Good and Evil in the Lord of the Rings
There is a scene near the end of The Lord of the Rings that has brought tears to the eyes of many readers. The hobbits Sam and Frodo have been rescued from certain death after completing their quest. When Sam awakes, he sees someone he never expected to see again and exclaims: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Sam is not a poet, but the words he uses to describe his surprise at finding his friend alive capture very movingly the longing all of us feel to see death and evil overcome. The conflict between good and evil is at the heart of all great stories, and the best ones offer thoughtful insights into this conflict. Is it possible that we might be able to learn something about good and evil from a fantasy story such as The Lord of the Rings? It is quite possible indeed.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings over a twelve-year period between 1937 and 1949, which means he wrote it while witnessing the evil unleashed on mankind by the Second World War. The “Lord” in the title refers to Sauron, a fallen spiritual being (much like an archangel) who seeks to conquer Middle-earth (Tolkien’s term for the world inhabited by men). Sauron had created a ring that he used as a weapon to dominate the wills of free creatures. The ring was lost for many thousands of years, but several decades before the beginning of our story, it was found by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. If Sauron regains it, nothing will be able to stop him, and Sauron will stop at nothing to find it. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, who, along with eight companions, embarks on a long and dangerous quest to destroy the ring and, along with it, Sauron himself.
One of the most amazing aspects of Tolkien’s story is the depth of context he provides. The bulk of the story told in The Lord of the Rings occurs over a period of one year. But that single year is preceded by thousands upon thousands of years of history, which Tolkien fleshed out, often in painstaking detail. Many of the events that occurred in these earlier ages are recounted in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and his Unfinished Tales. Over the course of many decades, Tolkien created entire languages, genealogies, and cultural histories of the peoples and races that inhabit his subcreation. Knowing the background is not absolutely essential for enjoying The Lord of the Rings, but it does help us to grasp some of the deeper nuances of his story.
Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith informed his understanding of the nature of evil. He rejects two opposite extremes in his story. He rejects the idea that evil is an illusion, as well as the Manichaean idea that evil is equally as ultimate as good. Evil, in Tolkien’s story, is the absence of good. He regularly expresses his understanding of evil by using the concept of “shadow” to describe it. Scott Davison explains the significance: “Evil is like the darkness of a shadow: light is necessary for shadows to exist, but shadows are not necessary for light to exist.” The parasitic nature of evil means that it is ultimately self-destructive because when it destroys the good it hates, it destroys the very thing it requires for existence.
Evil is also not eternal. As the elf Elrond says in the story: “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” Evil came about as the result of a series of “falls” in Tolkien’s legends: the Lucifer-like fall of Melkor (one of the Ainur — the most powerful angelic beings in Tolkien’s legends), the fall of the elves, and the fall of men.
But if evil is not eternal, how does it come to exist at all? In Tolkien’s legends, evil existed only potentially until a desire for power originated in the heart of Melkor, whose fall is analogous to Satan’s. Melkor’s “lieutenant,” Sauron, is similarly obsessed with power. As Tolkien explains in one of his letters: “Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world.” The character of Sauron may have been informed by Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” who exalts himself and desires to be worshiped as God (2 Thess. 2:3).
The symbol of power in Tolkien’s story is the One Ring. Sauron created the ring, and into it he poured much of his being, power, and will. The ring enables the wearer to enslave the minds of others, but when anyone other than Sauron uses the ring, it gradually enslaves and destroys that person. It is clear that Tolkien saw the lust for power as a dangerous temptation. He writes in one letter: “The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
How, then, is evil to be fought? If there is any principle that is clear in the writings of Tolkien, it is that we cannot fight evil with evil. We cannot use the ring as a weapon. Tolkien said, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy.” Even peering into the ways of the enemy is dangerous. Elrond explains, “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.” The fall of the wizard Saruman illustrates this danger. He studied the arts of Sauron for many years and gradually developed his own evil lust for power, a lust that led to his fall.
Although evil cannot be completely eradicated in the present age, we can and must combat it whenever and wherever we are. As Gandalf tells Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” In Tolkien’s story, the primary means of overcoming evil is through love. This love manifests itself in many ways, but in The Lord of the Rings, the most important ways in which it manifests itself are through the trust and self-sacrifice involved in friendship and through acts of kindness, mercy, and pity. The friendship between Sam and Frodo is at the heart of the story. But the friendship that develops between all of the nine companions in the fellowship is equally important. Ralph Wood is surely correct when he says, “Their friendship is the one thing that unites them at the beginning, sustains them throughout their long ordeal, and enables the success of their Quest at the end.”
The love of each person in the fellowship for the others is demonstrated in the sacrifices the members of the fellowship make for one another. Gandalf sacrifices himself for the others in Moria. Boromir is killed in an effort to save the hobbits Merry and Pippin. Aragorn and his army intend to sacrifice themselves at the black gate of Mordor to help Sam and Frodo achieve their goal. Ultimately, Frodo sacrifices himself for the fellowship and for all of Middle-earth. As he explains to Sam: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The fellowship also receives acts of love and friendship, receiving unexpected help from others at every step of their quest. From Farmer Maggot and Mr. Butterbur to Treebeard and Ghan-buri-Ghan, the biblical principle of hospitality, kind treatment of strangers, and love for sojourners is repeatedly demonstrated (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). In the end, the combination of many small and seemingly inconsequential choices for good proves to have enormous consequences. An act of love and pity shown to the creature Gollum by Bilbo ends up determining the fate of Middle-earth.
At one point in the Lord of the Rings, Sam talks to Frodo about their trials. He tells Frodo that he used to think the people in the old stories went out looking for adventure, “but that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.” In the tales that mattered, people had the chance to turn back, but they pressed on even when they weren’t sure how the story would end. Then Sam says, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
As Christians, we know what sort of tale we are in, and it is the tale that really matters because it is true. It is the story of redemption by the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice, the death of Jesus Christ for His people. Our tale is not a fantasy. Our tale is found in the Bible. It, too, involves an ancient battle between good and evil, but there is no doubt about the outcome of our story. Satan will be destroyed. Good will triumph. The King will return, and, in a manner of speaking, everything sad will come untrue.
This post originally appeared as an article in the August 2011 issue of Tabletalk. It is used here with permission.