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"[Tolkien's] good people are consistently good, his evil figures
immutably evil; and he has no room in his world for a Satan
both evil and tragic"  
–    Edwin Muir, Review in "The Observer", (August 1954).47

                    As for the critique of unnuanced good and evil in Tolkien – characters fixed either in their inherent "goodness" or "badness" –  this would indeed, if true, make for a dull read. However, Edwin Muir, the critic responsible for this puzzling complaint, appears to have had his eyes turned away in blind disgust when making this assertion. He is in any case unable or unwilling to penetrate the setting of "the fantastic" and ponder the profound moral depth of the work, as portrayed in the complex, fallible nature of the characters and the all-too familiar universe which they inhabit. Muir's reference is of course to Paradise Lost48  and Milton's iconic Satan. It may be noted that Milton's character and Tolkien's equivalent Melkor have much more in common than meets the eye. Satan, though corrupted and tormented, still possesses the wisdom and insight of his order, but as a central point, the wisdom has turned to cunning and guile and the insight is used for intricate schemes and the domination of lesser beings. Clearly, the gifts of power and intellect have degenerated in terms of moral value and integrity, but not in terms of potency; even after he is stricken down and chastised for his rebellion, a certain mode of “greatness” and leadership is retained by Milton’s antagonist. The range of reactions to this is wide; sometimes turned against Milton for constructing such an equivocal antagonist or, indeed, against God for “provoking” the rebellion and fall of Lucifer49  (notably by scholars William Empson and John Carey). Close readings of the first books in Paradise Lost may, however, turn the attention not to Satan’s greatness, but to the base and corrupted ethos which lurks beneath the surface. Tolkien's view of this comes across in Melkor's rise and fall in the Sil where the chief causes of his moral degeneration (self-exalting pride, domination of lesser wills, megalomania) echo those of Satan's. Though Tolkien may place superior power and greatness on the side of Melkor (because the Valar do not use their power unrestrained and destructively) he sees no heroic qualities in evil, and none are needed in order to depict tragedy. In indirect response to Muir's criticism, the comments of Tolkien's good friend C.S. Lewis on Milton's Satan provide hints to understanding these shades of evil as they appear in Middle-earth. Lewis is concerned not with Satan’s heroic features, but with the absurdity inherent to his nature, his faulty self-deluding logic and pettiness.50  He goes on to argue that even if some readers may admire or sympathise with Satan’s undeniable courage (or, arguably, ofermod…) or the "tragedy" of his fall, Milton’s characterisation of Satan had a quite different purpose. It was carefully crafted to illustrate Evil turning on itself; Evil inevitably acting as its own downfall. Again, readers of both LotR and Sil will recognise the anatomy of evil given here. Tolkien's characters Melkor and Sauron are not "types" or "allegories" based on Satan, but complex individuals in their own right. They are in a sense "Evil incarnate", however, and as such they manifest related underlying philosophies.
                    However, on the smaller scale – which is just as central to understanding the origins and manifestations of evil – Tolkien's highly original character Gollum stands out. During their desperate journey to the heart of Sauron's domain, the land of Mordor, Frodo and Sam encounter Gollum whose self-destructive, yet unquenchable desire for the Ring has made him track the Ringbearer all the way. When the two hobbits overpower him, tying a rope around his leg, the readers get their first close look at Gollum's character: "Gollum began to scream, a thin tearing sound, very horrible to hear. He writhed and tried to get his mouth to his ankle and bite the rope. He kept on screaming. … 'It hurts us, it hurts us', hissed Gollum. 'It freezes, it bites! Elves twisted it, curse them!'". Knowing Gollum's value as a guide through enemy territory (and feeling a strange pity for him) Frodo agrees to remove the rope in exchange for his promise of loyalty. Gollum names the only thing that he holds dear: "'Sméagol will swear on the Precious'" . The passage darkens with the ominous tone of Frodo's reply: "'Think! One Ring to Rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!'" Ironically, or rather tragically, Gollum persists, thus precipitating his own downfall:
Then crawling to Frodo's feet, he grovelled before him,
whispering hoarsely: … 'Sméagol will swear never, never to let Him
[Sauron] have it. Never! Sméagol will save it. But he must swear on
the Precious.' 'No! Not on it', said Frodo, looking down at him with
stern pity. All you wish is to see it and touch it, if you can, though you
know it would drive you mad. … For a moment it appeared to Sam
that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow,
a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a
little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien:
they could reach each other's minds.51
                    After swearing to "serve the master of the Precious"52 , Frodo's mercy in sparing his life and trust in his guidance almost penetrate the darkness which has all but consumed Sméagol's individual mind leaving only the corrupted Gollum side of his personality. This wretched character, whose mind is enslaved and almost utterly consumed by the Ring, amply displays both tragedy, evil - and the potential of recanting. Frodo's mercy to him and the special bond between the two Ringbearers (they share the burden of addiction to the Ring and both struggle with the love/hate relationship to "their Precious") bring Gollum tragically close to redemption. Short of stating the fact explicitly, Tolkien could have found no clearer way of conveying varying shades of good and evil than through the character Gollum.  
                    Indeed, Tolkien also goes to great lengths to provide his antagonists with the opportunity to recant. In the cosmogonic myth found in the opening chapters of Sil, Melkor is pardoned by his brethren for his revolt and devastating war against them. At the end of the "Quenta Silmarillion", his servant Sauron is pardoned and avoids capture, only to turn once again. In LotR Gandalf repeatedly offers Saruman a way out other than evil, but he has lost the capacity for understanding true mercy53  - seeing only treachery or condescension masquerading as generosity.
                    Now, given this pattern, it is plain that Tolkien consistently emphasises the fact that evil characters  are given the chance to recant, but refuse it, either out of pride, fear or mistrust. In other words, this important characteristic of evil is intimately connected with Tolkien's balanced portrayal of free will vs. predetermination in Middle-earth. Nothing is evil in the beginning, except by failure to choose good. Evil is not a "pre-determined" condition – not even in Sauron.
                    Consequently, at no point are Good and Evil presented as absolutes by Tolkien, quite the contrary. "Good" characters are never so except by a continual effort of their free will – that is by personal choice based on compassion, pity, preservation: essentially the conscious pursuit of common good. On the personal level, resistance to temptation and indomitable endurance are key concepts. In more existential (and modern) terms, Tolkien's principle hinges on choosing the difficult or impossible, but fundamentally moral answer to problems, over the easy and personally satisfying solution. Also, evil is not irredeemable, but derived mainly from conscious choices promoting the domination, suppression, or corruption of others. In stark contrast to Mr. Muir's claim, there is more than ample evidence that Tolkien's representation of evil is extremely nuanced and reveals a philosophically structured universe whose fate depends, ultimately, on individual choice. Middle-earth, through all its ages, is a constantly flexible tableau, its characters enacting  the existential tension between motives and actions, ends and means. This supports the central argument of this section, namely that Middle-earth is not a fantasy realm of stereotypes, rigid and remote, but a fully realised Secondary World which allows for many shades of both good and evil.
                    Muir's critique is further challenged by Shippey in his essay "Orcs, wraiths, wights: Tolkien's Images of Evil"54  . Building on acute analyses, he traces Tolkien's composite applications of evil as reflected through the three examples cited in the title of the essay. The discussion is too extensive for the scope of this paper, yet one aspect which deserves special attention is Tolkien's juxtaposition of Manichean (or Dualist) and Boethian theories of evil55 . Traditionally, these are irreconcilable concepts, evil as an absence and evil as a force56 , yet evidence of both seems to abound in Tolkien's subcreative world. Boethian evil cannot create, but only pervert or mock Creation, and this view is certainly reflected in LotR. On the other hand, Manichean evil seems to be embodied in the reality of the Dark Power (i.e. Sauron).
                    Evil in LotR is consistently associated with "the Shadow". But what exactly is a shadow? The obvious answer would be a mere absence of light, but the association offered by Tolkien clearly does not end there. The metaphysical import lies in whether shadows really exist or not. A shadow "is not a thing but an absence caused by a thing" which tips the scale toward the Boethian view. And yet shadows do exist insofar as they "have shapes, and physical effects like cold and dark"57  which implies Manichean substance. By nature it seems that a shadow is the one thing which contains attributes of both these opposite views. Tolkien's imagery here is anything but coincidental. Applying this seeming paradox to the evils of LotR, we find that the powerful Ringwraiths are partially incorporeal, and certainly invisible, unless seen in the "wraith world" which Frodo does when wearing the Ring. They are not strictly of this world, yet continue to operate in it and are able to exert both physical effects (such as Frodo's stab wound on Weathertop and the sudden chill brought on by their presence) and psychological effects (such as the mind-numbing fear that seems to emanate from them.) Middle-earth can thus be described as a "metaphysical experiment" which, in effect, fuses two different concepts of evil in the sophisticated imagery of "the Shadow".

  47Carpenter, Humphrey, J.R.R. Tolkien - A Biography, HarperCollins, London, 1995, p. 222  back
  48Milton, John, Paradise Lost, in Abrams, M.H., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1993, 6th ed.  back
  49Revard, Stella Purce The War in Heaven – Paradise Lost and the Tradition of Satan’s Rebellion, London 1980. Revard quotes these views in the introduction, p. 23, paraphrasing views in Carey, Milton, London, 1969 and Empson, Milton’s God, London, 1965, pp. 81-89.   back
  50Lewis, C.S. "Satan"  in Barker, A. E. (ed.) Milton, Modern Essays in Criticism, New York, Oxford UP, 1965, reprint 1972, p. 201  back
  51Tolkien, LotR, p. 643  back
  52Ibid., p. 643. This fateful oath contains the key to the tragic completion of the Quest to destroy the Ring - a point of great significance in the discussion of Frodo as the Humble Hero.  back
  53As seems to be a recurring attribute of Evil in Tolkien: "but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not yet been discovered. Not yet…", In Tolkien, LotR, p. 370  back
  54Printed in Flieger & Hostetter, eds. Tolkien's Legendarium  back
  55Shippey, T.A., J.R.R. Tolkien: Writer of the Century, HarperCollins, London, 2000, p. 214  back
  56Briefly defined, Boethius asserted that evil is, in itself, "nothing" - it is rather a lack of substance; the absence of good. This situates evil in a subordinate role of non-existence, basically imagined as a man-made state of vacuum rendered powerless in a surrounding sea of divine Good. This is of course an orthodox Christian view. Conversely, in a Manichean or Dualist universe, man is situated in the centre of an eternal conflict between good and evil forces. This image is not dependent on the fundamental difference in stature and essence stressed by Boethius. Rather, evil is as much a force in the world as good. The cosmic struggle is between equal powers of creation and destruction and the existence of one keeps the other in check.  back
  57Ibid., p. 129  back

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