Some early observations on Tolkien’s Augustinian doctrine of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 6

As John Houghton and Neal Keesee have documented, Tolkien’s readers realized early on that his portrayal of evil in The Lord of the Rings belongs to a wider and older philosophical tradition. Rose Zimbardo remarked in 1969, for example, that, “[a]s in St. Augustine’s, so in Tolkien’s vision, nothing is created evil. Evil is good that has been perverted,”[1] and Clyde Kilby’s made the observation in 1970 that, in regard to Tolkien’s work, “we can mention the inability of evil to create anything but only to mock… Philosophers and theologians have often noted the inessentiality of evil.”[2] To this early consensus concerning the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s ponerology we may also add the following testimony of Paul Kocher, who wrote in 1972:

Some of Thomas’ less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings… Literally and figuratively, light is exchanged for darkness. Sauron’s every change is a deterioration from those good and healthy norms which he began. Aquinas would call them all losses of Being. Evil is not a thing in itself but a lessening of the Being inherent in the created order… [T]he losses cry out for ontological interpretation…. Over and over Tolkien’s own words connect Sauron and his servants with a nothingness that is the philosophical opposite of Being.[3]

For Tolkien as for Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas, evil is non-being, which is to say, it is nothing.

[1] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord of the Rings,” 131, citing Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings,” 73.

[2] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 151n1, citing John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Charles Williams (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), 138.

[3] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 77-9.

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