[ Green Books ] [ Horizontal Rule ]
[ Horizontal Rule ]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[ Green Books ]
[ Green Books - Exploring the Words and Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien ] [ Green Books ]

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, steadfast ...

"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 than that.

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 into evil.

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 determination.

"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!

[ Email this Page to a Friend ] Email this page to a friend!

Email Anwyn


Past Counterpoints

home | contact us | back to top | site map |search | join list | review this site

This site is maintained and updated by fans of The Lord of the Rings. We in no way claim the artwork displayed to be our own. Copyrights and trademarks for the books, films, and related properties mentioned herein are held by their respective owners and are used solely for promotional purposes of said properties. Design and original photography however are copyright © 2000 TheOneRing.net ™.