Beyond Good and Evil: The Complex Moral System of Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” –Gandalf, The Return of the King

Recently, a friend of mine tried to convince me that The Lord of the Rings is a story of good versus evil, a simplistic fable of light triumphing over dark, and that Tolkien liked to write in black and white morality. This is a deep misunderstanding of morality and the nature of conflict in Tolkien’s storytelling: in fact, the pull toward loss and catastrophe is far stronger than the certainty of victory, and the world of Middle-earth is always on the edge of a fall into darkness.

The promise of destruction hovers constantly over The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion in particular is, in many ways, a story of what Tolkien once called “the long defeat” (Letters, no. 195)—the entire world is devastated not once but twice in battles that shatter continents. Of the six major battles against Morgoth, the rebellious god and Satan-like figure of Tolkien’s mythology (Sauron, in comparison, was only a henchman), three are devastating losses, one is a temporary victory that ends in the death of one of the greatest Elves to ever live (if also one of the most divisive), and one causes the aforementioned destruction of half a continent.

Oh, sure, the latter ends in Morgoth’s imprisonment. But lest we forget, eventually he will break free again and throw the world into darkness.

Splintered Light by Verlyn Flieger is one of the first full-length studies of Tolkien’s writing and one of the few on The Silmarillion (a sort of mythological history of Middle-earth—to give you some perspective, the entirety of The Lord of the Rings is encompassed in two paragraphs in the last chapter of The Silmarillion). In it, Flieger argues that the back and forth pull between two emotional poles of despair and hope is a constant of Tolkien’s writing.

Following Flieger’s lead, it’s necessary to look closely at The Silmarillion, and specifically at Tolkien’s creation myth, to understand the complex nature of good and evil in his world. The first section in the published Silmarillion, the “Ainulindalë”, describes the universe as created by Eru (roughly speaking, God) and sung into being by the Valar (roughly speaking, angels). However, all is not well in the choir: the rebellious Melkor seeks to make his own music outside of that composed by Eru, thus introducing discord and conflict into the melody.

It’s this rather poor decision that precipitates Melkor’s eventual fall (more on that later), but its significance for Tolkien’s cosmology is far greater than that: Eru weaves the rebellious theme into the overarching music, making it part of the grand design, but the problem with incorporating angelic rebellion into your creation is that—well, you’ve incorporated angelic rebellion into creation.

As Tolkien put it in a letter to a friend in 1951, explaining his conception of the Middle-earth mythology:

In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131)

He contrasts this with the version of creation given by “what may be perhaps called Christian mythology,” where “the Fall of Man is subsequent to and a consequence (though not a necessary consequence) of the ‘Fall of the Angels’” but not an inherent part of the world’s nature. In notes, Tolkien described the entirety of the Middle-earth universe as “Morgoth’s ring”—the essence of his evil is baked in, as it were, from the start.

Perhaps this inherent corruption is why the idea of the Fall endlessly haunts Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is dotted with falls, figurative and literal, great and small. The mighty Elf Fëanor falls to his pride and jealousy, just as Melkor did. The house of Hurin collapses into ruins amid tragedy that can only be described as sordid. The great sanctuaries—Nargothrond, Gondolin, Doriath, and the island of Númenor—are all sacked and destroyed.

Númenor itself makes a perfect test case for the ways in which goodness in Tolkien is not a given, even in his heroes. Founded as an island nation for the descendants of the savior-hero Eärendil, Númenor is created as a kind of in-between land, a liminal space between the paradise of Valinor and the mundane world. Númenor and its people are favored above other humans—but even before Sauron manages to slip in as an advisor to the king, the island has already begun to fall apart. Driven by a fear of death, the Númenoreans turn away from their special relationship with the Valar, dabbling in the twin evils of necromancy and imperialism.

This gradual moral decay eventually culminates in a disastrous attempt to invade Valinor by force, and the island of Númenor is utterly destroyed by Eru himself, in his first direct intervention in events, ever. A remnant survives (the ancestors of Aragorn and the Rangers), but the glory of Númenor is gone forever, and as an additional consequence, Eru reshapes the world, sundering Valinor from the earthly realms.

The reshaping of the world after Númenor’s destruction is a loss that resonates with another major theme of Tolkien’s: the world is moving ever away from the divine. In the beginning the Valar walk among the Elves, but they gradually retreat from the world, eventually leaving altogether. This is a process begun at Númenor’s fall, and the resultant removal of Valinor. Tolkien wrote that

The Downfall of Númenor…brings on the catastrophic end, not only of the Second Age, but of the Old World, the primeval world of legend (envisaged as flat and bounded). After which the Third Age began, a Twilight Age, a Medium Aevium, the first of a broken and changed world. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131)

The course of Middle-earth’s history is the gradual motion away from a beautiful past that is always growing further beyond reach. Tolkien’s nostalgia for a bygone age is a simultaneous yearning for and awareness of things lost beyond recovery; not only are the Valar retreating from the material world, but even the Elves begin to leave the world of Men.

It isn’t only on a grand scale that Tolkien illustrates the tendency of the world toward destruction, however—the falls of individuals are every bit as dramatic. The history of Middle-earth is dotted with other characters who succumb to pride or arrogance: Fëanor in the First Age, Isildur in the Second Age, and others. No one is so pure that they are not at risk: not without reason do Gandalf and Elrond both refuse to take charge of the Ring, and while hobbits are able to resist longer, Frodo ultimately fails to let the Ring go, claiming it as his own (it’s only Gollum’s intervention that prevents disaster). The Ring may be a force of its own, but it speaks to the inner darkness in everyone.

Tolkien’s pessimism shows clearly in an unfinished “sequel” to The Lord of the Rings that he began writing but never finished, which takes place in Gondor during the reign of Aragorn’s son. In the story, a sort of “Satanic” cult has arisen and young boys play at being Orcs. Human beings, Tolkien wrote in his letters about the tale, grow quickly dissatisfied with peace (Letters, no. 256 and 338); the title “The New Shadow” alludes to the growth of new evil even after the destruction of Sauron. Tolkien deemed the story too dark and never finished it.

On the other hand, there is a version of Tolkien’s cosmology that holds out hope for a final victory: the Second Prophecy of Mandos promises that while Morgoth will escape and cover the world in darkness, in the end he will be killed and a new world created, free of the flaws of the old. This messianic, Revelation-like story lingers in a few places in The Silmarillion. In the story of the creation of the Dwarves, Tolkien mentions the role they will play in “the remaking of Arda after the Last Battle” (The Silmarillion, “Aule and Yavanna”). However, the prophecy itself was not included in the finished version, and it seems Tolkien did not intend it to be. Not only does Tolkien’s history not reach this promised conclusion beyond prophetic mention, but by its exclusion it is eternally deferred—always just beyond reach, positioned in a nebulous future-conditional.

Thus far, I’ve mostly focused on the darkness that dwells in the heart of Middle-earth, but that is primarily because it is the facet most often overlooked by readers. Equally important is the other side of the coin—glimmers of hope, the turn toward the light: what Tolkien called “eucatastrophe” in his essay “On Fairy Stories”.

According to Tolkien’s definition, eucatastrophe is “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” at the end of a story that averts disaster. It gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world” that does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure but nevertheless offers hope for something other than universal and final defeat. The story of Beren and Luthien is one such glimpse, as is the ultimate destruction of the One Ring even after Frodo’s failure. Each victory may be small, or temporary, but that does not make them meaningless.

In the 1950s, Tolkien wrote a philosophical dialogue between an Elf and a human woman called “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” (subtitled “Of Death and the Children of Eru, and the Marring of Men”). In this piece, Tolkien offers two different Elvish words for hope. One, amdir, describes the expectation of good “with some foundation in what is known”—a realistic kind of hope based on past experience. The other is estel, which the Elf Finrod describes thusly:

“But there is another [thing called hope] which is founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is “trust.” It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being.” (“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”, Morgoth’s Ring)

Estel describes a hope that flies in the face of expectation but is nonetheless sustained, remaining despite loss and despite defeat. It represents what might be called faith, not only in the religious sense but in the manner of a deeply held belief that does not require “evidence.” Tolkien’s hope seems closer to estel than amdir, not to be defeated by the ways of the world. Estel, it is worth noting, is one of Aragorn’s many names.

The story of Lord of the Rings, and of the history of Middle-earth more generally, is not that of one battle of good versus evil, but of instances of a battle that is ongoing, where the final victory (or defeat) is always deferred, just at one remove.

Tolkien’s ethos is not that good will always triumph over evil. Rather, it is that good is locked in a constant struggle against evil, and that victory is far from inevitable and always temporary. Nonetheless, the fight is still necessary and worthwhile. Even in the face of futility, even if it is all a part of “the long defeat,” as Galadriel describes her ages-long fight against the dark (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”), it is valuable to remember the infinitely wise words of Samwise Gamgee’s song in The Two Towers:

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

This article was originally published in March 2017.

Elise Ringo is an enthusiastic nerd putting her English degree to good use by writing about anything other than the literary canon and thinking far too much about pop-culture. She runs a blog at Becoming the Villainess and tweets as @veliseraptor.


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