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The Eternal Conflict in Middle-earth: from Literature to Film
-- Michael Posa

I vividly remember the first time that I met Tolkien in the basement of my local library on the Young Adult shelf. I was ten at the time, and although I could not fully appreciate their depth, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings as a boy enjoys an epic adventure story of the eternal conflict between good and evil. Since that day, I have read and reread Tolkien's works and my collection has grown to over a dozen books. Like millions of readers before, I have been enthralled by the beauty and complexity of Middle-earth: an epic world complete with unique history, cultures, and even languages. And so, when I learned that Peter Jackson was to direct a new film version, I was at once filled with both excitement and trepidation. The Lord of the Rings in theaters would be wondrous if done correctly and yet, as with any adaptation of an established classic, there are inherent risks. Now, all three movies have been released (finishing with Return of the King in December 2003), and have been met with overwhelming approval both in the box office and the Academy Awards (Return having recently won eleven Academy Awards). Clearly, Jackson's adaptation of the original story has been accepted by the general public.

In a letter, Tolkien once wrote that "Some reviewers have called [The Lord of the Rings] simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad" (Carpenter 197). This appears to be the position of Peter Jackson, who makes subtle changes to the plot that modify the original portrayals of good and evil. A film audience must be able to relate to both the good and evil in characters, so the good cannot be too good nor the bad too bad. As a director, Jackson's primary goal is to produce a film that will best appeal to the most viewers, an objective that he appears to have achieved. Tolkien, however, continues this letter by rejecting this interpretation of the novels by writing, "Pardonable, perhaps…in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read, and, of course, without the earlier written but unpublished Elvish histories" (197). This statement reflects the fact that Middle-earth simply has too much depth for any movie to present to the common audience.

Tolkien describes his target audience, which contrasts strongly with Jackson's, in a letter to his son Christopher, "This book has come to be more and more addressed to you, so that your opinion matters more than anyone else's" (91). The Lord of the Rings was not written to appeal to everyone and so the novels contain much obscure Middle-earth lore that Jackson's viewers would not be aware of. Evil, as Tolkien portrays it, resides within us and we have the choice to resist its temptation. Jackson must adapt the original work to suit the different needs of a high budget film production and as a result, the depictions of good and evil are dramatically changed. My first thought was that Jackson was correct in his above assessment that the films show this eternal conflict in a more complex light: blurring the lines between good and evil. Upon careful research and examination of numerous sources, I find that, contrary to my initial reaction, the films actually contain a greatly simplified view of both good and evil when compared with Tolkien's original work.


Tolkien's mythical world, named Arda, was created by Ilúvatar, who also created the spirits (gods) known as the Valar and the Maiar. One particular spirit of the former and more powerful group, Melkor, resists the designs of Ilúvatar and causes the introduction of strife and war into the world (Silmarillion 3-13). Sauron, a Maia, follows a similar path: tempted by power he chooses to serve Melkor (26). This tale introduces the philosophy that evil comes from the exercise of free will. As a creation myth, it strongly resembles the Christian representation of the two falls--of Lucifer from Heaven and of Adam and Eve from Eden--and it is likely that Tolkien's strong Roman Catholic convictions influenced his representations of good and evil. Evil, as nearly every Tolkien reader learns, "is a distortion and perversion of the Good" (Wood). In The Lord of the Rings, the characters are constantly put into conflict with one particularly common incarnation of evil: orcs. These beings appear brutish and nasty and seem bent on the destruction of everything that is good. It seems possible that orcs are pure evil; this appears to be Sam's belief when he asks, "Don't orcs eat, and don't they drink? Do they just live on foul air and poison?" (Return 219). Frodo, however, wisely replies that "No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own" (219). While Tolkien never satisfactorily explains the origin of orcs, he does theorize on a number of occasions that Melkor used captives to "breed the hideous race of orcs in envy and mockery of the elves" (Silmarillion 50). Even orcs and Sauron, we see, are corruptions of beings that were once good.

Concerning Middle-earth, Tolkien espouses the philosophical idea that "I do not think there is [Absolute Evil], since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any 'rational being' is wholly evil" (Carpenter 243). Indeed, Sauron, following the imprisonment of his master Melkor, is further corrupted when he realizes the great respect men and elves have of his knowledge. As Tolkien writes, "He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he…considered the well-being of other inhabitants" (243). Tom Shippey, a prominent Tolkien scholar, names this belief (or disbelief) in Evil as the Boethian view; he defines this philosophy as the opinion that "[evil] is the absence of good, is possibly even an unappreciated good" (Shippey 140). In The Lord of the Rings, we see how no character is truly pure evil: Gollum, the hateful wretch that he is, is nearly able to draw himself from the brink and reform. As a further example, Tolkien even shows how one orc hates his Nazgūl masters when the orc says, "They've done in Number One [the chief Nazgūl], I've heard, and I hope it's true!" (Return 244). I would like to think that, given the choice, he and others would not war against humanity. Orcs and other figures of evil in the novels are all shown to actually be part good and part evil.

Despite this support for the Boethian perspective, Shippey claims that Tolkien also espouses the contrary Manichaean view of evil: a philosophy that sees the world as a battleground for warring forces of good and evil (Shippey 142). Tolkien frequently personifies the Ring, theorizing how it acts with a will of its own: "the Ring was trying [my italics] to get back to its master" (Fellowship 81). Indeed, it is a source of temptation to all those who come into contact with it: influencing those in its presence to desire it. It would seem that the Ring is an outside and antagonistic force of evil that contrasts with the Boethian interpretation. I would argue, however, that Shippey is incorrect in his claim. It is possible to align the Ring with Boethius when we see the Ring for what it really is: a part of Sauron. Sauron, in crafting it, imbued it with a great deal of his own power. It, as an extension of him, can be considered a rational character acting with the natural instinct for self-preservation and is no more evil than Sauron.


Following the defeat and imprisonment of his master Melkor, Sauron hid himself away until rising again late in the Second Age. He came to the elves as Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and, because they were so impressed with his knowledge, he was able to deceive them and secretly craft the One Ring (Silmarillion 355-6). After making war on men, Sauron was subdued and captured by the Númenoreans, from whom Aragorn is descended. While in Númenor, Sauron spread lies and poisoned the minds of men against the Valar. His falsehood brought about the eventual downfall of Númenor when the Númenoreans rebelled against the Valar. In the destruction of this land, Sauron was stripped forever of his power to appear good and fair to elves and men (Silmarillion 334-47). This theme of evil in the guise of beauty is recurrent through Tolkien's works. At their first meeting, Frodo says of Aragorn, "I think one of [Sauron's] spies would-well, seem fairer and feel fouler" (Fellowship 214). It is important to note that, throughout all the histories of Middle-earth, there is no mention of Sauron himself engaging in physical combat until his later defeat by the Last Alliance, where he is overthrown and Isildur takes the Ring from his finger. Men and elves defeat Sauron twice through force of arms even when he possesses the Ring, so he is by no means physically invincible. Rather, Sauron's power comes through his ability to deceive others and tempt them to evil.

In the Prologue scene to the film Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson presents an altogether different image of the Enemy. He appears as a titanic figure sheathed in sinister black armor wielding a mace that sends crowds enemies flying backwards, and he shatters Elendil's famed sword Narsil with only his foot. His defeat comes only through a desperate swipe of a broken sword that happens to cut the ring from Sauron's hand. This blow, struck by Isildur, defeats Sauron more through luck than any skill of elves and men. This scene presents a completely different image of the evil lord: he is a warrior king towering over men and elves with but one, Achillean weakness. The elvish and human hosts are overmatched by his physical prowess, as one blow is sufficient to kill whole groups of soldiers at a time. Interestingly enough, I have found a description that sounds hauntingly familiar to this scene, "And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned…[he] hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld" (Silmarillion 185). This, however, tells of Melkor's duel with the elvish king Fingolfin. Sauron, however, was a spirit very different from his former lord, "Where [Melkor] succeeded with raw power and force, Sauron and his evil had to be more subtle and insidious" (Harvey 64). Jackson's image of Sauron is one designed to be menacing and monstrous, one who will impress the audience with the sheer impossibility of the quest to destroy the Ring.

This view, however, contrasts sharply with the one presented by Tolkien. Sauron has invested his power in his armies, just as Melkor used his power to warp the creatures and environment of Middle-earth. He leads from the rear as a commander and, as Denethor says, "He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise" (Return 100). In the novels, Sauron never appears as more than a fiery Eye, and as Frodo and the fellowship travel east, it is his servants--Nazgūl and orcs-- that they must combat. Tolkien portrays Sauron, a main symbol of evil, in terms readily accessible to readers: as a shadowy menace using fear as its ultimate weapon. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to deliver this image through film. Jackson accomplishes this effect with the Nine, but he is aided by their physical presence. For Sauron, however, the mere mention of his name that appears in The Lord of the Rings does not suffice in film. He therefore introduces Sauron as a warrior in the battle scene where the Ring is first lost. This depiction, while useful in film, leans heavily towards the more simplistic Manichaean viewpoint. It is easy to see Jackson's Sauron, outfitted as a stereotypical villain, as evil, but the more complex and image Sauron is as a fallen angel who uses lies and deceit to gain power.


Lies and deceit are not the sole province of Sauron: Saruman, too, is adept at twisting words. Saruman, like Gandalf, is an Istari (Wizard) sent to Middle-earth by the Valar to aid the free peoples in combating Sauron. They are Maiar, like Sauron, but clothed in flesh as old, wizened men (Return 417). Of the Istari, Saruman was accounted to be the wisest, but in Fellowship we see that he has long been corrupted by the Ring. The cause of this is two-fold: first, that Saruman believed that the free peoples would fall to Sauron; and second, through his long research, he became enthralled by the power of the Ring. In his desire to order the world, his fall is strikingly similar to that of Sauron. And yet through it all, Saruman acts always "only for [his] own ends" and sees himself as an ally, not servant of Sauron (War 48). In the films, Jackson portrays him as a vassal of Sauron; for instance, Saruman calls Sauron "master" at one point (LotR: Two Towers). This is a simplified view which blurs the once clear distinction between the two. Tolkien has Saruman rationalize his pact with Sauron by saying to Gandalf, "There is hope that way…We can bide our time…deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish" (Fellowship 311). Both works are clear on the main point that fallen into evil, Saruman builds his own army of orcs and men and he becomes increasingly similar to the Enemy that he was sent by the Vala to defeat.

Throughout the novels, Saruman gives no indication of any innate magical abilities: rather, his power is derived from his wisdom and rhetorical skill. His honeyed tongue is his asset which lends him his strength. He is, however, portrayed much differently throughout the films. Tolkien describes Théoden as being controlled only indirectly by Saruman, who uses Grima Wormtongue to fill his ears with lies to convince him of his weakness. In the films, however, Saruman seems to possess Théoden until Gandalf forcibly casts his spirit from Théoden's body. In a critique of a film version from the 1950's, Tolkien writes, "Saruman's voice was not hypnotic but persuasive. Those who listened to him were not in danger of falling into a trance, but of agreeing with his arguments, while fully awake. It was always open to one to reject, by free will and reason" (Carpenter 276-7). This difference between film and movies has important implications: in Jackson's version, Théoden is forcibly controlled by Saruman while, in the novels, it is only through Théoden's own inability to reject the ill counsel of Wormtongue that he falls prey to Saruman's lies. In Tolkien's view of evil, will to evil is an internal desire that we can resist while Jackson's perspective makes it a dominating, external force.

Saruman's orcish servants, the Uruk-Hai, further illustrate the differences between literature and film. The Uruk-Hai, a word that literally means "Orc-people" in the Black Speech, were a breed of orcs that appeared in the Third Age and were stronger and more resistant to the sun than previous orcs (Fisher). In the films, Jackson portrays these orcs as magical creations of Saruman emerging fully grown from mucus-covered membranes (Figure 2). Furthermore, they quickly display their violent nature when the first Uruk throttles the nearest orc immediately after his "birth." To the contrary, Tolkien writes that, "The Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar…And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the master who they served in fear, the maker only of their misery" (Silmarillion 50). These orcs, who are, as I have said, merely twisted elves, appear to be supremely evil and cruel in the films. Jackson even implies a crude form of cannibalism when one Uruk claims that "Look's like meat's back on the menu, boys!" after killing another orc (LotR: Two Towers). These orcs have also fallen prey to Jackson's film needs: the orcs are presented as relentless killing machines to easily justify the fact that they are slaughtered en masse by the free peoples. This further widens the gulf between good and evil, a line that Tolkien left blurred in the novels. True, Tolkien's orcs were nasty and brutish, but they were not mere senseless monsters. They, too, have free will and likely even souls (Carpenter 195). The changes to orcs in the films emphasize a simpler Manichaean conflict between good and evil: stressing the differences between orcs and men, without mentioning the ugly similarities.


The film's simplification of evil in the traditional forces of the Shadow also holds when applied to the more complex race of Men. Tolkien explicitly presents man's dual capacities for good and evil by contrasting pairs of similar characters. Théoden, King of Rohan, is the lord who learns from his mistakes and repents; while Denethor, Steward of Gondor, remains trapped in his manic fantasies. Jackson, however, introduces subtle differences in the films. Théoden's "cure" by Gandalf is not complete: instead of boldly advancing against Saruman to meet him at Helm's Deep, Jackson portrays a more timid Théoden retreating towards the caverns. Also, unlike the novels, Théoden hesitates to send his forces to the aid of Minas Tirith. It seems that Jackson believes that this much more gradual revival is more believable to a film audience.

In contrast with Théoden, Denethor remains static as the proudest character throughout the novels. In the end, he is driven to despair by what he feels is the impending destruction of Gondor. "The west has failed," he says, "It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash!" (Return 141). In his madness he chooses death by casting himself into the fire in a manner similar to the corrupted lords of sunken Númenor. Despite this, his pride keeps him fighting until Minas Tirith looks lost. He is, however, a much more sinister character in the films: a fact evidenced by his near refusal to defend Gondor and even by his appearance (above). Jackson, unfortunately, fails to fully encompass the scope of Denethor's character. Tolkien's Denethor is neither good nor evil. Rather, it is easy to imagine that he sees himself as failure for not fulfilling his duty as Steward of Gondor to protect the realm. By introducing elements of evil and cowardice into their characters, Jackson attempts to show a much more human--and fallible--aspect in these two lords. Denethor's villainy not only causes tension with Gandalf and Pippin, but it also highlights the ability of great men to do ill. However by changing Denethor and Théoden, Jackson polarizes them to such an extent that we can no longer recognize similarities between them: Théoden remains weak-willed and Denethor is more evil than proud. The films lose Tolkien's complete depiction of mankind found in the juxtaposition of these two. While this view succeeds in interesting audiences, it loses Tolkien's original message of the twofold nature of man to either overcome or fall prey to despair and evil.

The contrast between Faramir and his brother Boromir also portrays the duality of man in The Lord of the Rings. At the end of Fellowship, Boromir succumbs to the temptation of the Ring and attempts to seize it from Frodo. However, when confronted with the Ring, Faramir brashly tells Frodo that, "I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway" (Two Towers 330). Philippa Boyens, an influential writer in the film project, immediately dismisses Faramir's rejection of the ring as "death on film" because of their attempt to portray the Ring as "one of the most evil things ever created" (LotR: Two Towers). He is, simply put, too good: an idea that Tolkien fan and film student Elicia Donze agrees with when she writes, "[In a] film…you simply cannot have FLAT characters" (Donze). It is true that Jackson's Faramir is much more complicated and dynamic than Tolkien's original character. Indeed, it may be difficult for an audience to comprehend how Faramir might dismiss the Ring out of hand. And yet, it would be simplistic to say that no one can outright resist the temptation embodied in the ring; doing so would take away Faramir's free will to reject evil; and Tolkien is very insistent upon the choice we all have do good.

The significance of Faramir's rejection of evil can be explored further by examining Michael Swanick's essay on his personal experience with Tolkien's work. Here, Swanick introduces the idea of the Ring as a "God-sent integrity test… to test all of creation and decide whether it is worthy of continuance" we can begin to understand the moral significance of Faramir's decision (Swanick 42). While Swanick exaggerates with this claim, since the Ring is definitely not God-sent, it is clearly true that the Quest is a test with the most dire consequences for failure. Throughout the story, the characters that resist the Ring's temptation--Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Sam and even Aragorn--are more than simply human. Gandalf is an angelic spirit, Elrond and Galadriel are elves and Sam is a hobbit. Aragorn, while a man, is descended from the lords of Númenor and is blessed with both inner strength and longevity that far exceeds other men(King 389). The Fourth Age that begins at the end of the novels is the Age of Men and so it is of the utmost importance that men, too, pass the test of the Ring. This is why Faramir must have the choice to derail the quest and it is why he does not fail. As we have seen, Tolkien shows us that we always have the choice to resist temptation and evil. Jackson and Boyens, in order to produce a film, have lost this pivotal triumph of human will--I hesitate to say "good" --over evil. They posit the Ring as a Manichaean source of evil that can create ill will within others, rather than simply magnify the desire for dominance that is already there. While it initially appears as if the movie has an added element of depth lacking in the novels, it is this depth that actually polarizes the concepts of good and evil.


As the reader can easily predict, the climax of the story comes when the Ring is cast into the Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom. What comes as a shock, however, is that Frodo is ultimately unable to destroy the Ring; instead, he claims it saying, "I have come, but I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!" (Return 248). "No," Tolkien writes, "Frodo 'failed'" (Carpenter 252). It is, as Swanick correctly surmises, a test that "no fair-minded person can believe he ever had a chance of passing" (Swanick 44). In fact, the careful reader will notice that from the very beginning, Gandalf predicts the Quest's failure when he says, "Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it" (Fellowship 87). Frodo's inevitable failure at the Sammath Naur shows that The Lord of the Rings does not tell of the triumph of good over evil, since good--Frodo--is unable to complete the task at hand. Rather, it is only through Frodo's mercy to Gollum and a bit of providence that the ring is destroyed. Jackson presents a subtly different image where Frodo wrestles with Gollum, causing him to slip and fall to his death. Here, the forces of good actively triumph over evil by causing Gollum's death and the destruction of the Ring. In light of his belief that evil is a choice, Tolkien's perspective seems confused when he explains this final scene, "But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'" (Carpenter 252).

We can explain this apparent contradiction, perhaps, with Shippey's modernist interpretation of the Ring as an addictive force. "Frodo does want to destroy the Ring but has not the strength" (Shippey 39). I argue that earlier in the Quest, Frodo could have laid down the Ring but it was his conscious decision to bear the burden that caused his nearly fatal addiction. The Ring itself is not irresistible; rather by carrying it, Frodo willingly subjects himself to its influence in order to bring it to the Sammath Naur. And yet, it is Frodo's mercy that finally triumphs over evil. No force, no "push" could destroy the Ring; instead, it is kindness that obtains victory. It is Frodo's mercy, and not Aragorn's feats in war, that is the true antithesis of evil because mercy is something that Sauron has completely abandoned. "In a sense the Dark Lord himself is the slave…of his own evil power. For evil is in the end the rejection of every good" (Putrill 57). Mercy, not secrecy or willpower, is what Sauron rejects and so it must be his downfall. As such, we can see the novels not as a battle between the epic forces good and evil but between the human emotions of kindness and hatred.

The Lord of the Rings is one of many works of literature to be adapted to film, and it is one of the most successful and accurate adaptations, due to the immense respect for Tolkien held by the filmmakers. Yet it is also obviously true that the director Peter Jackson has made his individual presence felt in his interpretation of the story. Like most of us, Jackson subscribes to the perspective that Tolkien is telling a tale of the conflict between good and evil. And yet for Tolkien and many scholars of literature, there is actually a much more sophisticated depiction of the traditional forces of good and evil. He subscribes to the Boethian philosophy where evil does not exist in the true sense: rather, it is a perversion of good. Evil and good are abstracts and not absolutes. In modifying the story to make a broadly appealing film, Jackson needed to simplify the complex themes and ideas present in The Lord of the Rings. As a result, the movies lean towards the Manichaean heresy that the world is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. While the main plot remains the same, the subtle intricacies of Tolkien's philosophy are unfortunately lacking. And yet, Jackson's interpretation at once thrills and moves the audience. This simplistic idea, while it makes for an excellent film, fails to convey the more intricate themes that define Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings.

-- Michael Posa

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1995.

Donze, Elicia. "Faramir is Evil Like Gandalf is Green." Nov 2003. 22 Feb 2003.

Fisher, Mark. The Encyclopedia of Arda. 2004. 2 Mar. 2004 http://www.glyphweb.com/arda

Harvey, David. The Song of Middle-earth. London: George Allen, 1985.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. New Line, 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson. New Line, 2002.

Purtrill, Richard L. J.R.R. Myth, Morality, and Religion. San Francisco: Harper, 1981.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton, 2003.

Swanwick, Michael. "A Changeling Returns." Meditations on Middle-Earth. New York: Byron Preiss, 2001.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1955.

---. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 1955.

---. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

---. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine, 1954.

---. The War of the Ring. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1990.

Wood, Ralph C. "Good & evil in Middle-earth: the characters are mythic, but the epic sweeps across a Christian moral landscape." Christian History May 2003: 28-31.

Works Referenced

Caldecott, Stratford. Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: Darton, 2003.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The End of the Third Age. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1992.

---. The Return of the Shadow. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1988.

---. The Treason of Isengard. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton, 1989.

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