For most people, life is about a struggle between good and evil. Whether you define good as adhering to a specific religion, moral code, or political cause, everyone tends to see the world in black and white. Those who agree with you are good; those who disagree are bad. Our literature tends to reflect this same division, whether it’s heroes versus villains, investigators versus criminals, or warriors and spies versus national enemies. Many see books such as the Lord of the Rings the same way, yet J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected such labels. For him, people weren’t good or evil but somewhere in between.
I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like C.S. Lewis (though fewer of his letters survive), Tolkien was both an avid letter-writer and a packrat who kept nearly every scrap of paper he wrote. As a historian, I’ve always found great value in correspondence for gaining insight into people’s real views, since many people are much more open in letters about their feelings than in their public pronouncements. Tolkien’s letters provide us with marvelous insight into his travails in completing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as well as problems he had with publishing his works, such as the fact it took him several years to publish LOTR after he completed it. We can follow his career in light of World War I and World War II and see him comment on the issues of the day. It is here, primarily, rather than in his fiction, that we get a sense of his religious and literary views.
One of Tolkien’s views that has not received a lot of commentary was his rejection of his characters as symbols of good or evil. This was and remains a common interpretation of LOTR, which many see as a basic tale of good versus evil in a fantasy universe – Gandalf is good and Sauron is evil, etc. Yet Tolkien himself rejected this interpretation: “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil….Pardonable, perhaps…in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read.” Aside from Boromir’s temptation and Denethor’s despair, he pointed most prominently to the corruption of the elves by Morgoth in his then-unpublished Silmarillion. A few years later, he clarified, “In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing.” Rather, evil was merely corrupted good. Just as Satan was a fallen angel in Christian theology, so also Morgoth and Sauron were also fallen angelic creatures. While Sauron was as close to absolute evil as one could get, Tolkien observed that “he had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the earth. But he went further than human tyrants in price and cost for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.”
Tolkien held similar views of the main characters in LOTR, whom he saw, not as good or evil, but as imperfect creatures who strove toward good and often made mistakes. Nowhere was this as clear as his treatment of Frodo. Several people had written to him questioning why Frodo had been given such honor when he had failed by claiming the ring for his own and only destroyed it accidentally. Tolkien’s answer was that Frodo “was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.” He admitted that Frodo failed but rejected the idea of an “indominable hero.” Instead, he appealed to the Lord’s Prayer and being led not into temptation but delivered from evil. “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning.” In his response to a similar letter, he noted, “It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves. In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted.” In short, even imperfect creatures who try to be good must rely on a higher power, which works out all things for a greater good.
Although many accuse Tolkien of simplicity or presenting shallow characters in a fairy-tale ending, his characters reflected his view of the world, which is that no one is purely evil or good. Rather, we are fallen creatures who struggle. Even when we choose good, we all sometimes fail, and even when we choose evil, our deeds still work out for good. In those cases, it is the grace of God that allows the cause of good to succeed, especially when we are personally weak. There is a fairytale ending, but it comes not because of the power of heroic characters, but because of the power of the author of history, who carries us to meet our destiny even when we lack the strength.
© 2021 J.D. Manders