Philosophy & Tolkien: The Many Faces of Evil in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (part II)
4. Tolkien’s Traitors: Saruman, Boromir and Denethor
Tolkien is one of those authors whose works outgrow them. The best example of this, is his view on his own triad of traitors: Saruman, Boromir and Denethor. He sums them up like this in a letter talking about how all his characters seem either ‘good’ or ‘bad’:
…this is a tale about war, and if war is allowed (at least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good complaining that all the people on one side are against those on the other. Not that I have made this issue quite so simple: there are Saruman, and Denethor, and Boromir; and there are treacheries and strife even among the Orcs. [Letter #154]
For Tolkien, all three characters are quite similar, and quite similarly evil. But when we look a bit closer at these (and a few other characters), we will find them and their evils quite unique for their own character and position. Moreover, these three characters throw a new and interesting light on some concepts that are at the roots of all (western) morality, ethical reflection and philosophy.
A. The Sin of Hybris
I started this article with a short reflection on the Greek definition of evil as excess. One of the greatest sins an old Greek could commit was not murder or treason, but ‘hybris’. This word is nigh untranslatable, referring to what Christians would call ‘pride’ or the desire to be (a) god. The most famous tale about hybris in Greek mythology is the story of Arachne and Athena. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, proper war, arts, science and crafts; and the patron of the city of Athens. She was challenged by an ordinary weaver called Arachne do a duel, because Arachne believed she was better at the craft than the goddess. Arachne in fact won the contest, but because she had committed the sin of hybris, she was turned into a spider.
‘Hybris’ is a very unique mixture of defiance, pride and a primitive faith in the human capacities. Arachne was right about her assumption (unlike the people who built the tower of Babel), but she was still punished for making it.
Obviously, this concept is related (but not identical) to the notion of pride as it is at work in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not identical, because the ‘original sin’ is original to all of us. As I will explain later when I discuss Kant’s notion of radical evil, the ‘original sin’ is original in the sense that it is the first sin we all commit, from the moment that we are born.
One could wonder what this old and almost forgotten concept, meant to moderate the aspirations of men and teach them humility and awe for the gods, has to do with Tolkien. A quick glance at Tolkien’s traitors, however, reveals a name that can easily be tied in with this concept: that of the wizard Saruman the White. Saruman is supposed to be the wisest of the Istari, but through his studies he discovers that perhaps other means can be used to reach his goal – which originally was simply to fight Sauron’s growing power. Tolkien himself describes the mechanism behind this ‘turn towards evil’ when he discusses the link between
Fall, Mortality and Machine. (…) Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or, as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function… It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator -–especially against mortality. [This] will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized. [Letter #131]
It is no coincidence that in ‘The Two Towers’, Treebeard describes Saruman as having a mind of metal and wheels. [3.IV.] It is clear from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ that Saruman is more than just an ‘evil wizard’: there was good in him, great power and great wisdom. That he turned from the path the Valar appointed to him, and strayed into Sauron’s grasp, is explained by Tolkien in another letter, about the Istari:
[The] ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also (…) involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own will effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. [Letter #181]
Saruman, described as the wisest in lore of the Istari, grew impatient with the people he was supposed to aid: they wouldn’t listen to his council, or they died before they could put his plans into action, or they were just incredibly stupid… Whatever it was, something made Saruman take matters into his own hands.
There is more at work here than the modern fascination with machines, which Tolkien justly sees as one of the more dangerous guises of ‘modernity’. There is, inherent to Saruman’s demeanour, also the defiance of the Gods – or, as the Greeks would call it: hybris. Tolkien too, states that rebellion against the Creator is inherent in this mechanism.
Saruman of course is a prototype of this mechanism, but traces of it can be found in other characters like Sauron (who also creates an army that resembles a ‘war machine’; defies the Valar by trying to create a ‘second darkness’, which of course refers to the first darkness created by Morgoth; and of course ‘desired to be a God-King [whereas] [God has sole right to divine honour] [Letter #183]), Denethor (who thinks he’s wiser than a Maia because he has the palantír) or even the Witch-King of Angmar. He is not called a ‘witch’ for no reason, as he clearly must posses some magic crafts, which also points to the idea of prolonging powers to get a better grasp on power.
In his encounter with Gandalf, during the siege of Gondor, we also find some traces of the other component of ‘hybris’, namely the defiance of the Gods: ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it?’ [5.IV.] Of course, ‘Death’ here is a token of blasphemy: ‘death’ is a privilege of Men, a gift from Ilúvatar. Gandalf, a Maia, could not be killed by a mere Man (even if he’s the captain of the Nazgûl), and what is more, the gift of Death is given only by Ilúvatar. This is indeed a very Christian way of thinking, certainly akin to Tolkien’s own reasoning, which places the decision over life and death (as a decision) solely in the hands of the divine.
B. The Sin of Imperfection
The greatest difference between Tolkien’s three traitors is not their treason, that is: the evil they committed, but both the manner in which this treason happens and the motivation behind it.
On the surface, the story of Saruman the White and his desire for power; and that of Boromir of Gondor, are one and the same. Boromir, too, needs something other than himself to achieve his goal. This goal is to obtain power and keep it long enough to beat his enemy. In trying to obtain this good (at least in his mind), he falls to evil and commits treason: he tries to take the Ring by force and is willing to kill Frodo in the process.
The difference between the two characters lies in their motivation and in the way they handle their crime.
What is Boromir’s motivation for wanting the Ring? At Amon Hen, he says to Frodo: ‘True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, not to use the power of the enemy against him… What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all Men would flock to my banner!’ [2.X.]
These words show that Boromir is indeed, as Faramir later tells Frodo, is quite taken with himself and his own valour. This could be explained through the crooked relationships he has with his brother Faramir and his father, Denethor; and with the way in which he saw the position of Steward of Gondor: not merely waiting for the return of the king, but kings in their own way.
Perhaps he didn’t deem himself worthy of that position, yet, or perhaps he did not believe he had the strength to be a worthy opponent for Sauron, because beneath the surface we can see that Boromir is not overconfident at all, unlike Saruman. It is rather a lack of confidence that makes Boromir desire the Ring, something he’s trying to compensate for. While for Saruman the army, the machinery and even the Ring are no more than an extension of his own will, strength and wisdom; for Boromir the Ring of Power would compensate for his own lack of strength, will-power and maybe even be a way to compensate for his mortality.
In a sense, Boromir’s impatience is the impatience all mortals experience, and it is this impatience Saruman because ensnared by. However, where Saruman really has all the time in the world (he is, after all, a Maia) Boromir’s fear of death is very justified: he dies not long after he has committed his final sin. The sin of imperfection.
I already mentioned that the other difference between Saruman and Boromir is their remorse, or lack thereof. When Gandalf offers Saruman a chance to receive forgiveness by handing over the keys of Orthanc, with a promise they will be returned to him at a later date, he replies:
‘Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dûr itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober!’ [3.XI.]
He insults Gandalf, at the same time incriminates him in front of his companions.
However, he is not as much at ease as he seems, because a little earlier on, also in response to Gandalf’s offer for a truce, Tolkien describes how
a shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay, and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated (…) Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him. [3.XI.]
Obviously fear rather than sincere remorse induced that moment of doubt.
Remorse is the clue to why Faramir would think that whether he erred or no, …: [Boromir] died well, achieving some good thing. He gets this from his vision, where he describes Boromir’s face as more beautiful even than in life. [4.V.]
Boromir did indeed end his life on a positive note: after attacking Frodo, he returns to the camp and ends up with a swarm of arrows in his chest. That’s what you get from defending Merry and Pippin, I suppose, but it’s also his ‘reward’ for his courage: by returning to the camp, he placed himself in a situation where sooner or later he would have to confess his crime. Knowingly, willingly, he created for himself a situation in which he could not cover up the truth or ignore it.
In return, in stead of returning for Minas Tirith alone and uncertain of how these events will reflect on him, forever a coward to his own mind, Boromir gets the chance to die a valorous death, defending something he truly did believe in.
What is more, even at the point where he could have died without anyone knowing what really happened, he says to Aragorn: ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo. I am sorry.
I have paid. (…) Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’ To this, Aragorn replies: ‘No! You have conquered. Few have gained such victory.’ [3.I.] This sounds more than a little strange. It almost looks like Aragorn is praising Boromir for trying to take the Ring; and dying to defend a pair of silly hobbits isn’t exactly that great a victory either, especially if they were taken anyway. So what is this about?
This passage, like so much in Tolkien, is soaked in Catholicism: Boromir has confessed to his crime, shown remorse and now receives a blessing from Aragorn, a sort of pardon. That Boromir is aware of what he has done, is willing to suffer the consequences of his action and even confesses them changes the entire nature of the character: he is no longer a traitorous villain, but he is a noble man who in a way is the perfect embodiment of what humanity and mortality are really about.
If we compare this to that other infamous traitor, Gríma Wormtongue, we find that what makes Gríma – in the end – such an intriguing character is the fact that he seems to have no real remorse. Even at the very end, when he is offered forgiveness by Frodo, his actions seems inspired by hatred and the desire to lay blame elsewhere more than by remorse:
A look of wild hatred came into Wormtongue’s red eyes. ‘You told me to; you made me do it,’ he hissed. (…) [Saruman] kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovelled, and turned and made off. But at that something happened: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. [6.VIII.]
The contrast with Boromir couldn’t be any greater.
C. The Sin of Despair
It is only a small step from imperfection, from facing one’s own limits, to despair. Faced with the sharpest border of all, mortality, even the mightiest or the wisest could loose hope. If Denethor could be considered a traitor, then what he was betraying would not be the Valar, or the forces of good, or his own task as Steward of Gondor; but simply his own heart.
Denethor II is described as a very wise and learned man. In the Appendixes, Tolkien writes that he was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. [Appendix A (iv)] In other words, he had every potential of becoming a great Steward. But personal hindrances (the fact that he grew up in the shadow of Aragorn, who was in Minas Tirith under the guise of Thorongil at the time; the death of his wife Finduilas) and the growing strength of Mordor, which was expressed most boldly in the taking of Osgiliath, prevented him from being this.
Denethor becomes frustrated: he is not able to reach the goals that, at the beginning, seemed so easy to obtain. Because of his own experience of failure, he becomes very vulnerable when he starts to use the palantír: all Sauron has to do is project the idea of another possible failure, and Denethor will immediately believe it.
This receptiveness to failure leads Denethor to despair: with Boromir gone, a Ranger claiming to be the heir of Elendil and the host of Mordor at his doorstep; he sees another failure speeding towards him, and a rather permanent one this time.
Still, Denethor is a proud man. This explains why he decides to take his own and Faramir’s life:
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life…: to be Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and not a wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, not love halved, not honour abated.” [5.VII.]
The mechanism of the fall into evil (in this case: murder and suicide) is triggered by a combination of pride, successive experiences of failure and a sense of loss: Denethor has lost all the people he ever loved, he has lost the throne to Aragorn, he believes he has lost the one war he should have won… Everything was taken from him, so the last thing that can be taken, he takes himself: his life.
Like with everything in Tolkien’s work, we can easily find an example of the opposite movement: from a desperate situation into hope.
We meet Théoden, King of Rohan, in the worst state: an old, withered Man in the grasp of a treacherous advisor. His country is almost overrun by Orcs, Uruks and Dunlendings; his son is dead and death approaches quickly. Sounds familiar, huh? However, Théoden – who indeed feels like a lesser son of great sires [3.XI.] – still rises to the challenge and goes to Helm’s Deep, then to Minas Tirith to fight and hopefully die valiantly in battle. His most famous moments are also moments where hope actually takes shape in Tolkien’s work – a hope that is always entwined with the knowledge of the inevitable, the acceptance of fate. Some examples:
‘The end will not be long,’ said the king. ‘But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. (…) When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song – if any be left to song of us hereafter.’ [2.VII.]
‘But if you would take my counsel,’ said Éomer in a low voice, ‘you would then return hither, until the war is over, lost or won.’
Théoden smiled. ‘Nay, my son, for so I will call you, speak not the soft words of Wormtongue in my old ears! (…) Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength? [5.III.]
‘Tall and proud [the king] seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Feel deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
as sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor! [5.V.]
This contrast seems to be born out of another deeply religious notion Tolkien clings to: hope is in fact, to the christian mind, not as much an irrational act (as we could interpret some of Théoden’s lines) but a token of faith in God. Embracing death shows a great amount of faith: acknowledging the fact that death is a part of life, that it will not come too soon but it is a part of the great ‘design’, and that after death there is once again life. All these things are embodied in Théoden, and the Rohirric culture in general.
In contrast, Faramir’s depiction of the Gondorian culture shows a great fear of death and a lack of faith:
‘We are a failing people, a springless autumn. (…) Death was ever present, because the Númenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons.’ [4.V.]
He goes on to explain how this attitude lead to the decline of the House of Anárion, and how in the end the Gondorians became, like the Rohirrim, ‘Men of Twilight’, lesser Men. However, the preoccupation with death is ever-present, as we can see in Denethor’s words:
‘I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men… [5.IV.]
5. Conclusion: The Radicality of Evil
When we take another look at Tolkien’s traitors, it becomes apparent that the he does not refer to these three as three traitors, but as three figures who are to be situated in the misty lands between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. Even Saruman was in origin good, but was tempted by mortality. In fact, Tolkien told no lie when he wrote:
‘The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult [than Power or Domination]: Death and Immortality…’ [Letter #186]
‘But it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death. (…) But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster. Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith.’ [Letter #208]
Elsewhere, he calls the ‘escapes [of Death and Immortality]: serial longevity, and hoarding memory. [Letter #211]
Power is only a means to achieve Immortality, or to master mortality: Saruman seeks power to make others obey his will because he sees opportunities to change matters slip through his fingers like sand; Boromir desires the Ring of Power to defend his city and compensate for his own flaws; and Denethor clings to forgotten power long-faded because he is unwilling to face reality.
Denying death as a natural part of life, is denying the natural order of things; and this of course is only one step away from rebelling against the gods. There we are again: hybris. I cannot help but feel that at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ a deeply religious core is hidden: that Evil springs from a lack of faith.
Because those who have faith in Fate itself, are rewarded: Frodo seems to just stumble along with the flow of things, but in fact he places his life and that of millions of others in the hands of ‘some higher power’ which is ultimately nothing more and nothing less than the Song of the Ainur; Aragorn was born to become King and reunite Men, and that is exactly what he does; Gandalf willingly goes through Moria knowing he will Fall; Théoden and his Rohirrim ride to death and glory on the Pelennor Fields and end up deciding the outcome of the War… This complete trust in the natural course of things is striking, because it is also a very religious attitude: to be confident in the knowledge (which of course can never be knowledge) that the gods have a plan, and will have provided.
Fear of death makes people look for ways of going around it, and those ways are always ‘unnatural’, and in that respect always work against the gods.
It becomes very difficult to think of Denethor, Boromir or even Saruman as ‘evil traitors’ with this knowledge at the back of our minds, because: aren’t we all mortal? Aren’t we all, every single one of us, afraid to die? And isn’t this fear of death, and of living an incomplete life due to a premature death, what drives us on, what pushes us beyond and outside ourselves: into art, into science, into religion? Aren’t we all, like Boromir, looking for the tool with which we can overcome our main flaw: that we are mortal? Don’t we all, like Saruman, think it would be better for the world if we were immortal? And wouldn’t we want to choose how and when we die, if we could? Isn’t that the whole purpose of medicine, there to prolong our lives and prevent (untimely?) deaths?
Tolkien obviously is not a great supporter of modernity and its industrialisation, but I wonder if maybe he was as much opposed to other branches of science which serve only to provides us with the elixir of life?
In this light, we all become possible ‘evil traitors’.
A more radical formulation of this can be found in the works of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant, who lived in the 18th century, at the highlight of Enlightenment, wrote many systematic works and shorter essays, and some of them dealt with the very question of the nature of Evil.
One of his insights is that evil is not absolute, nor relative. This is a strange concept, because either Evil is an absolute force outside us (as I explained in §1), often manifested in the figure of the devil, or Satan; or it is a lack of goodness, an imperfection which makes that we cannot live up to the ideal in the mind of the Creator. Because of course, if God created all (and Kant, as a very religious man, would assume such a thing even if he could not prove it) then – consequently – he also created evil. That poses a great problem.
Kant solves it by placing evil inside us, not as imperfection but as the first decision we make. From the moment we are born, we will choose for ourselves. We are, at the heart, selfish. This first choice is not the responsibility of the Creator, it’s our own responsibility. As such, it’s also our most primal ethical experience. Kant situates all kinds of evil, even the Evil of mass destruction as he knew it in his day, in this original choice that is, of course, an original sin. Because from the first moment on, we choose to go against God – who created all in love and harmony. We break this sacred bond by choosing our own good first.
This is, of course, not a literal ‘conscious choice’. It is more like one of our natural urges, as taking care of your loved ones and defending our territories are. It’s just one of those things we, humans, do. We are selfish.
And why are we selfish? Kant really doesn’t give an answer to this, mainly because his concept of evil, which he calls ‘radical evil’ (‘radix’ is Latin, and means ‘root’), is modelled after the notion of the Original Sin.
But I think, after all we learned through Tolkien’s work, we can formulate an answer easily enough: because we are afraid of death. We will make sure we exist for as long as we possibly can. All our choices and decisions are aimed at that.
The importance of Kant’s work on Evil is that he places evil at the heart of all of us: there are no saints amongst us, no ‘pure souls’. The consequence of this is that Evil is not something outside us – Kant protests against the figure of Satan deceiving our good and kind nature with lies. For him, this demonic figure is laughable at the best, and a way to avoid taking up responsibility at the worst.
Compare it to Boromir’s admission to Aragorn: ‘I have failed.’ [3.I.] A lot of readers will say that Boromir fell to the Ring’s lure, that it was the Ring who tempted him and the Ring who drove him mad – a notion also depicted in the movie. But then, Boromir could just as easily have said: ‘The Ring made me fail.’ But he doesn’t: he lays the blame on himself.
I believe Tolkien says something very valuable here, and something Kant would agree to: the problem of Evil is not Evil itself; it is how we deal with Evil, how we avoid it or face it.
‘What happens after the Fall?’, this is the question Tolkien asks throughout the entire ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
This again ties in with the catholic background Tolkien writes against: what is relevant to us mortals, who are all sinners from the start because of the Original Sin, is not that we commit evil deeds; but how we face them. The Catholic God is a God of Grace, and the Living Road that is Christ is not the road to heaven, but the road to redemption, to forgiveness. Being aware of what you’ve done, understanding how you’ve hurt others and not running away from it – that is what makes forgiveness and ultimately grace, possible.