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.