There’s no sense beating about the bush. If we want to understand Tolkien’s work, there’s no better place to begin than at the ultimate question: what is good? Or rather, what does Tolkien tell us that good is, within the context of this novel?
But that’s a boring question. Let’s ask a more interesting one, which is in the end the same: what is evil?
There is a popular image of Tolkien as a conservative – an arch-conservative. A Little Englander. A man who wants nothing to change, except sometimes for things to change back to the way they were. A religious man, who wants the Church – the original Church, the one and only – to guide our moral lives. Who wants society to be more or less as it was in the depths of the middle ages; who prizes and fetishises Authority, Hierarchy, Obedience. That’s the generous view. A more hostile view – or worse, a more friendly view from entirely the wrong quarters – paints Tolkien as a fascist, and his work, particularly The Lord of the Rings as a fascist heroic epic. A great many seem to believe that Tolkien was perhaps a racist; or, at best, a man who disliked difference, alienness, diversity. A man who believed that everywhere in the world should be full of like-minded middle-class folk from Oxfordshire. Several well-known writers have taken this line; their quotes are quite well-known also: “small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos”, “a kind of Wagnerish Hitlerism”, “don’t ask any questions”, “a conservative hymn to order and reason, to the status quo”, “a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’”.
When we read the Ainulindalë, it’s not hard to find evidence for this view. Melkor, after all, turns to ‘evil’ by failing to carry out the desires of his father. What’s more, the stated motivation for this hardly seems to display an authorial dedication to liberalism. We read that at first the Ainur create a multitude of melodies interwoven in harmony… but that Melkor desires his part to be greater than it is. Thus, disharmony arises. Harmony, of course, was not the immediate state of things: at first, each only knew themselves, and their own part, and only gradually did they come to know each other, and find harmony between the parts. Harmony in music, then, goes hand in hand with fraternity among the musicians. Melkor, however, divides himself out from the others – he goes by himself in empty places, and ‘being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own’.
That’s a tricky statement for those of us who don’t want to paint Tolkien as a reactionnary tyrant. What’s so wrong with having thoughts of your own? Well, maybe nothing at all. The point, after all, isn’t that Melkor has thoughts of his own, but that they are ‘unlike those of his brethren’. And yet is that much of an improvement? Evil is having thoughts unlike those of those around you? Of course not. Tolkien doesn’t mean to say that at all, as we will see in a moment. Tolkien is perfectly OK with people being different, and having different thoughts – creation begins, after all, with each of the Ainur concentrating on their own melodies, and Tolkien will go on to show how they have such different concerns and interests that some seem hardly to interact with certain others. From time to time, they will even come into conflict with one another. When Tolkien says that Melkor’s thoughts became ‘unalike’ from those of his brethren, he can’t just mean that they were different in the same way that they were all different – instead, they must be different in some more fundamental way. And music shows what is meant: the other melodies all harmonise with one another – they are different, and yet alike in their relation to a common music – but Melkor’s melody seeks to drown out that of the others, not harmonise with it.
That’s not a very interesting insight into evil, I’ll be honest. A little more interesting is the implicit reasoning: Melkor seeks power and glory because he has been alone with himself. Tolkien doesn’t spell out what that ‘because’ means, but to me it seems as though the suggestion is that the other Ainur are able to see each other as comrades in a common cause, musicians in the same ensemble; Melkor has been apart for so long that he seems to have lost that sense of fraternity. Melkor’s failure to ‘know his place’ comes from Melkor’s failure to have enough in common with those he is meant to be collaborating with.
If goodness requires a degree of commonality between people, and a willingness to know our place, and yet at the same time we must all be different, what exactly is it that we must keep in common? Tolkien, of course, doesn’t say. Yet there is nothing all that radically conservative in this viewpoint. Even liberals usually agree that a society cannot function without a shared, common framework of beliefs – the difference between liberals and conservatives instead revolves around the extent and specificity of this necessary framework. Tolkien offers no comment on this. Indeed, becoming fanciful for a moment, it’s tempting to read this passage as suggesting that the way in which Melkor’s thoughts become ‘unalike’ is simply that he no longer recognises that they are alike – perhaps his dissent from the community is simply that he does not believe himself to be in community?
Anyway, at first glance this may still not look very pleasant: goodness is being alike? Goodness is knowing your place? But these suggestions are stamped over by Tolkien’s later comments. First, he notes that the disharmony that arises is not simply because of Melkor’s pride. The problem begins with Melkor, but the only result is ‘dischord around him’. That sounds minor; that sounds controllable. What happens next, however, is that some of those around him grow ‘despondent’, and some of those then choose to follow Melkor’s music rather than ‘the thought which they had at first’. Only then do we hear of ‘turbulent sound’ and ‘dark waters’ and ‘a raging storm’ and ‘endless wrath that would not be assuaged’. Melkor is the seed of evil, but he is not the body of it – it is what he inspires in others that brings them to evil.
It’s a very Catholic explanation for the triumph of evil. Even Melkor, by far the greatest of all the Ainur, can do nothing but create a little local dischord; global evil comes not from Melkor’s pride, but from the despair of those around him. Despair – the greatest evil of all, the loss of faith, which is in a way to say the loss of the perfect love of god. And at the root of this is the Catholic doctrine of natural law: the belief that right and wrong can be known by reason alone; the belief that at the heart of everybody is a conscience that can discern each person’s proper actions, and that sin arises from the failure to heed that personal conscience. For humans, of course (as I understand it) this theoretical clarity is obfuscated by the weakness of our intellect and will, and our finite knowledge – for humans, the rational conscience is so likely to go wrong somewhere, to be lead astray by some confusion or temptation, that the best path is to listen closely to God’s more direct advice through Scripture, and Tradition, and the Church, to tell us how to interpret our conscience. But for the Ainur, these limitations are less significant – the Ainur, after all, are angelic beings in the direct presence of God. We can expect their conscience to be pure and their intellect to be acute. So we are not told that many of them were evil, or that many were turned to evil through seduction or temptation. Instead, those around Melkor have, as it were, gone over to the dark side because they have despaired – they have lost their faith in their own conscience, their faith that they must simply follow their own melody. Time and again in Tolkien’s work, it is despair that leads to evil – in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, we may think of Saruman and of Denethor, each of whom first despaired and then surrendered their own principles. That is what despair is: the surrender of one’s own melody.
So if Tolkien’s description of Melkor’s own fall may have seemed a little fascistic, his description of Melkor’s allies should assuage that fear in us: maintaining fraternity, each of us keeping to our own place, our own path in life, must not be confused with doing what we are told, with following the loudest and most glorious noise we hear. That is the route to evil.
And what, in the end, is evil? It isn’t dischord, or disharmony – those are merely the consequences of the fight between evil and good. Instead, we are told, evil “had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes”. Unison, and repetition – that’s Melkor’s world. When somebody tries to tell you that Tolkien is a conservative writer who just wanted everything to be an extension of middle-class England, and that he wanted nothing to ever change, or when people say that his work is chauvanist, or even fascistic, and most of all when fascists themselves appeal to his work… just remember that at the core, his concept of evil is the idea of ‘many trumpets braying upon a few notes’.
This, indeed, is an interesting contrast between Tolkien himself and many of those who have followed after him in the fantasy genre. Often we see it said explicitly or implicitly that the battle between good and evil is the same as, or subordinate to, the battle between order and chaos – with chaos lined up with evil, and order with good. [I’m minded of a striking mantra in the Dragonlance books, where, even though evil/good and chaos/order are theoretically explicitly perpendicular dimensions of character, we are nonetheless reassured that ‘evil turns upon itself’]. In Tolkien, by contrast, evil is if anything associated with an excess of order.
In the end, the fascistic interpretation of Tolkien – perhaps even the conservative interpretation – seem to fundamentally misunderstand Tolkien’s beliefs. Departing briefly from the text itself, we may want to bear in mind that Tolkien himself described his political thoughts as tending toward anarchism; he said that the most ‘improper’ job for any man was bossing another man – even if the boss happened to be a saint; he said (presumably exaggerating) that he would arrest and execute anyone found using the word “State”, so obnoxious was the concept. If he was undemocratic, it was because democracy only elected those who ran for office – who he considered the worst possible people to be allowed to obtain it. His favoured option, he said, would be an unconstitutional king… whose only interest was stamp-collecting. Even his much-discussed antipathy to ‘progress’ was rooted in this anarcho-monarchism: he feared that the end of the ‘inefficient’ old way of life would make his system impossible and require the creation of a strong, Statist, coercive system. His reactionary and antidemocratic urges should therefore be seen not as fascist, not as a desire for authority and hierarchy and obedience and order and reason, but as precisely the opposite: a strong opposition to anything (democracy, efficiency) which could stiffle the individual conscience and the individual voice. He preferred the older, less effective tyrannies, and saw them as protection against the newer and more terrible forms. But this confusion should hardly surprise us, as it is a common confusion regarding the nature of Toryism, perhaps because ‘Tory’ has become synonymous with their replacements, the Conservatives. But in the beginning, ‘Tory’ meant something very different. The name should give it away: it’s a reference to Tory Island, notorious Irish haunt of brigands and rebels. That is to say, Catholic ne’er-do-wells. The Tories became known as Tories because they were Catholics and allies of Catholics – the supporters of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James II… at a time when Catholicism was a despised, persecuted and oppressed minority. That genesis of Toryism seems to me to capture the sense in which Tolkien was a Tory: a persecuted Catholic minority who looked to a powerful monarch for protection against majoritarian, democratic institutions. Many people who might now be seen as rebels, outsiders, the disenfranchised, supported the Tories. Of course, so did a lot of fat rich landowners, and so did a lot of fanatical conservatives and reactionaries, and they went on to be very conservative about a whole lot of things – despite their origin, for instance, it was the Tories who generally opposed Catholic Emancipation in the nineteenth century (and drove electoral reform as a result, hoping, as the Whigs once had before them, that more democracy would help maintain the oppression of minorities). But though the idea of the Tory (particularly Catholic Tory) anarcho-monarchist has fallen out of political (and to a large extent social) relevence, it has a long tradition, and is a better way to approach Tolkien than as a simple conservative.
[An interesting comparison I’ve not seen made that often is between Tolkien’s views and libertarianism. It might be thought that the two could not be more different – and yet. Most libertarianism, classically, has shared Tolkien’s support for a protective central government, though like Tolkien they preferred this government to do very little, and shared his skepticism around democratic institutions and his fear of the tyranny of the majority. Tolkien could probably be seen as a libertarian in very old-fashioned clothing (and probably a bit more to the left, more a One Nation-er than a Neoliberal). Comparisons might also be made between Tolkien and Ayn Rand personally – both writers of very big and very distinctive novels who paint in bright whites and dark blacks and attempt a semi-religious moral importance; both writers, accordingly, who have developed fanatical apologists and vehement enemies. As someone who loves Tolkien and hates Rand, this isn’t a particularly comfortable comparison, but I think it’s there to be made.]
Anyway, enough tangent. I’m not going to pretend that reading the Ainulindalë will make everyone think of Tolkien as a democrat/Marxist revolutionary; I’m not even going to pretend that reading it will give anyone a really clear of what exactly Tolkien thought about anything – I’m not convinced Tolkien knew what he thought on most things, at least in any systematic way. But the Ainulindalë is where The Silmarillion begins – where our experience of The Silmarillion begins – and I think it lays down important principles regarding how we should approach the stories that follow. Some of those principles I’d like to return to later, but for now, here’s just one of the most important: evil is what happens when powerful people are too proud and wish to dominate others, but it is also, and more devastatingly, what happens when many people lose faith in their own destinies and allow themselves to become voices turned to someone else’s song.
I don’t believe that Tolkien ever intended his books to convey a structure and coherent body of moral ‘theory’ – but I do believe that, reading The Silmarillion, we get a very strong feel of the author’s moral sentiment. If I appear to be ascribing too much to Tolkien’s text or suggesting too close an allegory, it is most likely because I am attempting to bring out this sentiment to greater visibility.
I’ve a feeling we’ll be encountering evil again later on in this book…