Saturday, 23 June 2018

Good and evil in Tolkien

One of the most ridiculous statements made by those literary modernists who dislike Tolkien, and especially The Lord of the Rings, is when they state that the characters are divided unrealistically and simplistically into Good and Evil. Yet, in reality, the opposite is the case - corruption of Good is extremely common, and there are several important examples of repentance of evil.

Starting with The Hobbit - the dwarf leader Thorin becomes corrupted by greed and resentment. On his deathbed he repents and apologises to Bilbo. This is somewhat like Boromir, whose desire for the One Ring gradually masters him, and he tries to take it from Frodo by force; before confessing and repenting to Aragorn as he dies.

Aragorn is an example of a good character who resists corruption; Gandalf and Faramir are others. However, each of these is 'paired' with another who is corrupted. Gandalf is one of three wizards we meet, of whom Saruman has gone over to the side of evil - and refuses to repent although given three opportunities; while Radagast has abandoned his duty and mission to become a 'neutral' in the war.

Faramir is the steadfast brother of corruptible Boromir; and the returned King Aragorn's corrupted twin is Denethor, Steward of Gondor and Boromir's father - who succumbs to despair, compounded by envy of Gandalf and refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Aragorn and yield his power.

When we first meet Theoden, King of Rohan, he has also been corrupted into despair and dishonesty by Saruman's tool Wormtongue; but Theoden repents and remakes himself, to die a noble death in battle - thanks to the tough but compassionate intervention of Gandalf.

Among the hobbits, there are also pairings: the good Baggins's with the corrupt (and pretentious, Frenchified) Sackville-Baggins's (of whom, Lobelia is redeemed through her courage in face of the ruffians); and, Sam with the anti-Sam: Ted Sandyman. Frodo is, tragically albeit temporarily and understandably, corrupted and broken by the ring, at the last moment - taking it for himself; only being saved from the terrible consequences by the providential intervention of Gollum. Frodo repents but is unable to escape his guilt, his mortal life is blighted, and he requires healing in the undying lands. In this respect Frodo is contrasted with the uncorrupted Bilbo, who voluntarily gives-up the ring (as does Sam); and (like Sam) lives-out a long and happy life.

What is lacking in Lord of the Rings is any significant characters who are evil, at the start of Lord of the Rings, and repent before the end (albeit most of the book takes place in a single year); although Gollum gets very close; as does Wormtongue (after the scouring of The Shire) - but neither can set aside their resentments.

And this is - unfortunately - true to life. Once someone has thoroughly sided with evil, it is very unusual for them to repent and reform. In LotR the nearest I can think of, is groups such as The Dead, from the Paths of The Dead - who broken their oath to Isildur and fought for Sauron, but removed their curse by helping Isidur's heir Aragorn; or the Dunlanders - who are defeated in the Battle of Helm's Deep, and are surprised by their decent treatment by their enemies, the men of Rohan.

But those who falsely complain about the division into good and bad characters are in reality complaining about the clear distinction between good and evil sides.

These are indeed distinct - and mainstream atheist modernists dislike and disbelieve this clarity; much preferring ambiguity over what is good and evil; or superficial good being actually evil; or all the characters being self-seeking hedonists and cowards; or the characters divided between witty, intelligent evil ones that we admire, and dumb, gullible good ones that we pity or despise...

From a perspective where there is no God and all morality is arbitrary and expedient (or hypocritical), Tolkien's critics are correct; which is why correcting their ignorance has no effect on their opinion of Tolkien's work. Likewise, the ignorant criticisms of of those who suppose that Tolkien's characters speak in what strikes them as a ridiculous 'Hollywood' fake medievalism; do not change their minds when confronted with evidence of Tolkien's extreme subtlety of linguistic register, and (surely obvious?) deep scholarship concerning real archaic forms and words.

So, I am never surprised by those who dislike and do not enjoy Tolkien. There are 'good reasons' of individual preference why anyone may not enjoy anything - not matter its quality.

However, given the generality and depth of corruption among modern intellectuals (perhaps especially academics); the fact that so many literati hate a work that contains so many convincing and moving depictions of goodness and repentance, is only to be expected.

Note: There is a much wider range of corruption on display in The Silmarillion - where we see the fall of the elves greatest scholar and craftsman, Feanor; and several other once-great elves who fall to despair, lust, anger, pride etc. Taking Tolkien's fiction overall, there is, indeed, a pattern of the very greatest being those who are most deeply and terribly corrupted to evil: Melkor, was the greatest of the Valar, Turin Turambar was the greatest warrior of all-time, Al-Pharazon was the most powerful Man ever, Saruman was the greatest wizard, Denethor was the most powerful Man of his age... Indeed, there is a clear tendency that those who have the greatest accomplishment are most greatly tempted - the Noldorian elves and the Numenorean Men being the clearest examples. The result is, typically, a polarisation among the great.


William Wildblood said...

I've always seen a dislike, as in acute dislike, of LOTR and the sneering condemnation of it as juvenile trash as an indication of a corrupt soul. If you can't respond to the nobility of character displayed by so many of the protagonists in the book it means that you are in some kind of spiritual denial. Sometimes you hate what you fear and these people fear what shows up the shallowness of their own souls.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I would agree. In the past I found it difficult to admit that this implied that almost the whole of the literary establishment was corrupt; but now this seems very obviously true!

Chiu ChunLing said...

It would be more correct to say, From a perspective where there is no God and all morality is arbitrary and expedient (or hypocritical), Tolkien's critics are not incorrect because all ideas of correctness or incorrectness are invalid anyway.

While the sneering condemnation is an indication of a corrupt soul, the belief that 'high fantasy', of which Tolkien is the originating work in English, is juvenile trash is often readily obtained by perusal of the general trend of more contemporary work which was written later. Sturgeon's response to lumping all of any genre in with the majority of what was contained within it holds true, 90% of any genre is crap...and usually it's more than that.

In the case of the high fantasy genre, we have the great advantage of reference to a work (and supporting material) written originally in modern English which is clearly the defining prototype from which all later entrants are derived. So there is less excuse for having an opinion about 'high fantasy' (let alone Tolkien specifically) without having read Tolkien than there is for other genres. But that doesn't mean everyone who condemns the genre as a whole is a bad person.

On the other hand, there are people who embrace and create works of 'high fantasy' themselves, who claim to be superior to the 'juvenile elements' in Tolkien. Of these we may safely say that they are bad people, suffering from overweening pride of some variety. For more than most would believe possible, it's merely the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is not to say that there is no moral consequence of such vapidly baseless pride, it is in many ways the worst form of pride, at least measured in broad consequence. If not for the pride of idiots, there would be fewer opportunities for the pride of the clever to do much moral harm.

I suppose that Sturgeon would agree that 90% of even pride is crap.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Somewhat aside, the idea that 90% of any genre (or field of endeavour) is crap does make a reasonable point; but is fundamentally wrong in the sense that the percentage varies very widely, and in *most* genres the crap is 100%. (Some people interpret the Sturgeon law as saying that 10% of evrything is good!)

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, that would be a logical fallacy. While 90% of something being crap excludes the possibility of more than 10% not being crap, it most certainly does not exclude the possibility of any of the remainder being crap.

In a more general sense, we can say that the combination of competence and benevolence which is required for an original creative effort to be more beneficial than not is always going to be restricted to a small minority of people who are attracted by the social reward associated with being recognized as 'creators'.

For ordinary craftsmanship adhering to well-established standards and requiring no originality, it is possible for the proportion that is not crap to be much higher. However, this is not always achieved when there is insufficient social reward in being recognized as a craftsman, as is the case in nearly ever civilization once it slides towards decadence. Those with the competence to be good craftsmen are instead attempting to be innovators, and the crafts are left to those with too little competence to even attempt the pretense of originality.

Our own society is running mostly on mass-production by heavily automated factories, but even the most heavily automated factory requires competent oversight and management, and of this we are crucially short.