Saturday 1 March 2008

The War of the Ring, a Study in Good and Evil in Tolkien's Lord of the Rngs

The War of the Ring, a Study in Good and Evil.

Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings according to authorial witness is an attempt to "Try his hand at really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse, them delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them". He further insists that it was not his intention to create an allegory. Rather, he prefers, "history, true or feigned with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." This applicability to the reader involves the ultimate cosmic struggle between Good and Evil. Although the battle is universal in focus, it is fought in specific locales and by concrete individuals. Thus a discussion of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings must involve the influence of place and the character qualities of individuals. Since people are not abstract ideas as are Good and Evil, it is not surprising that as they make moral decisions there is a blurring of the categories which produces areas of grey on the black and white spectrum of Good and Evil. This is appropriate for if this 'feigned' history is representative of the good and evil in our world it should represent the complicated nature of the struggle and its many nuances comparisons between the two. First places of inherent good, or evil, secondly people who are either good or evil, and thirdly those area's or people who are grey, neither black or white, good or evil, and their contributions to the development of the story and adventure.

Good shall be defined as morally excellent, virtuous, right proper, reliable, kind and benevolent. While Evil shall be defined as, harmful, morally wicked, offensive, injurious and dangerous. White is that which is innocent and untainted. The definitions of good and evil are too limiting to really use as a guide for the analysis for the books. Therefore I will attempt to do some justice to this work, by adding distinctions or nuances into the spectrum of Good and Evil. If good may be symbolized by white and evil by black then there are multiple shades of grey that describe the vast number of people and places in the novels. Finally grey is that which shares qualities of both black and white, but are not completely in either category.

Central to the story and to the conflict between good and evil is 'The One Ring'. It is an object yet it exerts a will and a force, much of Sauron's will and desire for domination went into the forging of the ring. The ring is inherently evil it is a living entity, as if it were an individual with an independent will. It is capricious and seeks conflict and power. As such it is really the driving force in the book, either for evil to obtain it, or for the forces of the west to see it destroyed. " 'You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purpose of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world. The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron Fancies? That is the doom we must deem.' " This quote shows us that at the 'Council of Elrond' the decision by those of the west as to what to do with the ring will have implications on all people of Middle-Earth. They have little hope of success, for the ring and Sauron are both very strong, but they must face the possible doom of failure, to achieve the only possible success, the destruction of the ring. Here at the beginning of the discussion on what is to be done, we receive the hints that the Ring is the key to all, to success or failure. Elrond goes on to say "'we cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil,".

This book is in part a journey through place, and place plays a very important role in
this work. Now an attempt to examine some of the places in the story and how they are perceived as either good, or evil. First an encounter with places that are good; Tom Bombadil's House, Rivendell, Lothlorien, The Healing Houses, Fangorn Forrest and Henneth Annun. Then on to Evil Places: The Black Gate, Cirith Ungol, Mount Doom, Minas Morgul Cirith Gorgor, Torech Ungol, Mordor, Dwimorberg. Finally places that are Grey: The Shire, Rohan, Isengard, Minas Tirith, Gondor, Mirkwood Forrest (Note: From our text alone Mirkwood would be consider a place of evil, yet Gandolf makes reference to it being re-cleansed and re-inhabited by men, while discussing events at 'The prancing pony' in the chapter 'Homeward Bound".), Bree. This list though not exhaustive is sufficient for illustrative purposes.

For our definitions of good and evil for place must vary somewhat from those used in
the discussion of people. A good place is a place of inherent good, either in or of itself, or because of some force or power at work there, it is a place of refreshing, renewal or restitution. The first example is that of Rivendell. "Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, 'a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness." Rivendell is almost an island of the idyllic, or a heaven like place. It is the one of two places' other than the shire that really grabs at the hearts of the Hobbits and one that their minds keep returning to when times get hard for them on the road. Another place for examination of a true place of good is Lothlorien, "Said Legolas, 'but we hear that Lorien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land.'" Here again we have a place that is good, in part because of the inhabitants and also because of a power over it. This too is a place where our travelers rest, and are restored before beginning their journey again.

There are some places, locations or geographic regions in the book that appear to be evil in and of
them selves. In this story there are a few places that are recognised by those in the story as evil, black and wicked, they are so in part because of who dwells there. Yet also because of what they are; we see this most clearly in that after Sauron is destroyed and Evil as a force defeated Aragorn states "'For,' said he 'Minas Ithil in Morgul Vale shall be utterly destroyed, and though it may in time to come be made clean, no man may dwell there for many long years.'" So a place may remain evil after Evil presence is removed. Shelob's lair is the first of the truly evil places to be examined: "so they both lived, delighting in their own devices, and feared no assault, nor wrath, nor any end of their wickedness. Never yet had any fly escaped from Shelob's web's, and the greater now was her rage and hunger" Shelob's lair was a place of evil, death and destruction, and one that was encouraged by Sauron, he even used it for his own purposes. "And as for Sauron: He knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had not better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made."

The second place of evil I would like to look at is Mount Doom; this is the place where much of our stru
ggle between good and evil originates. It is the place of Dark power and the forging of the 'One Ring'. This centre of evil is destroyed with the destruction of the ring, thus proving a link between evil and this place. So after this examination of places that are good, and places that are evil, now the discussion will proceed to some places that are Grey and the reasons for this third category.

An exploration of places that are grey shall begin with Isengard. A place that is
neither evil nor good, it is a place of power centred in Orthanc. This location that was developed and abused by Saruman, who wished to compete with Mordor and with Sauron for control of middle-earth used it for much evil. After Saruman's abandonment of Isengard it is locked and the key given to Aragorn. However this started as a place of good, a place of learning and was the seat of the Council of wizards. This place should not be considered evil just because it was turned to such use. Unlike Minas Ithil, which is to be destroyed and no stones left upon each other after the defeat of the evil there, Isengard is to be redeemed, and recovered and used by Gondor again.

Another grey place to be considered is 'the shire'. Many who read The Lord of the
Rings often associate good or evil with the character of people who are predominant in a place. But this is an oversimplification. For in reality the Shire was much like a nursery for children. It was watched over and protected by the Rangers and Gandolf for generations. Thus the inhabitants for the most part ignored the outside world, and were ignored or protected from the outside world. I would not confuse that ignorance or innocence if you wish to call it that as being Good. Therefore I must say that the shire is grey, it is neither inherently good, nor inherently evil. . The story begins and ends in "the Shire", the home of the Hobbits, this place little known beyond its borders or it's people, a place of protected innocence. Then at the end of the story the over protection of the Shire and the Hobbits is lifted. Therefore they will have to determine anew an independent morality and there role in the realm of Middle-Earth. This is an area of Grey; it is far better than some area's our adventures journey through, but it still has its problems.

To conclude although there are a few places that are either black or white, these are more the exception than the norm, there are more places that are morally grey. That there are so many places that are some shade of grey is much like our own world. Tolkien in 'On Fairy Story' states, "The primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived." Therefore I would say that Middle-Earth as a representation of a prehistory of our world, Has more places of Good and Evil, and fewer areas of grey than we have today. The world today has become far more grey and sometimes it is even hard to distinguish if a place leans towards black or white on the scale of grey. If Tolkien indicates the true realm of fantasy is but one of a different perception of our world, then our encounter of Middle-Earth should help us to revamp or change our perception of our world and view of reality.

The discussion of good and evil can now proceed to look at some of the cast of characters. To begin the focus shall be on the inherently good people, by that we mean people who seek the best for others and risk themselves in order to pursue that end: Treebeard, Sam, Peregrin, Meriadoc, Faramir, Eowyn/DernHelm. Evil people are defined as those who work to further the cause of evil, pursue power for dominion over others, are harmful and morally wicked: Sauron, Wormtongue and Shelob. Finally those who are Grey in nature, exhibit qualities of either good or evil, or pursue a good end with an ulterior motive or through manipulation and control with out the end goal of individual power: Gandolf, Aragorn, Saruman and Gollum. Again these lists are in now way complete but just a sampling for some examples to be drawn upon.
The examination of good characters starts with Sam as the best example of a good person. Sam may be a little simple, but he is very loyal, caring and self-sacrificing throughout the adventure. Sam grows in character more than any of our adventurers through out the story. "But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. Sam has reached the end or strength and hope appears to be lost, and here he is re-fortified and re-strengthened by some inner transformation. Sam is in my opinion one of the very few truly altruistic and truly good characters.

Another example of goodness is found in Faramir. He shows great character in two instances in the same chapter. The first example of his benevolence he gives Gollum his life, based on Frodo's protection. The second, even though contrary to his father's command, he determines the validity and urgency of Frodo's and company's journey. Rather then delaying them, he blesses them and sends them on their journey, even though it may cost him much in his own home. "'Then I will declare my doom,' said Faramir. 'As for you Frodo, in so far as lies in me under higher authority, I declare you free in the realm of Gondor to the furthest of its ancient bounds; save only that neither you nor any that go with you have leave to come to this place unbidden. … In the meantime, whomsoever you take under your protection shall be under my protection and under the shield of Gondor.'" Faramir is willing to risk his own rights and reputation in order to do what he feels is good and right.

Now to look at some characters that are evil, we will look at two such creatures, Sauron, and Shelob. These two are chosen since they are the prominent Evil characters in the trilogy. This has been previously illustrated in the discussion of Shelob's Lair. Although Sauron is not encountered directly the testimony of his influence pervades the novels. Yet we never actually encounter him directly. Yet he is the greatest character of evil we have in the book, and his evil is linked to that of the ring for he poured so much of himself into the ring. Thus the ring and Sauron are intimately linked, both are a dark force and both exude influence over others and both seek control.

The second character of evil to be look at is that of Shelob: "There age long she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the land of the Elves of the west that is now under the Sea, … How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tales tell, for out of the dark years few tales have come." Thus we see Shelob as a thing of evil, and evil from of old before memory or history. It is not an accident that these two dwell next to each other and are of mutual benefit of each other.
There are some characters however, that are neither completely good nor evil but rather somewhere in between. An examination of these grey characters will include reasons for such classification. To begin with a character who is morally grey, Aragorn; though he attempts much, and also risks much. He does all of this with a view of the impending self rewards. If he succeeds he will become King of Gondor, and also be able to marry the women he loves Arwen. " 'But this is madness,' she said. 'For here are men of renown and prowess, whom you should not take into shadows, but should lead to war, where men are needed. I beg you to remain and ride with my brother; for then all our hearts will be gladdened, and our hope be the brighter.'
'It is not madness, lady.' He answered; 'for I go on the path appointed. … But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be." Because of these mixed or ulterior motives he cannot be classified as entirely good, even though his actions lead to good results.

Another example in this category is that or Saruman, although apparently evil and admittedly on the darker side of the spectrum his morality is mitigated by the testimony of Gandolf. If Saruman is judged by his actions as described in this history it would be hard to see him as anything but evil. Yet Gandolf remembers a time when Saruman was not as he is now. Perhaps that is why he is known still as Saruman the White. Gandolf muses, "I will do nothing to him. I do not wish for mastery. What will become of him? I cannot say. I grieve that so much that was good now festers in the tower." Unlike something that is intrinsically evil Saruman is corrupted and for this reason the benefit of the doubt will be granted to him and he will be perceived as an individual who is very dark grey.

The battle concerning the ring is a struggle for good and evil yet it is more than just a clear cut two sided battle. There are people and places that are caught somewhere between the two in this conflict. Too often in life and in story the areas of grey far outweigh those of black and white. I would state that, that this is true of The Lord of the Rings as well. There is an epic battle between Good and Evil, yet there are many in our cast of characters who are neither wholly good, nor wholly evil. The theme of good and evil dominates the work but there are nuances in Tolkien's story as it
unfolds. It is the classic struggle between good and evil, yet those who are truly good and those who are truly evil are few. The evil that dominates this story is 'what is to become of the ring' and 'will the quest to destroy the ring succeed.' If so then good will triumph over evil. Therefore we have a story that is the battle between good and evil, light and darkness, but it is more complex than it appears. This is appropriate for the question of morality both in this fantasy world and the real world involves more than simplistic bimodal thinking. Readers are drawn to this story since it reflects their world and the fantasy aspect leaves the hope that good will triumph over evil in our world too.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Great Britain: George Allan & Unwin Ltd., 1973. p. 8 (All further references to this book, will be LOTR and Page Number.)
  2. LOTR p. 9
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien "The Fellowship of the Ring", In The Lord of the Rings, Great Britain: George Allan & Unwin Ltd., 1973. p. 259 (All further references to this book, will be FOR and Page Number.)
  4. FOR p. 284
  5. From our text alone Mirkwood would be consider a place of evil, yet Gandolf makes reference to it being re-cleansed and re-inhabited by men, while discussing events at 'The prancing pony' in the chapter 'Homeward Bound".
  6. FOR p. 241
  7. FOR p.356
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien, 'The Return Of The King', In The Lord of the Rings, Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973. p. 1004 (All further reference to this book will be ROTK, and Page Number.)
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers", In The Lord of the Rings, Great Britain: George Allan & Unwin Ltd., 1973. p. 751 (All further references to this book, will be TT and page Number.)
  10. TT p. 751
  11. J.R.R. Tolkien, 'On Fairy Story', In Tree and Leaf, London: Harper Collins, 2001. p. 52
  12. It must be noted that some of these characters would be in different list if we just looked at them from the episodes in these books. However since many inferences are made to either previous events or future events we must accept that a person's character is not limited to the specific events of this work.
  13. ROTK p. 969
  14. TT p. 717
  15. TT p. 750
  16. ROTK p. 815
  17. TT p. 608

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Great Britain:
George Allan & Unwin Ltd., 1973.

J.R.R. Tolkien, 'On Fairy Story', In Tree and Leaf, London:
Harper Collins, 2001.

(First Written for ENGL208A Forms of Fantasy Sping 2001)

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