Today's Date in the Shire
Fun and Games
Walk to Rivendell
Malbeth the Seer
J. R. R. Tolkien´s "The Lord of The rings" - Mythology, Philosophy, Allegory
"Facharbeit" - Essay by Manuel Steiner, written ´00 p.r.i.
VI. Philosophy and cosmos
Religion and religious background
Most, if not all, of the philosophy in The Lord of the Rings is based on Tolkien´s own Roman Catholic view of life. In this, like in many fields of his fiction, Tolkien had a distinctive opinion with a sense and understanding for the archaic, which took thoughts from as far back as the earliest church founders. The God-given task of creating in the name of the Lord underlies Tolkien´s attitude of being merely an editor, a sub-creator. The sub-world he created is rooted in our reality, which is in turn rooted in God himself. This way, the transcendental spirit can be said to underlie all of the book, just like his Christian "views underlie all the fiction of Tolkien" (Moseley, 11). This alignment of his fiction in a certain way towards the metaphysical is due to the belief in the better after-world in comparison to earth, which is central in Christianity; as St Augustine, a church father who wrote De Civitate Dei - The City of God - put it, "here is no eternal city, here is no abiding stay." (Moseley, 13). Man was put by God in the responsibility to create, and so it is logical that in the creation of a faithful Christian, "the mind of God may be read" (Moseley, 20). In Tolkien´s belief, man was a fallen being, in need of the forgiveness and grace of the Lord, who loves his creation and brings it to new glory after a great end; after a great conflict between the fundamentally divided Good and Evil. These forces, Moseley points out, turn the universe into "a place of struggle" (Moseley, 60). Middle-earth certainly is such a place, it is a "battleground of constant moral conflict" (Moseley, 63), and the ideological stances make the conflict more terrible than as if it was a materialistic struggle, because evil takes delight in its deeds for their own sake, not because of the benefits of maliciousness. In this cosmology, evil always has the initiative, and an initial advantage. Because of this, it appears at first like a hopeless struggle of the small against the endless power of darkness, but in the end, not least due to celestial intervention, the powers of good are always triumphant.
This stance derives from two different views of evil Shippey explains in his "Road to Middle-earth" : Boethian and Manichaean. In the view of Boethius, an early Christian philosopher, evil is actually nothing, merely the absence of good; thus it cannot create and is itself not created. As it cannot exist where there is good, it is bound to lose eventually. The Manichaean view is that evil is real and poses an immediate threat. The balance of good and evil causes an eternal struggle of both forces (comp. Shippey, 128f.). To cut it short, Boethian evil is the lack of good, where Manichaean evil exists per se as a counterpart of good. This contrast is reflected in the nature of the Ring: it is uncertain whether it is like a sentient being of its own, which corrupts its bearers out of its own maliciousness, or whether it is just an item which amplifies thoughts and intentions already existent in the minds of the ring-bearers. The question of evil thus is whether it is "an inner temptation or an external power" (Shippey, 131). Tolkien shows a combination of both views in his novel, but a tendency towards the Boethian view can be read from his attitude towards an epitome of evil in Middle-earth, shadows: "Shadows are the absence of light and so don´t exist in themselves, but they are still visible and palpable just as if they did. That is exactly Tolkien´s view of evil." (Shippey, 133; my italics).
The approach the good must make towards evil is, apart from the courageous fight (which will be a topic of mine later), the treatment of evil with good. Responding to it with pity and mercy, like Frodo did on Gollum, is the highest aim in the conflict of both sides. In The Lord of the Rings, it is like Jesus said: "Forgive and be forgiven.". In contrast, it is often the case that "evil deeds further the cause of the good." (Jacobsen, l. 528f.). Such examples are Boromir´s assault on Frodo, which caused Frodo to leave the party and find his own way into Mordor - which he did successfully -, or Gollum´s bite which cost Frodo his Ring-finger, destroying the Ring forever.
The influence evil has on the good side is mainly that of temptation, of bringing the good away from their righteous intentions. It worked with the dwarves who went to Moria and eventually dug out the Balrog-demon out of greed, it also worked with Saruman who was tempted and corrupted by his greed for power and knowledge. In his case, evil, in the form of corruption, turned the most powerful of the good into an ally of its worst enemy: corruptio optimi pessima, as goes the Latin proverb. For sure, the fall of the good is one important topic of The Lord of the Rings.
The philosophy of The Lord of the Rings
The philosophy of life which is apparent in The Lord of the Rings wholly develops around the central conflict of good versus evil, and the Ring, as an item of evil, but in the hands of the good, is, in its nature, both a mirror of the whole constellation, and the item for which the war is actually fought. The responsibility everyone has to fight evil is due to the consequences the conflict will have in any way: loss and change are inevitable, and every inhabitant of Middle-earth is forced to choose his stance and, if on the good side, defend the threatened homeliness; because all refuges will be extinguished by the Dark Lord if the resistance lacks decisiveness: the Shire, Lórien, Rivendell will all perish. As Tolkien certainly was more interested in the complex of morality and values, it is also consequent that he turned towards the "big scale", being "interested less in the specific social than in the generic human." (Moseley, 65). The inevitability of moral choice which men are confronted with casts a spot on the predicament of humanity in the novel. This is for sure pessimistic, but not desperating; Tolkien would not have admitted such an attitude on the side of the good in Middle-earth. The characters in the novel do not have the possibility to realise it, but the outcome will be, that eventually evil will prove too wicked to be victorious; what the characters see is only their situation in which the fight against evil is inevitable, and where their judgement still has to stay the same righteous one. The fate of one person is signed once he made up his mind.
Still, Tolkien proves his skills as a writer in depicting the other side, too: the one of those who do not have a choice or make the wrong one still with good intentions, and he also gives examples of characters who choose not to choose: these are virtually neutral characters. Leif Jacobsen explains this in detail in his essay "The Undefinable Shadowland - A study of the complex question of dualism in The Lord of the Rings". Boromir, Gollum and Tom Bombadil are all exceptions from the black-white scheme Tolkien is often accused of. Boromir makes the morally wrong choice, but never with any evil intentions, only influenced by the Ring. Tom Bombadil, on the other hand, who chooses not to take part in the conflict at all, who, in this field, neglects his moral duty, is still seen as more positive as Boromir is by most. Gollum is different from both in the way that he does not care about anything else than only himself, and the longing for the Ring he is poisoned with. He shuns the evil side of Sauron as much as he would be reluctant to evil deed if he was not incited to it, be it by craving for the Ring, or be it by the derogatory treatment by Sam.
The Ring, apart from its influence as a tempter, is also item of an important philosophical attitude: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".(Shippey, 124). Here Tolkien makes the step from mythology to philosophy, and the thought expressed is actually quite modern. Not only does the greed for power cause people to act in an unjust and egoistic way, but also does its possession influence a person negatively, even turning good into evil. Just like the ring exposes its bearer by amplifying his emotions, does power reveal the true character of a person once he is in a position where he can afford to ignore precautions. Another, even more modern thought is the addiction the ring causes; and this is very close to real, i.e. drug-, addiction: it controls mind and body, one´s action, and still it can be restrained, like drugs can be. This is why Gollum, weak of willpower and knowing of no evil of the ring, succumbs wholly to it, and why others are able to withstand: those of the most noble of mind, like Gandalf and Galadriel, and those of the purest of heart, such as Sam, prove those of Tolkien´s critics wrong who claimed there was such thing as an unrealistic temptation of the Ring; it only takes a willpower strong enough, which some do not have who still need not to be wicked at all. This whole perception of power as corruptive, exposing and addictive is a contrast to many an old opinion, where abuse of power was not as much a concern as was powerlessness; and where it was meant to be the goal of human longing, and its notoriousness was a virtue - as Henry Kissinger said, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac".
The transcendental forces are the neutral factor for both good and evil, and their role in The Lord of the Rings is mainly that of co-operating with the earthly actions and responding to them. Although these powers of fate, luck and fortune are inconstant, posing a "basic denial of security throughout The Lord of the Rings" (Shippey, 138), they still seem to be affected in some way by the events in the war. The decisions the characters make are thus a blending, a "continuos interplay of providence and free will" (Shippey, 137). In the novel, there is no such thing as total dependence from luck, and mostly there is no possibility of totally free choice. Courage, optimism and toughness seem to make an impression with the forces of fate: fortuna fortes adiuvat, "Fortune aids the brave", is the antique proverb for this circumstance. It is not a "biased fortune", which some critics believed to have seen in the novel, but one which helps the one who helps himself. Tolkien did show a certain soft-heartedness, for example in the surviving of Sam´s pony Bill, but when luck aids the hobbits in Mordor, it is due to their spirit of never giving up, not just to the author directing things in an unrealistic way. Providence is also a central item, especially the providence which brought Aragorn the crown. People in Middle-earth are sometimes bound to actions dictated long ago by the powers of fate, not only Elessar, but also the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl is prophesied. The end, a happy ending, is predicated too; but all this does not flaw or infiltrate the course of events and their likeliness, because things could have taken a different way were it not for the glorious deeds of the free people, and because there are casualties: Lórien is to perish, along with the elves in Middle-earth; the dwarves are about to dwindle; there are casualties in battle, such as Théoden and Boromir, and, not least for Tolkien, much beauty is to be lost along with all these things.
Values and virtues of Middle-earth
It is from what I explained above - religiosity and philosophy - that the values apparent in The Lord of the Rings derive. Such values and ethics, which were common in the time and surroundings of J. R. R. Tolkien are at least partially found in the novel. The concentration on the WASP, the White Anglo-Saxon Person, is as visible as is the patriarchal organisation of life. In Middle-earth, there certainly is male domination, and countries are led by archetypal warrior kings. They, their rightful kingship, and their development into it are also a main topic of the whole novel, with the characters of Aragorn, Théoden, Éomer, Faramir, Denethor as examples of medieval-style rulers. Paradigms for the righteous kings Tolkien depicts, partly with the exception of Denethor, can be taken from the earliest sources: the Kings of Israel, David and Salomon, the Roman Emperor Augustus, and, highest of all, Jesus Christ, rex iudaeorum - the king of the Jews, the Romans called him - as the ideal of the just and noble ruler and king, the rex iustus. The eurocentrism of the novel, as it might be called, leads to what can now be seen as racial stereotypes, with the swarthy and mean Southlanders; yet such parallels do not have a racist origin in Tolkien, they are only there to explain the view of the people of the north and west, and how they see the foreigners - bear in mind that the story is told by the winners.
Love between the genders is not a major feature of the novel. This is in part due to the roles of the sexes in the world of Middle-earth, where women are distant, if beautiful, and preserved from the business of war and policy. Elf women are a bit of an exception, like Galadriel, but the other exception, Éowyn, who tries to break out from her preconceived role, can only find freedom in the archaic image of being a shield-maiden of ancient style. Central values thus are the fellowship among men, brotherhood, mutual support and loyalty. One could dare to say, these are the positive values of the ethics of the Third Reich, with Kameradschaft at its heart, a term including all those above, to prove Tolkien´s critics wrong of calling him a WWII novelist. Love is a topic in the cases of love for things, places, one´s family and friends. Concerning love in the novel, it is once again not the close examination of an experience that matters; what "does matter is the shape and force of the story, the mythos" (Moseley, 64).
Such vagueness in certain fields only stresses the importance of the ultimate interest of Tolkien: the morality. The morally bad side is of course the evil side, but its manifestation is remarkably that of modernity: Saruman is the prime example for this. His intrusion into the world of Middle-earth with policy, modernity and progress, poses the destruction of the old and beloved, like the mill in the Shire. Denethor is an example for the weaknesses of the civilised cultures, too: his self-assuredment, "over-subtlety, selfishness, abandonment of the ´theory of courage´" (Shippey, 118) (the latter explained in detail below) are all marks of modern decadence.
The counterpart to this which Tolkien provided was the typically "Northern ´theory of courage´ [...] whose central item is that even ultimate defeat does not turn right into wrong." (Shippey, 109). The role model for this is the Norse apocalypse, Ragnarokr, in which the gods, the Aesir and Vanya, are inevitably defeated, each one knowing about his own death - Odin being slain by Fenrir the wolf, Thor dying when felling the Midgard serpent -, but they do not refute. The gods know about the outcome of the final battle against the giants, but their courage of not succumbing to evil, temptation and refutation made a great impression with Tolkien. Partially, this northern virtue is due to the Teutonic belief of the afterlife, where the warriors slain on the battlefield are resurrected and join Odin´s legion in Valhalla to fight on Doomsday: the Einherjer. Théoden, probably the most northern of all characters in The Lord of the Rings, hints on exactly this belief in his moment of agony, since his last words are "I go to my fathers"; he speaks of "their mighty company" and of "a golden sunset" (LOTR, 824).
But, Christian as he is, Tolkien also gives prospect to a new "ultimate" yet milder bravery: "laughter, cheerfulness, refusal to look into the future at all" (Shippey, 142). This is demonstrated by the hobbits, especially Sam, with his habit of not knowing what lies ahead but still going, not caring what follows. As he already explains after the meeting of elves on the way to Buckland in the Shire, "I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can´t turn back. [...] I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through [...]." (LOTR, 85). Sam and Frodo keep up this attitude on their way to Mount Doom constantly.
The hobbits, although they are certainly not the ideal of courage and bravery, are nevertheless important for Tolkien´s presentation of recommended virtues. As T. A. Shippey explains, " In The Lord of the Rings he had learnt - by mixing hobbits in with heroes - to present them [i.e. the virtues Shippey lists on the preceding page, ´stoicism, nonchalance, piety, fidelity´] relatively unprovocatively." (Shippey, 240). In this regard, he did compromise with modern times and taste a bit, as these virtues, as high as they are held in the novel, are distant from the average nowadays reader.
The contrast of Pagan (courage) and Christian (piety, mercy) virtues is solved by Tolkien by mediating between heathen and Christian; by telling "a story of virtuous pagans in the darkest of dark pasts, before all but the faintest premonitions of dawn and salvation" (Shippey, 180). Tolkien provides a prospect of salvation for the heroic pagans in the novel, and those of other literature, like Beowulf, and he gives a model of "elementary virtue existing without the support of religion" (Shippey, 184), as there naturally was no Christian religion yet. By hovering between heathen and Christian, fatalism and salvation, Tolkien can be said to translate "the wisdom of ancient epic [...] into a whole new sequence of doubts, decisions, sayings, rituals" (Shippey, 113). It is not to the least extent exactly this what makes The Lord of the Rings a myth of cosmical and philosophical dimensions.
Myth versus philosophy
Defining both myth and philosophy naturally points out the differences between the two. Still, both can be found in The Lord of the Rings, and both seem to be handled with the same care by the author, not preferring one in contrast to the other, although the levels are different. The resurrection of the writing of myth, which Tolkien underwent, is certainly due to a fundamental need which is not satisfied thoroughly enough in our scientific, technical world where the magic of imagination and fiction is almost suppressed (comp. v. Müffling, 11). Philosophy has, in turn, found more and more people interested in it, sometimes turning it into low popular-philosophy. Where myth generally appeals to religiosity and emotions, philosophy appeals to the intellect, the mind (comp. v. Müffling, 12). The vividness and rich imagination myth possesses in contrast to philosophy (comp. v. Müffling, 11), is why it became popular with The Lord of the Rings; it is the novel´s philosophy of life that lets it stand proud in company of other great works in the history of literature.