Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Some moral themes in the books of J.R.R. Tolkien

I shall be examining some of the underlying moral and ethical ideas developed by Tolkien in the "Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings"; particularly his doctrines of sin and evil, of creation, and of the Earthly Paradise.

Tolkien was first and foremost a sincere and very conservative Roman Catholic. His letters show that he was always concerned when friends suggested that the ideas put forward in his novels were inconsistent with Catholic beliefs. His imaginary world was monotheistic: the Valar, who are invoked by Elves and men, are actually more akin to angels rather than gods. Their powers may be enormous, but limited, as is their knowledge, and they are capable of making mistakes and being outwitted: a few, like Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman, may even fall into sin. In the "Silmarillion" they serve the sole creator-god, Iluvatar, who has delegated to them the day-to-day running of the world. After the Creation, Iluvatar has only directly intervened in the world once (the destruction of Numenor), though there are hints that covert divine intervention might have occurred several times, in the form of "fate", chance or coincidence, to help the cause of right. It is not clear what power might be responsible. Gandalf attempts to explain this to Frodo early on in "The Lord of the Rings", with reference to Bilbo's finding of the ring. Equally, there is a certain amount of foreknowledge of the future granted to the Valar, to Elves and even to some men. But neither fate nor foreknowledge implies predestination: all thinking creatures have free will and perform their actions voluntarily, not compelled by fate.

All sin is committed by free will, and no creature is fated to be evil by nature or essence. (Tolkien had problems explaining the nature of the orcs to Catholic correspondents, who argued that the idea of a thinking but irredeemably evil race was unscriptural and heretical - see footnote). Tolkien sees the principal sin as a blend of pride, ambition, covetousness and desire for power over others, lusting after glory, wealth and domination, and going against the will of God by desiring things to which we are not entitled. Here Tolkien's deep conservatism comes in. He makes plain that the desires and ambitions of all creatures ought to be limited to what is appropriate to their kind and to their station in life; to seek after more is wrong, and will lead to evil consequences if pursued - for instance, the Numenorians' lust for immortality. No creature, not even a Vala, has the right to demand whatever it wants; God has laid down what is suitable, and this should not be exceeded. This is not a "modern" concept.

Bearing this in mind, we can see why both the "Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" centre upon objects which carry almost irresistible temptation to greed and ambition beyond the proper limits. The Silmarils tempt because of their beauty, and greed to regain them lead to the Elves forsaking Valinor against the commands of the Valar, just as they had already tempted Morgoth. The Silmarils burn the hands of those not entitled to possess them, but are harmless to those who do have that right (for instance, Beren). The Ring is a much more subtle concept: it tempts by the desire to use its power in doing good, though in fact all its works will turn to evil (see footnote). For this reason no-one, not even a Vala, should attempt to possess it atall. (Similarly, Aragorn is able to master the Palantir because he has a right to it: those without this right are unable to control it).

No-one is bad by nature. The wicked characters have succumbed to the temptations of power and greed to the extent of degenerating into personalities of mere unrestrained appetite; most notably Morgoth and Sauron, and the orcs. The good characters manage to resist the temptations placed in their path by the Ring: Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel, Faramir, Sam. The ambivalent characters have yielded, or are in the process of yielding: Saruman, Gollum, Boromir. Even Frodo succumbs to temptation at the last gasp: he is unable to destroy the Ring when he reaches Mount Doom, and is saved only by "chance" in the unlikely form of Gollum. As Tolkien pointed out in letters to his admirers, Frodo's failure should have been foreseen: he was too small a personality to resist the Ring indefinitely, and his real heroism was that he had managed to hold out for so long.

Tolkien's notions of the Earthly Paradise and of creativity stem from his deep religious conservatism. To such an outlook, the ability to create good and beautiful things comes only from God, not from any human agency, and since man is further from God than in the past, his works have inevitably declined and become inferior. The Golden Age was in the past and cannot be regained. This viewpoint is absolutely at odds with progressive or socialist ideologies, which are dominated by the notion of progress, and strive towards the creation of a Golden Age at some time in the future. (We shall look at Tolkien's view of progress later)

The theme of a lost Earthly Paradise is very strong in Tolkien's works, deriving from the Christian doctrine of the Garden of Eden. Originally all thinking creatures were given an earthly paradise appropriate to their kind as a gift from above, but most of them have lost it by falling into sin. Since this fall, they have spent their energies in an attempt to reconstruct that paradise by their own efforts, always ultimately managing only to produce feeble and unsatisfactory imitations.

The earthly paradise of the Elves was in Valinor, the Undying Land, from which they exiled themselves against the advice of the Valar in a futile attempt to regain the Silmarils from Morgoth. But the Elves are not totally fallen; at the end of the First Age they are permitted to return to Valinor. Some, however, choose to remain in exile; perhaps from a desire to do good in Middle Earth, perhaps through obstinacy and pride. In Middle Earth the Elves construct imitations of Valinor, such as Gondolin, Lorien and Rivendell, but these are only ever imitations, they have no permanence and are subject to decay, and by the end of the Third Age they are sustained only by the power of the Three Rings. At the end, even the elven-leaves of Lorien wither once Galadriel has gone: they have no natural endurance.

Men had their earthly paradise in Numenor, which was destroyed when their pride and ambition led them to a violent attempt to win immortality. Gondor was then built as an imitation of Numenor, but was inevitably inferior, subject to the decay of all things in Middle-Earth and doomed to decline. Similarly, the superior Numenorian race declined as its blood was mingled with that of "lesser men" (which sounds an unpleasantly Nazi doctrine nowadays; but Tolkien was much too old-fashioned to be a Nazi sympathiser, and he personally detested Hitler and everything he stood for).

The Dwarves' earthly paradise was Moria: once again, a place appropriate for their kind. They lost it through greed, when their delving disturbed the Balrog, and although Moria was still geographically within reach, the Dwarves cannot return there. Erebor became their substitute; once again, not as good, and menaced by orcs and dragons.

A few creatures retain still retain their earthly paradises. The Ents still have Fangorn forest, but it has become wholly sterile, for the Entwives have disappeared. The Hobbits too still have theirs, the Shire; a bucolic idyll of pre-industrial England without the poverty and class oppression of the real thing; and they only narrowly avoid losing it through their own characteristic faults: apathy and sloth.

All attempts to reconstruct the earthly paradise must fail because of Tolkien's peculiar doctrine of creativity. He sees the ability to create objects of beauty and power as coming from God; finite and limited in all lesser beings, and incapable of being improved. It is as if an artist, by having painted a single great picture, has permanently exhausted his talents to such an extent that he could never again achieve any work of such quality. No-one is able to increase his skill or build on past experience. Tolkien's world is full of great works of the past which cannot be reproduced. The Valar cannot remake the Two Trees. Feanor cannot make any more Silmarils. No-one can make any more Palantiri. The finest swords were forged in the very distant past, and Gimli comments that the new stonework of Minas Tirith is inferior to the old. It is a story of all-round decline. Even Sauron is not as strong as he once was, for he cannot make another Ring.

This is all a part of Tolkien's pessimistic conservatism, and is appropriate to his field of academic study. He was above all an expert in Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval English; of people, therefore, who lived surrounded by the ruined buildings and the traditions of the mighty men of olden times, which they knew they were unable to equal themselves. It is natural therefore that his fictional characters should also be looking backwards to times of lost greatness, and be always conscious of the decline since then.

Since the ability to create comes from God, it naturally follows that it is most diminished in those who have fallen into wickedness. They can only create by pouring their own innate power into their creations, thus diminishing themselves permanently. So even Sauron is not as strong as he once was; he created the Ring by filling it with his own innate power, thus weakening himself, and in consequence can never make another Ring. He was diminished further by the wreck of Numenor and his defeat at the end of the Second Age, and continues to diminish by pouring his evil will into inspiring his slaves, Nazgul, Orcs and so forth, who are lost and helpless without him. In any case, Sauron was always weaker than his former master Morgoth. Similarly Saruman, who was once greater than Gandalf, has diminished himself by turning to evil and attempting to build his own earthly paradise in Isengard (not surprisingly, Isengard is only a feeble copy of the Barad-dur, Sauron's great fortress). So everything in Middle-earth is in a state of decline, for both good and bad creatures, and even the status quo can only be maintained with difficulty, often needing artificial help, such as from the three elven-rings.

There is no technological progress at all, and never has been: all peoples have remained at the same technological level for thousands of years. It is of course a tradition of the imaginary worlds of fantasy literature that they remain stuck somewhere around the equivalent of the days of Edward I, both technologically and culturally, and Tolkien's world is no exception, though in historical terms this is actually most unlikely. Important inventions which in the real world appeared around the 15th century, such as gunpowder, the blast furnace and the printing press, show no sign of ever being discovered in Tolkien's world. It is hardly surprising that Tolkien, as a conservative Roman Catholic, would not acknowledge technological change as progress; rather stranger that he would not even acknowledge it as change. One would have expected that Sauron, Saruman or the dwarves would have been interested in seeking an improved technology, but even they have made no advance at all.

This is matched by an equal lack of any development in society, economics or politics. There is no mention of trade, and no form of government exists except arbitrary personal monarchy; no state ever develops any form of constitution, and even the Elvish rulers are often very irrational in the conduct of their kingdoms. Even warfare has remained unchanged for thousands of years: kings continue to lead their forces into battle with never any improvements in weaponry or tactics. Such a complete standstill is again highly unrealistic: no society is ever as static as this.

Any cultural advance is also alien to Tolkien's world. We are told that the Elves love beauty, but left in ignorance as to what forms this beauty takes. There is some elvish poetry and song (carefully covered by apologies for inadequate translation), but we are told practically nothing about elvish music, and nothing at all about elvish architecture, painting or sculpture: indeed, we do not even know if such things exist. The same can be said about dwarves and men. Furthermore, there is never any sign of the advancement of learning; which is a little surprising coming from a lifelong academic like Tolkien. There is only "lore"; no trace of the systematisation of knowledge, hardly any books, very little intellectual curiosity, and even basic history and geography are are in a poor state. Even the ruling elites are sadly ignorant of lands just a few days' march from their homes. Once again, the general atmosphere is that of the Dark Ages or early Middle Ages.

This was of course the period that Tolkien, the expert in Anglo-Saxon and Early English, felt most at home mentally; and so the characters which carry most conviction in his stories are those at the cultural level of Saxons or Vikings, such as the Edain and the Rohirrim. When he turns to societies that are supposed to be "higher" (the Elves or the Numenorians), he is far less convincing, because we are shown no evidence that their civilisations are in fact "higher", and the characters continue to behave like Vikings anyway. People who live in cities cannot behave like Vikings without causing endless disruption: think of the street gangs, whose code of behaviour is essentially a Viking one.


Footnote 1: The Ring. Much of the story turns on the fact that the good characters cannot use the Ring, since it will inevitably turn all their works to evil. But how did anyone know this? The only person who had studied the rings deeply was Saruman. I toy with the fantasy that this was misinformation put around by Saruman, to deter anyone else from using the Ring before he could get his hands on it! Incidentally Tolkien, refuting the suggestion that the book was an allegory, with the Ring representing the atom bomb, said that had that been the case, he would have had Saruman use the Ring to defeat Sauron!

Footnote 2: The Orcs. Tolkien's Catholic friends were worried by the Orcs, maintaining that it was theologically wrong for any thinking creatures to be written off as irredeemably evil. Indeed, the Orcs are ultimately unconvincing. They are motivated purely by hatred, and hate other species only marginally more than they hate each other, and are restrained only by fear of a greater force. They love violence and plunder, and delight in pointless cruelty to their victims. But also they are not very good soldiers, they have little morale when in a tight corner, and frequently run away from danger; this cowardice making it unclear how they ever win battles save by sheer weight of numbers. Their ugliness and general foulness is constantly stressed, and even their language is described as "hideous" (it appears to be similar to Turkish). Indeed, so frightful are they that killing them is not merely morally acceptable, but even commendable: such appalling creatures really do not deserve to live. There can be little doubt that Tolkien derived his image of the orcs from wartime propaganda. This was the way German soldiers in the First World War were portrayed in the British popular press, and it was also the way Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jews. Similarly, a century earlier, James Gillray's cartoons portrayed the French revolutionaries and their sympathisers in Britain in exactly the same way: monstrously ugly, contemptible, and yet somehow constituting a serious threat that must be wiped out. In fact such sentiments are generally held by the civilians at home rather than by the front-line soldiers, who tend to have a much greater respect, or even sympathy, for their opponents. Has Tolkien simply yielded to the Hollywood-style temptation of making the "bad guys" personally disgusting? As an officer in the trenches at the battle of the Somme in 1916, he knew perfectly well that the Germans facing him were not Orcs but fellow human beings. But recognizing your enemies as fellow human beings will tend to cause you to question your right to kill them. Heinrich Himmler was annoyed to find that some of his S.S. officers actually liked the occasional Jew, and he rightly pointed out that the logical conclusion to be drawn from this was that Jews ought not be exterminated! Killing is so much easier to justify if your enemies are Orcs!

Recommended reading: "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien", edited by Humphrey Carpenter


  1. I hadn't thought about Tolkien's work in such a systematic way (I wasn't even aware that he was a Roman Catholic), but I find your analysis wholly convincing.

  2. This is an excellent analysis. My thanks to Dennis for drawing it to my attention.