don’t know.
The Watcher is hardly seen, we only know that it has tentacles. Shelob becomes a lot less frightening when we find out she has horns and a festering belly; comical almost. And the mystery of the winged / wingless Balrog still plagues Tolkien discussion groups all over the world. Tolkien didn’t give a face to his baddies, making the evil side of his creation all the more scary. The culmination of this are of course the Ringwraiths, who are completely invisible if not for their clothes, and whose description is rather akin to a black hole.
Another example of this are the fell beasts that the Nazgûl use to attack Minas Tirith. Tolkien doesn’t describe them in too much detail, and they mostly remind us of dragons. This, of course, is no accident: alongside cats and spiders, snakes must have the worst reputation in the world. A flying snake is a symbol of the supernatural in many cultures: from the Inca God Quetzalcoatl and the Babylonian mother of all demons Tiamat, over the many Chinese dragons back to our own Nessie – mythologies seem to thrive on the concept of flying snakes. Dragons are by far the most commonly spread mythological creature – in the book ‘Apocalypse’ at the end of the New Testament, a Red Dragon prepares itself to devour the Woman clothed in Sun.
I want to note here that fell beasts are not the same as dragons in Tolkien’s world: he does write about them in ‘The Silmarillion’ (Glaurung) and ‘The Hobbit’ (Smaug), but not in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. My hypothesis about this is that maybe Tolkien found dragons to outspokenly ‘mythical’ for an epic tale about the War of the Ring, which thrives more on a curious mixture of secularised mythology and legend. But, as this is a hypothesis, it might also be that the good professor considered fell beasts and dragons as one festering kindred.
What is the root of the evil present in these creatures? This is not an easy thing to determine. Certain is that nothing is evil out of itself in Tolkien’s world: evil things are either evil by choice, or corrupted in a way. The best example of these are the Orcs, most likely ‘created’ by Melkor out of tortured and broken Elves. The same goes for the fell beasts, and probably also the few trolls mentioned in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, of which Treebeard tells they were made in mockery of the Ents. These creatures are puppets, only ‘absolutely evil’ in the sense that their only external motivation is to serve their master – out of fear, or out of ignorance.
But, if we look at the definition of ‘absolute evil’ as I summarised it in §1, it seems that the Balrog and especially Shelob are much ‘truer’ forms of absolute evil: their malice seems to spring forth from a source deep within, and their evil seems an evil for the sake of itself. When we look closer however, we can tell that this is (again) not true: the Balrog’s fight with Gandalf is mostly triggered by the old feud between the Maiar (which both Balrogs and Istari are of) who followed the Vala Melkor, and the Maiar who stayed true to Ilúvatar. Revenge and hatred seem at the root here, not the mere will to destroy.
Shelob in turn is merely greedy, which is symbolised most accurately by her festering belly: even if she eats more than she can actually contain, she’ll continue craving for more. It is interesting to bear in mind the story of her mother Ungoliant, who possibly fed herself to death on light.
C. The Evil Object
That not only living things can be evil, is shown best in many myths and folk tales by so-called ‘haunted objects’: often weapons or jewels that some wizard or witch placed a spell on. The object itself can only be wielded by its own master, and will turn against any other that tries to use it (the famous sword of Arthur); or, when used, it can curse all of mankind (Pandora’s box, for instance).
In ‘The Lord of the Rings’, this is of course the One Ring. This object is the only physical representation of the enemy we as readers are given throughout the trilogy – only at the very last Sauron is revealed, as a grasping hand fading to dust. It is in that respect the real antagonist of the story, and it seems to have a will and a personality of its own. (This was expressed more strongly in the movie, but the effect was reduced because of the returning presence of the Eye.)
The power of the Ring is fourfold. The purpose of the Ring seems to be to render its bearer invisible. But this is a thorough misconception, and it becomes most clear when Sam puts it on trying to escape from approaching Orcs at the end of ‘The Two Towers’: ‘He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him.’ [4.X.] The Ring, holding a great part of Sauron’s might, is a prolongation of Sauron himself. The closer the object comes to its master, the easier Sauron can connect with it, it seems.
The Ring is almost irresistibly attractive, and the main reason for that seems to be that it speaks to whoever is near it. Boromir’s words to Frodo at Amon Hen hint at this, and once again it’s Sam’s experience with the Ring that makes Tolkien phrase it most clearly:
‘Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. …at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.’ [6.I.]
The Ring’s ability to make promises to seduce its bearer, presupposes that it can read the mind of said bearer and make conscious decisions all on its own. In that light, it seems only natural to assume the Ring has a character or personality of its own – if it only contained a part of Sauron’s power in a passive way, it would not be able to do anything without Sauron’s interference, and in that case the quest would not even have been able to start.
As it stands, the Ring is a sentient object with an uncanny telepathic ability of both reading minds and projecting images into them, and the possibility of rendering the bearer invisible in the common world, but all the more visible in the wraith world – and thus more visible to Sauron.
A fourth characteristic of the Ring’s power lies in its fame: the Ring itself, what it represents and supposedly is, is enough to scare people off. Gandalf refuses to accept it, saying that “over [him] the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” [1.II.], and Boromir seems convinced from the very beginning that the Ring has the power to save Gondor. This trait of the Ring – its fame and the fear but also the expectations it creates in peoples hearts and minds – is pronounced most strongly by Faramir when he says to Frodo:
“Fear not! I do not wish to see it, or touch it, or know more of it than I know (which is enough), lest peril perchance waylay me and I fall lower in the test than Frodo son of Drogo.” [4.V.]
Faramir refuses to confront the Ring, knowing that he will not be able to win.
This last aspect is also one of the most important factors in Sauron’s downfall: because the Dark Lord knows the reputation of the Ring and its effect (purely by connotation) on Men and Elves alike; he doesn’t consider the fact that someone will not be tempted to confront it or use it and so he doesn’t reflect on the possibility that someone will be wanting (not able, but wanting) to destroy it (I will discuss this thought further in §5).
One last aspect I’d like to draw attention on is the fact that only Frodo seems to be able to carry out the task of destroying it. This is once again a very common trait in many myths and legends – think of Galahad the Pure in his quest for the Grail, or of Arthur and the many legends about his sword (given to him by the Lady in the Lake, or pulled from the stone). In every tale concerning a haunted object, there is always one person who was destined to wield or destroy it. In this case, Frodo Baggins is probably the most archetypal of such heroes: he is small and defenceless, reminding us of the figure of the Everyman, devoid of malice and with a pure and merciful heart. These traits are imperative to be able to resist the call of the Ring: there are no hidden desires in Frodo’s heart that the Ring can promise to fulfil (except the end of the journey, which probably explains why he tries to offer it to Galadriel and later to the Witch-King), there is no power the Ring can feed on; and his kindness rewards itself in the end when Gollum, who benefited from it, turns against his own promise and falls into the fire. (I discuss the character of Gollum in greater detail in §6.)
Though there are many other enchanted objects in the trilogy (the blades of Westernesse for instance, Andúril forged from the shards of Narsil, possibly even the palantíri), there are not so many ‘haunted objects’.
One could also refer to the Two Watchers guarding the gate of the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Tolkien writes about those that they were ‘like great figures seated upon thrones. … They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them.’ [6.I.] It seems as if the statues are inhabited by something, rather than enchanted or alive. Of course, in that sense the word ‘haunted’ fits them better than it fits the Ring, but I am not certain if they belong in this category – and not rather with the Barrow-Wights under ghosts.
In reference to the Watchers, it could be useful to remember the purpose of the great statues of pharaohs placed by the entrance to burial chambers in the Egyptian pyramids: those were also said to be inhabited by spirits, who guarded the body of the deceased.
One could also name Grond, the battering ram used during the siege of Minas Tirith, as an example of a ‘haunted object’, but that would be stretching the notion. Nowhere is it said that Grond holds any special powers, except putting the fear into the opponent. But that in itself is not such a special trait, since Sam can pull it off simply by stepping into the light from the right angle. Grond is named after ‘the Hammer of the Underworld of old’. [5.IV.] This is actually a reference to the great mace of Melkor, which is named in ‘The Silmarillion’. The ‘power’ of the battering ram is derived from legend, rather than from an actual enchantment, spell or habitation.
However, when it comes to evil, the power of legend and suggestion is not to be underestimated, as explained when we discussed the One Ring.
D. Keepers & Protectors: The Forces of Good
Every mythology has its own ‘Evil Police’, a character or people able to control the evils in the world. In ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a few of Tolkien’s most enigmatic characters are introduced as valuable parts of this ‘Evil Police’.
The first one who springs to mind is of course Gandalf. Gandalf, in both his Grey and White hue, is depicted as a sort of guide throughout the whole trilogy: he is the one who put Bilbo on his quest to Erebor which would deliver him the Ring, he is the one who urges Frodo to take the Ring to Rivendell, he is a friend of every high and mighty character we meet (except Denethor, who sees him as a rival) and at the end of the journey he concludes quite contentedly that his part in the story is played: “My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.”. [6.VII.] Gandalf possesses some supernatural powers to aid him in his task, but most of all he is kind, compassionate, with a quick wit and a cunning mind. He’s not the greatest diplomat, it seems, though when one reads carefully one may discover a brilliant psychologist who knows exactly to strike which chord, when, how.
Gandalf is the most ‘wizardy’ of the three Istari present in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and in this respect he leans closest to the various traditions: he reminds us of Merlin, the grumpy magician with the hidden agenda who is featured in many Arthurian legends, as well as of the figure of the druid in old Celtic and Germanic societies.
In this, he is very different from the third wizard, Radagast the Brown. This character seems to be modelled more after the catholic saint Francis of Assisi, a hermit who founded a new monasterial order in the 14th century, preaching poverty, mercy and especially respect for nature and everything in it. He is most famous for his special love for birds and the beasts of the fields, and the monks of his order wore plain brown garments.
Radagast, mockingly referred to by Saruman as a ‘bird-whisperer’, only appears in the trilogy once, but Gandalf describes him as having a strong bond with animals, especially birds.
Aside from the Istari, the Ents are the most prominent members of the Evil Police in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. As the ‘shepherds of the forest’, their part in Middle-earth is to protect the forests. At first this meant protecting the trees from the greedy hands of Dwarves and Men, who needed wood to build their houses and fuel their fires. But as the eras pass by and the heart of Middle-earth itself becomes corrupted by Melkor and Sauron, the trees themselves grow wild and black at heart. These trees are called Huorns, and the Ents seem to have lost control of this particular branch of their flock.
Another ‘shepherd of the forest’, and without a doubt the most enigmatic figure in all of Tolkien’s works, is Tom Bombadil. Bombadil seems to be tied to the land where he lives, which is the region between the Old Forest at the edge of Buckland and the Barrow-downs. He uses chants (or rather, silly songs) to restore peace in his domain – and he uses them as effectively on Old Man Willow as on the Barrow-Wights. I am not able to say more about him, because… well… I simply can’t.
Of course, the ‘forces of good’ are a little more expanded than this: the Elves for instance play an important part in the safeguarding of Middle-earth (especially the domains of the Rings, namely Rivendell and Lothlórien), and one could also think of the Wild Men of the Drúadan Forest.