Close window
© 2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

Lord of the Rings: Reflections on Violence

Kevin Dodd

Violence is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the exercise of physical force so as to inflict on, or cause damage to, persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this; treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.” This, I think, is sufficient for our purposes.[i] 

It should be fairly obvious from the definition, that violence as a concept is closely linked to the ideas of vehemence (in the sense of intensity or severity), force, coercion, damage, injury, control, and power—I am using power as a social construct: the ability to accomplish one’s will over against the competing will or wills of others.  One can speak of them, therefore, as forming a complex constellation of meaning encapsulated in the word “violence.”

This being the case, violence, in and of itself, cannot be an indicator for Tolkien of either good or evil.  Tolkien wants, in his myth and in the mythic structure itself, to have very strong markers for those who are operating either for good and for evil purposes;  violence per se is not intended to be one of those markers.  The reason for this is that violence can and will be used by those who are undeniably good, with no compromise to their character, and the evil characters can refrain from violence, at least temporaily, for their own malevolent reasons.  In other words, although Tolkien certainly would be aware of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in opposition to the British Empire, he did not construct his stories so that nonviolence would be indicative of the good and violence of the bad.[ii]

So the issue before us is under what conditions will the good resort to violence and with what purpose will evil agents use it?  Here I can think of no better place to begin than the very beginning: Tolkien’s creation myth as it appears in the opening pages of The Silmarillion.[iii]  I have edited it, but it is still a lengthy passage:

[I]t came to pass that Ilúvatar [God] called together all the Ainur [angelic beings] and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed. . . .

Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music.  And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.  But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you a great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Then the voices of the Ainur . . . began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. . . .

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws.  But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. . . . He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. . . .

Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first.  Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound.  But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in the endless wrath that would not be assuaged.

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.  But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery.  Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity.  And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance.  The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immearsureable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.  The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.  And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.

In the midst of this strife, whereat the hall of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold.  Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the divising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. . . .

Violence (this constellation of vehemence, force, coercion, damage, injury, control, and power) is then used both by Melkor, the devil figure, and Ilúvatar, that is, God, and it is woven deeply into the song of creation.  You may ask where the force, injury, or damage is.  This song is so powerful that Ilúvatar merely alters it from an auditory reality to a visible and physical one in creation, so once it becomes such, the struggle of the themes transforms likewise into a physical conflict, and thus causes great injury and damage, often in the form of war.  There is, therefore, no escaping violence in the created world.  So, now, how will the violence of the good be different from the violence of evil?[iv]

1.     The good will tend[v] to resort to violence only as a response, only defensively, and then, only with reluctance and measure; it will not, in contemporary parliance, “pre-emptively strike” or be the aggressors; evil, on the other hand, will.  It is Melkor who introduces cacaphony into the song and this discord continues some time before Ilúvatar re-introduces beauty and restores order by a new theme. Ilúvatar responds only slowly and with restraint to Melkor’s defiance.

2.     The good will tend to resort to violence in order to protect others; it will be allocentric or other-centered; evil, however, will be arrogant, self-centered, egocentric.  On the one hand, Melkor “sought to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”  On the other, Ilúvatar initially intervenes only after those around Melkor become despondent, their music falters, and discord spreads; he steps in a second time only after “many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer.” Ilúvatar then re-introduces themes that will be inclusive of the others, even if inclusion be only the enjoyment and surprise of listening.

3.     The good will tend to resort to violence to protect freedom; evil wills desire domination and control.  Melkor’s music, we are told, “essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice,” whereas Ilúvatar declares a mighty theme which he invites the Ainur to “show forth [their] own powers in adorning this theme, each with [one’s] own thoughts and devices, if [one] will” to do so.

4.     The good will tend to resort to violence in order to restore harmony, that is, to heal; evil introduces disharmony to sicken and extend disease, for it is thereby that it can control and manipulate others.  Violence irreparably mars the world and it seriously extends the loss and sorrow already inherent in it.  After the song is twice damaged by Melkor, Ilúvatar’s new theme is “slow and blended with immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”

5.     The good will tend to resort to violence only to the degree that it is compatible with reconciliation—it is not to be used for the purpose of revenge.  Evil will tend to justify its violence in terms of exacting vengeance for some real or imagined harm suffered. Ilúvatar does not distance himself from or exile Melkor for his transgression, nor avenge it in any other way, but Ilúvatar embraces Melkor as part of Ilúvatar’s own extended self—as “mine instrument,” Ilúvatar says.  One may also call this forgiveness or mercy.  Melkor rejects it: he is “filled with shame, of which came secret anger.”

6.     The good will not depend merely upon violence, but rather on the full range of creative and novel solutions in conflict; evil, because of its innate will to dominate, will have the tendency to depend much more upon violence and it will be, therefore, rather uncreative and redundant.  Notice that Melkor’s contending theme is “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” . . . “a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes” whereas from Ilúvatar’s theme the Ainur fashioned “endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights.”

7.     The good will tend to resort to violence not out of haste or impatience but chiefly from necessity, as a last resort; evil, in contrast, will tend to be more impetuous.  Melkor’s original sin, we are told, is going often alone into the void, “for desire grew hot within him that Ilúvatar took no thought of the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.”   There is in impatience and impetuousness an element of prideful arrogance.  Ilúvatar, however, patiently awaited the maturity of the Ainur so that their song could reach such a wisdom and complexity that it might fill the void and be used to create the world.[vi]

Putting these in terms of the Lord of the Rings, we shall see something like this:

1.     On Responding Defensively.  It is Saruman who first attacks Rohan; it is Sauron who first attacks Gondor; both must defend themselves.  The ents react to the wanton destruction—murder—of their friends and loved ones in their attack on Isengard and their support of Galadriel, and the Huorns respond to the same in their annihilation of Saruman’s orcs.  Galadriel and the forces of Lothlórien defend themselves from an orc attack from Mordor; Legolas’ kingdom is assaulted by Mordor and valiantly fights back; Dale and the dwarves of Erebor (Lonely Mountain, Gimli’s kin) are besieged by Easterlings in alliance with Mordor and are drawn into a terrible three-day defensive battle.[vii]

The first instance is instructive, especially if we compare it to the movie.  We will have reason to consider the first attacks on Rohan later, so let us start with the battle at Helm’s Deep itself.  Outnumbered by about five to one, but in combat readiness, more like ten to one, Rohan first defends the Dike and then pulls back completely behind the walls of the Hornburg fortress.  The orcs and human allies pour through the breach and over the Dike, shooting arrows “thick as rain” over the battlements, mounting the banks, and inflicting casualities.  But there is initially no response.  It is when they drive forward toward the gates that the arrows of Rohan are loosed.  The “darts” now can be focused, effective in defense, and not wasted.

In the movie, the approach of Saruman’s orcs (there are no human allies) to the Hornburg is in an orderly march, halting a distance from the walls.  Aragorn counsels the archers, many of whom are elves, that no mercy should be shown, for none shall be given.  In the silence between the armies, a trembling archer of Rohan accidently lets fly an arrow killing an orc on the front line and revealing the weakness of their armor—at the neck.  This commences the war, but it is more reminiscent of the fourth book of the Iliad where Pandaros purposely shoots Menelaos, thereby skuttling a possible peaceful settlement of the war, than it is of anything in Tolkien.  The orcs charge and volleys of arrows are shot into their midst, largely indiscriminately.  Rohan shoots first, and though it be accidental, it receives a favorable judgment from the film for its revelatory power.  In the Iliad, it is tragic, overseen by the caprice of the gods, especially Athena.  It is simply inconceivable in the books.

2.     On Allocentricity and Egocentricity and On Protection.  The forces of evil are allied by bonds of coercion or by appeal to self-interest.   Shelob and Sauron are not allied, but find each other mutually beneficial.  Saruman and Sauron relate to each other in much the same way, i.e., using each other for their own gain.  In both of these illustrations, there is no question of parity:  Sauron is the more powerful party.  Orcs, like Shagrat and Gorbag fantacize of ditching Sauron and together exacting their cruelty apart from him, but when pressured and in fear, such orcs will quickly turn on each other in fratricidal violence.  Saruman gains the alliance of the men of Dunland to attack Rohan by lies and half-truths—that is, he tells them their lands were stolen by the Rohirrim (which is not entirely untrue),[viii] who are cruel and burn their captives alive (which is a complete fabrication).  When the free peoples seem unable or unwilling to unite for the common good, Gandalf castigates them as succumbing to the will of Mordor—the will to distrust, disunity, discord.  While Sauron is alive, his forces often fight to the death in terror and frenzy, but with his destruction and the loss of his dominating will, his forces flee or surrender, fighting no more.  In other words, these forces are not fighting for principles but as subjects under mass control or fear, or as allies for gain.  They are, or want to be, looking out only for their own interests.  And with regard to ocs, at least, their interests always have a violent component, since they want control and domination and so will need to use force and coercion to guarantee their unhindered exercise of power.

The good, as we have noted, will use force to protect others who are vulnerable; this is part of what it means to be allocentric or other-centered.  Because it is so often defensive, the most vulnerable will be evacuated to safer places or moved to a place that is the most protected and defensible.  Setting aside a feminist critique of Tolkien’s mythological world, we must admit that this issue of protection of the weak and defenseless is central to the heart-rending confrontation of Éowyn and Aragorn.  To Aragorn’s mind, this is not an issue that relates to her being a woman, but to her being in a hierarchical chain of command.  She is not free to do as she wills because she has been rightfully designated to lead those under Rohan’s protection to the safe refuge of Dunharrow and organize their care.  She, of course, retorts that this very hierarchy institutionalizes a subordination of women to men, and that is why she was so designated.  But the issue at hand, is that someone must be in charge and at the last line of defense, if the violence of war reach that far. 

Frodo, on the other hand, abandons the Shire to protect it, for it is his presence there that endangers it.  When Bilbo says that Frodo is not yet ready to leave with him because Frodo still loves the Shire, it has nothing to do with the inhabitants; it is the “woods and fields and little rivers.”  He loves the land.  Later when he is saying “good-bye” to the Shire before his birthday, it is again to the land.  But when he faces the fact that he himself is “a danger to all that live near [him]” it no longer has to do with the environment.

I should like to save the Shire, if I could—though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words . . .  But I don’t feel like that now.  I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable

An archetypal example of protective force is Gandalf standing alone before the Balrog and, later, before the Witch-king in closely paralleled scenes, with those who are defenseless in the face of such dominating power behind him.  We may briefly look at the first.  Gandalf is already drained from a first encounter with the Balrog at the point of the second confrontation on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm.  We can see his desire to protect in that he yells to the others to fly, “This is a foe beyond any of you.”  That Aragorn and Boromir try to stand behind him is useless except as a courageous display.  They can do nothing but perish.  Formost on Gandalf’s mind must be question who other than he might successfully direct the resistance to Sauron?[ix]  But he fights the Balrog alone to protect those under his care and who are helpless before the Balrog’s power.  By his self-sacrifice, his companions are saved.

Another archetypal example is Éowyn before this very Nazgûl Chief.  It is a remarkable scene and therefore it figures prominantly among the images drawn by artists.  It is easy to forget in all the talk of her desire for a glorious death, that she is not seeking it out here.  She is protecting her lord and uncle from defilement.  But we know, or should know, that this too is “a foe beyond her.”  She could thrust her sword a full forty times between the crown and mantle to no effect, not because she lacks courage but she has no weaponry up to the task.  Merry, moved by her stunning example and by his desire to aid her and his lord, becomes able to open his eyes and master both his will and his shaking body, to crawl behind the Black Captain and to stab him behind the knee “shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk [piercing] the sinew.”  Merry is no match for her bravery beyond any fear of death, but he has a rare sword, given him by Tom Bombadil from the treasures of the barrow, retrieved by Aragorn after Merry was abducted by Saruman’s orcs and returned to him at Isengard.  It is Merry alone that kills him.[x]  Both Éowyn and Merry are moved by impulses of protection to fight a seemingly impossible fight.  It is not done rashly for the sake of fighting or of glory.

3.     On Freedom. Éomer, nephew to the king of Rohan, declares “we desire only to be free and to live as we have lived, keeping our own and serving no foreign lord, good or evil.”  Galadriel expresses a similar sentiment: “[The elves] will cast all away rather than submit to Sauron.”  Boromir appeals to the altruism and self-sacrifice of Gondor as part of its splendor at the Council of Elrond: “By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained behind us.”  Aragorn does not deny the importance of Gondor, but points to the greater benevolence of the Rangers: “Lonely men are we, Rangers of the wild, hunters—but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy . . . Peace and freedom, do you say?  The North would have known them little but for us. . . . And yet less thanks have we than you.  Travellers scowl at us, and country men give us scornful names.”  Frodo, of course, gives up, in the end, all hope of happiness in Middle-earth in his self-sacrifice for the love of the Shire, and his devotion to the model of Bilbo’s life and the wisdom of Gandalf, Elrond, and Aragorn.  At the Council, Elrond goes out of his way to make sure Frodo’s decision is made freely.

But Gandalf is the real image of it—Tolkien writes in the appendix, introducing the Third Age that when the first shadow fell on Greenwood the Istari or Wizards appeared.  “It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had a will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate elves or Men by force or fear.”[xi] Only Gandalf, of the wizards, adheres to this.  Saruman despairs of uniting any real force against Sauron without coercion and control, so he obsesses over finding the ring and then contesting Sauron by dominating the formerly free people by fear and force and matching his power with Sauron’s.  Gandalf, on the other hand, lives a life of self-sacrifice for the sake of a free alliance against Sauron and a free future for Middle-earth.

Then there is a revealing episode with Aragorn  As the surviving forces of Gondor move toward the Black Gate of Mordor, not with the intention to win by military means but to keep Sauron’s attention distracted and turned outward, Aragorn becomes aware that some of his troops have become deeply unsettled (“unmanned”).  “Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath, for these were young men . . . and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal.”  He addresses his troops and gives them an alternative to proceeding to the gate, i.e., to turn aside and go to Cair Andros.  If it be taken by the enemies, he tells them, then re-take it and “hold it to the last in defence of Gondor and Rohan.”  “Then some being shamed by his mercy overcame their fear and went on, and the others took new hope, hearing of a manful deed within their measure that they could turn to, and they departed.”  This is another way a true leader can protect freedom and be concerned for the well-being of others under the conditions of defensive warfare.

4.     On the Marring Effect of Violence and the Reluctance to use it; On Loss, and On Healing.  One of the chief themes of Lord of the Rings is that of fading and therefore of loss.  The world is created with so much natural power and life-force that it takes many ages passing and then, unforturately, much violence between an aggressive Melkor and the other Valar (the most powerful angelic beings who have linked their existence with the world for as long as it may exist) before it is diminished enough to support and not overpower elven existence.  The world is still extremely powerful by our standards when the elves arise and they reflect this in their art, for elves are primarily artists—in their love of language, of writing, of crafts, of music, of dance, of landscaping, i.e., the peaceful arts.  Only secondarily, and often unhappily, do they learn and use the martial arts, especially the bow and sword.  With further diminishing and tragically violent marring, the world fades enough for human existence, and for three ages elves and humans co-exist, but by the end of the Third Age, the world has faded too far to sustain elves any more and they must leave for the Far West or fade into fairies or worse.  Therefore loss permeates Lord of the Rings far beyond anything I can begin to say here. [xii]  But I can say that it certainly leads to a reluctance among the wise to resort to violence, and none glorify it.  In perhaps the most poignant words on this subject, one hears Elrond declare, “I have seen three ages in the West of the World, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.”  He later modifies this, but he would never retract it.  And there is this rather pensive exchange of Théoden and Gandalf:

G: You should be glad, Théoden King. . . . You are not without allies, even if you know them not.

Th. Yet also I should be sad.  For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-earth.

G. It may. The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been.  But to such days we are doomed.

When there is talk of the “joy of battle” being on Théoden and the “lust of battle” being on Éomer, it is not the celebration of war for itself, but the giving of oneself up in sacrifice to a cause as great as theirs.  We can gain some perspective from Faramir:  “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend.”  Faramir says as well that the fact that so many in Gondor “love war and honor the warrior alone” is an indication of a fall of humanity, for the warrior, in order to be rightly honored, “should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying.”

Among these skills is healing.  Note that Gandalf, after facing the Nazgûl king at the gate of Gondor, spends nearly all his time in the Houses of Healing; that Aragorn nursed Frodo for two weeks before Elrond could heal him from the wound he received from the Morgul blade at Weather Top or Amon Sûl; that he tended Sam and Frodo after Moria; that he cared for Gimli after Helm’s Deep.  And then after the Battle of Pelennor Fields Aragorn proved himself king of Gondor by holistically healing Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, and then healing nearly all night those who asked him for help, aided by Elrond’s two sons. 

But this is not the only forum for healing, i.e., bodily wholeness; there is also the healing of the land.  Galadriel’s love of the land, is matched by Sam’s, so her gift to him reflects this; much of the healing of the Shire is done through his wise use of it.  As Galadriel prepares to leave Middle-earth she says to Sam, “I hear and see that you have used my gift well.  The Shire shall now be more than ever blessed and beloved.”  And in a nice, moving phrase Tolkien closes for us a small wound he created much earlier.  We will remember Haldir talking to Merry on their way into Lothlórien: “Alas for Lothlórien that I love!  It would be a poor life in a land where no mallorn grew.  But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the Great Sea, none have reported it.”  Of the seed that the Lady gives Sam, which he plants in the Party-Field to replace the tree so wantonly destroyed, it is said that it became “the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea, and one of the finest in the world.”  We can therefore safely assume that Haldir found what he so longed for when he disembarked from the ship bearing him to Aman in the West.

Evil has no respect for the land.  This is closely linked with its lust for technology.  Technology in Tolkien’s world is neutral; Aulë, the master craftsmaker of the Valar, develops technologies, and so do many of the elves, to draw out and magnify the beauty of the natural world as they see it.  In the Lord of the Rings one of the most revealing moments of this is when Gimli is talking to Legolas after the Battle of the Hornburg and on their way to Isengard.  During the battle, Gimli had been driven back into the Glittering Caves of Aglerond.  He describes its breathtaking beauty concluding that it makes him weep now to be leaving them behind.  Legolas, depending on his elven prejudices, says that perhaps humans have been wise keeping this a secret from dwarves, considering the damage they could do to it.  Gimli sets him straight:

No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness.  None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there.  Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood?  We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.  With cautious skill, tap by tap—a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day—so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock. 

The good do not wish to control the world.  Evil does, and so its technologies distort and damage the earth, especially its technologies of industry and war.  Initially Saruman’s orcs cut the trees of Isengard and then moved to the forests of Fangorn, in order to develop and expand its polluting and poisonous industries of war and domination.  From there, the orcs moved freely into destroying the trees of Fangorn just for the fun of it.  Much later, Saruman and the men under him obviously enjoy laying as much waste as they can to the Shire before they must stop.  Saruman tells Frodo he was teaching him a lesson by destroying the Shire as much as he could; “It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men.  Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to undo in your lives.”

Around Mordor is waste- and wasting land.  The former gardens of the Entwives have become the Brown Lands, desolate and without trees.  The former site of the Great War that ended the Second Age is now the Dead Marshes and the Mere of  Dead Faces, evil-smelling and avoided even by the orcs.  Southward from there are the Noman Lands and then before the Black Gates of  Mordor are the Slag Mounds, hills of wasted metal, earth and stone.  All these approach Mordor to the north.  To the west is the land of Ithilien, held by Gondor until recently when Mordor conquered it.  Already orcs have moved through this still living and vital region, damaging its monuments and marring the land with open pits of filth and refuse. And around Minas Morgul is an odor of rottenness and twisted, horrible vegetation. 

The reason Mordor is so desolate is because it is the place of its industry and war; there are fields to the south which grow its food but it itself is a ruined land, perhaps beyond any hope of restoration.  The only counterexample to this is the fact that orcs have elixirs of healing, that have an almost immediate, and beneficial effect on the hobbits when used, even though the taste is nasty.  This opens the possibility for the moral healing, the reconciliation of orcs, a possility Tolkien never explores.[xiii] 

5.     On Reconciliation and Revenge

Although reconciliation—and the linked concepts of pity, mercy, forgiveness—is not explored with the orcs, it is widely in evidence elsewhere.  In fact both the themes of revenge and reconciliation are introduced with force already in the second chapter of the book.  With regard to revenge, since it arises first, we hear a rather strange remark from Gandalf: 

[H]obbits as miserable slaves would please [Sauron] far more than hobbits happy and free.  There is such a thing as malice and revenge.

Frodo: Revenge?  Revenge for what?

Good question.  Bilbo never took or kept the ring out of spite for Sauron; nor has Frodo for the nearly 17 years he has had it.  But Sauron sees it differently and his notion of revenge will be sweeping.  Not only does he see Frodo, by simply having the ring, as worthy of slavery in revenge, but he sees the entirety of hobbit free existence as collectively punishable in the same way.  The will to dominate again; Sauron hates freedom and self-determination.

Then there’s Gollum.  He wants revenge as well.  Gandalf tells Frodo of his interrogation of Gollum and what he learned: “He muttered that he was going to get his own back.  People would see if he would stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed.  Gollum had good friends now, good friends and very strong.  They would help him.  Baggins would pay for it.  That was his chief thought.  He hated Bilbo and cursed his name.”

It is in this context that we first hear of mercy. This is well worn territory so let me summarize.  Frodo is frightened and blurts out that it is a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature when he had the chance.  Gandalf immediately reproves him:  It was precisely pity that stopped Bilbo from doing such a thing and Bilbo has been rewarded: “Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity. . . . I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. . . .   My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.  In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched.  The Wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.”

We learn later at the Council of Elrond what the kindness of the elves led to—Gollum’s escape.  The elves were told by Gandalf to watch him, but also to hope for his cure.  Not having the heart to keep him ever in a dungeon, they would take him to a tree set apart from all others where he could climb, and from there, he somehow contacted spies and he was rescued by a fierce attack of orcs. 

When Frodo does encounter Gollum, he shares Gandalf’s and Bilbo’s pity (we see this clearly at the Forbidden Pool where he spares Gollum’s life), and this pity does have an effect.  In Letter 246, Tolkien says that perhaps for him, the most tragic moment in Lord of the Rings is right outside Shelob’s lair.  Gollum has snuck off and met with Shelob to plan the death of Frodo and Sam, and he returns to find them sleeping.[xiv]  The gleam of malice in his eyes fades, he shakes his head, he reaches out and touches, indeed caresses, Frodo’s knee.  Frodo stirs, waking Sam who was supposed to be on watch.  Sam says roughly, “What are you up to?” to which Gollum replies, “Nothing, nothing. Nice Master!”

Tolkien writes in the letter that Gollum’s “repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted.  Shelob’s lair became inevitable.”  What he means by this is that pity is always directed to the good of the other, to its object.  While it is good to keep oneself free from hate and from doing an injustice, to have pity merely to keep oneself clean renders it empty.  Frodo is clean, but Gollum from this point forward is beyond repentance.  Still Frodo’s pity shows how he has grown in nobility, and this is another important theme in the book.  One aspect of nobility is service to the unlovable and the perception of damaged good in the corrupt.  And it is something Sam simply could not see or do.  But Sam grows, like Frodo, a lot in a short amount of time.  After the entrance into Shelob’s lair, Frodo becomes increasingly passive and Sam becomes more active.  And when Frodo is attacked by Shelob and Sam by Gollum, Sam has to make a significant decision.  Gollum having fled from his unsuccessful assault and Sam having dealt a serious wound to Shelob, Sam stands before the apparent corpse of Frodo, and girds himself:

Now he tried to find strength to tear himself away and go on a lonely journey—for vengeance.  If once he could go, his anger would bear him down all the roads of the world, pursuing, until he had him at last: Gollum.  Then Gollum would die in a corner.  But that was not what he had set out to do.  It would not be worth while to leave his master for that.  It would not bring him back.  Nothing would.  They had better both be dead together.  And that too would be a lonely journey.

Sam initially doesn’t even think about it.  He gathers everything together and prepares to leave the body of Frodo to exact revenge—we will remember how he wanted Galadriel to take the ring and “make some folk pay” back in Lothlórien.  But when he thinks about it, it wasn’t important enough to leave Frodo for.  It is not yet pity, but it allows Sam to prioritize and thus in the end to rescue Frodo and lead him to Mount Doom.  There Gollum attacks again, and Sam has his chance to slay him, but Sam now allows Gollum to live.   It is too late for his redemption, but Gollum, for motives of greed, vengeance, lust and the rest, actually becomes, in spite of himself, a co-redeemer of free peoples.  His death is not intentional but accidental, and the context is void of benevolence, but Gollum’s death is still redemptive.  Sam’s pity also ruled the fate of many.

This seems to me the most important of the stories of vengeance and reconciliation in Lord of the Rings but it is by no means the only one.  Let’s look at Gríma Wormtongue, so called.  Gríma represents one who heard the voice of Saruman and could never shake it, it followed and haunted him even from afar.  He is a man of Rohan and he worked his way to chief counsellor of the king.  At first he merely reports what he learns to Saruman but later he is pressed into direct service—he counsels Théoden in accordance with Saruman’s desires.  The following is his most important counsel.  Saruman sends his Uruk-Hai across the fields of Rohan in order to intercept the hobbits at the Falls of Rauros, and to take them captive so that he may extract from them the ring.  In order to draw attention away from the crossing of the orcs, he starts war with Rohan near Isengard, and on the first day of battle the king’s son is killed.  Because Saruman’s Uruk-Hai are more powerful than the regular orcs from Mordor and Moria, who also, for their own reasons, intercept the Fellowship at the Falls, Saruman’s orcs are able to dictate the direction of the abduction, and to insure that the hobbits arrive safe and unmolested.

Gríma is essential here, because the orcs will once again be crossing the Fields of Rohan with their booty.  As Gandalf later explains it: “He was crafty: dulling men’s wariness, or working on their fears, as served the occasion. . . . If Éomer had not defied Wormtongue’s voice speaking with your mouth, those Orcs would have reached Isengard by now, bearing a great prize.”  Thus with Gríma we have a notorious traitor, certainly warranting a death sentence.  But Gandalf claims mercy for him: “See, Théoden, here is a snake! . . . To slay it would be just.  But it was not always as it now is.  Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion.  Give him a horse and let him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.” Théoden accepts this and declares to Wormtongue: “This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will.  But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.” Gríma, of course, flees to his master, Saruman. 

All this is done with Grima facing his accusers and defending himself as best as he can.  Not so the movie.  Upon entering the hall, Gandalf takes the fore, as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli note a portion of the guard (viewed as thugs) moving parallel.  After Grima shouts that Gandalf’s staff was to be taken, the three begin fighting the guard that comes to Grima’s and Théoden’s aid.  Continuing the aggressive entrance, with Wormtongue now under Gimli’s heel, Gandalf performs a violent exocism of Théoden.  Immediately upon coming to himself with the spirit of Saruman expelled, Gandalf suggests he take his sword to remember his strength.  When he does, his eyes turn in anger upon Wormtongue, who is trying to escape, but is held down by Gimli.  Grima is thrown out of the hall and down the first flight of stairs.  As he lay on the landing, he protests that he has only tried to serve, Théoden lunges at him with his sword, only to be held back by Aragorn who explains that he should be let go, that enough blood has been spilled on his account.  Aragorn reaches to help Grima up, whereupon Grima spits on Aragorn’s hand and makes an escape, riding off toward Saruman.  The violence is amped up in every way over the book, and the aggressive behavior of the company upon entering the hall is celebrated by a triumphant building first of brass and then an almost ecclesiastical chorus during the exorcism.

Gandalf’s pity in the book is real and is true to Tolkien’s vision: the perception of damaged good in the corrupt.  Grima is then free to make his own choice and his options are clear.  Aragorn’s intervention in the movie is not pity, but a call for the cessation of bloodshed.  But why this should be is not clear.  If enough blood has been shed because of him, why should he not be executed to stop any further danger of this happening again?  Why should the claims of justice be suspended?  The scene seems meant not to evoke pity for Grima and hope for his repentance, but to display Aragorn as a man of peace in spite of his hostile behavior initially in court. 

6.     On the Dependence of Violence

At least since Paradise Lost, where Milton had a tough time making God appear interesting and Satan not seem sympathetic, Christian authors of a certain type have been trying to work out a dramatic context that more successfully addresses this.  Tolkien, I think, succeeds very well.  As soon as we learn, along with Frodo, about this ring from Gandalf, we are told how the ring may be destroyed.  “There is only one way: to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there, if you really wish to destroy it, to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever.”  There seem only two ways to accomplish this:  one is to raise an army as vast as possible and either attack Mordor or draw Sauron’s forces out in an epic battle.  But if they do this, they will certainly want someone to use the ring and if one does, that one will become another dark lord.  Gandalf makes this plain when Frodo offers the ring to him, as we shall see..  Boromir and Denethor both demonstrate the same later.  The only other way is to sneak in past all the watchful eyes of Mordor, make it to Mount Doom undetected and throw in the ring.  But this is probably the most surveilled place in all Middle-earth; one can not simply walk in and expect to be unobserved.

At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf, in persuading the majority that the only way is to destroy the ring, confronts the observations of Erestor, the chief counsellor to Elrond in Rivendell that this is either despair or folly.  And he makes an intriguing observation.

Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!  For he is very wise and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice.  But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.  Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we seek to destroy it.  If we see this, we shall put him out of reckoning.

Out of reckoning indeed.  Sauron shares with Melkor a brilliant, strategic mind but a devastating lack of imagination.  This can be seen readily by comparing their regions of control:  Mordor is only a pale reflection of Melkor’s realm of power in the north.[xv]  Gandalf will later call Sauron a “wise fool,” when dialoguing with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in the forest of Fangorn, and he reiterates these ideas.  Sauron cannot conceive of his enemies not trying to wield the power of the ring and trying violently to overpower him.

He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place.  And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. . . . That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.  That we should try to destroy the Ring itself  has not yet entered into his darkest dream.  In which no doubt you will see our good fortune and our hope.

It is easy for us to dismiss Sauron’s point of view as simply due to malace, desire, and greed, and to forget that it is also seen as a kind of wisdom, so let us look at the only place where the arguments of this wisdom are developed:  Boromir’s discourse with Frodo.  Here again, we can miss part of the point, because we have a tendency to exaggerate the singularity of the attraction to the ring—the will to rule and dominate.  The ring also draws upon the will to aid and help, to be a benefactor.  We have already been alerted to this by Gandalf himself when Frodo first offered him the ring:  “Do not tempt me!  For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.  Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.  Do not tempt me!”

Boromir has been withdrawing since he entered Lothlórien and was tested by Galadriel.  He has fought valiantly for Gondor and he has nearly paid with his life.  He is not afraid to die, only to die without honor, without fighting for what he believes is the only hope against tyranny, his homeland.  There are indeed many factors at work in his growing desire for the ring, but chief among them is doubt—doubt in the wisdom of Gandalf’s plan.  Every way he looks at it, it looks stupid and almost certain to fail (indeed almost intended to fail), leading to the destruction of Gondor and the subservience of its people and all the peoples of Middle-earth..  If he is going to serve his people as he ought, he needs the ring.  It is a conclusion of wisdom, as he sees it, not of a will to control with self-serving justifications manufactured to make it look benevolent.  At least, not primarily.

Frodo operates mainly by faith—faith in the wisdom of others, trust that their reputations are true and the limited exposure he has had with them is consonant with their true characters.  So he does not withdraw from the company in order to judge critically and impartially all the counsels he has received and to come to his own conclusions.  Instead he ponders and recalls “everything that he [can] remember of Gandalf’s words.”  Boromir, on the other hand, puts his faith in his own experience.  He knows weapons, he knows how to use them; he is a skilled warrior.  Weapons are only as good or as evil as the ones wielding them—nothing is intrinsically evil and perverting, weapons are neutral.  Wizards, elves, and half-elves may think otherwise, and maybe that is true to their experience of themselves, but not to the experience of human beings. 

True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. . . . . We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause.  And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power.  It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor.  It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him.  The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. . . . And they tell us to throw it away! . . . . I do not say destroy it  That might be well, if reason could show any hope of doing so.  It does not.  The only plan that is proposed to us is that a halfling should walk blindly into Mordor and offer the Enemy every chance of recapturing it for himself.   Folly!

If we bracket out the point of view of the narrative, which predisposes us to trust Gandalf as Frodo does, and our own training in Christian myth, in which the folly of the cross confounds the wisdom of humanity, we can, and should, see Boromir’s point.  He is not altogether honest or dispassionate, but he is not simply being self-serving either.  When he becomes increasingly angry and agitated, it is due to Frodo’s seemingly blind faith in the so-called wisdom of others, and his refusal to listen to reason.  And reason can only see the logic of violence in a situation like this, it seems.  On this point, Boromir and Sauron are agreed.

So Tolkien pictures the good as not depending on violence alone, even in desperate situations.  And we can conclude again by looking briefly at Aragorn and his use of conflict resolution.  There are two instances of this: his entrance into Lothlórien; his initial meeting with Éomer.  We will just note the former.  After Gandalf has perished in the mines, the party makes it to Lothlórien.  The night before they are to be escorted in by Haldir, a decision is reached about Gimli’s manner of entrance: he is to be blindfolded.  Legolas is privy to this and apparently thinks little of it, although he does vouch for Gimli’s character.  The following day when he is singled out, Gimli strongly resists.  He plants his feet in defiance and draws his ax; the elves bend their bows in response, when Aragorn intervenes and declares that the whole company shall share Gimli’s fate.  Legolas, who previously had shouted disapproval at Gimli as an instance of a reputed stiffneckedness shared by all dwarves, now protests his inclusion, but Aragorn dismisses it by referencing Legolas’ prejudice—is his reaction also an instance of the inherent stiffneckedness of all elves?  Violence is averted by compromise.  Frodo learns from this, as we see when Faramir insists on him being blindfolded later.

7.     On Impatience and Violence.

This final reflection must be properly contextualized to be fully helpful, partially because evil can notoriously be patient.[xvi]  The Black Riders in the movie are nothing if not impatiently violent.  They ride out of Mordor like a storm, heading directly to the Shire.  They enter the Shire, slay a Bounder, and try to run the hobbits down.  When Frodo has the accident with the ring in Bree, they break down the gate, march through the inn openly, stab the beds, and scream in frustration.  On Weathertop, Aragorn gives the hobbits swords and then disappears.  The five riders face the hobbits with their swords and immediately disable them, as the king moves to confront Frodo.  When Frodo pulls the ring away from him, he strikes in anger.  But before he can do anything more Aragorn appears with sword and fire, driving them all away flaming and screeching.  Recovering quickly from being torched, and apparently having packed plenty of black cloaks, they are in determined pursuit until Rivendell. 

In the book, they are disciplined and self-controlled, for their mission is to keep a relatively low profile for reconnaissance and for the possible unobtrusive retrieval of the ring.  They do not want to call undue attention to themselves, although they are hardly secretive.  They proceed for over two months, querying about the whereabouts of the Shire.  They drive off the rangers who are guarding the Shire and split up, with four entering and the others pursuing the rangers, a lucky thing for the hobbits, for their power is greatest when all together.  The four inquire after Baggins, and although they are menacing, they promise substantial reward for information.  They trust the ring-bearer’s attraction to the ring will win out and he will put it on, entering their world and becoming quickly vulnerable to their manipulation.  They leave the Shire days after the hobbits, having found the house at Crickhollow deserted; they run down guards at the gate mainly because an alarm has sounded.  But they leave with a patient understanding: “Let the little people blow [their alarm]!  Sauron would deal with them later.”

In Bree, they act primarily through proxies, opportunists, like Bill Ferny, drawn by the promises of power and wealth.  It appears it is Ferny and his companion who try to abduct Merry, although a black rider is present, the riders have re-entered Bree by stealth after Frodo’s public accident with the ring in the inn.  And it is clear that it is mercenaries like Ferny who break into The Prancing Pony and stab the beds, and not the riders themselves.  “[An attack] is not their way,” Aragorn says.  “In dark and loneliness they are stronger; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people—not until they are desperate . . .” 

Because of Gandalf, they are once again divided at Amon Sûl; they are only five and so do not strike in full force.  They are not interested in a confrontation and they do not expect resistance, so when Frodo does produce his elven blade, only the Nazgûl king proceeds.  When Frodo falls and stabs at his feet crying out the hurtful invocation, “O Elbereth!  Gilthoniel!” he wounds Frodo and then they all withdraw fully.  They have struck in such a way as to minimize actual confrontation with Aragorn.  Aragorn searches and can find no feeling of them nearby.  They are certain Frodo shall soon be joining them as he succumbs to their will and acquieces to the ring.  They cannot imagine someone not wanting access to the ring’s power.  It is only as the two weeks it takes to get to Rivendell draws near, as the nine are able to re-assemble, and as Frodo continues to refuse the temptation, that they attempt a second direct encounter and remarkably Frodo again invokes powerful heroines to resist them—this time Elbereth and Lúthien.

While patience cannot be a virtue in itself, impatience can be a marker of error and of evil.  We’ll remember from The Silmarillion that Aulë grows impatient with Ilúvatar’s unrevealed schedule for the appearance of the Firstborn, shapes the dwarves, and then must answer to Ilúvatar for what he had done.  That is an example of a mistake, and he readily admits it and repents.  I think that the story of Fëanor is one of the best to show impatience as an evil, even if the narrative does not appear in the Lord of the Rings but in The Silmarillion.  Fëanor is the most famous and infamous of the elves, being of the great “race” of the Noldor, master crafters.  His innate restlessness was driven as much by pride and arrogance, as by unrivaled creative intelligence and energy.  His story is too involved to rehearse here, but we might note that Gandalf references him with reverence.With regard to the palantír he tells Pippin, “Even now my heart desires to test my will upon it . . . to look across the wide seas of water and of time . . . and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Fëanor at their work.” 

Fëanor hated Melkor, but his prideful insularity made him a receptive target for Melkor’s divisive lies, setting him at odds with his half brothers and in a collision course with the Valar.  This is especially the case after his most spectacular achievement, the making of the three silmarils.  Eventually Melkor kills Fëanor’s father and steals the jewels, and Fëanor then openly defies the Valar; he gives a passionate speech to the Noldor elves to forsake the westernmost lands, Aman, where they have co-existed with the Valar themselves and return to the lands of their origin, Middle-earth, where Melkor has taken refuge, to exact revenge and to rule the land and themselves free of the Valar.  He sets many “aflame” (including Galadriel) and he speaks out again against his half-brother’s pleas “for heed and delay.”  “[A]ll was done in over-haste; for Fëanor drove them on, fearing lest in the cooling of their hearts his words should wane and other counsels yet prevail.” 

Realizing that the path was long and hazardous, Fëanor leads the migrants back from the road, to stir up another race of elves, the Teleri, the master, ancient mariners.  His passionate speech does not move them, and they try, as friends, to dissuade him from his course.  They refuse to lend to Fëanor and the vanguard that has arrived with him their ships or to help them build new ones.   “Then Fëanor grew wrathful, for he still feared delay,” so upon reflection he stirred up the vanguard to take the ships by force.  The Teleri defend the ships and many are slain on both sides.  But as more of the migrants approach and see the fighting, with the Noldor losing, and as they assume that the Teleri are responsible, they “rushed in before they knew rightly the cause of the quarrel.”  The Teleri are overcome, and a great part wickedly slain.  This is known as the Kinslaying and constitutes one of the darkest events in elven history.  Fëanor continued on unrepentant, and even forsook many that were following him when it proved convenient to him and humiliating to them, and lived the rest of his short life in that same opportunistic impetuousness, having ensured that his own tragic doom become that of his sons as well, with other bloody and senseless slayings of kin following in his wake.

So we can now look upon the theme of impatience and its relation to violence in Lord of the Rings.  Taking advantage of doubt, fear, and arrogance, the good can provoke evil to strike before its forces and its plans are fully prepared.  Saruman, concerned about any delay in the delivery of the hobbits, comes out only to find no sign of his emissaries alive, and a strange party of three camping outside Fangorn Forest.  Could Rohan have the ring?  What does Mordor know of his treachery?  Fearful, he quickly reacts, gathering his forces en masse, and then releasing them against Rohan, blind to the full extent of Wormtongue’s failure and to the rousing of the ents by his wanton violence against their charges (for they are pictured as tree shepherds).  If fully defended, then Isengard may very well prevail, but the fortress is emptying as the ents arrive, so great is Saruman’s haste.  So the ents face little opposition and can direct their attention to rendering its technology of war inoperable.  Meanwhile Saruman’s forces, when they seem ready to take the fortifications at Helm’s Deep, are unexpectedly caught in a pincer movement and squeezed into a forest of unknown allies of Rohan.  With luck (or, better, providence) and Gandalf’s guidance not to meet Saruman on the open fields, compounded by the impatience of Saruman, Rohan is victorious.

After the defeat of Saruman, and with the palantír in Aragorn’s possession as its rightful heir, Aragorn reveals himself to Sauron and breaks Sauron’s control over the seeing stone.  When Gimli learns of this he exclaims that now Sauron “will strike more swiftly.”  Aragorn responds, “The hasty stroke goes oft astray.  We must press our enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move.”  Aragorn did this to play on Sauron’s doubt, for now he knows that the heir of Isildur lives and that the sword that robbed him of his ring in the first place has been reforged.  The ring, then, will obviously go to him.  This will play on his impatience as well.  Gandalf feels the effect; he tells Pippin in Gondor: “I feel from afar his haste and fear.  He has begun sooner than he would.  Something has happened to stir him” 

Gondor barely withstands the onslaught and, as Gandalf tells the gathered leaders afterward, prudence would dictate the building up the defenses for the next attack, which will soon be unleashed.  But Gandalf does not counsel prudence, but further action.  Sauron’s eye is on them, looking for evidence of the ring-wearer, most likely Aragorn, who shall challenge him.  And he knows that the power of the ring cannot be wielded immediately, so he looks for the rashness of power gained but not mastered.  That is precisely the image they must now portray; they must move forward to challenge Sauron at his very gate.  This will serve two parallel purposes:  it will keep Sauron’s gaze abroad; it will result in the armies gathered within Mordor being mobilized and brought forward, effectively emptying the land so Frodo and Sam can traverse the land to the mountain unobstructed and unobserved, if they have indeed made it so far.  The plan is successful, not least because of the mercy that Gandalf, Aragorn, the elves, Faramir, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam showed to Gollum.  And Sauron is completely blindsided, aware only too late of what he, in his haste, ignored.  According to an old addage quoted by Théoden after Pippen looks into the Palantír: Oft evil will shall evil mar.[xvii]  That is, it often ruins its own plans, with no one else to blame.


[i] We should note that Frank Weinreich, in his careful and detailed study, Violence in Lord of the Rings, makes a case for following the working definition of the World Health Organization:  “[Violence is] the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” 

Weinreich is doing something very different in his essay than I purpose to do.  He is primarily interested in calculating the percentage of space in the books given over to violent encounters.  He distinguishes violent from nonviolent passages and locates as well a nonviolent sector that is between the two:  “[S]cenes of tension but without mention of actual violence or the direct threat of violence.”  Under violence he distinguishes eight different categories, which include stories and songs that refer to violent incidents, threats of and preparation for violence, aftermaths of violent encounters, and actual violent episodes themselves.  Further, he makes six distinctions under the rubric of actual violence like brawls, war, abuse, and “magical” attacks.  He then calculates the prevalence of violence in the books and finds that descriptions of actual violence account for only 8.2% of the story and nonviolent passages comprise 80%. His research, in part, was to investigate how important a topic violence was in the books and whether they glorified it or not.  He found it is not a ruling topic and that violence is not glorified. 

Weinreich’s essay can be found at http://www.polyoinos.de/tolk_stuff/violence_lotr.html.  I last checked this site July 20, 2010.

[ii] Neither would Gandhi, but there is little need to engage in an extended discussion on the issue.  I am simply mentioning that this is a path Tolkien chose not to follow and that this choice is revealing.

[iii] I am going to treat The Silmarillion as if it were written and prepared for publication by Tolkien himself, so that it appears the way he wanted.  I think this is warranted in an essay like this.

[iv] The course of this article so far should alert the reader that the following list will neither be exhaustive, nor precisely detailed; it will take the form of a series of reflections drawn from Tolkien’s account of creation. 

[v] These will be tendencies, not absolutes.  I should add here that many, indeed all, of these categories can be found, at least en passant, in Matthew Dickerson’s 2003 book, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings (Michigan: Brazos Press).  But Dickerson, like Weinrich, is doing something different from what I intend with this essay.  For one thing, Dickerson is not interested in distinguishing categories for the purpose of reflecting on the issue of violence per se in the Lord of the Rings.  For another, what he is interested in showing is Tolkien’s priorities whether or not dealing specifically with violence: with free will, objective morality, moral victory over military victory, hope against despair, salvation, providence, and authority.  Some of these I shall examine as well, but they will only be in the context of reflections on violence. 

[vi] If we turn the phrasing slightly from tendencies to moral imperatives—the good should do these things in spite of what evil does—then we in a position more restricted and demanding than traditional just war theories.

[vii] Some of these battles may be unfamiliar; see, for example, Appendix B under March 11, 3019 and following—pp. 1068f.

[viii] Gondor is an empire; it can claim, by the rights of military prowess and putative superiority, lands that are already claimed by others and give them to their allies.  Tolkien was ambivalent about imperialism, but that may best be the subject of another essay.  Suffice it to say that in his myth, the Númeróreans sailed first to Middle-earth as benefactors; it is indicative of societal decay that they later came to exact tribute and finally to conquer and to dominate.

[ix] In Letter 156 we read that because of Gandalf’s incarnated state and thus his mortality, “it was for him a sacrifice to perish on the Bridge in defence of his companions, less perhaps than for a mortal Man or Hobbit, since he had a far greater inner power than they; but also more, since it was a humbling and abnegation of himself in confomity to ‘the Rules’: for all he could know at that moment he was the only person who could direct the resistance to Sauron successfully, and all his misssion was vain.”  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) p. 202

[x] “Then [Merry] looked for his sword that he had let fall . . . And behold! there lay his weapon, but the blade was smoking like a dry branch . . . So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westerness.   But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.  No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.” 

I am, therefore, rather perplexed by statements like these:  “In this battle, after Théoden is struck down, Éowyn . . . faces the Lord of the Nazgûl in combat. And with the aid of Merry, she defeats him . . . One thing to be considered here is that Éowyn is not facing a foe of flesh and bones.  The Nazgûl whom she destroys is not a mortal being . . . ,”  Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf, pp. 29-30; cf., p. 140.  Éowyn is a prime example of “moral victory over military victory,” a category Dickerson rightly makes much of in his book, but she does not destroy the Nazgûl with the aid of Merry.  Merry, while far less the hero than Éowyn, slays him alone.

This is not an essay on Tolkien’s sexism, so I will simply mention that I think him a highly ambiguous figure with regard to his treatment of women, but undoubtedly sexist, even by standards at the time.  There were enough men who actively sought for and wrote about equal rights for women, dating back, in England, at least to William Godwin, husband of the brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, to allow me to assign some culpability to Tolkien here.  That he was less sexist in his fiction than C. S. Lewis is hardly much of a compliment, considering the bar is set pretty low.  Yet Tolkien was rather ambivalent—he seems to have liked to develop very strong women characters, but then, at important junctures, ignore them, marginalize them, or domesticate them. 

With regard to the Nazgûl not being a creature of flesh and bone, I am sorry, but he is, although not solely so.  The talk of “undead flesh” and “sinews” is not metaphorical.  It may be helpful to follow the Latter Day Saints here in distinguishing flesh and bone, which is both spiritual and material, from flesh and blood, which is both material and mortal.  Such a distinction is important to understand other, although not all, “monsters” classified as “undead.”

[xi] “[I]t was said among the Elves that they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.”  The Silmarillion, Second Edition, p. 299.

[xii] Tolkien dislikes the language of magic and magical powers.  Rather, he is a modern Christian neo-Platonist of a particular type.  Instead of working only with static hierarchies, as much neo-Platonism traditionally had, so that earthly existence is always the same shadow of the heavenly realm, Tolkien imagines that the world becomes a shadow even of itself over time.  We can trace this in many ways.  Without going into detail, we can note that the lights of the two trees in The Silmarillion are not at the same level of the original lights of Illuin and Ormal; that the sun and the moon are only from the diseased remnants of those trees; that the silmarils are but the result of the greatest elven technologies to capture a small reflection of the undiluted light of those trees and one of them shines from afar as our planet Venus.  So the phial of Galadriel is not magical, it is a pale, but natural reflection of the light of that same heavenly silmaril.  And Gandalf, through the ring Narya, has access to a very diminished reflection of the sun, no matter how magical it appear to us now.  Our access to light today is only to a highly and repeatedly “splintered light,” in the happy phrase of Verlyn Flieger, vastly dimmed even from the Third Age. 

We can chart out much the same with song and chant—from creation, to those of Varda and Yavanna, to the contest of Felagund and Sauron, to the ones of Lúthien, to those of Gandalf, Bombadil, the elves and the ents.  We see a steady decline in power over time, even though the “echoed song” of the Third Age seems still so powerful and eclipses our own abilities in this age to reflect it.  But by far the most beautiful instance of Tolkien’s neo-Platonism is Lothlórien, in which Galadriel, through the ring, Nenya, is able to preserve this stretch of land undiminished from the Second Age, so that as soon as Frodo steps therein he feels he has “stepped over a bridge of time” where “the ancient things still lived on in the waking world” and Sam can stand puzzled saying “I feel as if I was inside a song.”  All of this is natural, not supernatural, not a suspension of the laws of nature.

Related to this comment of Sam’s, but well beyond the purview of this essay, is Tolkien’s small story, Leaf by Niggle.  It too betrays Tolkien’s neo-Platonism, but this time by being inside a picture.  And it is a nice portraysl of his ideas of sub-creation as seen by the grace of God.  God lifts by grace the creative endeavor of Niggle, which soon would disappear from memory on earth, and eternalizes it by using it as an entrance out of purgatory into the heavenly realms themselves.  For a man who did not like allegory, Tolkien seems in this case to have written a very allegorical piece.

[xiii] I find this mainstream Christian position of unredeemable evil to be inferior, all things considered, to its alternative.  I prefer the marginal Christian option of universalism or the mainstream Hindu one explored, for instance, in Valmiki’s Ramayana (the one known best in Western countries), where Vibhishana, brother to the evil rakshasa “demon,” Ravana, refuses service to him and instead offers it to the forces of good under Rama. 

[xiv] This is perhaps the most serious departure in the books from the fiction of depending on actual records provided by the participants, particularly Frodo.  No one who survived could have seen this. 

[xv] This, of course, points to the redundancy of evil.  So too, when Saruman turns to his dark thoughts of control, the region under his control, especially Isengard within the Wizard’s Vale, increasingly takes on the look of a miniature Mordor.  Note, on the other hand, the great diversity shown among the free peoples:  Hobbiton is not a reflection of Bree, Lothlórien does not mirror Rivendell, and Rohan does not imitate Gondor.

[xvi] Kant would call patience a “quality of temperment.”  Of such qualities he says, they “are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects: but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mishievous if the will which is to make use of them . . . is not good.”  This is from the first section of his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.  It is available online.

[xvii] I would wish every teacher to have a student like Michael Bielaczyc.  I have taught a Mythology of Middle-earth class three times; he was enrolled in the first and co-taught with me in the second.  It was at his request that I prepared an outline of the current paper and delivered it on a panel shared with him at the Hypericon Science Fiction Conference a few years ago.  He has enriched my life considerably, both as a teacher and as a human being.   I decided to resurrect this presentation recently after the dubious good fortune of watching yet another “violence can fix anything” movie by Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds.


Close window

Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.