Dec 2 2013 10:00am

Tolkien, Alignment, Non-Violence, and Why Hobbits are Required for Middle-earth to Survive

Tolkien, Alignment, Non-Violence, and Why Hobbits are Required for Middle-earth to Survive

At this point, using the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system to categorize popular culture is old hat; it has made its fair share of funny memes and passed into common parlance. There are a lot of things wrong with the alignment system, but I think it remains a useful descriptive tool. In fact, I think using it as a rubric for understanding the ethics at play in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work—from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings and back again—can actually tease meaningful statements out of the text. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it explains the whole point of the most contentious of all characters: Tom Bombadil.

Let’s start with hobbits. I don’t think it is particularly controversial of me to posit that the hobbit’s idyllic life in the Shire is Tolkien’s attempt to render a pragmatic utopia. Just a bunch of little folks eating six or seven meals a day, relaxing with hobbies like gardening or mapmaking, living in cozy homes and drinking with their friends. All the small pleasures in life, stretched to fill a world. I’d say The Shire, overall, could be viewed as Neutral Good. Moral people, without a need to really codify or organize things too much, but not wanting them decentralized too much, either.

Tom Bombadil, then, is I think the enlightened, perfected version of this ideology. He is more than “Comfortable Good,” as the hobbits are; he’s Chaotic Good. Tom Bombadil is free—ahem, excuse me, I’d even say he’s capital-F Free. Tom Bombadil is a sort of bodhisattva; he expresses extremes, but those extremes are tempered by goodness. As the professor said himself (as taken from The Chesterton Review):

“The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object except power, and so on; but both sides want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken a ‘vow of poverty’ renounced control, and take your delight in things themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.”

This is only half of the picture, however. The rest of Tolkien’s quote here is quite germane when we look at Noah Berlatsky’s piece in The Atlantic, “Peter Jackson’s Violent Betrayal of Tolkien” precisely because I think that Tolkien would agree with that undercutting. To wit, Tolkien’s quote continues:

“It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left to him in the world of Sauron.”

This I think is the root of the issue, and why the alignment system works as a thesis for Tolkien literary criticism. Gondor represents a necessary evil—little e—in the form of the Law. On the subject of Good versus Evil, Tolkien assumes a moral reading from his audience. On the subject of Chaos versus Law, however, there need to be arguments made.

A quick look at Evil. We have some very clear statements on Evil in Tolkien’s work, but I’ll summarize how I view them. You might disagree with the particulars, but I think the gist of it will ring true. The Balrog is Chaotic Evil. Sure, it’s surrounded by goblins and trolls, but those are an ecosystem dragged behind in its wake. The Balrog doesn’t care about the war for the Ring, it just cares about doing random acts of cruelty, like an inverted platitude. Smaug and Shelob are Neutral Evil. They are wicked through and through, but their motives are strictly selfish. Smaug wants to lay on a pile of ill-gotten gold; Shelob wants to torture and eat you. Their motives are Evil, but ultimately personal.

Sauron—and yes, Morgoth—represent Law. Tyranny. As we see in The Hobbit, orc raids and wild packs of wargs are a problem that elves, humans and dwarves can handle…until a greater Evil starts organizing them. That is when things become truly problematic. Lawful Evil is the great juggernaut, organized and foul to the core, and all the little Neutral and Chaotic fiefdoms of the world can only either serve them or be destroyed.

Which is the “why” of Gondor, and of Rohan. Gondor is Lawful Neutral under Denethor; a strong kingdom, united to oppose Mordor…and that is necessary. Without Minas Tirith, Middle-earth would fall. No wizard could stop it, nor could even Galadriel, greatest elf left in the East, and all the elves of Lothlorien and Rivendell. For all that, Gondor is imperfect…until Good blossoms there again, with the—excuse the pun—return of the king. Aragorn is the fulfillment of Faramir’s promise; Gondor is meant to be Lawful Good, and when it becomes so, thing immediately improve.

Rohan is the question of Law, and how Good and Evil differ. Under Sauron, against Lawful Evil, you can only submit or be destroyed. Lawful Good, on the other hand, allows a flourishing of options. The Rohirrim—whether you think they are Neutral or some other alignment—are an argument for alliance, and a statement that Lawful Good allows pluralism, diversity. “IDIC,” as the Vulcans would put it. Tolkien’s Lawful Good kingdom is what allows Tom Bombadil and the Shire to exist. It is the required compromise.

Even then, we see threading through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the story of those hobbits. Bilbo’s mercy for Gollum is explicitly connected to the fate of the Ring. I would argue that mercy is not the same as pacifism—Bilbo spares Gollum, he doesn’t unilaterally foreswear violence, but rather sees another path and takes it. That act—along with the all-but-martyrdom of Frodo—ultimately decides the question of Good and Evil in the Third Age.


This article was originally posted on December 27, 2012

Mordicai Knode thinks about ethics a lot, to both real and fantastic questions. He is also much more a fan of Tolkien’s literary explorations of ethics than C.S. Lewis’, with the notable exception of the first two Space Trilogy books. You can find Mordicai on Twitter and Tumblr.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
This ties in with how I am still obsessed with The Dispossessed! Which argued that Tom Bombadil could take on the evil empire, at great peril, but in the end coming home okay.
2. a1ay
I’d go so far as to say that it explains the whole point of the most contentious of all characters: Tom Bombadil.

Some would say that he has already been explained. But be warned...
Jeff LaSala
3. JLaSala
Nicely said, though I'm not sure I'd regard the Balrog as intrinsically Chaotic Evil. As servants of tyranny-based Melkor, I'd think they'd be more lawful by nature, but I can certainly see the untethered Moria Balrog to be freer to explore the Chaotic side of his obviously Evil alignment.

Hah! That's the Tom Bombadil pic from the movie-affiliated LotR trading card game, wherein an actor was chosen to represent him in order to match up with the real actors of the movie. But I'm not sure he was ever considered for anything more than that photo.
4. Colin R
I don't really understand why Tom Bombadil is contentious or important at all--we already have plenty of input from the author that he has no real assigned place in the Middle-Earth cosmology. He is a strange figure in the story, yes, but not a consequential one--in fact his inconsequence is almost his defining trait.
5. Berling's Beard
I find Bombadil that much more important, especially for contemporary audiences, exactly because so many folks feel him to be inconsequential. I reject that.

A voice raised in song, a body dancing or lauging and the senses enjoying the beatuy of the natural world as well as the comforts of home are extremely laudable. Indeed, they are of utmost importance.

Bombadil may not be a character many readers identify with or fully understand, but I contend he (perhaps more than the Hobbits) is at the heart of what needs protecting from the tyranny of the 'great juggernaut' (nice one, Mordicai).
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
2. a1ay

I'll take a look!

3. JLaSala

Yeah but it is a really good match!

4. Colin R

But that is precisely why he's interesting!
7. Colin R
I didn't say he wasn't interesting, but that's not the same as important! At least, not in the context of the story. I think Tom Bombadil's section of the book is an enjoyable insight into Tolkien's view of the world, but I don't think it has direct significance to the plot. And I don't think Tom Bombadil is supposed to be a figure who needs protecting--the Shire fulfills that role.

He serves two purposes in the story: one is to essentially fulfill the role of Gandalf in The Hobbit, rushing in to save hobbits from their first risky adventure, because Gandalf has a slightly different role to play in this story; the second is just as a representation of the natural world, which ultimately is indifferent to the struggles of human beings. Sometimes nature is beneficial like Tom, sometimes it's dangerous like the old Willow tree and the river.

The Shire is established as being the home the Hobbits are protecting; the Old Forest is something else. The Shire is the country tamed by Tolkien's platonic ideal of good englishmen, pleasant rural folk without any desire to conquer anything beyond their own gardens. Tom and the Old Forest are literally the last vestiges of the primeval world, completely untouched by human or hobbit.

So in a sense I suppose this does relate to the D&D concept of Law and Chaos, at least in a sense--where Law represented the forces of Good and Civilisation, and Chaos represented Evil and Wilderness. This is a very clasically Imperial view of things that the English and American shared for a long time. With Bombadil, Tolkien is explicitly rejecting that approach though--he sees both the cultivated garden and the wild Forest as being beautiful things, even if the wilderness is sometimes dangerous.

I wouldn't peg Tolkien as a proto-hippy at all, but I do think he's kind of solitary in his viewpoint here.
8. John William Gibson
Much of what Tolkein write about came from his undiagnosed PTSD after WWI. He was informed by his Catholic faith, a need to create an original mythology for his native Englad (which only had borrowed myths from invading cultures, that included the legend of Arthur that came from a Norman myth), and his distain for the Industrial Revolution out which came the Hobbits, simple folk close to the living Earth. He was a cimplicated man and may have been on the autistic spectrum because of single-mindedness in organize his Mythopedia.

There are many elements in his life that led to his great, unfinished opus. Since we can't interview him, we have only his writings and remberences of his children and grandchildren.

In essence, D&D was an outgrowth of Tolkein, Lewis, and the others who after writing of mythic workds. This article attempts to put the cart before the horse. It's an argument fir a kind of retro-causality.

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