The snobbery with which critics and public opinion have (almost) always treated the fantastic has caused an equal-opposite effect. Pop culture has erected strongholds and patrons, so much so that the degree of study and investigation reserved for the nerd universe (in a broad sense) has reached levels that transcend passion - anyone who has dedicated themselves to video insights into Dark Souls knows what I'm talking about . The profusion of Tolkienian studies has rightly gone far beyond in-depth videos and opinion blogs. Every page, letter, line and annotation of Tolkien has been eviscerated to the point of intimidating those who, like me, have always limited themselves to enjoying Arda's universe with the naivety of those who want to enjoy a story. One gets the impression that the story is not enough in itself: that philosophical alibis and sociological justifications must come out of the hat to ennoble it, as if the court of generalist opinion was always ready to strike the gavel and send what we love back into oblivion why “for children” or “not serious enough”.
I make this premise because I believe in stories. I think that's enough on their own, when told with elven sincerity and magic (more on that shortly). What follows does not want (or would not) be one of many sterile critical insights to ennoble Tolkien. He doesn't need my driving license to be big and I wouldn't be the right person anyway. Take the piece for what it is: a note of curiosity about Good and Evil in the world of Middle-earth, which takes nothing away from or adds to the spell of the Lord of the Rings. Writing is magic. Let's see if I can still do some tricks.
Introduction and pills of Tolkien's History
In the letter 267 addressed to his son Michael, Tolkien tells of a day spent with Robert Graves, one of the greatest English poets of the last century. He calls him as brilliant as he was “ass”, and Graves certainly was a bizarre type, ranging from mythology to druidic magic to dystopia – read that jewel of a novel that is Seven days in a thousand years. After a note on Ava Gardner, which Graves presented to him without Tolkien having any idea who she was, the letter digresses on opinions of custom and morality in the ecclesiastical milieu in which Tolkien specifies how: "in the course of my wanderings I have met unpleasant priests , stupid, disrespectful, conceited, ignorant, self-righteous, lazy, drunk, insensitive, cynical, petty, greedy, vulgar, haughty, and even (I guess) immoral; but to me one Father Francis means more than all of them put together.”
It is well known that Tolkien was a fervent Catholic. The father Francis to whom he refers had been his tutor at the Birmingham Oratory, the institution where Tolkien grew up after his mother's death in 1904. The Birmingham Oratory was founded by John Henry Newman, a cardinal who converted to Catholicism (and recently made a saint). Newman had been an eminent theologian and philosopher, and a close friend of Tolkien's tutor. Among Newman's major influences was St. Augustine, in particular the ideal struggle between the "City of God" and the powers of darkness.
The fight between Light and Shadow
If you've survived this historic introduction, the rest is all downhill. The more observant will have pricked up their antennas after reading about the struggle between light and shadow. “Here you are! Tolkien has been to the Birmingham Oratory; his tutor was a friend of a scholar of Augustine; it follows that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings following the Augustinian doctrine! I knew it, Tolkien's work is full of symbolism and hidden mysteries!"
Let's be cautious – even if, throughout history, ideas go where they want and always recur in the most unexpected places. Certainly Tolkien's Catholic upbringing influenced him – in his study, for example, he kept an old annotated copy of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. And equally certainly it is strange that a staunch Catholic should dabble in elves, dwarves and hobbits. How does the Augustinian doctrine of the struggle between Good and Evil unite with elven magic? And what is meant by Good and Evil in Augustine? Was Tolkien really "inspired" by him to create his universe?
One evening of 1931, strolling along Addison Walk in Oxford, Tolkien discussed myths, fairy tales, monsters and goblins with a friend. This friend didn't understand how Tolkien's Catholic faith meshed with a magical (or superstitious) view of the world. Back home, Tolkien wrote a poem dedicated to him, Mythopoeia. Two verses:
If all the cracks in the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, if we dared to create
the Gods and their mansions from darkness and light
and sowed dragon seed – that was (rightly or wrongly)
our right. This right is not lost:
we still create according to the law which has made us so.
The friend in question was CS Lewis. Someone will remember him for a little thing like The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis, Tolkien and others hung out in Oxford pubs forming a group known as the Inklings. Among them were also lesser-known authors, such as Charles Williams, whose writings earned the title of "fantastic thrillers" from Tolkien himself - as for Graves, I suggest reading Williams' The Place of the Lion.
That of the Inklings was a forge that gave birth to a good slice of the fantastic as we know it today, even if Tolkien always complained about the "lack of cohesion" of the narrative world of Narnia. Lewis was not a believer, but after the poem Tolkien dedicated to him he began to reconsider his positions on faith. Himself a professor at Oxford, he lived in a small house with his brother Warren, both moderate bachelors. After his conversion, which he documented in a partial autobiography titled Surprised by Joy, Lewis began giving public lectures on God, faith, and related things. Already in 40 he had written an essay, The Problem of Pain, in which he argued that pain was nothing more than the chisel with which God takes the real men out of us.
An essential meeting
His life changed the day he met the authentic Joy, an American poet, Joy Davidman, with whom he fell in love. Up to now she had spoken of love only for theories and briefs, digressing on Biblical passages and metaphysics. The relationship with Joy brought Lewis down from the clouds. Love was there, in front of him, in the flesh. Joy like suffering. Shortly after the wedding, Joy fell ill with cancer and died. Lewis tried to purge the poison of mourning in a
booklet, Diary of a Pain. Between those lines, Lewis experiences the silence of God. The pain of Joy's death was different from the generic "evil" of her lectures.
From the top of a pulpit, under the lights and the eyes of a crowded audience, you can pontificate about how good always wins over evil, about how, even if we don't see it, there is a meaning to everything, a divine plan. Then, overnight, you find yourself in your arms the corpse of the woman you love and a handful of memories to rearrange on paper. To paraphrase Stephen King in Lisey's Story, no one would fall in love if he knew the pain of loss. Is this the Good God speaks of in Saint Augustine? Is this the Good, both in reality and in Middle-earth?
At the Origins of Evil
In The Lord of the Rings, during the Council to decide what to do with the One Ring, Elrond pronounces a well-known sentence: “For nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so”. Nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron wasn't. If nothing was evil, not even the Dark Lord, then where does evil come from?
For the few who don't know it, The Lord of the Rings is the latest offshoot of Tolkien's narrative universe, a world he began to create as a boy, grew up with him for associations, inventions, language study and, above all, fantasy. “Fantasy” for Tolkien is not a neutral term and that “in the beginning” in the mouth of Elrond has more meaning than you think. That remote beginning, in which even Sauron, the archenemy of the Lord of the Rings, was good, is not a smoky past, let alone generic. There is a background of stories and myths that Tolkien has sketched out in a body of writing now published under the name of The Silmarillion, plus heaps of tales found, unfinished, etc.
A complex universe
This narrative universe in which nothing was evil in principle was not so much a pure creation as a "sub-creation". As Tolkien himself says in the poem above, it is man's right to fill the voids of the world with fantastic creatures. It is man's right to create in a similar way to what God has done with our world. Of course man is not God, if ever he is made in his image, for those who believe, but he can still resort to a sub-creation, a secondary universe within the real universe. In an interview recently republished in the first issue of Heavy Metal, having to define the world of Arda, Tolkien says that it is not science fiction, that is, a planet far from ours or a universe separate from the known one.
It's more like our world "at a different level of imagination" (what a genius, huh?). In an essay on fairy tales, which you find in The Middle Ages and the Fantastic, Tolkien defends the idea of fantasy. Almost all "respectable" writers, those who win literary prizes, say that what matters is reality, the "phenomenological" or "psychological" studies of reality; that imagination is useful only when it elaborates a “real fact”, while fantasy is getting lost in one's dreams, an escape from reality. There is little of it to remind the eminent Authors (with a capital A, please) that we must not confuse the escape of the deserter with that of the prisoner. Or that the only ones against prison escapes are the jailers.
Tolkien and Fantasy
They would probably persist even in the face of Tolkien's humble argument that fantasy is an elvish enchantment. Fantasizing does not mean getting lost in illogicality. It means building a coherent secondary world. Anyone can write a story where the sun is the sun. Imagine (what a beautiful word, right?) instead of having to write a story where the sun is green. Imagine having to make the story believable. To maintain credibility from start to finish, so that the reader, once he enters your world where the sun is green, never shakes his head saying "wait, this doesn't add up..." or gets distracted or don't doubt.
Put these two worlds on the scales, the one in which the sun is normal and the one in which it is green: which do you think is more difficult to write? To create (or sub-create)? To be made credible and coherent and welcoming? How much elven craftsmanship is required, how much magic and effort and dedication is required to keep the spell going? Fantasy is not an escape from reality. It is the condition through which a new shared reality can be created in which everyone, regardless of the individual differences that obsess us so much, can enter.
Worldbuilding and other amenities
Tolkien had this image embedded within. A fantastic world to give light to. He thought he was giving England a mythology, but instead he gave the world another world, or underworld, smaller perhaps, but no less true. However, every "real" world begins with a fall, just like ours – remember that nasty thing in the Garden of Eden? And a harmless fairyland is false in all worlds, to any level of imagination.
God cannot have "created" evil, otherwise what kind of god would he be? Anyone who has frequented the novels of Valerio Evangelisti (if you haven't done so, run after a due penance) will have encountered the Manichaeism sect here and there. Manichaeism was a heresy that evil existed as a substance opposed to good. When I say substance, I mean a real, tangible, material evil. Augustine himself adhered to Manichaeism, before converting to Christianity. After his conversion, Augustine challenged his previous faith with a new idea that restored the specificity of sin to man. Oversimplifying: everyone is good from the outset. It is the choices we make that determine a decrease in the good. Evil itself does not exist except as the absence of good. A void, a corruption. Not only that: since existence itself is good, as created by God, doing evil diminishes existence itself.
The philosophy behind evil
It is interesting to note a similar philosophy in Lord of the Rings. Ringwraiths, for example, are little more than ghosts. They have sold their souls to the Dark Lord and their body form has been affected. In a sense, there are fewer. The same can be said of those who wear the One Ring. They become invisible. They enter a world of shadows. They get thinner. In the words of Augustine, they distance themselves from God. They diminish.
The conversation seems to be spinning, but let's imagine going back to the bedside of CS Lewis' wife, clapping him on the shoulder and saying: "Don't worry, evil doesn't exist, it's just the absence of good". If it were that easy, Lewis wouldn't have written Diary of Sorrows. God didn't create evil, all right. But why does it allow it to persist? And how was evil born?
Wanting to create a coherent universe full not only of dwarves, elves, hobbits, but also ogres, trolls and flaming demons, Tolkien must have asked himself the same questions and perhaps Augustine's philosophy had come in handy. The Silmarillion, the mythological chronicle (primarily) of Tolkien's First Age of the world – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set in the Third – opens with the genesis of the universe, Song of the Ainur. Although similar, I prefer the draft that Tolkien wrote as a young man and which you can find in the collection Racconti Ritrovati, in which the act of creation is more “scripted” and less reported.
The Story of Arda
In the beginning was Eru Ilúvatar (God) and the Secret Fire was with him for only he who holds the Secret Fire has the power of creation. In the Bible, the universe unfolds through the Word. In Tolkien's universe, through music. Eru Ilúvatar created the Ainur (gods similar to angels) and taught them music so that they could weave their own melody with which to refine creation. Eru Ilúvatar sat on his throne and listened to the song of the Ainur tuned in one harmony and from the music she received visions of wondrous things that he could give life. The world is nothing but a fantasy that Eru Ilúvatar has embodied.
However, every story begins with a fall. The song of the Ainur began to fray as Melkor (or Morgoth), mightiest among them, who had long scoured the darkness for the Secret Fire of Creation, began adding his own patterns to the texture – it was, in essence, a “Sub-creative rebel”. Melkor could create nothing as Fire was with Eru Ilúvatar. So he only tore up the song of the Ainur and warped and corrupted and twisted and twisted it till more of them joined in the distortion and before the throne of Eru Ilúvatar there appeared two melodies wrestling like serpents.
Instead of suppressing the chaotic new melody, Eru Ilúvatar listened to both and drew inspiration from both to bring forth a new world, a world corrupted by Melkor for with the distortion were born evil, pain, sickness, and death. , corruptions of what was in the beginning harmony. But harmony alone is not enough to generate something: although it is difficult to see, says Eru Ilúvatar showing the Ainur the new Creation in which everything sung, good or bad is inscribed, Evil only exalts the very glory of God , making his Work more complex and worthy and wonderful.
Eru's choice and its consequences
As someone said: God doesn't exist, but if there is, it's time to punch him. That of Eru Ilúvatar (at least from a rational point of view) sounds much like an excuse or, at most, a blame game. "It's all Melkor's fault that he corrupted the music, I have nothing to do with it, it's done now." If you're expecting definitive answers, you're in the wrong place. What is certain is that Eru Ilúvatar grants a special gift to the new creatures that inhabit this corrupted world, a good world in principle, eroded by Melkor's creative lust. This particular gift does not belong to the lineage of the Elves, who, paradoxically, envy him despite having been pardoned by a long life.
The eternity of the Elves prevents them from seeing that small detail left unfinished by Eru Ilúvatar: they live a timeless time, a fixed existence in which change is not contemplated, bound to Fate which is the reverberation of the primordial song – reason for why in D&D campaigns Elves are usually so insufferable.
The importance of free will
This gift, granted to mortals, is free will. Of course, the ability to choose does not redeem a universe corrupted by the fantasy equivalent of Lucifer. The ogres will continue to scourge the cities of men, the trolls to infest the mountains, then disease, famine, war, death... yet it is here that Tolkien's genius strikes at the heart of what was perhaps dearest to him. Gods or great rulers are not needed to save the world: sometimes the small, tiny individual choices of small, tiny fallible creatures like the Hobbits are enough (and Frodo is certainly fallible, but it is precisely in the game of humanity, selfishness and desire for possession that in the heart of Mount Doom evil destroys itself).
The Dark Lord, Sauron, disfigures his soul, infusing his lust for dominion into the One Ring (which, again, is not "created" ex nihilo, out of thin air); Melkor disfigures the Maiar by creating the flaming Balrogs, cripples the elven progeny by generating the Orcs, but all the evil they shape and regurgitate on the world is fought and defeated thanks to the small actions of small creatures who, instead of standing aside, have chosen to contribute to create something new. Something better. Because, again to quote Elrond: "The wheels of the world are turned by little hands".
Towards a better end
I close with a note on freedom, because what freedom is there in seeing your loved one die in front of you? An accident, an illness: who causes the evil? As mentioned in passing, for Augustine free will allows man to distance himself from God. By following his own ambitions instead of the divine plan, like Melkor, man becomes corrupted and the evil in him reverberates on others similar to him.
This evil coagulated in matter (the same in which Melkor is trapped after the fall) opposes the City of God – a bit like, pulling it by the hair, Minas Morgul opposes Minas Tirith. The two Cities, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, are not separate, just as the melodies born from the Song of the Ainur are not separate. Man lives in both cities, always, and it is up to him to choose where to move, enlightened (for Augustine) by divine grace. Divine Grace seems to be trying hard to make us doubt, and certainly CS Lewis had been close to giving up after Joy's death.
Death, however, reminds Tolkien (with all due respect to philosophers like Benatar), is not an evil in itself. Elves can be dispensed with and will continue to exist in matter until the end of time. They will do it trapped in the primordial music that still sings his song among the ocean waves, in the shade of the clearings and in the wind that sweeps the highest peaks. Freedom from death, to the Elves, is the prison of Fate.
The little men, on the other hand, who give themselves so much to survive the sufferings of life, are the only ones who can transcend primordial music. Adding a piece of creation to the divine one, "challenging adverse stars", to quote an old video game. Tolkien, in another letter:
Here you will find charm, glory, honour, fidelity and the true path to all your loves on earth and even more: Death; which, by divine paradox, ends life and requires the renunciation of everything, yet only by savoring it (or foretasting it) what you are looking for in earthly relationships (love, fidelity, joy) can it maintain itself, or assume that appearance of reality, of eternal duration, which every man's heart desires.
I don't know if Tolkien is right. Personally, paraphrasing Woody Allen, “I am not afraid of death but in general I am against it“. What little I believe in is that imagination, fantasy, are the only elven arts we have to disengage from Melkor's plots. They won't be enough to save us, but they will make our stay in this blessed primary world better, opening the door to other, infinite worlds. And when we come back down to earth, after a good story, maybe we'll see a glimmer where before there seemed to be only evil. And who knows, we might even end up believing in magic.
If you liked the topic, here, here e here we talked about its translation and the numerous controversies that accompanied its publication.
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