For readers of Tolkien, one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings is their apolitical approach to human reality. The different races that populate the novels do battle over good and evil. While some, like the Orcs, have been corrupted from the start by Melkor (later Morgoth), a Valar who turned evil, even they are apolitical in their vile and blind quest for violence and destruction, for they too fear their master.
Tolkien’s monumental novels emphasize good and evil and how these two forces mold behavior and fashion interaction among the different races. The different races that make up the novels live out their lives in a world ruled by turmoil over territory that results in death—another of the seminal themes of Tolkien’s work.
The wars that take place in Tolkien’s work originated in the quest for the power of evil forces. Careful readers of The Silmarillion can trace the origin of evil to Melkor’s defiance of Eru Ilúvatar, the “One”: “And he descended upon Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.” From the beginning of The Silmarillion, Melkor becomes intent on destroying and defiling everything that Eru Ilúvitar has planned for Arda (Earth) and the beings with which it will populate this world.
The Silmarillion is the philosophical groundwork that explains the causes of the events in The Lord of the Rings. It is a cosmological work that establishes Tolkien’s ontology: the origin of Being and its varied manifestation as becoming. The Silmarillion is also a work of philosophical anthropology that answers the question: what is the nature of man? Tolkien addresses this question by fashioning man’s nature alongside other beings, such as dwarves, immortal elves, and a host of evil entities that dominate the struggle between good and evil.
Man, who Tolkien introduces in a rather late stage of development in his epic legendarium, is said to be blessed with death. Death? This seemingly counterintuitive idea, at least judging by the postmodern corruption of human reality, is an existential drama that man must embrace and live to fruition. Death, which delivers man to the afterlife, Tolkien suggests, is life-affirming.
Before the mythical aspect of Tolkien’s work can be fully appreciated, readers must first embrace his metaphysical conception of creation, and good and evil. Without The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings becomes underappreciated as a mere fantasy, the stuff of dreams and what some ungenerous critics view as escapism. If The Lord of the Rings is a world of the imagination, where the perception of sight, color, and sound takes precedence, The Silmarillion serves as its conceptual foundation. This is why it is essential to read The Silmarillion before embarking on The Lord of the Rings.
In The Lord of the Rings, the one ring is what the evil forces and some misguided others, seek. The ring(s) enable their possessor to suspend the natural contingencies and resistance that life and reality demand, regardless of the different races that may come to possess them. The ring(s) act to suspend reality and the moderation of free will. Philosophically speaking, the lure of Tolkien’s ring(s) inspire reflection on Plato’s ring of Gyges, which turn their wearer into invisible immoral agents who lack a moral compass. To put the significance of the ring(s) in proper perspective, one must begin by understanding the origin of evil, as this is made manifest by the author in The Silmarillion.
Evil in The Silmarillion and Milton’s Paradise Lost
Readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost will quickly make a significant connection between the origin of evil in The Silmarillion and Paradise Lost, which are otherwise very different works.
However, comparing these two works is meant to enlighten readers about the complexity and originality of Tolkien’s work. The comparison is only a starting point to garner reflection on some of the metaphysical themes Tolkien presents readers with. No single essay can exhaust Tolkien’s presentation of metaphysical and ontological essences in his literary work. This is particularly poignant today, a time when the Western Canon has been removed from high schools and universities, leaving otherwise curious, imaginative, and capable students in the dark about perennial topics like God, the origin of the universe, and good and evil. The destruction of the Western Canon begs the question: How can we make sense of profound literary and philosophical works in a culturally and intellectually bankrupted dark age?
The Silmarillion exposes readers to consideration of the viability of the Genesis creation story in light of the creation tales offered in The Silmarillion. For this reason, Christian readers of Tolkien have an advantage. This has traditionally been the case for Christian readers of most of the works that comprise the Western Canon, given the vast number of Christian allusions contained in the great works of Western civilization. Thoughtful readers can’t ask more of Tolkien than to deliver them to reflect on the structure and order of good and evil vis-à-vis human life, as these themes are tastefully presented in story form, what Tolkien calls a “heroic romance.”
Diligent consideration of the creation story conveyed in The Silmarillion requires thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty. Even though The Silmarillion is a work of fiction, it is not a book for readers unprepared to accept its metaphysical premise: evil has a cosmic origin. Tolkien raises the bar of his readership to metaphysical heights, a rare feat in fantastical works of literature.
For instance, the writer of The Hobbit offers readers a glimpse of the differences between supernatural beings, Eru Ilúvatar (the One), and preternatural beings (the Valar). This is important because Tolkien offers a hierarchical conception of creation that considers the vision of a supreme Being–Eru Ilúvatar–and how creation expands in the spatial-temporal realm. It also shows how evil enters into the equation of Being as manifested cosmic becoming. For example, in Paradise Lost, Milton explores the ontological core of Being (what exists) and becoming (how what exists unfolds in the temporal realm). Milton addresses the query posed by Aristotle, Heidegger, et al. that to pose philosophical questions properly; one must first engage with the question of Being: what there is.
Milton presents the reader with God’s vision for a temporal paradise, a garden of sorts, where man can exist without pain and disease and not be burdened by the heaviness of temporal existence. However, Lucifer, knowing God’s intention to create man as a fallible being of flesh and blood, undercuts God’s plan by corrupting the beauty and innocence of this being who God intended to live in communion with nature and others.
Lucifer and other Archangels are preternatural beings. That is angelic beings who are not meant to exist in the flesh. The ability to experience sensuality and carnal pleasure are what Lucifer envies in man. Melkor is no different in relation to Eru Ilúvatar’s plan for Arda (Earth) and the children of Ilúvatar yet to be created. Melkor floods Arda with a host of demons and other aberrant beings that are consumed by the prospect of inflicting pain and suffering on the Children of Ilúvatar: “…in the North, Morgoth built his strength and gathered his demon-broods about him, whom the Gnomes after knew as Balrogs: they had whips of flame. The Úvanimor he made, monsters of divers kinds and shapes; but the orcs were not made until he had looked upon the Elves.”
Power: Metaphysical and Political
Power in itself is not political, but it can certainly be manipulated and corrupted to become an instrument of worldly evil. This is a lesson that the good forces in Tolkien’s novels must eventually come to accept. When they come face to face with power, they recognize it as evil, not just political. This is the moral high ground that Tolkien explores in his work.
Tolkien did not refer to The Lord of the Rings as a novel: “I have very little interest in serial literary history, and no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English ‘novel’. My work is not a ‘novel’, but a ‘heroic romance’ a much older and quite different variety of literature.” For the evil forces in the novel, the ring is merely the means to achieve ultimate power: power as an end in itself.
The dance of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings reminds us of Lucifer’s success in creating legions of followers in Paradise Lost. The destruction of innocence, beauty, and good sets in motion infrahuman conditions that, like entropy, as described by physicists, ultimately culminates in the corruption and destruction of all aspects of human existence. Lucifer’s legion of followers revels in the power over others that this opportunity offers them. The sinister destruction of virtue, goodness, and life-affirming values in Paradise Lost eventually turns into all-consuming evil, given the amorality that corruption sets in motion. Lucifer in Paradise Lost, and the evil forces in Tolkien’s novels, are inebriated with the power that violence yields them. This is a daunting prospect for all the other races that do not solicit evil but eventually become victims if not combated.
In Tolkien’s novels, the forces of good remain optimistically steadfast in their hope that evil can be kept at bay through the exercise of virtue. The alternative to virtue is to embrace evil through an act of attrition. Tolkien writes, “Even fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man.”
The power that evil has to taint innocence, goodness, and beauty is one of the main themes of The Lord of the Rings: evil inverts human reality, creating the dastardly impression that the fundamental aspects of the world, life, and human relations are political. That is, worldly and banal. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo can no longer live in the Shire. The peace and tranquility he once enjoyed have frayed because of his proximity, his actual possession of the ring of power for a while. In addition, Frodo has been physically wounded, stabbed in the shoulder by the evil Witch-king, the Lord of the Nazgûl, with the Morgul knife. The point of the knife brakes off inside Frodo and threatens to turn him into a wraith, an apostate of evil, as it were.
Evil Hides Behind Worldly Political Theater
The stealth cover that evil seeks, it finds in the superficial and banal conditions of life that evil brings about in the first place. Evil hides in plain sight. Is this the ultimate meaning of the fall of man in Christian terms? Evil creates infrahuman conditions that it blames on others, including God (the philosophical problem of evil). In Paradise Lost, Lucifer convinces himself and his legion of followers that he has been wronged by God. He bases this vulgar and self-serving appeal for justice on a grandiose projection of his self-worth. Out of spite for the power of the Valar, Sauron equally turns the Númenoreans to his side and makes them believe that they must destroy the power of the Valar.
By leveling all human existence to conditions where evil is viewed as arising from political circumstances, evil is assured a perpetual cover of bait and hook and, thus, a foothold into human affairs that few people ever learn to suspect, given their all-consuming conditioning to believe that evil either does not exist or that it originates in politics.
In the absence of political agitation, the different races in The Lord of the Rings live within their sphere of reality. That is, the different races, with the notable exception of Orcs, who are the enforcers of Melkor, embrace their strengths and limitations pre-reflectively until they are made conscious of the power over others that evil promises. Only the Orcs and other contemptible creatures, and Saruman’s quest for the ring as a means to power, attempt to enslave and do violence to others by setting up evil as a desired outcome of power. Tolkien suggests that this is one definition of social-political power that nihilism forces upon the good and unsuspecting.
Careful readers of Tolkien’s work discover that the interplay of good and evil enables readers to contemplate the nature and structure of human reality: virtue, a form of good that finds its greatest expression in communion with others, and evil, whose worldly manifestation is brilliantly couched in the language of social-political power.
A Word of Caution About Evil as Understood by Cynics
In Tolkien’s novels and Paradise Lost, evil’s effectiveness as stealth comes about through a conjuring that inverts the natural course of human events through the distortion of reality. Evil achieves this by appealing to the will. Rather than reaching the realization that there is a wide gap between appearance and reality in human reality, evil manipulates the gullible to embrace appearance (phainomenon) as the ultimate reality. This makes human life unstable, given that individuals cannot progress from the mere perception that the senses provide us with to conception that delivers man to knowledge, especially a form of understanding founded on self-knowledge: existential self-awareness (phronesis). It is this form of practical wisdom that enables thoughtful people to see through the veil of evil.
Lucifer corrupts man by tempting Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. One implication of this temptation is Lucifer’s insistence that man must possess God’s inscrutable knowledge: “And what are gods, that man may not become / As they are, participating Godlike food?” Lucifer makes Adam and Eve and his legion of followers believe that man must be privy to the ultimate structure and order of reality, as this, according to Lucifer and Morgoth, is kept secret from man by God.
Lucifer’s and Morgoth’s endgame, respectively, make man believe that man should have equal access to God’s knowledge. Given the impossibility of this demand, man grows into a resentful and envious being. This results in man’s wanting to become a god in the spatial-temporal realm. This brings about a perennial “fall” that finds its lowliest and most banal expression in the social-political realm, denigrating man’s possibility for contentment.
Tolkien was profoundly ahead of the times in remaining an anti-modern writer and thinker. One profound effect of this philosophical orientation is that the themes of his work inform perennial philosophy: knowledge of objective essences that the mind demands of human reality to organize human experience. Another effect of Tolkien’s shunning of many aspects of modernity is the refusal to ground human values on the dictate of social-political institutions, for in Paradise Lost and his legendarium, evil can only triumph through the destruction of order.
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