Good and Evil
Good and Evil. Sadly, these are not terms one hears much of outside
fantasy worlds today. The battle between them, however, consumes the
plot of every good fantasy tale ever written, and make no mistake: we
are speaking of Good with a capital 'G' and Evil with a
very capital 'E.'
There is no room for moral interpretation in Tolkien. He had probably
never heard anybody say, "Well, I can't force my morality on
others." Why do people flock to the works of Tolkien, of George Lucas,
and the like, in droves? Precisely because when you see a Black Rider
standing in your path, you don't stop to debate the merits of his
belief system against your own. You draw your sword. People, no matter
how much they may consciously deny it, want and indeed need a conscience;
it is the very agelessness of the battle that makes fantasy, and
especially the incomparable works of Tolkien, so popular. His depiction
of Good and Evil leaves no room for doubt.
"In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires
beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair ... and all fled
before his face.
"All save one. There waiting ... sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax
who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving,
"You cannot enter here," said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. "Go
back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness
that awaits you and your Master. Go!"
Darkness, fire, menace, terror and despair are set against freedom,
steadfastness, light, and strength. You just can't get much clearer
I think that as much as Tolkien would have stared to hear someone discuss
"relative morality," he would have scoffed at the culture of victimhood
that our society perpetuates. The idea that evildoers cannot be held responsible
for their actions is one that should have died a natural death before it ever
came to light, and Tolkien bears this out by saying of Gollum, "He thought he
was misunderstood and ill-used ...
"He muttered that he was going to get his own back. People would see if he
would stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed ... Baggins
would pay for it."
Sound familiar? Gollum wanted to blame his piteous, twisted state on others,
conveniently forgetting that it was his action in murdering Deagol and claiming
the Ring for his own that led to his fall. From the dawn of time, evildoers
have tried to blame others for their fall, and Tolkien recognized that this
lack of responsibility for actions constituted a large part of a downward spiral
Why can't Gollum, Denethor, Saruman, and the rest of our cast of villains
see what their lack of responsibility is doing not only to those around them, but
to themselves? They are focused solely on their own wants. This is why they can
never have a comrade, never a team member, but must always be alone while those who
work for the good strive together with allies. Those who work for the good can never
triumph alone; those who work evil never wish to triumph any other way, though they
may pretend to. Saruman used this very temptation upon Gandalf, who held wisdom
enough to know his game.
"The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us ...'
'Saruman ... only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well,
so do not trouble to say we!"
Responsibility is hard, no doubt about it. Sometimes the pursuit of good conflicts with
the pursuers' own wills to be safe, happy, or to retain their property, but just
as Frodo left his home, comfort and safety because he was the only one who could bear
the Ring, so Aragorn left behind his heart's desire to guide and assist Frodo.
The Company chosen for them did the same, each knowing that he could contribute to the
Good, even if he could not see how. Most of all in faithful Sam do we see this trusting
"I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't
turn back ... I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the
Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."
Tolkien tells us of the doubts and fears of the Company, but he also tells us how
they pressed on, convinced that it was their responsibility to do what they could.
It is important to note once again, however, that in the end, not one of them could
have done it alone. Each makes a sacrifice for what he perceives as good, not to
mention for the good of his allies and fellow creatures, and in the end their rewards
far exceed the things they gave up or left behind.
So how is it that Tolkien can get away with painting things this black and white?
Don't evildoers sometimes think better of themselves and mend their ways?
Don't good people fall? Sure they do. And what about the Ring? you say. These
people were all under some evil influence! Well, granted. How many of us would do evil
just for the fun of it? That's a topic for another column, but the fact remains,
our villains see something to be gained for themselves, and even though they know
it's wrong, they fall to temptation. That doesn't absolve them of the
responsibility for their actions. And so might the good fall, as well. Look at Boromir,
who fell to sudden temptation. Look at Saruman, whom Tolkien tells us, was once
Gandalf's superior in the Council. Look even at our Frodo, who stood at the Cracks
of Doom and declared he would throw away in an eyeblink what had cost him and others so
much to be able to achieve. Temptation comes to even the best of us, but we only prevail
through resistance and recognition that if we fall, it will be our doing, our choice, and
not something that has been forced upon us for which we are not responsible.
In the future I hope to discuss in depth those of Tolkien's characters who, having
fallen, are redeemed, and those who, refusing to repent, are not shown mercy. But for the
time being, it is enough to recognize that the reason Tolkien can tell us so well about the
nature of Good and Evil is because he knows that people--individual, fearful, determined,
weak, strong, allied, lonely, people--are themselves the only variables in what is wrong and
what is right. There will not always be Eagles to pull us out of the fire.
Humming along until next time!