Archive for the ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ Category


Lewis’ Conversion: A Reconsideration – Alister McGrath

October 25, 2013
Magdalen College,1925.

Magdalen College,1925.

In Surprised by Joy, as we have just seen, Lewis dates the moment of his conversion to the Trinity Term of 1929. Lewis here refers to Oxford’s eight week teaching term, which is to be dated from 28 April to 22 June 1929 This date is accepted and repeated in every major biography of Lewis to date. The traditional chronology of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity is usually stated in terms of five landmarks:

  1. 28 April-22 June 1929: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast

I do not believe that this chronology is the best explanation of the evidence contained in the primary sources, and propose a significant revision. Lewis’s spiritual journey, by my account, is a year shorter that traditionally been believed. The chronology which I propose, based on a close reading of the primary sources, is as follows:

  1. March June 1930: Lewis comes to believe in God.
  2. 19 September 1931: A conversation with Tolkien leads Lewis to realize that Christianity is a “true myth.”
  3. 28 September 1931: Lewis comes to believe in the divinity of Christ while being driven to Whipsnade Zoo.
  4. 1 October 1931: Lewis tells Arthur Greeves that he has “passed over” from belief in God to belief in Christ.
  5. 15-29 August 1932: Lewis describes his intellectual journey to God in The Pilgrim’s Regress, written at this time in Belfast.

What is the evidence for this proposed revision of the traditional view of the development of Lewis’ religious beliefs and commitments? To begin with, let us consider the date of Lewis’s conversion to theism – that is to say, when he began to believe in God. There is no evidence for any change of heart on this matter in any of Lewis’ writings dating from 1929, the time of his father’s death. But then things change in 1930. And only two people are allowed to know about it.

In a 1931 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis remarked on how he divided his acquaintances into “first class” and “second class” friends. In the former category, he placed Owen Barfield and Greeves himself; in the latter, Tolkien. If Lewis was to tell any of his circle about this new development in his life, it would have been his “first class” friends, Barfield and Greeves. Yet there is nothing in Lewis’s correspondence of 1929 with these two individuals which suggests that something significant had happened to him at any point during that year.

Yet things look very different in 1930. Lewis’ correspondence with Barfield and Greeves now points to a significant development, corresponding to the transition Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, having taken place in (or perhaps slightly before) Trinity Term 1930 — about a year later that Lewis’ own account. In what follows, we shall examine one crucial letter from Lewis to each of these two “first class” friends. Both date from 1930, not 1929.

First, consider his very short, deeply introspective letter to Owen Barfield, dated 3 February 1930. In this letter, following a brief introduction, Lewis writes as follows:

Terrible things are happening to me. The “Spirit” or “Real I” is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.

At this point, Professor Henry Wyld came to visit Lewis and interrupted his flow of thought. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “person from Porlock,” who disrupted the composition of his great poem “Kubla Khan” in 1797, Wyld prevented Lewis from saying anything more on this matter to Barfield. But what he says is enough. This is precisely the ,development that Lewis later described in Surprised by Joy, though he located it in Trinity Term 1929. God was becoming real to him, and taking the offensive. Lewis felt he was about to be overwhelmed by a greater force. As he put it in Surprised by Joy, he was being “dragged through the doorway.”

Lewis’ comments to Barfield must prefigure his conversion; they make no sense if they took place a year later, referring to an experience Lewis had already undergone. Barfield himself was clear about the importance of this letter in a 1998 interview regarding its significance it marked “the beginning of his conversion.” Yet Barfield’s interviewer at this point (Kim Gilnett) mistakenly assigned this letter to accommodating it within the framework proposed by Lewis in Surprised by Joy — despite the fact that the letter dates from the following year. This letter anticipates exactly the themes that Lewis described as converging on the devastating, imminent moment of conversion, which clearly lay ahead of, not behind, him.

The second significant letter was written to Arthur Greeves on 29 October 1930. As we noted earlier, Lewis explicitly states that he began to attend chapel at Magdalen College following his conversion. There is no hint of Lewis’ attending college chapel on a regular basis in his correspondence with anyone in 1929, or in the first half of 1930. Yet significant section of this 1930 letter to Greeves, Lewis mentions that he has now “started going to morning Chapel at 8:00am.” which meant that he had to go to bed much earlier than he had used to. This is clearly presented as a new development, a significant change in his routine, affecting his personal working habits, dating from the beginning of the academic year 1930-1931.

If Lewis’s own chronology for his conversion is correct, he would have begun attending college chapel in October 1929. There is no reference in his correspondence of that period to any such change of habit. Furthermore, the reference to attending college chapel in the letter of October 1930 clearly implies that Lewis was now doing something that was not part of his regular routine up to this point. If Lewis really was converted during the Trinity Term of 1929, why did he wait over a year before starting to attend college chapel? It makes little sense.

The traditional date of Lewis’ conversion would seem to require review. The evidence is best understood if Lewis’s subjective location of the event in his inner world is accepted, but his chronological location of the event is seen to have been misplaced. The nature or reality of Lewis’s conversion experience is not being called into question. The problem is that Lewis’s location of this event in the external world of space and time appears to be inaccurate. Lewis’s conversion is best understood as having taken place in the Trinity Term of 1930, not 1929. In 1930, Trinity Term fell between 27 April and 21 June.

Yet in rediscovering God in this way, Lewis had reached only a resting place, not his final destination. There was another milestone which had to be passed, which Lewis regarded as significant – a shift from a generic belief in God (often referred to as “theism”) to a specific commitment to Christianity. This appears to have been an extended and complex process, to which others were midwives. Some — such as George Herbert — spoke to Lewis as living voices from the past. Yet one person in particular spoke to Lewis in the present. In what follows, we shall tell the story of a nighttime conversation between Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, which totally changed Lewis’s outlook Christianity.

A Nighttime Conversation With Tolkien: September 1931
The final chapter of Surprised by Joy speaks briefly and tantalizingly of Lewis’s transition from “pure and simple” theism to Christianity. Lewis takes pains to make it clear that this conversion had nothing to do with desire or longing. The God to whom he surrendered in Trinity Term 1930 was “sheerly nonhuman.” He had no idea that “there ever had been ever would be any connection between God and Joy.” Lewis’s conversion was essentially rational, unrelated to his long-standing fascination with “Joy.” “No kind of desire was present at all.” His conversion to theism was, in one way, a purely rational matter.

Lewis’ rhetoric at this point can be understood as preempting a long standing atheist caricature of faith as “wish-fulfillment.” This idea, given expression in the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), has an intellectual pedigree going back into the mists of time.

In this view, God is a consoling dream for life’s losers, a spiritual crutch for the inadequate and needy.” Lewis distances himself from any such idea. The existence of God, Lewis insists, was not something that he wished to be true; he valued his independence far too much for that. “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be `interfered with.” In effect, Lewis was confronted with something that he did not wish to be true, but was forced to concede was true.

The rational God bore little, if any, relation to Lewis’ world of imagination and longing on the one hand, and to the person of Jesus of Nazareth on the other. So how and when did Lewis make these deeper connections, so characteristic of his mature writing? The simple answer is that Surprised by Joy does not really tell us. Lewis pleads that he is now “the least informed” on this final stage of his spiritual journey from “mere Theism to Christianity,” and that he may not fully be relied upon to provide a complete or accurate account.

What we find instead is a paper trail of disconnected ideas and memories, leaving the reader with the task of trying to link these thoughts and episodes into a coherent whole. Yet it is clear from Lewis’ correspondence that one extended conversation was of critical importance in enabling him to transition from belief in God to acceptance of Christianity. In view of its importance, we shall consider it in detail.

On Saturday, 19 September 1931, Lewis hosted Hugo Dyson (1896-1975), a lecturer in English at nearby Reading University, and J. R. R. Tolkien for dinner at Magdalen College.” Dyson and Tolkien already knew each other, having been exact contemporaries at Exeter College, where they studied English together. It was a still, warm evening. After dinner, they went for an extended stroll along Addison’s Walk, a circular footpath following the River Cherwell within the college grounds, discussing the nature of metaphor and myth.

After a wind came up, causing leaves to fall to the ground with a noise like pattering rain, the three men retired to Lewis’ rooms and continued the discussion, which had now shifted to Christianity. Tolkien eventually made his excuses at 3.00 a.m., and headed home. Lewis and Dyson going for another hour. This evening of conversation with these two colleagues played a critical role in Lewis’ development. The imagery of wind seemed to him to hint at the mysterious presence and action of God.

Although Lewis now kept no diary, he wrote two letters to Greeves shortly afterwards, explaining the events of that night and their significance or his reflections on religious faith. In his first letter, dated 1 October, Lewis informed Greeves of the outcome of the evening’s discussion, but not its substance:

I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.

Greeves naturally wanted to know more about this intriguing development. Lewis provided a more extended account of the evening’s events in his next letter, dated 18 October. Lewis explained that his difficulty had been he could not see “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now.” An inability to make sense of this had been holding Lewis back “for the last year or so.”

Lewis could admit that Christ might provide us with a good example, but that was about as far as it went. He realized that the New Testament took a very different view, using terms such as propitiation or sacrifice to refer to the true meaning of this event. But these expressions, Lewis declared, seemed to him to be “either silly or shocking.”

Although Lewis’s “long night talk” involved both Dyson and Tolkien, it is Tolkien’s approach that seems to have opened a door for Lewis to a new way of looking at the Christian faith. To understand how Lewis passed from theism to Christianity, we need to reflect further on the ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien. For it was he, more than anyone else, who helped Lewis along in the final stage of what the medieval writer Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274) describes as the “journey of the mind to God.”

Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the problem lay not in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance. The issue was not primarily about truth, but about meaning. When engaging the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.

Tolkien argued that Lewis ought to approach the New Testament with the same sense of imaginative openness and expectation that he brought to the reading of pagan myths in his professional studies. But, as Tolkien emphasized, there was a decisive difference. As Lewis expressed in his second letter to Greeves, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: : a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous  difference that it really happened.”

The reader must appreciate that the word myth is not being used here in the loose sense of a “fairy tale” or the pejorative sense of a “deliberate lie told in order to deceive.” This is certainly how Lewis once understood myths — as “lies breathed through silver.” As used in the conversation between Lewis and Tolkien, the term myth must be understood in its technical literary sense if the significance of this exchange is to be appreciated.

For Tolkien, a myth is a story that conveys “fundamental things” other words, that tries to tell us about the deeper structure of things. The best myths, he argues, are not deliberately constructed falsehoods, but are rather tales woven by people to capture the echoes of deeper truths. Myths offer a fragment of that truth, not its totality. They are like splintered fragments of the true light.

Yet when the full and true story is told, it is able to bring to fulfillment all that was right and wise in those fragmentary visions of things. For Tolkien, grasping Christianity’s meaningfulness took precedence over its truth. It provided the total picture, unifying and transcending these fragmentary and imperfect insights.

It is not difficult to see how Tolkien’s way of thinking brought clarity and coherence to the jumble of thoughts that so excited Lewis’s mind at this time. For Tolkien, a myth awakens in its readers a longing for so thing that lies beyond their grasp. Myths possess an innate capacity expand the consciousness of their readers, allowing them to transcend themselves. At their best, myths offer what Lewis later termed “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination, Christianity, rather than being one myth alongside many others, is thus the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. Christianity to a true story about humanity, which makes sense of all the stories that humanity tells about itself.

Tolkien’s way of thinking clearly spoke deeply to Lewis. It answered a question that had troubled Lewis since his teenage years: how could Christianity alone be true, and everything else be false? Lewis now realized that he did not have to declare that the great myths of the pagan age were totally false; they were echoes or anticipations of the full truth, which was made known only in and through the Christian faith.

Christianity brings to fulfillment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture. Tolkien gave Lewis a lens, a way seeing things which allowed him to see Christianity as bringing to fulfillment such echoes and shadows of the truth that arose from human questing and yearning. If Tolkien was right, similarities between Christianity and pagan religions “ought to be there.” There would be a problem only if such similarities did not exist.

Perhaps more important, Tolkien allowed Lewis to reconnect the worlds of’ reason and imagination. No longer was the realm of longing to be sidelined or suppressed, as the “New Look” demanded, and as Lewis feared belief in God might imply. It could be woven — naturally .and convincingly — into the greater narrative of reality that Tolkien had presented. As Tolkien later put it, God had willed that “the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein.”

Christianity Lewis realized, allowed him to affirm the importance of longing and yearning within a reasonable account of reality. God was the true “source from which those arrows of Joy had been shot … ever since childhood.” Reason and imagination alike were thus affirmed and reconciled by the Christian vision of reality.

Tolkien thus helped Lewis realize that a “rational” faith was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren. When rightly understood, the Christian faith could ‘integrate reason, longing, and imagination.


The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings — Peter J. Kreeft

August 5, 2013
There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ "failed", lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it "worked" because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a "Christian" world. Only in a Christian world can this "failure" have such power.

There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ “failed”, lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it “worked” because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a “Christian” world. Only in a Christian world can this “failure” have such power.

This essay is an excerpt from Peter J. Kreeft’s 2005 book, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. A reblog from the Ignatius publisher website of the time.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion.


Can any one man incarnate every truth and virtue?

Throughout the New Testament we find a shocking simplicity: Christ does not merely teach the truth, He is the truth; He does not merely show us the way, He is the way; He does not merely give us eternal life, He is that life. He does not merely teach or purchase our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, but “God made [Him] our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). How can all these universal values and truths be really and completely present in one concrete individual person? Only if that Person is divine (thus universal) as well as human (thus particular); only by the Incarnation; only by what C. S. Lewis calls “myth become fact”.

J. R. R. Tolkien, like most Catholics, saw pagan myths not as wholly mistaken (as most Protestants do), but as confused precursors of Christianity. Man’s soul has three powers, and God left him prophets for all three: Jewish moralists for his will, Greek philosophers for his mind, and pagan mythmakers for his heart and imagination and feelings.

Of course, the latter two are not infallible. C. S. Lewis calls pagan myths “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility” (Perelandra, p. 201). One of the key steps in Lewis’s conversion, as recounted in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, was his reading the chapter in Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that showed him the relationship between Christianity and pagan myths of salvation, death, and resurrection. Christianity was “myth become fact”.

Tolkien’s Catholic tradition tends to have a high opinion of pagans who know and follow the “natural law”, for it interprets these pagans not apart from Christ, but as imperfectly knowing Him. For Christ is not just a thirty-three-year-old, six-foot-tall Jewish carpenter, but the eternal Logos, the Mind of God, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John  1:9).

So Christ can be present even when not adequately known in paganism. This is exactly what St. Paul told the Athenians (in Acts 17:23): “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Christ’s presence is not limited to the presence of the explicit knowledge of Christ, or the revelation of Christ. As the Reformed tradition puts it, there is also “general revelation” as well as “special revelation”.

So even though The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of the Gospels, we can find numerous parallels to the Gospels in The Lord of the Rings, since the Person at the center of the Gospels is omnipresent in hidden ways, not only in His eternal, universal nature as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but even in His particular historical manifestation, His Incarnation. For instance, Frodo’s journey up Mount Doom is strikingly similar to Christ’s Way of the Cross. Sam is his Simon of Cyrene, but he carries the cross bearer as well as the cross.

There is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, like Aslan in Narnia. But Christ is really, though invisibly, present in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is like the Eucharist. Under its appearances we find Christ, who under these (pagan, universal) figures (symbols, not allegories), is truly hidden: quae sub hisfiguris vere latitat. He is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures

  1. First of all, all three undergo different forms of death and resurrection.
  2. Second, all three are saviors: through their self-sacrifice they help save all of Middle-earth from the demonic sway of Sauron.
  3. Third, they exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn). These three “job descriptions” correspond to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, as discovered by nearly every psychologist from Plato to Freud: head, heart, and hands, or mind, emotions, and will. For this reason many great tales have three protagonists: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn; Mr. Spock, Bones McCoy, and Captain Kirk; Ivan, Alyosha, and Dmitri Karamazov; St. John the philosophical mystic, St. James the practical moralist, and St. Peter the courageous leader and Rock.
  4. A fourth hidden presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the theme of divine providence (see section 2.2); for from the New Testament point of view Christ is the supreme example in history of divine providence–in fact, the single point of all other examples, of all history.
  5. A fifth presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the creative power of its language (see sections 9. 1 and 9-3). Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. He is mentioned in the Bible as early as Genesis 1:3 (cf. John 1:3), but as a verb, not a noun.
  6. A sixth presence is ecclesial. Tolkien was a Catholic and called The Lord of the Rings “a Catholic book” (see section 2.4). He removed “churches” from The Lord of the Rings not only to avoid anachronism but also to show the presence, in the depths of his plot, of the universal (“catholic”) Church. For the Church is not only an organization but also an organism, an invisible, “mystical” Body, a “fellowship”. The word “church”, from the Greek ek-klesia, means “the called out”. A good description of the Fellowship of the Ring.

For the Church, too, is a “fellowship of a ring”, but her ring is exactly the opposite of Sauron’s. It is the Eucharist: a little wafer that is equally round, but full rather than empty; the humble extension of the Incarnation of God into man rather than the proud self-exaltation of man in order to make himself God. The Ring takes your life, your blood, like Dracula, a perfect opposite to Christ, Who comes to give His blood, to give us a blood transfusion. The two symbols are perfect opposites: the Ring of Power and the Bread of Weakness, the Lord of the Rings and the Lamb of God.

The whole of history, as revealed in the Bible, is the cosmic jihad between Christ and Antichrist, martyr and vampire, humility of God versus pride of man. Throughout the Bible there is vertical symbolism exemplifying this contrast. Paradise is made in Eden by God’s self-giving descent and lost through man’s self-taking, man’s succumbing to the devil’s temptation to become “like God”. The apparent rise is really the “fall”. After Paradise is lost, the City of Man tries to rise up to Heaven again by its own power, in the Tower of Babel, and falls. And when Paradise is finally regained, the New Jerusalem of the City of God descends from Heaven as a grace.

The most fundamental Christian symbol is the Cross. This also is perfectly opposite to the Ring. The Cross gives life; the Ring takes it. The Cross gives you death, not power; the Ring gives you power even over death. The Ring squeezes everything into its inner emptiness; the Cross expands in all four directions, gives itself to the emptiness, filling it with its blood, its life. The Ring is Dracula’s tooth. The Cross is God’s sword, held at the hilt by the hand of Heaven and plunged into the world not to take our blood but to give us His. The Cross is Christ’s hypodermic; the Ring is Dracula’s bite. The Cross saves other wills; the Ring dominates other wills. The Cross liberates; the Ring enslaves.

The Cross works only freely, by the vulnerability of love. Love is vulnerable to rejection, and thus apparent failure. Frodo offers Gollum free kindness, but he fails to win Gollum’s trust and fails himself, at the Crack of Doom, to complete his task. But his philosophy does not fail.

He could have used the philosophy of Sauron, of the Ring. He could have used force and compelled Gollum, or even justly killed him. But no one can make another person good by controlling his will, not even God. Frodo nearly won Gollum by his kindness, but Gollum chose not to trust and lost both his body and his soul. Frodo failed.

There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ “failed”, lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it “worked” because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a “Christian” world. Only in a Christian world can this “failure” have such power.

It is a very strange philosophy. A few pagan sages like Lao Tzu understood the principle of the power of weakness, but he did not know it would come from a literal, bloody event in history. Neither did Frodo. Like Socrates, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, Frodo did not see Christ, yet somehow believed: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John  20:29).


Narnia and the Retelling of the Christian Grand Narrative – Alister McGrath

June 5, 2013
The Chronicles of Narnia use an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.

The Chronicles of Narnia use an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.

It is impossible to understand the deep appeal of Narnia without appreciating the place of stories in shaping our understanding of reality, and our own place within that reality. The Chronicles of Narnia resonate strongly with the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something grander — which, once grasped, allows us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. A veil is lifted, a door is opened, a curtain is drawn aide — and we are enabled to enter a new realm. Our own story is now seen to be part of a much bigger story, which helps us both understand how we fit into a greater scheme of things and discover and value the difference we can make.

Like Tolkien, Lewis was deeply aware of the imaginative power of “myths”– stories that tried to make sense of who we are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and what can be done about it. Tolkien was able to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious “otherness,” a sense of mystery and magic which hints at a reality beyond that which human reason can fathom. Lewis realized that good and evil, danger, anguish, and joy can all be seen more clearly when “dipped in a story.” Through their “presentational realism,” these narratives provide a way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both the imaginative and rational levels.

Lewis may also have come to realize the power of myth through G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, with its classic distinction between “imaginary” and “imaginative,” and deft analysis of how imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason. “Every true artist,” Chesterton argues, feels “that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.”

Steeped in the riches of medieval and Renaissance literature, and with a deep understanding of how myths work, Lewis managed to find the  right voice and the right words to get past the suspicions of a “full wakening imagination of a logical mind.” Somehow, Narnia seems to provide a deeper, brighter, more wonderful, and more meaningful world than anything we know from our own experience. Though its readers all know that The Chronicles Of Narnia are fictional, the books nevertheless seem far more true to life than many supposedly factual works.

Lewis always recognized that the same story might be a “myth” to one reader, and not to another. The stories of Narnia seem childish nonsense to some. But to others, they are utterly transformative. For the latter group, these evocative stories affirm that it is possible for the we foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe, and that this may be found, embraced, and adored.

The contrast with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is important here. The complex and dark narrative of The Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring that rules the other rings — and then destroying it, but it turns out to be so dangerous and destructive. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story that makes sense of all other stories — and then embracing that story with delight because of its power to give meaning and value to life. Yet Lewis’s narrative nevertheless raises darker questions. Which story is the true story? Which stories are merely its shadows and echoes? And which are mere fabrications spun to entrap and deceive?

At an early stage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children begin to hear stories about the true origins and destiny of Narnia. Puzzled, they find they have to make decisions about which people and which stories are to be trusted. Is Narnia really the realm of White Witch? Or is she a usurper, whose power will be broken when two sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones at Cair Paravel? Is Narnia really the realm of the mysterious Aslan, whose return is expected at any time?

Gradually, one narrative emerges as supremely plausible — the story of Asian. Each individual story of Narnia turns out to be part of this greater narrative. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hints at (and partially discloses) the big picture, expanded in the remainder of the Narnia series. This “grand narrative” of interlocking stories makes sense of the riddles the children see and experience around them. It allows the children to understand their experiences with a new clarity and depth, like a camera lens bringing a landscape into sharp focus.

Yet Lewis did not invent this Narnian narrative. He borrowed and adapted one that he already knew well, and had found to be true and trustworthy — the Christian narrative of Creation, Fall, redemption, and final consummation. Following his late-evening conversation with Tolkien and Dyson about Christianity as the true myth in September 1931, Lewis began to grasp the explanatory and imaginative power of an incarnational faith.

As we saw, Lewis came to believe in Christianity partly because of the quality of its literary vision — its ability to give a faithful and realistic account of life. Lewis was thus drawn to Christianity not so much by the arguments in its favor, but by its compelling vision of reality which he could not ignore — and, as events proved, could not resist.

The Chronicles of Narnia are an imaginative retelling of the Christian grand narrative, fleshed out with ideas Lewis absorbed from the Christian literary tradition. The basic theological themes that Lewis set out in Mere Christianity are transposed to their original narrative forms in Narnia, allowing the deep structure of the world to be seen with clarity and brilliance: a good and beautiful creation is spoiled and ruined by a fall, in which the creator’s power is denied and usurped.

The creator then enters into the creation to break the power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle against sin and evil continues, and will not be ended until the final restoration and transformation of all things. This Christian meta-narrative — which early Christian writers called the “economy of salvation” — provides both a narrative framework and a theological underpinning to the multiple stories woven together in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

Lewis’ remarkable achievement in the Chronicles of Narnia is to allow his readers to inhabit this metanarrative — to get inside the story, and feel what it is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story, and to judge it by its ability to make sense of things, and “chime in” with our deepest intuitions about truth, beauty and goodness. If the series is read in the order of publication, the reader enters this narrative in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which concerns the coming — technically the “advent” — of the redeemer. The Magician’s Nephew deals with the narrative of creation and fall, while The Last Battle concerns the ending of the old order, and the advent of a new creation.

The remaining four novels (Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy, and The Silver Chair) deal with the period between these two advents. Lewis here explores the life of faith, lived the tension between the past and future comings of Aslan. Aslan is now at one and the same time an object of memory and of hope. Lewis speaks of an exquisite longing for Aslan, when he cannot be seen clearly; of a robust yet gracious faith, able to withstand cynicism and skepticism; people of character who walk trustingly through the shadowlands, seeing “in a mirror darkly” and learning to deal with a world in which they are assaulted by evil and doubt.

The Screwtape Letters brought a fresh perspective to the Christian’s struggles with temptation and doubt through its ingenious narrative framework of a master devil and his apprentice. The Chronicles of Narnia have a far greater scope and reach, using an imaginatively transposed version of the Christian narrative to enable its readers to understand and cope with the ambiguities and challenges of the life of faith. An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative. Rarely has a work of literature combined such narrative power, spiritual discernment, and pedagogical wisdom.


Is Evil Real? Peter Kreeft

March 21, 2013
Anders Behring Breivik leaves the courthouse feeling pleased with himself. He is the perpetrator (whacko) of the 2011 Norway attacks. In a sequential bombing and mass shooting on 22 July 2011, he bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths and then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers' Youth League (AUF) of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people, mostly teenagers. He was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism in August 2012

Anders Behring Breivik leaves the courthouse feeling pleased with himself. He is the perpetrator (whacko) of the 2011 Norway attacks. In a sequential bombing and mass shooting on 22 July 2011, he bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths and then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people, mostly teenagers. He was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism in August 2012

Tolkien’s classical Christian theology avoids two opposite errors, two oversimplifications. One is a Rousseauian optimism: the denial, or ignoring, of evil’s reality and power, and consequently a kind of spiritual pacifism, the denial of spiritual warfare. The other would be the Manichean error, the idea that evil has the same kind of reality as goodness, equally powerful and equally substantial — in fact, that evil is, in the last analysis, a second God, or an equal, dark “side” of God, as Shiva the Destroyer is forever equal to Vishnu till Preserver.

For half a century our culture has been as embarrassed by words like “sin” “wickedness”, and “evil” as a teenager is embarrassed at being seen with his parents in a mall.

Some of our Deep Thinkers think that evil is only a temporary evolutionary stage, a hangover from ancient barbarisms of race, class, or gender that we will grow out of we grow out of diapers. We are still waiting for the toilet training to take place.

Others say that evil is just ignorance, and therefore curable by education. After a century of universal education, we are still waiting for the cure to take. A study of which Nazis were most willing to kill Jews in Hitler’s death camps revealed that this evil was indeed related to education, but not in the way expected: the more educated they were, the more willing they were.

Some say that evil against others is only the acting out of a lack of positive self-esteem. So Hitler did not esteem himself enough.

Most of our culture actually admires F.D.R.’s famous nonsense that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It sounds somehow healthy and even pious.

And then we saw the events of 9/11. In the chorus of voices that filled our media for the next few months, one was conspicuously silent from the babble: psychobabble. Where had all the gurus gone?

Tolkien’s Christian theology told him that since the good God is the only creator of all beings, therefore all beings are ontologically good. But that theology also told him that God had given man free will and man had fallen into sin, which corrupts goodness and therefore corrupts beings (since being is the place where goodness can be found). Finally, his theology also told him that a man may, through evil choices, go to Hell, where he is hopelessly and forever evil.

The first of these three doctrines — ontological goodness — grounds Tolkien’s “optimistic” cosmology; the other two — man’s sinfulness and the reality of Hell — ground his “pessimistic” psychology. Both are shocks to secular philosophies: How can mud, mosquitoes, and even hemorrhoids be good, and how can we be so bad?

Yet, though he takes evil very seriously, Tolkien is not a pessimist, even about human nature. In fact, it is his moral optimism, his faith and hope in divine grace and in the triumph of good over evil, that deeply offends the modern secular critic. These critics label the heroes of The Lord of the Rings as simplistically moral, yet the antiheroes of most modern novels are much more simplistically immoral or amoral. It is the critics who are one-sided; Tolkien sees both the good and the evil sides better and deeper than they do. He is like a giant with both arms outstretched, one into the heights and the other into the depths. He scandalizes some small, simplistic souls by his glimpses of Heaven and others by his glimpses of Hell.

Think of the first time you saw the spectacular images of September 11th. Now, remember not the images outside but the feeling inside. It was a sudden change from a peacetime consciousness to a wartime consciousness. It was a lot like the change from sleeping consciousness to waking consciousness, which your alarm clock triggers in you each morning. It was a sudden light, a sudden enlightenment. The world you woke up to was not brought into being by your waking up; it was always there. But you were not always there. You were dreaming. God sent prophets to wake you up, like alarm clocks.

That vision of life as a spiritual warfare between good and evil is the vision of life presupposed in every great story. For any great story must take both good and evil very serious in order to generate great drama; and the fundamental theme of every great story is always this spiritual warfare between some particular good and some particular evil. The conflict between good and evil is the source of all conflict within each characters. The source of all external conflict between characters is the internal conflict between good and evil within each character.

But Tolkien is not a Manichee: this war is not between equally powerful powers. It is not even between equally real powers. It requires a little philosophical clarification to make this point clear.

Good and evil are not equally powerful, because they are not equally real – even though evil appears not only equal to good but even stronger than good (“I am Gandalf, the White, but Black is mightier still”). But appearance and  reality do not coincide here, and in the end evil will always reveal its inevitable self-destruction (although often after a terrible price is paid: e.g., Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin) The self-destruction of evil is not just something to believe in and hope for, but to be certain of. It is metaphysically necessary, necessary because of the very kind of being evil has by its unchangeable essence. For evil can only be a parasite on good. It depends on a good host for it to pervert.

“Nothing is evil in the beginning” or by nature: Morgorth was one of the Ainur, Sauron was a Maia, Saruman was the head of Gandalf’s order of Wizards, the Orcs were Elves, the Ringwraiths were great Men, and Gollum was a Hobbit. And whenever a parasite succeeds in killing its host it also kills itself. So if evil succeeds, it fails; it commits suicide.

The philosophical argument for evil being a parasite on good is simple: evil can exist only in some being, and all being is ontologically good, good for something, desirable somehow. Evil is the perversion of some version, the unnatural twisting of some nature; and all nature is good.

The argument for all being being good, in turn, is simply that “good” means “desirable”, and everything real is desirable for something. Even the murderer’s shot must be a good shot; moral evil can happen only by using ontological goodness.

The theological argument for the same conclusion is that every being is either the good God or a creature of this good God Who, being totally good, cannot will or create anything evil (though He can allow it, for a greater good, as He allows human sin in order to preserve human free will).

Yet though evil is not as real as goodness, it is real, terribly real; and life is spiritual warfare — there are snakes in the grass. And they come not just from the next yard. They come not from earth but from Hell. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers” (Ephesians 6:12). You do not need to commit the sin of allegory to see who the Black Riders are: “They come from Mordor,’ said Strider in a low voice. From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you,” Strider’s laconic: “They are terrible!” is more suggestive than any detailed description could be.

More evils come from Mordor than we think. “All those arts and subtle devices for which he [Saruman] forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor.” And so did the little local evils in the Shire that had to be “scoured”:

“This is worse than Mordorl” said Sam. “Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say, because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.”

“Yes, this is Mordor,” said Frodo. “Just one of its works”

Tolkien certainly believes in the goodness of goodness all the badness of badness. He is not a moral relativist. But that does not make him a legalist or a fundamentalist. A common but indefensible error of some critics is to see The Lord of the Rings as morally “simplistic”, as a “white versus black, good guys versus bad guys” story. This is so far from the truth as to be literally absurd. With the exception of Tom Bombadil,  there is hardly a character in The Lord of the Rings who is no tempted by evil. The war is not just external, between the white chess pieces and the black, but within every single piece on the board, even while there is an external war going on between two sides that really but imperfectly represent the good (the Fellowship) and the evil (Mordor). Tolkien certainly would approve Solzhenitsyn’s famous remark about the line between Good and Evil not dividing nations or cultures or ideologies but running through the middle of every human heart.

Tolkien is not a psychological absolutist but a moral absolutist: no person is absolutely good or evil; but goodness and evil themselves are absolutely distinct. He believes that “there’s a little good in the worst of us and a little bad in the best of us”; but not that there’s a little good in evil and a little evil in good. He believes in human moral complexity but not in logical moral complexity. He believes in the law of non-contradiction, in the goodness of goodness and the badness of badness. If that is his offense in the eyes of the critics, that tells us little about Tolkien but much about the critics.

Indeed, moral doubleness or “relativism” in the concrete does not contradict, but presupposes, moral singleness or absolutism in the abstract. If good and evil are not objectively real and absolutely distinct essences in the abstract, then the judgment that a concrete character is partly good and partly evil becomes meaningless.

Tolkien’s moral absolutism contradicts the worldview of modern post-Christian moral relativism. But it also contradicts the pagan pre-Christian religious relativism. To see this, consider Tolkien’s primary pagan source, Norse mythology. Odin, their supreme god, is not morally good, like the God of the Bible. He is addicted to power, like Sauron. The Vikings would never have understood the philosophy that “power corrupts.”

In fact, all the pagan gods, Northern (Germanic) or Southern (Mediterranean) are, like us, partly good and partly evil. They are “divine”, or superior, not in goodness but only in power — in fact, in three powers: power over nature by a supernatural or “magical” technology, power over ignorance (cleverness, farsight and foresight), and power over death (immortality). (Exactly modernity’s superiority over the past! If that is all divinity means, we are now approaching divinity.) The Jewish and Christian claim that the one God is totally good and not evil was as much of a shock to the old paganism as it is to the new.


Is The Supernatural Real? – Peter Kreeft

March 15, 2013
Morning in Enedwaith. The wide lands that lay between Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Originally deeply forested, the great forests of this region were cut down by the Númenóreans during the Second Age. In the years after their founding, Enedwaith lay between Arnor to the north and Gondor to the south, and so the people who lived here were known as the 'middle-folk'. Though Enedwaith did not belong to either Kingdom, it was jointly administered by the Dúnedain, and the Wild Men who lived here ultimately did so under their control. Tolkien goes so far as to hint that, in the earliest days of the Two Kingdoms, Enedwaith was considered to fall within the boundaries of Gondor.

Morning in Enedwaith. The wide lands that lay between Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Originally deeply forested, the great forests of this region were cut down by the Númenóreans during the Second Age. In the years after their founding, Enedwaith lay between Arnor to the north and Gondor to the south, and so the people who lived here were known as the ‘middle-folk’. Though Enedwaith did not belong to either Kingdom, it was jointly administered by the Dúnedain, and the Wild Men who lived here ultimately did so under their control. Tolkien goes so far as to hint that, in the earliest days of the Two Kingdoms, Enedwaith was considered to fall within the boundaries of Gondor.

C. S. Lewis explains what supernaturalism means as clearly as anyone has ever done:

Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering about what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think…. The other view is the religious view According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe … to produce creatures like itself — I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds.’`
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The supernatural is not the same as the magical. Magic can be part of nature. There is as much magic in The Hobbit as in The Silmarillion, but The Hobbit is not about the supernatural, while The Silmarillion is.

What difference does it make whether you are a naturalist or a supernaturalist? All the difference in the world. It makes a difference to everything. Imagine you are acting in a play. The supernaturalist is like one who believes that the play is not the whole of reality, that there is a far greater reality outside it. The naturalist denies that. Even though the supernaturalist and the naturalist may speak the same lines in the play, their meaning is not the same. Context makes a difference, and the supernatural is the ultimate context.

Tolkien, as a Christian, was of course a supernaturalist. As we shall see when we treat the topic of religion, Tolkien kept the supernatural hidden in The Lord of the Rings; yet it is ubiquitous, and he himself explicitly told us so.

Tolkien claims that fantasy naturally treats the supernatural:

[F]airy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural, the Magical towards Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

Fantasy treats the supernatural not because it is fantastic but because it is real.

C. S. Lewis gives the following “aesthetic” argument for supernaturalism in Miracles:

As long as one is a Naturalist, “Nature” is only a word for “everything” — And Everything is not a subject about which anything very interesting can be said or (save by illusion) felt…. But everything becomes different when we recognize that Nature is a creature, a created thing, with its own particular tang or flavor…

The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles

The capacity to evoke wonder, which is the great power of fantasy, almost requires supernaturalism. It is inconceivable that a worldly pragmatist like John Dewey or Karl Marx could write fantasy. Only a supernaturalistic metaphysics has room for it. It says that our world has edges, that it is not all there is, that there is more. In such a world you can never say, with the bored, jaded author of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything” (Eccles 1:14).

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion the world is flat (until its fall) and therefore has an edge. A flat world is a physical symbol for a supernaturalistic metaphysics. It points to a “beyond” beyond its edges, a “more”. But a round world is self-contained, and absolutely relative. In The Silmarillion the world is changed from flat to round as a divine punishment. This is far from fantastic; it is symbolically quite accurate. For, in fact, the divine punishment was that our worldview, rather than our world, was changed from supernaturalism to naturalism.

Yet one edge, one absolute, remains even in our round, relative world, though not in space but in time. There is death, personal time’s absolute edge Supernaturalism’s practical payoff is the hope of divine grace. Grace is needed because evil is powerful. We are far too weak to have much hope without it. Frodo is wise because he knows this. The whole of Middle earth — souls as well as bodies — depends on his mission, and he knows he is not strong enough to fulfill it.

Yet, because of an implicit trust in grace, he volunteers: “I will take the Icing, though I do not know the way” (Lord of the Rings, p. 264). It was a Marian moment. St. Luke showed us the same thing at the Annunciation. Mary’s mission was strikingly similar to Frodo’s. The salvation of the whole world depended on it. And the words of her acceptance of her mission were also similar to Frodo’s: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Neither Tolkien nor St. Luke tells us what invisible force in the soul motivated this visible choice. But there are only two possibilities: pride or humility. When we hear “I will take the ring”, we may think we hear pride, but when we hear “though I do not know the way”, we know we hear humility. Tolkien kept explicit religion out of The Lord of the Rings, but here is a powerful example of implicit religion. No one but an arrogant fool could do what Frodo did without throwing an anchor out into the deep of supernatural grace.


The Size of Tolkien’s Reality – Peter Kreeft

March 14, 2013
"In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God's purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”. It should be what it means. The fact that it has largely ceased to be that in modern “philosophy departments” does not mean that its essence has changed, but that its disciples have. Similarly, the fact that most Christians in North America are not martyrs or saints like the early Christians does not mean that the meaning of Christianity has changed, only that Christians have.

Metaphysics is the most important, most foundational, part of philosophy. It is rational, not irrational; it is a “science” in the broad, ancient sense of the word: a body of knowledge ordered through explanations and causes. Like the rest of philosophy, it does not use the modern scientific method. (Neither does anything else except modern science!) But it is a science, and it should not be classified under “the occult”, as it is in some bookstores.

Unlike all other sciences, including other philosophical sciences, metaphysics explores reality as such, all of reality, not just some part or dimension of reality, such as living things, chemicals, human history, or morality. It seeks the truths, laws, and principles that are true of all being. (“Being” is the traditional term, but “reality” sounds more concrete and less occultic than “being”.)

Here are a few sample questions of metaphysics:

  • Is all being one, true, good, and beautiful?
  • Is evil real?
  • Is matter real?
  • Is spirit real?
  • Is God real?
  • Is chance real?
  • Is causality real?
  • Is time real?
  • How can a being change, that is, be both the same being it was, and also different?
  • What is the relation between a thing’s essence (what it is) and its existence (that it is)?
  • Does language reflect reality? Are there in reality things (nouns), acts (verbs), qualities (adjectives), relations (prepositions and conjunctions), etc.?
  • Are “universals” like justice, human nature, squareness, and redness real things, or real aspects of things, or only concepts, or only words?

The Lord of the Rings illuminates at least three important metaphysical questions:

  1. How big is reality? Is it larger or smaller than our thought?
  2. Does it include the supernatural?
  3. Does it include universals, “Platonic Ideas”, or “Jungian archetypes”?

We shall take up the first in this post and give you the other two later on.

How big is reality?
There are only three logically possible answers to this question.

  1. The first is that “there are more things in heaven and earth ( i.e., in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e., in thought).” That was Shakespeare’s philosophy, as expressed by Hamlet to Horatio, who found it hard to believe in ghosts. This is the philosophy of the poet and of the happy for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore wonderful. It is the philosophy of all pre-modern cultures.
  2. The second possible answer is that there are fewer things in reality than in thought; that most of our thought is mere myth, error, convention, projection, fantasy, fallacy, folly, .dream, etc. This is the philosophy of the unhappy man, the cynic, the pessimist: “Trust nobody and nothing.” This philosophy is hardly ever found in any pre-modern culture, except in a small minority.
  3. The third possibility is that there are exactly the same number of things in reality and in thought, that is, that we “know it all”.

What difference does it make to your life which philosophy you believe?

It makes a total difference, a difference to absolutely every single thing in your life. It colors everything.  For if you believe the first philosophy, as Shakespeare did, as Tolkien did, and as most pre-modern peoples did, then your fundamental attitude toward all reality is wonder and humility. You are like a small child in a large house. As Tolkien said in one of his letters, “You are inside a very great story.”

You expect mysteries, you expect moreness: terrors to stop your heart and joys to break it. Reality is big. I think of the simple, haunting line in Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal: “It is the Angel of Death that’s passing over us, Mia, it’s the Angel of Death, the Angel of Death. And he’s very big.” In this big world there may be not only things like dragons, but even heroes.

The larger-than-life world is the one our ancestors lived in. Our culture’s greatest sadness is that we no longer live in this world. Tolkien’s greatest achievement is that he invites us to inhabit this world again. He shows us that this world is our home. He even shows us heroism: he not only shows us heroes but he also shows us that we ourselves believe in heroes. For after we have read Tolkien’s unashamedly heroic epic, we do not say, “Well, that was a pleasant little escape from reality”, but, “Hey! That was real!”

If you believe the second philosophy, that there are fewer things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies, then you are cynical, skeptical, suspicious, bored, jaded, detached, ironic, and definitely non-heroic. You are a reductionist: you reduce mystery to puzzle, love to lust, thought to cybernetics, reasoning to rationalizing, ideals to desires, man to ape, God to myth.

In other words, you are a typically modern or post-modern man. (Is there much of a difference?) You buy into the first step of the scientific method: “Doubt everything that is not proved; treat every thought as guilty until proved innocent, false until proved true.” The older philosophy treated thoughts as we treat people in court: innocent until proved guilty. (Compare Socrates’s method with Descartes’s on this score.)

The third philosophy is rationalism, in fact, arrogant rationalism:  Everything in my thought is real, and everything real is in my thought. In ancient Greece Parmenides said, “What is thought and what is real is the same”, and in modern Germany Hegel said, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real;” but I think only those with a divinity complex can actually believe that. And even pantheists, who believe that the whole cosmos is only a thought or dream, believe it is not our dream but God’s, and therefore still “more”, or transcendent to our thought — unless there is some confusion between us (or me) and God, in which case a shrink or a smack will serve the soul better than a syllogism.

Thomas Howard calls good fantasy a “flight to reality” because, though its details are fictional, the nature of its world, its universal principles and values, are true. Tolkien shows us the nature of the real world by his fantasy. He is making a statement about reality, about being, about metaphysics when he says:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered.
J R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

The fundamental reason for the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is that people sense it is real. No mere escape from reality can be voted “the greatest book of the century”.

And that is why Tolkien does not tell us half of what he knows about his world. You can tell everything about your fantasies, your dreams, or your thoughts, but not about anything real.

That is also why The Lord of the Rings bears endless rereading: it is heavy enough to bear the mind’s journeys into it, like our world. In fact, it is perhaps the most “heavy”, full, detailed, complex, real invented world in all of human literature.

Tolkien himself tells us that he felt, in creating it, as we feel in reading it: that it was discovered, not invented, that it had always been there, and it was as much a surprise to Tolkien to discover it as it is to us: “I had the sense of recording what was already `there,’ somewhere; not of `inventing.’ Great authors often say that about the experience of writing their masterpieces.

C. S. Lewis wrote from the same point of view:

We must not listen to [Alexander] Pope’s maxim about the proper study of mankind. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.” The proper study of mankind is everything.

We should never ask of anything “Is it real?” For everything is real. The proper question is, “A real what?”


Heroism and the Journey of Sanctification – Bradley J. Birzer

July 11, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien in a photograph by Billett Potter

As philosopher Eric Voegelin has argued, great thinkers have often provided their communities with an anamnesis, or the recovery of past encounters with transcendence. Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Augustine, for example, all served their contemporaries in this way.

Much as St. Augustine had, Tolkien confronted a world and culture that seemed to many on the verge of collapse. And, as with St. Augustine, Tolkien hoped that his myth would serve as an anamnesis, a return to right reason. Both Augustine and Tolkien viewed this world and its history as irredeemable through sheer human will or reason. In Tolkien’s mythology, as he stated in writings published posthumously, all of earth has been corrupted by Morgoth.

In the end, though, evil will fail to corrupt the good, which to Tolkien meant those saved and sanctified through Christ. Paraphrasing and baptizing the words of Cicero, St. Augustine wrote: “For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.”

Aragorn speaks in a similar fashion when encountering the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers. When one of the riders asks Aragorn how to discern right from wrong in complicated times, Aragorn responds: “As he ever has judged,” for “[g]ood and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” To discern good and evil, and to suffer the ills of this world, serves to make one better, more sanctified, and more able to serve as a fire that “causes gold to glow brightly.”

For neither Tolkien nor St. Augustine does this fact mean that it despair one should simply abandon this world to the enemy and his allies or isolate oneself from society. To the contrary, one of the most prevalent and important themes in all of Tolkien’s work — whether; academic or fictional — is the importance of heroism, not as an act of will, but as a result of grace. Through his mystery, majesty, and grace, God allows evil to happen so that the good may do good. “Evil labors with vast power and perpetual success,” Tolkien wrote. Ultimately, though, evil works “in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.”‘ St. Augustine contended that the world ultimately destroyed the wicked, as they could not suffer reverses in the world they revered with too much pride.’

Tolkien believed that as a part of one’s preparation for heaven, or. one’s sanctification, one should perform acts of Christian heroism. For Tolkien, that meant doing God’s will and being a part of Christ’s army. As the great medieval theologian Hugh of St. Victor described, it:

For the Incarnate Word is our King, who came into this world to war with the devil; and all the saints who were before His coming are soldiers as it were, going before their King, and those who have come after and will come, even to the end of the world, are soldiers following their King. And the King himself is in the midst of His army and proceeds protected and surrounded on all sides by His columns. And although in a multitude as vast as this the kind of arms different in the sacraments and the observance of the peoples preceding and following, yet all are really serving the one king and following the one banner; all are pursuing the one enemy and are being crowned by the one victory.

Christ’s army is “the church” traversing time and space, the continuance of Christ incarnate. James Patrick claims that Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring is the mythological equivalent of the church, “moving across the dark landscape, enduring every privation, frightened but full of courage, fulfilling the providence of God.” The church’s many parts, the unique gifts and the bearers of those gifts, collectively form the body of Christ.

While God may not be directly visible at all times, he is always and intimately involved in the formation and guidance of his Church and his creation. As we saw in the previous chapter, Tolkien firmly believed that God intervenes directly and indirectly in the real world, as well as in Tolkien’s subcreated world. The Silmarillion, for example, provides a mythical account of God’s creation and intervention in the affairs of men. Iluvatar works through his agents, specifically the loyal Valar and Maiar. Iluvatar, though, distributes his gifts of grace to all his servants — Valar, Maiar, Elves, men, Dwarves, and hobbits. And he distributes them in surprising ways, ways known only to him, which makes life endlessly complex and fascinating.

The “great policies of world history,” Tolkien wrote, “are often turned not by the Lords and the Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak — owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” Thus, within Morgoth’s ring — that is, Arda itself — Iluvatar depends on his army to do his will. He aids them directly at times, relying on the “Flame Imperishable,” Tolkien’s mythological equivalent of the Holy Spirit, to spark creativity and the moral imagination in his creation. But ultimately, whether through his gifts of grace or direct intervention, all good activities come from Iluvatar alone.

All this Tolkien thought clear enough, which is why he was frustrated by readers who failed to find God in his mythology. The “religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism,” Tolkien explained to a Jesuit friend. One may find God in the plot itself. Indeed, the elements of true Christian heroism are severally represented in the four major characters of The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf, the prophet; Aragorn, the king; Frodo, the priest; and Sam, the common man and servant. 

An Australian academic, Barry Gordon, was the first critic to demonstrate the presence of the Christian offices of priest, prophet, and king in Tolkien’s work. Tolkien forwarded Gordon’s article, “Kingship, Priesthood and Prophecy in The Lord of the Rings” to Clyde Kilby. Tolkien admitted in the letter to Kilby that the Gordon thesis was true, but that such a scheme had been unconscious on Tolkien’s part.”

In his own notes expounding on the Gordon thesis, Kilby wrote: “M-e.[Middle-earth] is saved through the priestly self-sacrifice of the hobbit Frodo, thru wisdom and guidance of Gandalf and mastery of Aragorn, heir of kings. Also forces beyond these. As each agent responds to his `calling’ he grows in power and grace. Each  becomes increasingly `Christian.” In other words, Tolkien echoes Christian teaching in that once one accepts one’s specific calling or vocation and employs one’s gifts for the good of the Body of Christ, the journey of sanctification begins.


Evil and the Ring – Tom Shippey

June 15, 2012

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
Translated, the words mean:
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings the deep-seated contradictions between its Boethian and Manichaean interpretations, between authority and experience, and between evil as an absence (‘the Shadow’) and evil as a force (‘the Dark Power’) drives much of the plot. It is expressed not only through the paradoxes of wraiths and shadows, but also through the Ring. In our final post on the nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings, we look at the Ring itself.


The Ring’s ambiguity is present almost the first time we see it, in `The Shadow of the Past’, when Gandalf tells Frodo, `Give me the ring for a moment’. Frodo unfastens it from its chain and, `handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.’

Either it or Frodo. It may not seem very important to know which of these alternative explanations is true, but the difference is the difference between the world-views I have labelled above as ‘Boethian’ and `Manichaean’. If Boethius is right, then evil is internal, caused by human sin and weakness and alienation from God; in this case the Ring feels heavy because Frodo (already in the very first stages of addiction, we may say) is unconsciously reluctant to part with it. If there is some truth in the Manichaean view, though, then evil is a force from outside which has in some way been able to make the non-sentient Ring itself evil; so it is indeed the Ring, obeying the will of its master, which does not want to be identified.

Both views are furthermore perfectly convincing. In the earlier scene of Bilbo’s inability to part with the Ring — not realizing it’s in his pocket, getting angry when pressed, unable to make up his mind, dropping the envelope with the Ring on the floor –all readers realize that these are not accidents, but manifestations of Bilbo’s own unconscious wishes: Freudianism has taught us all at least that much.

However the whole plot of The Lord of the Rings is permeated with the idea of the will of Sauron operating at a distance, stirring up evil forces, literally animating the Ringwraiths and even the orcs; Gandalf talks repeatedly of the Ring as animate, betraying Isildur, abandoning Gollum, and says in explanation that according to Bilbo the Ring `needed looking after … it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight’.

The ideas that on the one hand the Ring is a sort of psychic amplifier, magnifying the unconscious fears or selfishnesses of its owners, and on the other that it is a sentient creature with urges and powers of its own, are both present from the beginning, and correspond to the internal/Boethian and external/ Manichaean theories of evil. The ambiguity is more prominent and more important in later scenes. Frodo puts on the Ring six times in The Lord of the Rings.

The first time is in the house of Tom Bombadil. This does not seem to count, for Tom, characteristically, is quite unaffected: he neither becomes invisible himself when he puts it on nor fails to see Frodo when he puts it on. The next time is in the Prancing Pony, when Frodo feels a `desire … to slip it on and vanish out of the whole silly situation’. This, of course, could be entirely his own doing; but `It seemed to him, somehow, as if the suggestion came to him from outside’.

In any case `He resisted the temptation firmly’. He makes a speech, sings a song, and then, falling off the table on which he has been capering, finds he has put on the Ring. By accident? Frodo at least works out an explanation of how this could have happened. But at the same time `he wondered if the Ring itself had not played him a trick; perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room’. We never learn the truth about this, and the second explanation does not seem especially plausible. Who in the room could have given such a command? The likes of Bill Ferny seem too low-rank and too ignorant to be capable of projecting such orders. But this is not the case on Weathertop, when the Ring-wraiths attack.

Here the Manichaean view is much more evident. Frodo remembers all his warnings, but `something seemed to be compelling him’ to disregard them. The situation is different, again, from the moment in the Barrow-wight’s mound, when Frodo thought for a moment of using the Ring to escape, but put the thought aside without difficulty. On Weathertop he has `no hope of escape … he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger’. He struggles against the urge for a while, but in the end `resistance became unbearable’.

The feeling here is that Frodo’s will has just been overpowered by superior force, no doubt that of the wraiths, using some mental power of the sort Gandalf hinted at. And yet, and on the other hand, the word used at the start of the attack (just as in the Prancing Pony) is `temptation’: Frodo is tempted. Furthermore, we are told that it would have made a difference if he had yielded to the temptation. Gandalf says later on that his heart was not pierced by the Morgulknife `because you resisted to the last’. He might mean just that Frodo dodged, shouted, struck out, in an entirely physical sense putting the Ringwraith off his aim.

But more likely there is a psychological sense. The knife works by subduing the will, and if the will does not co-operate it works less well — though it does not lose its power entirely and altogether, as it would if evil were entirely a matter of inner temptations. Gandalf keeps up the ambiguity of the scene by remarking that `fortune or fate have helped you … not to mention courage’. But here he clearly means not either/or but both, fate and courage: the same may be true of the nature of the Ring.

Frodo uses the Ring twice on Amon Hen (II/10), and both times he has to, first to escape Boromir, then to get away from the Fellowship without being noticed. On the first occasion, though, he sees the Eye of Sauron, and becomes aware that it is looking for him. And as he does so:

He heard himself crying out Never, never! Or was it: Verily, I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring.

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger.

This is an especially mysterious scene on first reading, though it is cleared up slightly when we learn (as has been said above) that the third voice is Gandalf’s, in a `high place’ somewhere striving against the mental force of the `the Dark Power’.

But whose are the other two voices? The first one seems to be `himself’, i.e. Frodo. The second one could be, perhaps, the voice of the Ring: the sentient creature obeying the call of its maker, Sauron, as it has been all along. Or could it be, so to speak, Frodo’s subconscious, obeying a kind of death-wish, entirely internal but psychically amplified by the Ring?

For that, after all, is how we are told the Ring works. It gets a hold on people through their own impulses, towards pity or justice or knowledge or saving Gondor, and gives them the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. There has to be something there for it to work on; but, like the worms in Bilbo’s father’s proverb, everyone has some weak spot. They may `writhe’ between the external and internal powers, but that is surely how one gets to be a `wraith’.

The Manichaean images of the Ring become stronger as it moves closer to Mordor. Sam’s uses of it — he puts it on twice — are conditioned by immediate necessity, like Frodo’s on Amon Hen, but he too feels it both as an external power, `untameable save by some mighty will’, and as an inner temptation. Here, though, it seems obvious that the temptation to become ‘Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age’ is mostly the Ring’s, amplifying whatever petty selfish urge it can find. Sam hardly feels the temptation, and puts it aside as a `shadow’, mere `phantoms’.

In a similar way, on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo hides from the Lord of the Nazgul, but is sensed by him. Frodo feels `the beating upon him of a great power from outside’, which takes his hand and moves it `inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck’. But this time `There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will’, so that he can force his hand back, to the phial of Galadriel. `No longer’ of course implies that there had been such an answer previously, on Amon Hen, on Weathertop, or in the Prancing Pony. But this time there is no doubt that the `power’ is from `outside’.

The last and critical scene, however, is the one on Mount Doom, in the chambers of the Sammath Naur. In the approach to this the sense of an outside power has grown stronger and stronger. Sam sees Frodo’s hand creep again and again towards the Ring, only to be withdrawn `as the will recovered mastery’. It is a surprise, then, that when Frodo at last glimpses the Eye, reaches for the chain and the Ring, and whispers to Sam, `Hold my hand! I can’t stop it’, Sam can take his hand away and hold it without effort, indeed `gently’. The force that is operating on Frodo is not a physical one, like magnetism, which would be unaffected by personality; what is unstoppable to Frodo is imperceptible to Sam.

In the same way, the Ring is a crushing burden to Frodo, but when Sam picks him up, expecting to feel the same `dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring’, it is no weight at all. Meanwhile the outside power is having an effect on Sam, but it operates once again (as in the scene on Amon Hen) by creating a kind of dialogue. Sam finds himself holding `a debate with himself’. One voice is optimistic, determined, set on destroying the Ring. The other voice — it is `his own voice’, but it twice calls him `Sam Gamgee’, as if it was someone else – says he can’t go on, doesn’t know what to do, and `might just as well lie down now and give it up’. Whose voice is this?

It could, of course, just be Sam’s own feelings of downheartedness: most people talk to themselves mentally at some point. On the other hand, it could be the Ring, once more amplifying inner feelings and this time giving them a voice. When Sam finally rejects the second voice, whoever’s it is, the ground shakes and rumbles, as if some outside power had recognized and resented his decision. All this builds up to the question of what makes Frodo fail at the last hurdle. He reaches the Sammath Naur, leaving Sam behind to deal with Gollum, and when Sam follows him in, he finds that even the phial of Galadriel is no longer any use to him. In this place, `the heart of the realm of Sauron … all other powers were here subdued’. At that moment, standing on the very edge of the Crack of Doom, Frodo gives up. His words are:

`I have come … But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.’

With that he puts it on for the sixth and final time. It is a vital question to know whether Frodo does this because he has been made to, or whether he has succumbed to inner temptation. What he says suggests the latter, for he appears to be claiming responsibility very firmly: `I will not.. . the Ring is mine.’ Against that, there has been the increasing sense of reaching a centre of power, where all other powers are `subdued’.

If that is the case, Frodo could no more help himself than if he had been swept away by a river, or buried in a landslide. It is also interesting that Frodo does not say, `I choose not to do’, but `I do not choose to do’. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him.

The question becomes an academic one, of course, in that the result is achieved by Gollum, fulfilling Frodo’s own words a few moments before, `If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom’. But Tolkien was an academic, and academics often see importance in academic issues where others do not. Is Frodo guilty? Has he given in to temptation? Or just been overpowered by evil?

If one puts the questions like that, there is a surprising and ominous echo to them, which suggests that this whole debate between `Boethian’ and ‘Manichaean’ views, far from being one between orthodoxy and heresy, is at the absolute heart of the Christian religion itself. The Lord’s Prayer, which in Tolkien’s day everyone knew, and which most English-speakers know even yet, contains seven clauses or requests, and of these the sixth and seventh are:

Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

Are these variants of each other, saying the same thing? Or (much more likely) do they have different but complementary intentions, the first asking God to keep us safe from ourselves (the Boethian source of sin), the second asking for protection from outside (the source of evil in a Manichaean universe)? If the latter is the case, then Tolkien’s double or ambiguous view of evil is not a flirtation with heresy after all, but expresses a truth about the nature of the universe denied to the philosopher Boethius, and possibly even to the rationalist Lewis.

There is no doubt that the Lord’s Prayer was in Tolkien’s mind As he wrote the Sammath Naur scene, for he said as much in a private letter to David Masson, with whom he had been discussing the criticisms made of him, as mentioned above. In this letter (kindly shown to me by Mr. Masson, of the Brotherton Library in Leeds), Tolkien quoted the last three clauses of the Lord’s Prayer, including `Forgive us our trespasses’, and commented that these were words which occurred to him, and that the scene in the Sammath Naur was meant to be a “fairy-story” exemplum’ of them. Tolkien did not comment on the Prayer’s apparent tautology, nor on the ambiguity of his own presentation of evil throughout, but they are of a piece. One can never tell for sure, in The Lord of the Rings, whether the danger of the Ring comes from inside, and is sinful, or from outside, and is merely hostile. And one has to say that this is one of the work’s great strengths.

We all recognize, in our better moments at least, that much harm comes from our own imperfections, sometimes terribly magnified, like traffic deaths from haste and aggression and reluctance to leave the party too soon: those are temptations. At the same time there are other disasters for which one feels no responsibility at all, like (as Tolkien was writing) bombs and gas-chambers. They may in fact all be connected, as Boethius insisted: no human being can ever see enough to tell. But our experience does not feel like that. It is a mistake just to blame everything on evil forces `out there’, the habit of xenophobes and popular journalists; just as much a mistake to luxuriate in self-analysis, the great skill of Tolkien’s contemporaries, the cosseted upper-class writers of the `modernist’ movement.

And, of course, things would be much easier for the characters in The Lord of the Rings if this uncertainty over the nature of evil were to be withdrawn. If evil was just the absence of good, then the Ring could never be more than a psychic amplifier, and all the characters would need to do would be to put it aside, perhaps give it to Tom Bombadil: in Middle-earth we are assured that would be fatal.

Conversely, if evil were only an external force without echo in the hearts of the good, then someone might have to take it to Orodruin, but it would not need to be Frodo: Gandalf could take it, or Galadriel, and whoever did so would have to fight only their enemies, not their friends or themselves.

But if that were the case (and most fantasies are far more like that than The Lord of the Rings), then the work would be a lesser one, just a complex war-game of `Dungeons and Dragons’; as it would be a lesser one if it veered instead in the direction of philosophical treatise or confessional novel, without relevance to the real world or war and poltics from which Tolkien’s experience or evil so clearly originated.


Two Views of Evil in The Lord of the Rings – Tom Shippey

June 14, 2012

The modern use of the English term orc to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures has its inception with J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s earliest Elvish dictionaries include the entry Ork (orq-) ‘monster’, ‘ogre’, ‘demon’, together with orqindi ‘ogresse’. Tolkien sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts. Tolkien sometimes, particularly in The Hobbit, used the word goblin instead of orc to describe the same type of creature, with the smaller cave-dwelling variety that lived in the Misty Mountains being referred to as goblins and the larger ones elsewhere referred to as orcs.

Two Views Of Evil
The word which goes with `wraith’ from Gavin Douglas’s time is `shadow’, and it is a word which Tolkien uses repeatedly and pointedly. In the verse of the rings which Gandalf quotes to Frodo in `The Shadow of the Past’, the concluding lines are:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

When Gandalf falls into the abyss, Aragorn says that he `fell into shadow’; Gandalf says that if they lose, `many lands will pass under the shadow’; sometimes `the Shadow’ becomes a personification of Sauron, as when Frodo tells Sam that `the Shadow can only mock, it cannot make … not real new things of its own’. The last statement goes far towards explaining why Tolkien used the word so often and with such emphasis. One might think that the main associations of `shadow’ are darkness, or menace, or perhaps oblivion, but the real point may be a more metaphysical one. Do shadows exist?

In the Old English Solomon and Saturn poem from which Tolkien drew Gollum’s riddles, Solomon indeed asks Saturn, `What is that is not?’ And though the answer is expressed riddlingly, it contains the word besceadeð, `shadows’ (here a verb). Saturn seems to be saying that shadows both are and aren’t. Aren’t, in that a shadow is not a thing, but an absence caused by a thing. Are, in that they have shapes, and physical effects, like cold and dark. In folklore at least they can be detached, even stolen. Particularly ominous, therefore, is the slight variation on the line from the rings-verse given by Sam, when he recites the elvish poem about Gil-galad in I/11. This ends (my emphasis):

For into darkness fell his star,
In Mordor where the shadows are.

Just as the wraiths are both substantial and insubstantial, in Mordor (though Sam does not realize the ominousness of what he says), absence can take on a kind of life, can become presence — as it does for instance in Milton’s presentation of Death in Paradise Lost II, 666-73, also a `shape’ poised between `substance’  and `shadow’, and like the chief Ringwraith, bearing `the likeness of a kingly crown’ on `what seemed its head’.

By saying things like this, however, Tolkien sets up a running ambivalence throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings, which acts as an answer at once orthodox and questioning to the whole problem of the existence and source of evil in a universe created (as both Tolkien and Milton were sure it was) by a benevolent God. One can sum Tolkien’s characteristically twentieth-century position up by saying that there are two opinions about the nature of evil, both old, both deep-rooted, both still relevant, neither easy to deny, but apparently irreconcilably in contradiction.

One is that of orthodox Christianity, repeated and put into modern language by, for instance, Tolkien’s close friend and associate C.S. Lewis, whose exposition of it in Mere Christianity was composed at the same time as Tolkien was writing the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings, and eventually published in 1952. One of Lewis’s avowed motives in writing the book (in which `mere’ means `common’ or `central’) was to state doctrines which both he, an Ulster Protestant, and Tolkien, a Catholic, could agree on.

Furthermore, as both Tolkien and Lewis would certainly have known, the most famous statement of this view of evil was made in a work written by a Christian, which however never at any point mentions Christ or any specifically Christian doctrine, trying at all times to reach its conclusions through logic alone: the De Consolatione Philosophiae written in the sixth century by Boethius, a Roman senator at the time of writing under sentence of death on charges of plotting to restore Imperial rule (a sentence in the end carried out: Boethius was tortured to death in AD 524 or 525).

The Boethian view is this: there is no such thing as evil. What people identify as evil is only the absence of good. Furthermore people in their ignorance often identify as evil things (like being under sentence of death) which are in fact and in the long run, or in the divine plan, to their advantage. Philosophy tells Boethius that `all fortune is certainly good’, omnem bonam prorsus esse fortunam.

Corollaries of this belief are, as Frodo says to Sam in `The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, that evil cannot create, `not real new things of its own’, and furthermore it was not created; it arose (and here we switch over to `Mere Christianity’) when human beings exercised their own free will in withdrawing their service and their intentions from God; in the end, and when the divine plan has been fulfilled, all evils may be annulled, cancelled, brought to good, as the Fall of Man was by the Incarnation and Death of Christ.

As all readers of Boethius have observed — and his translators into English have included King Alfred, Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth the First — whatever one may think of the truth of Boethius’s opinions, no one can deny his fortitude in writing them on Death Row while waiting for execution. His view of the non-existence of evil has great authority, both in its own right and through its ratification by orthodox Christianity.

There is also a certain amount of evidence for it, put into colloquial language by Lewis and fictionalized by Tolkien through the rather unlikely medium of the orcs. To put Lewis’s argument first, a point he made with characteristic simplicity at the start of Mere Christianity is that even evil-doers are liable to excuse themselves in terms of what is good: breakers of promises insist that they do so because circumstances have changed, murderers claim that they were provoked, atrocities are excused as retaliation for earlier atrocities, and so on.

Lewis claims that `in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad’; and since bad and good are not symmetrical in this way, evil is an absence, as Boethius said, and also `a parasite, not an original thing’, rather as Frodo had said. The argument remains, however, rather abstract’ One can see Tolkien here and there doing his best not only to make it more realistic, but even, for those with a robust sense of humor, even funny.

A clear but unnoticed example comes from the orcs. We hear ores talking six times in The Lord of the Rings; I consider their conversations in more detail in the article in the. Clark and Timmons collection mentioned already, but the point can be made from one conversation alone.

In the last chapter of The Two Towers Frodo has fallen paralyzed by the venom of Shelob the spider, and although Sam takes the Ring from him, he then falls into the hands of the orcs. Sam, wearing the Ring, can hear the dialogue of the two orc-leaders, Gorbag from Minas Morgul and Shagrat from Cirith Ungol. Gorbag warns Shagrat that while they have captured the one `spy’, Frodo, it is clear that someone else, presumably `a large warrior … with an elf-sword’, wounded Shelob and is still loose. The `little fellow’ they have caught:

`may have had nothing to do with the real mischief. The big fellow with the sharp sword doesn’t seem to have thought him worth much anyhow — just left him lying: regular elvish trick.’

There is no mistaking the disapproval in Gorbag’s voice. He is convinced that it is wrong, and contemptible, to abandon your companions. Furthermore it is characteristic of the other side, a `regular elvish trick’, they do it all the time. Nearly everything Gorbag says is factually wrong, and it is less than a page before this orcish view of morality is also exposed. For Shagrat knows something which Gorbag doesn’t, which is that Shelob has `more than one poison’. She usually paralyses her prey rather than killing it outright. Shagrat asks:

`D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! she’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him — no good interfering with Her.’

What can one say but `regular orcish trick’? It is true that it is Gorbag who expresses disapproval of abandoning one’s companions, when other people do it, and Shagrat who laughs at doing exactly that, when he does it, but on this matter there seems to be no disagreement between them. Orcs here, and on other occasions, have a clear idea of what is admirable and what is contemptible behavior, which is exactly the same as ours.

They cannot revoke what Lewis calls `the Moral Law’ and create a counter-morality based on evil, any more than they can revoke biology and live on poison. They are moral beings, who talk freely and repeatedly of what is `good’, meaning by that more or less ‘ what we do. The puzzle is that this has no effect at all on their actual behavior, and they seem (as in the conversation quoted) to have no self-awareness or capacity for self-criticism. But these are human qualities too. The orcs, though low down on the scale of evil, the mere `infantry of the old war’, quite clearly and deliberately dramatize what I have called the Boethian view: evil is just an absence, the shadow of the good.

The trouble with this view is that it is both highly counter-intuitive, and in many circumstances extremely dangerous. One might, for instance, conclude that the proper response to it, if you accepted it, would be to become a conscientious objector,and to refuse to resist what appears to be evil on the ground that this is just a misapprehension. Evil after all is, according to Boethius, more harmful to the malefactor than to the victim and those who do it (or appear to do it) are more to be pitied than feared or fought.

King Alfred, dictating his Old English translation of Boethius in the intervals of fighting a desperate war against heathen Vikings, in which he hanged both pirates taken prisoner and also on one occasion his own rebellious monks, certainly found it impossible to go along with Boethius all the way; while at the time that Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, surrender to his country’s enemies would have meant handing over not only himself but many others to the whole apparatus of concentration camps, gas-chambers, and mass murder. A brave man might be prepared to be Boethian himself. But did he have the right to impose the results of that stance on others more defenseless? Neither Tolkien nor King Alfred would have thought so.

In any case there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, which has never risen to the status of being official, but which generates itself spontaneously from common experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, nevertheless evil does exist, and is not merely an absence; and what is more, it has to be resisted and fought, not by all means available, but by all means virtuous; and what is even more, not doing so, in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills, is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it swerves towards being a heresy, Manichaeanism, or Dualism: the belief that the world is a battlefield, between the powers of Good and Evil, equal and opposite — so that, one might say, there is no real difference between them, and it is a matter of chance which side one happens to choose.

The Inklings, as it happens, may have had a certain tolerance for Manichaeanism — in Mere Christianity II/2 Lewis awards Dualism second place, so to speak, after Christianity, before going on to make the case against it – but Tolkien certainly less than Lewis. It annoyed him very much when the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement asserted that in The Lord of the Rings all that the good and the bad sides did was try to kill each other, so that they could not be told apart: `Morally there seems nothing to choose between them’ (this comes from a letter in the TLS for 9th December 1955, in which the reviewer, Alfred Duggan, defended himself against challenge; Tolkien later corresponded with David Masson, who had made the challenge precisely over the issue of the (dis)similarity of the good and evil sides).

Tolkien was a more orthodox Christian than Lewis, and less tolerant of anything like heresy. Nevertheless, his education, his faith, and the circumstances of his time, all set up what seemed to be a deep-seated contradiction between Boethian and Manichaean opinions, between authority and experience, between evil as an absence (‘the Shadow’) and evil as a force (‘the Dark Power’). In The Lord of the Rings this contradiction drives much of the plot. It is expressed not only through the paradoxes of wraiths and shadows, but also through the Ring.


Evil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – Tom Shippey

June 13, 2012

“In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.

“You cannot enter here,” said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”

The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

“Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!” And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.”
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings


Reading selections from Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century.

Wraiths And Shadows: Tolkien’s Images Of Evil
There is something extremely convincing, for very many people, in Tolkien’s presentation of evil; but it is worth re-stressing that his concern with the topic is highly contemporary, and by no means unique. Many authors of the mid-twentieth century were obsessed with the subject of evil, and produced unique and original images of it. I have mentioned already Orwell’s torturer O’Brien, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, declaring, `If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face  –  forever’; and Ursula Le Guin’s parable of `The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, with its shining city whose power and beauty depend entirely on the continuous and conscious tormenting of an idiot child; to which one can add Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, working in the corpse mines’ of Dresden, with their stink `like roses and mustard gas’; or T.H. White’s Merlyn denouncing humanity as:

“Homo ferox, the Inventor of Cruelty to Animals, who will … burn living rats, as I have seen done in Eriu, in order that their shrieks may intimidate the local rodents; who will forcibly degenerate the livers of domestic geese, in order to make himself a tasty food; who will saw the growing horns of cattle, for convenience in transport; who will blind goldfinches with a needle, to make them sing; who will boil lobsters and shrimps alive, although he hears their piping screams; who will turn on his own species in war, and kill nineteen million every hundred years” (etc.)
(The Book of Merlyn, Section 5)

All these images are based, sometimes obviously as with Vonnegut, sometimes less obviously as with Le Guin, on personal or recent experience. The authors are trying to explain something at once deeply felt and rationally inexplicable, something furthermore felt to be entirely novel and not adequately answered by the moralities of earlier ages (keen medievalists though several of these authors were).

The end of the quotation above from White suggests that this `something’ is connected with the distinctively twentieth-century experience of industrial war and impersonal, industrialized massacre; and it is probably no coincidence that most of the authors concerned (Tolkien, Orwell, Vonnegut, but also Golding, and Tolkien’s close colleague C.S. Lewis) were combat veterans of one war or another. The life experiences of many men and women in the twentieth century have left them with an unshakable conviction of something wrong, something irreducibly evil in the nature of humanity, but without any very satisfactory explanation for it.

Nor can they find such an explanation in the literature of previous eras: Billy Pilgrim’s friend Rose-water in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five agrees that, `everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoyevsky. `But that isn’t enough anymore’. Twentieth-century fantasy can be seen as above all a response to this gap, this inadequacy. One has to ask in what ways Tolkien’s images are original, individual, and in what ways typical, recognizable.

The orcs, whom we meet or overhear several times in The Lord of the Rings, form one image, and there is a conclusion to be drawn from them (see the next section). However, they are relatively low-ranking evil-doers, what Tolkien called in his Beowulf lecture `the infantry of the old war’; and in some ways they resemble fairly conventional fairy-tale images, like the `goblins’, which was Tolkien’s original word for them. More individual and more original is Tolkien’s concept of the ‘Ringwraith’. This is, one has to say, a word of exactly the same type as ‘wood-wose’ or *hol-bytla: a compound, the first element completely familiar, the second more mysterious.

What is a `wraith’? If one looks the word up in the OED one finds a puzzle of just the kind which always attracted Tolkien’s attention. The dictionary has no suggestion about the word’s etymology, but comments `Of obscure origin’. As for its meaning, the OED gives two senses, which appear to contradict each other, and cites the same text, Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots, as the source for both. I have no doubt that Tolkien and the other Inklings — for Lewis has a very clear image of a fictional wraith as well — discussed the matter, and in the end found a solution which makes sense both of Douglas’s old text, and of the modern reality to which `wraiths’ refer.

To begin with the etymology of `wraith’, an obvious suggestion which the OED compilers should have thought of is that it is a form derived from the Old English verb wrðan, `writhe’. This is a class 1 strong verb, exactly parallel to ridan, `ride’, and if it had been common enough to survive in full form, we would still say `writhe — wrothe — writhen’, as we do `ride — rode — ridden’ or `write – wrote — written’ (Tolkien does in fact use the form `writhen’, see Blackwelder’s Tolkien Thesaurus).

It is characteristic of verbs like `ride’ or `write’ to form other words by vowel-change, like `road’ from `ride’ or `writ’ from `write’. `Writhe’ has given rise to several: `wreath’ (something that is twisted), but less obviously and more suggestively, `wroth’ (the old adjective meaning `angry’), and `wrath’ (the corresponding noun which still survives). What has anger got to do with writhing, with being twisted? Clearly — and there are other parallels to this — the word is an old dead metaphor which suggests that wrath is a state of being twisted up inside (an Inkling thesis expressed by Owen Barfield and mentioned by Tolkien, see Letters p. 22. The word wraithas, `bent’, was also of special importance to Tolkien’s personal myth of `the Lost Road’, see pp. 287-8 below.)

That Tolkien was aware of this sort of variation between the physical and the abstract is suggested by a word Legolas uses in `The Ring Goes South’. There, when the Fellowship’s attempted crossing of Caradhras is foiled by the snow, Legolas goes ahead to scout out their retreat. He returns to say that the snow does not reach far, though he has not brought the sun back with him: `She is walking in the blue fields of the South and a little wreath of snow on this Redhorn hillock troubles her not at all’. By `wreath’ here Legolas clearly means something like `wisp’, something barely substantial, and though the OED does not record it, that is also part of the meaning of `wraith’ — one could say, `a wraith of mist’, `a wraith of smoke’, just as Legolas says `a wreath of snow’. It seems likely, then, that `wraith’ is a Scottish form derived from writhan in exactly the same way as `raid’ is derived from ridan.

Meanwhile the two Gavin Douglas quotations from which the OED derives its two senses are these:

To illustrate sense 1, `An apparition or spectre of a dead person: a phantom or ghost’, the OED offers Douglas, `In diuers placis The wraithis walkis of goistis that are deyd’. For sense lb, though, `An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being’, it offers Douglas again, ‘Thidder went this wrath or schaddo of Ene’ (i.e. Virgil’s hero Aeneas).

The obvious question is, are wraiths, then, alive or dead? — for Douglas uses the word both ways. And, one might add, are they material or immaterial? The latter is suggested by the equation with `shadow’ (another important word for Tolkien), and by the idea that wraiths and wreaths are defined by their shape more than by their substance, a twist, a coil, a ring; the former, however, by the fact that wraiths can be wraiths of something, even if that something is as fluid (but not insubstantial) as snow or mist or smoke.

Tolkien’s Ringwraiths, of course, answer all the questions posed, and also demonstrate once more that apparent mistakes or contradictions in old poems may simply indicate an understanding that the self-confident nineteenth- and twentieth-century dictionary compilers had not reached. Are the Ringwraiths alive or dead? Gandalf says early on that they were once men who were given rings by Sauron, and so `ensnared … Long ago they fell under the dominion of the one [Ring], and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants’.

Much later, in `The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’, we learn that the Lord of the Nazgul, the chief Ringwraith, was once the sorcerer-king of Angmar, a realm overthrown more than a thousand years in the past. He ought, then, to be dead, but is clearly alive in some way or other, and so positioned neatly between the two meanings given by the OED. As for being material or immaterial, he is in a way insubstantial, for when he throws back his hood, there is nothing there. Yet there must be something there, for `he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set’. He and his fellows can furthermore act physically, carrying steel swords, riding horses or winged reptiles, the Lord of the Nazgul wielding a mace.

But they cannot be harmed physically, by flood or weapon — except by the blade of Westernesse taken from the barrow-wight’s mound, wound round with spells for the defeat of Angmar. It is the spells that cleave `the undead flesh’, not the blade itself. So the Ringwraiths are just like mist or smoke, both physical, even dangerous and choking, but at the same time effectively intangible.

All this is highly original. But the important question is, how far is it recognizable, even psychologically plausible? And here the answer returns us very firmly to the twentieth century. Tolkien did not perhaps develop his image of the Ringwraiths very quickly, for as has been said above, the Black Riders to begin with make relatively little impact. In `The Council of Elrond’, though, Boromir gives them what is to be one of their leading characteristics, the ability to create panic: wherever the `great black horseman’ came, `a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our bravest’.

This is increasingly what the wraiths do from the time the Fellowship emerges from Lothlorien. When they pass overhead, over Sam and Frodo, over the Riders, over Gondor, we have some combination of the same elements: shadow, cry, freezing of the blood, fear. The moment when Pippin and Beregond hear the Black Riders and see them swoop on Faramir in `The Siege of Gondor’, V/4, is typical:

Suddenly as they talked they were stricken dumb, frozen as it were to listening stones. Pippin cowered down with his hands pressed to his ears; but Beregond … remained there, stiffened, staring out with starting eyes. Pippin knew the shuddering cry that he had heard: it was the same that he had heard long ago in the Marish of the Shire, but now it was grown in power and hatred, piercing the heart with a poisonous despair.

The last phrase is a critical one. The Ringwraiths work for the most part not physically but psychologically, paralysing the will, disarming all resistance. This may have something to do with the process of becoming a wraith yourself. That can happen as a result of a force from outside. As Gandalf points out, explaining the Morgul-knife, if the splinter had not been cut out, `you would have become a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord’. But more usually the suspicion is that people make themselves into wraiths. They accept the gifts of Sauron, quite likely with the intention of using them for some purpose which they identify as good. But then they start to cut corners, to eliminate opponents, to believe in some `cause’ which justifies everything they do.

In the end the `cause’, or the habits they have acquired while working for the `cause’, destroys any moral sense and even any remaining humanity. The spectacle of the person `eaten up inside’ by devotion to some abstraction has been so familiar throughout the twentieth century as to make the idea of the wraith, and the wraithing-process, horribly recognizable, in a way non-fantastic.

The realism of this image of evil is increased by the examples we have of people on their way to becoming wraiths themselves. We have just the start of this, enough to be ominous, in the cases of Bilbo and Frodo, and the others mentioned above. Gollum is much further along the road, though in The Lord of the Rings Gollum, detached from the Ring many years before, is possibly beginning to recover, as is shown by the fact that he has started to call himself by his old name, Smeagol, the name he had when he used to be a hobbit, and is also occasionally and significantly able to say `I’. There is a striking dialogue between what one might call his hobbit-personality (Smeagol) and his Ring-personality (Gollum, `my precious’) in `The Passage of the Marshes’, which makes the point that the two are at least connected: one can imagine the one developing out of the other, pure evil growing out of mere ordinary human weakness and selfishness.

However, the best example of ‘wraithing’ in The Lord of the Rings must be Saruman. As was pointed out earlier, his language and behavior are the most contemporary of any in `The Council of Elrond’, or indeed in the whole work. Saruman’s goals are knowledge (no one can object to that); organization in the service of knowledge (there are certainly many researchers, and far more administrators, who see this as desirable); but finally control. In the pursuit of control Saruman is prepared to co-operate with forces he knows perfectly well are evil, but which he thinks he can use for his own much more admirable purposes, and later suppress or discard. The failure of beliefs like this is all too familiar from war after war, and alliance after alliance, during the past century. Moreover Saruman’s main advantage, we learn in `The Voice of Saruman’ (III/10) is indeed his voice:

Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast…

Different people will have different real-life experiences to match this too, but it is again a common experience in the world of the twentieth century to find oneself enmeshed in some professional jargon, whether it is that of Vietnam generals with their body-counts or of literary theorists with their différances and ratures, and to be unable to break free of it, or to shake off the assumptions it tacitly embodies; the experience goes further back than either of the examples just cited, as one can tell from Orwell’s repeated criticisms of early twentieth-century military and political language. Saruman is becoming a wraith, then, partly by merging himself with his own cause, discarding any sense of means in pursuit of some increasingly impossible end, and partly by the self-deceptions of language. He too becomes physically a wraith in the end, for when Wormtongue cuts his throat, the wraith rises from him:

about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.

The body that is left once the `mist’ and the `smoke’ have departed seems in fact to have died many years before, becoming only `rags of skin upon a hideous skull’. There was still some humanity in Saruman — the figure which wavers, looking towards the West, is perhaps hoping for some forgiveness from the Valar, as the dissolving sigh perhaps indicates some sort of grief or repentance — but it had been steadily eaten up.

By what? C.S. Lewis might have replied, by nothing. One of the striking and convincing assertions made by his imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude. At the end of number XII of The Screwtape Letters Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One `without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them … or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish.

Sinners of this kind, of course, hate all those who appear to have `got a life’, in the revealing modern idiom; it is essential that they persuade others to join them in their dreariness and despair. And so we have the many modern literary images of evildoers as above all `hollow’ (T.S. Eliot wrote a poem called `The Hollow Men’); of evil as essentially pointless or bureaucratic (see Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or Heller’s Catch-22); of the power of language to conceal unmistakable evil (the inhabitants of Le Guin’s Omelas, most of them, talking themselves out of what they have seen with their own eyes); of something dreadful underneath the routines of daily life, as in Conrad’s prosaic Marlow coming upon the `heart of darkness’ and Kurtz’s never-explained `The horror, the horror’.

No one ever wrote anything like that in the Middle Ages. Tolkien may have taken his word `wraith’ from the sixteenth century and Gavin Douglas, but the concept of the Ring-wraiths themselves, and the hints as to how you get to be one, are responses to something found in his own, and our, life-experience. That is what has given them, not their literary originality, but their dreadful conviction.


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