Gandalf and Torture

Readers are familiar with the anti-capital punishment sentiment of The Lord of the Rings, most memorably stated in Gandalf’s iconic and programmatic statement to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (Though it is worth noting that, in contrast to “sanctity of life” arguments, Gandalf doesn’t question the possibility of a person deserving capital punishment, only whether there is anyone really qualified to execute such a punishment.)  And Gandalf almost certainly would have been opposed to the use of torture. Yet in his account to Frodo of his encounter with Gollum in the chapter “Shadows of the Past,” Gandalf confesses to having resorted in his impatience to the threat of torture: “I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling.” How Gandalf was able to use the mere “fear of fire” to “wring the true story” out of Gollum, we are not told, and it is possible that what is involved here is a unique, fictional ability possessed by Gandalf and which does not exist in and is therefore not repeatable in the real world. Even so, Gandalf appears to regret his having to make recourse to such measures (compare Augustine’s discussion in City of God 19.6 of the “miserable necessity” with which a magistrate may, Augustine seems to allow, be compelled in some instances to use torture), and it is a remarkable thing that Gandalf should be found availing himself in the end to such methods-of-last-resort in a story that is ultimately about the renunciation of all such pragmatic compromises (viz., under no circumstances is the Ring to be used, even to defeat Sauron himself). Are we to see this, then, as a momentary moral lapse on Gandalf’s part (it wouldn’t be the only instance), or are we perhaps to see Gandalf’s threat of torture as somehow, in some way, morally distinct from the act of torture itself? If the latter, what would the basis of such a distinction be?


7 thoughts on “Gandalf and Torture

  1. Pingback: Gandalf, O.S.A. | The Flame Imperishable

    • Thanks, Bruce, and thanks for the link. Your additional examples of Frodo and Aragorn raise to my mind the question of how we should define torture. Gandalf does *threaten* to inflict pain, which I therefore take as a threat of real torture (I remain seriously doubtful that Gandalf, however, would ever have gone so far as to actually torture Gollum). As for Frodo and Aragorn, it is true that they do inflict a kind of pain or at least discomfort on Gollum, but in Frodo’s case it is accidental/inadvertent, and even Aragorn doesn’t deliberately harm Gollum (as seems to be the case with real torture), but is the regrettable consequence of Gollum’s resistance/obstinance to his captor, and so in some sense might even be said to be self-inflicted. In sum, it seems like torture requires the intentional infliction of pain on a subject for some other purpose (e.g., to extract information, or simply to cause suffering in the victim, etc.), and so the unintentionally causing of pain isn’t therefore torture (otherwise any successful act of self-defense, for example, if it resulted in causing pain in one’s assailant, would be classified as “torture”). Thoughts?

      • Jonathan – Aragorn was deliberately starving and dehydrating Gollum to tame him, which probably counts as a torture. Frodo’s is more clear-cut, I think, because although he did not deliberately inflict pain on Gollum with the elven rope, he refused to remove the rope until Gollum had promised to serve him.

        I don’t regard these examples as morally problematic because, unless torture is regarded as the absolute worst of all possible acts (which for a Christian it cannot be, although for an atheist Liberal it probably is) then there will always be some circumstances when another higher moral principle means that torture becomes permissible.

        In these cases both parties had an alternative. Aragorn or Frodo could have killed Gollum (and would have had to, in order that the mission did not fail) – and (albeit less obviously) Gollum himself could perhaps killed himself (by strangulation with a rope, maybe – while his captors slept); or he could have refused to swear to Frodo or to cooperate with Aragorn such that they would have had to kill him.

        The atheist Liberal answer to this dilemma would probably be to allow the mission to fail, perhaps to allow Gollum to kill you – rather than use torture or execution.

        But the consensus of devout traditional Christians over two millennia would recognize that torture (of this limited and minimal kind) was the least worst option in the circumstances, backed up with execution if it did not work.

      • Good points, but I would have thought that Aragorn was the more “clear-cut” example of torture than Frodo. As you say, with Frodo the pain inflicted is unintentional (“accidental,” as Aquinas or Aristotle would say), and therefore by most definitions would not count as torture (where the pain is purposeful). The purpose in leaving the rope on Gollum is to restrain him, not to burn him. If Frodo had had a non-Elvish rope, he certainly would have used that instead. Frodo thus doesn’t use the pain of the rope as an inducement to make Gollum swear his faithfulness to Frodo; rather, Frodo makes Gollum swear *so that *he can take the restraint off of Gollum and deliver him *from *his pain. It may seem like hair-splitting, but I think morally it is an important difference. As for Aragorn, you are right about him denying Gollum food and drink (I hadn’t sufficiently paid attention to that before), and so may, in that sense, count as “torture.” As Aragorn presumably has Gollum’s own good in mind (Gollum is “tamed”), however, I wonder if it doesn’t approximate something more like “discipline,” as when a parent spanks a child (surely this isn’t “torture”), where the pain involved is not for the benefit of the one inflicting the pain, but for the good of the one receiving it.

      • I accept the correction about Frodo – I hadn’t thought of it, but you are correct that he could not undo the rope and release Gollum without serious danger.

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