A while ago, I was involved in a debate about Tolkien, centring around whether he was simply putting forward a simplistically conservative morality in his work – a surprisingly common accusation. I had some good thoughts (by my low standards) while contributing, and felt I ought to put them up here. Had I the remotest scintilla of proactivity, I should have reformed them into a coherent essay of my own. Instead, I’m just putting up a bunch of small essays in response to various comments/question/allegations, which are in red and italics. These sections are more or less word-for-word the opinions of others. I’ve taken out who they’re by and sometimes changed the order, and I’ve concentrated on what I think were the core themes (there were also some peripheral discussions of, eg, marxism and monarchy, as well as considerable padding about the personalities of the participants in the discussion). I hope nobody will be offended by this – the quotes are meant to stand as emblematic for common complaints, rather than representative of one person’s views.
I should also clarify that I mean conservativism in an ideological sense (the view that things should remain the same and that change, particularly social change, is generally bad), rather than in an applied political sense (the view that particular actual social changes should be resisted), which can come from many different ideologies, not merely conservativism. In particular, this reading of Tolkien paints him as fairly staunchly religious in viewpoint – which may make him a natural ally of conservatives in many social debates, but does not make him conservative per se.
On change and how it’s represented in LotR: I’ve read the books a few times now. And never do I get the feeling that change is ever a positive value in the world. I don’t get the hope; LotR is above all an ending, not a new beginning to me. Do others so fervently disagree?
Tolkien’s view of change is far more nuanced that you give him credit for. Change is good, and bad, and inevitable, and impossible. Everything changes, but everything stays the same. The death of Sauron does not end evil; there are a great many threats still in the world after his death; pettier threats, no doubt, as Sauron himself was petty after Morgoth, but threats nonetheless (the Balrogs, most obviously; but are there not also dragons remaining? Most of the world has been under Sauron’s sway, much of it is filled with monsters, his other lieutenants are mentioned here and there, there’s two corrupted Istari somewhere in the east, and so forth and so on). Tolkien’s plans for a sequel were not based on eternal light and happiness – they were about Gondor being in danger of being taken over by Satanists. All the good things that arrive at the end of the book are explicitly only the last light of a dying age, and there are troubling times ahead. Change in one sense is impossible – evil can never be eradicated, and the same vices and temptations will plague all the ages… until, in the end, Melkor Morgoth returns in glory and corrupts and destroys the world in the last days at the end of time, when only God will be able to defeat him by ending his creation in the day of judgement. Everything changes, and everything stays the same.
Change is bad, because it sees the passing of great and noble things. But don’t get caught up with the glamour of the elves – that, after all, is the sin of the elves themselves. The elves are great, and have the potential for great good and great evil. What passes with the elves, what Tolkien and his characters mourn for, is the passing of a certain kind of hope, a hope for a certain kind of world. The elves are great, and bore the possibility of a great and noble, magical and kind, heavenly and pleasant world; and with their passing, that possibility has also passed. But that world never existed! The elves never did create that world. The elves were great, and the elves were proud and vain. Whether by their pride preventing them from coming to the Valar, or their pride driving them out from the protection of the Valar, the elves made a home for themselves in Middle Earth, with the hope and intention of creating a glorious kingdom. They failed – because the vanity that drove them to make the attempt bore within it their own, tragic, destruction. They were glorious in their attempt, just as Feanor was glorious in his vain defiance, but the elves as a whole, just like Feanor, destroyed themselves.
The world is better off without them. Over the generations, the elves became twisted, bitter, petty, militaristic, and despairing. It is explicitly said that if any of them acquires power they will use it for evil. Galadriel is perhaps wise, having more experience than the others, and knows to avoid power, but she is not so wise as to use it well. Cirdan, also, is perhaps wise, having his own cause to devote himself to that has little impact on the rest of the world. The rest of the elves are portrayed, in general, negatively – paranoid, vengeful, despairing. In a world without Sauron, a world of men, the elves have the ability to seize power – and that is why they have to go. Why they have to, as Galadriel says, “diminish, and pass into the West”.
Ultimately, I think that if we want to see his experiences in Tolkien, it’s not the experience of war that’s evident, but the post-war experience – the world is left broken after the war (not only the war of the ring, but the centuries, millenia, of war against Sauron), and the only way it can renew itself is through the passing of the generation of veterans.
Man is, as it were, the child of the series. At the end, the parents leave and it’s forced to grow up itself. Is that a ‘negative’ change? No! Yes, we should lament the death of the parents, lament not having them around any more, and appreciate their achievements. But the world is better off without them. Mankind does not have the potential for greatness that the elves had, but a potential for greatness is a potential for great evil and great good. From now on, yes there will be evil, but until the last days it will now be a pettier evil – and a pettier good. There is something to lament in that – but at the same time, we should recognise that now, finally, there is hope for a better world.
This returns, I think, to the issue of war. For Tolkien, the important thing about war is fear. This is what is conveyed so well in the battlescenes – whether in the ‘trenches’ of Helm’s Deep or behind the walls of Minas Tirith, a creeping sense of dread. That fear drives all the evil of the world. Even Sauron, after all, is motivated by a fear of evil – Sauron’s sin is not a love of industry but simply perfectionism. He wants to make the world perfect, and he cannot do that without having power, so his fear drives him to seize power. The elves, for their part, are likewise terrified in their forest fortesses. The difference between good and evil in Arda is how you respond to fear – with hope, or with despair. The elves have to go because they have become infected with despair.
Really? Your telling me the entire history of Middle-Earth is not of a gradual slide from the perfection of original creation towards the imperfection of the present? And that this is not seen as bad?
I don’t know about him, but I’M telling you that. There is not a slide from perfection (which never existed, as Melkor’s pride entered in before the music was complete) toward imperfection, but rather a slide from greatness, glory, power and magic toward pettiness, mundanity, ordinariness and triviality. And no, this is not seen as monotonically bad – it is seen as in some ways a loss of some great potential, which is worth mourning, but at the same time it is an escape from great evil to a world of potentially greater happiness. The tone at the end of the book is hardly unremitting sorrow – things have been changed irrevocably, things have been lost forever, but the world can go on now into a new and freer era in which mankind is able to forge a new world for itself. The last words before the appendix, “Well, I’m back” shouldn’t be read as “everything how it was before” but rather as “*sigh* OK, that’s out of the way, let’s get down to work”.
The Shire is represented as this wondrous place of harmony and innocence and the obvious positive role it plays in the story. No allegory necessary – it’s a simple place with simple people, and it represents the best the world has to offer.
Are you sure you’ve read the parts with the Shire? It’s not harmonious, it’s petty and quarrelsome. It’s not innocent, it’s xenophobic, ignorant and naive. It has survived as it has in its blind little way not by its own measures but by being guarded by adults who know better. The hobbits are children, and as stupid and petty as children. As with the elves, the positive role is not played by the Shire, but by a possibility inherent in the Shire – Gandalf does not like the Shire, he likes something about the Shire. There is something desirable about it – who can deny that it has any appeal?
But it is not something that is attainable. You cannot have what is good about the Shire without what is bad, because the Shire is a nation of children, and can only be kept in that way in an age of parents. At the end of the story, the Shire is integrated into the new urban civilisation of Arnor, and eventually hobbits die out – and this is not a bad thing! The Shire grows up, and in doing so it has to say goodbye to some good things about it in order to find a sustainable place in the world. The end of the book is the end of the shire, and is the end of childhood. The end of childhood is something to be lamented, and childhood deserves nostalgia, but it is also something that is inevitable – and fighting it will only bring despair. The Shire, like everything else, has to adapt – and improve. We hope.
The Ring creates an internal struggle within the person. It’s still the same “Evil from Outside” idea though. Sauron, Morgoth, whatever, it’s always the same. Stuff is good and then along comes evil over the horizon to wreck everyone’s nice shit. The source of evil in LOTR is an outer force. Sure, it has a sympathetic echo within the person themselves, but the outside force is what makes that come to the fore.
This just isn’t true. The ring doesn’t warp people’s minds into evil or anything – the Ring is just really, really powerful. Saying that the ring is an exterior force is like saying that Plato’s Ring corrupts people through an exterior force. No, Plato’s Ring corrupts people because it makes them invisible, giving them power and anonymity. Tolkien’s homage is rather more subtle – it’s not the freedom from accountability that corrupts, it’s the lust for power, and, ultimately, it’s pride and fear. Gollum becomes evil because he is terrified of loosing the Ring, and that fear drives paranoia that overcomes morality. Boromir is ‘corrupted’ not by some magical ‘corrupt-o-matic magic’ in the Ring, but simply because he wants to save his country. Without the Ring, Boromir is vain and proud and wants to fight Sauron to save his country and exact revenge. With the Ring… he is exactly the same! The temptation of the Ring doesn’t change him, it only offers him the power to achieve what he wants to achieve. The Ring’s greatest power over the mind is simply that people can sense how powerful, and hence how useful, it is. The ‘evil’ is already within the individual, the Ring only gives an opportunity for that evil to be seen.
This means, of course, that everybody is evil, since everybody is susceptible to the temptation of the Ring. Only the wisest can reject it, and even then only with great struggle. This should be no surprise – Tolkien was a Catholic, and he believed in Original Sin. The morals of the story are really very Catholic: the one and ultimate sin is a lack of faith in God, which is expressed through fear and pride.
The same process is seen with Feanor. Yes, Feanor is tempted by Morgoth, and yes, that leads to his fall. But Morgoth does nothing to change Feanor – Feanor is already proud, Feanor is already paranoid, and Feanor is already in conflict with the gods. Morgoth only pushes him over the edge – and even then only negatively, in that Feanor rejects Morgoth, and errs on the side of opposing Morgoth too strongly and with too much hate. From then on all the evil deeds committed by the Sons of Feanor are done without intervention by Morgoth. In fact, if you look at all the tragedies of the Silmarillion, from Melkor to Sauron to Feanor to Eol to Turin, what you see time and again is the exact opposite of your message: evil comes from within, from pride and fear. “Evil” with a capital letter, in Tolkien, is there as something to be frightened of, something the proud believe they can overcome on their own. Evil is only a temptation – so it becomes pointless to say that all evil comes from outside, because where is is temptation going to come from? In one sense, evil comes from within – it’s the individual who chooses to sin. In another sense, any time there’s a setting where the characters are surrounded by a world, evil will always come from outside – because it’s the world that offers the temptation that is yielded to.
When you say “stuff is good, and then along comes evil” you are DOUBLY wrong. Firstly, evil has been there all the time. Sauron doesn’t come over a hill, he’s been there since the beginning. Evil entered the world with Melkor’s pride, and that took place before the world had even been created. The lack of evil was only in the original idea – it has never been the place in the realisation.
Secondly, even if we’re not looking for ‘good’ in an absolute sense – when has ‘stuff’ ever ‘been good’ in Middle Earth??? Middle-Earth has endured thousands of years of unending war in which most of the planet has been subjugated by evil, and almost all traces of rest and comfort have gradually been destroyed (eg the dwindling of Fangorn and Lorien, the destruction of Arnor, the crippling of Gondor). Unending warfare and the death of all nice things is hardly ‘stuff is good’. If you go further back, only Beleriand was ‘good’, and wracked by wars just as bad against Melkor, a far worse evil than Sauron. If you go before those wars, there was no civilisation in middle earth at all, and everywhere was eternal night where tribal bands quailed before unutterable monsters. No matter how far back you go, ‘stuff’ has never ‘been good’.
Stuff APPEARED good to the hobbits in the Shire, perhaps. One forgotten corner of the world was able to maintain a child-like state of indolence and ignorance and pettiness for a couple of centuries because other people worked tirelessly to protect them and because evil had better things to care about. The fact that this situation was only an illusion all along is made quite clear throughout the books (iirc Gandalf says it explicitly). In the end it’s an illusion that can’t be sustained – they don’t go back to that state of ‘goodness’, they change it irrevocably, and in the end destroy it entirely. Nor, indeed, do they WANT to go back to it. The heroes are clearly in conflict with the Shire’s values when they return – it’s an atmosphere no longer restful to them. Even Sam’s much-quoted restoration of the Shire is not a restoration in the conservative sense. Sam’s vision of the Shire, with magical trees and magical flowers and visits from elves and visits from the human King, and expanded trade beyond the borders of the Shire… all this is perhaps ‘good’ in a sense, but it is a fundamentally different kind of ‘good’ from the ‘good’ of the Shire in the beginning of the novel – resolutely close-minded, isolationist, anti-magic, anti-human, anti-elf.
On industry being evil: so really, you can’t take the step from Saruman – the fallen Valar sorcerer who is in league with Satan – being the only one using industry (and here, Tolkien is actually graphic) and showing the rampant pollution and environmental havoc he causes, and saying that it’s evil in the book?
Tolkien does NOT say that industry is EVIL. He says that industry is DANGEROUS, because by becoming devoted to industry we can lose sight of our PURPOSE for industry. It’s exactly the same point as he makes with regard to war: if we become too involved in war, we lose sight of what is being fought for. Saruman fights Sauron through industry; Gondor, through an almost fascist society devoted to warfare. Both ultimately serve Sauron.
Yes, the orcs are industrious; Saruman and Sauron are industrious. But the dwarves are industrious too, and they’re not villains. Gondor and Arnor were industrious, and they’re not villains – the great victory at the end, after all, is that they start the process of transforming the depopulated, rural northwest back into the urban, industrious kingdom of Arnor. The Noldar, explicitly the greatest non-divine beings in Arda’s history, and on a par with lesser gods, are also explicitly the greatest and most enthusiastic craftsmen, engineers and mechanics. Early versions of the Gondolin tale were explicit in stating that the great wonders of that city (and, we might extrapolate, of other great Noldar cities not described in such depth) were technological in nature.
In all these cases, technology and industry are seen as threats, because they can lead astray. But they are not threats that cannot be overcome – Feanor is an admirable character despite his fall, and many other Noldar are almost as great in craft as he and avoid his pride.
Yes, Sauron and Saruman were both probably originally servants of Aule, the angel of technology, but Aule is also staunchly on the side of good, one of the greatest enemies of evil, because he retains his faith in God. Tolkien’s view of industry is summed up in the tale of the creation of the dwarves. Aule, losing faith in God’s plan because he sees nothing occur, creates the dwarves, creatures of industry, to complement the world God has created. God chides him, and does not allow the dwarves to walk the earth, because his actions came from losing faith in god. All is righted by having the dwarves sleep until the elves arive, putting the work of man (or in this case Aule) after the work of god – and god recognises not only that the industry of the dwarves makes the world better, but also that Aule’s industry in creating them has IMPROVED on God’s own original plan. The industry of the dwarves is a good thing, as is the industry of the Noldar – so long as it remains subordinate to the love of God. When they lose faith in God through pride or fear, they become a menace, and their industry supplants rather than complements the natural (ie God-given) world.
Unless, of course, you mean ‘industry’ purely in the sense of environment-destroying polluting factories with slave labour. In which case, yes, he does see industry as being a bad thing. I see nothing wrong with that view, myself.
Hell, the whole melancholy aspect to the end of LOTR comes from the fact that shit can’t be put back the way it was again. That even though they “saved the world”, the world is forever changed and that’s sad.
First, I’d like to point out the contradiction in what is said by those who try to paint Tolkien as a conservative. Take the above quote and then compare it to “good, honest hardworking people can fix that and get back to the good stuff that is now” and “The current setup is good and we’ll get back to it at the end of the tale for a happy ending (Where “happy ending” means everything back to the way it was before)”. Do you see the problem?
Tolkien-labellers can’t with one hand say “oh, Tolkien’s about going back to a happy ending where everything is how it was before, because good people can put everything right” and with the other hand say “oh, Tolkien’s about everything good going away and there’s nothing we can do about it”.
The truth that people will run into if they try to follow the first route is that, no, everything changes in the end. The truth they will run into if they follow the second route is that, actually, even though everything changes and we should be a little sad about that, there is nonetheless a happy ending! It is bittersweet, yes, but it’s still happy.
Finally, one last point about the ‘everything’s worse now’ school of analysis of Tolkien: Tom Bombadil.
What we see in the end of LotR is a transformation to a human, mundane world away from the magical one – the end of glory and majesty. The magical paradises of Lothlorien or Dorian, or even Gondolin or Rivendell are gone forever. Instead, happiness in the future will be mundane, domestic, happiness. Happiness without any pride or greatness or power, just a quiet, unspectacular enjoyment. The closest we get to this, I think, is Tom Bombadil’s idle life with Goldberry. Tom, however, is the oldest thing around – he represents what has remained of Eru’s original plan.
Everything that “Tolkien is conservative” people say we should be sad about the end of is the work of Melkor. The power and the glory of the elves is what the elves have become having been corrupted by Melkor – the Noldor only CAME to Middle Earth because they were corrupted by Melkor. At the end, they’ve acknowledged their mistake and they go back. The other elves finally overcome their pride and go to meet the Valar they refused to meet before. The world of the elves that is passing has been a prideful world. It has been the world as Melkor left it. At the end of the book, with Morgoth banished, Sauron dead and the elves departed, Middle Earth is finally left more closely as Eru intended than ever before.
Why do we lament the elves passing? Because the elves are, as I say, glorious, and glory is something it is painful to see pass. But a lust for mortal glory, both in the elves themselves and in humans for the elves, is a sign of Melkor’s pride. This, I think, is one way Tolkien is far more subtle than he is given credit for: he recognises that giving up evil is painful. The elves are not evil, but they have a power that can be used for evil and for good. Abjuring evil means giving up that power, and having faith that God/Eru will do the good for us. At the end of the story, the world in essence humbles itself before God – and that is the right thing to do, and it will result in a happier world (we hope), but it is still a painful and bittersweet experience.
Is this what Tolkien ‘meant’? Not in the sense of an allegory, no, I don’t think so. But I think the tensions in his work are best resolved by seeing it from this sort of “Catholic” (or at least Christian) perspective, and so I certainly think it’s legitimate to describe his themes in this way. In any case, whether you accept this neat tying-up or not, I hope you see that the themes to be tied-up cannot be tied up any more neatly by the “Tolkien was just a social conservative who wanted everything back the way it was” perspective – because whether or not that was true it certainly doesn’t seem evident in what he wrote.