Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 7

The preceding post in this series noted a couple of early observations by Tolkien’s readers as to his Augustinian conviction that evil is a privation of being and is therefore in itself nothing. According to Tom Shippey, however, it is precisely its reduction of evil to a sheer nothingness and therefore (in his view) to an almost illusory status that makes the Augustinian theory of evil ultimately inadequate as an account of everything Tolkien has to say on the subject. Thus, despite Tolkien’s clear disavowal of the existence of an “absolute evil,” Shippey has forcefully argued that Tolkien also presents in his fiction an ambiguous, even contradictory vision of evil, one that holds in deliberate tension, on the one hand, an Augustinian or “Boethian” monism, wherein evil is reduced to a form of relative non-being, and on the other hand a “Manichaean” dualism, according to which evil is more than non-being, but a positive, ontological force in its own right, coequal and equipotent with the good. Shippey argues that this complex portrayal of evil was the fruit of Tolkien’s attempt, like that of many of his fellow authors of the twentieth century,

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)…. [T]his “something” is connected with the distinctively twentieth-century experience of industrial war and impersonal, industrialized massacre… an unshakable conviction of something wrong, something irreducibly evil in the nature of humanity, but without any very satisfactory explanation for it. … 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.[1]

According to Shippey, Tolkien achieves this balance of novelty and traditionalism by setting up a “running ambivalence” throughout his legendarium that is “at once orthodox and questioning to the whole problem of the existence and source of evil…”[2] As evidence of Tolkien’s more Boethian instincts, Shippey cites Frodo’s remark to Sam in The Two Towers that evil cannot create or even make “new things of its own,” and even more discerningly, the Orc Gorbag’s statement in the same chapter that abandoning one’s friends was a “regular elvish trick,” a statement implying the recognition of an absolute, overarching moral order.[3] On the other hand, Shippey sees a latent dualism or “Manichaeism” in certain aspects of Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. Whereas on the Boethian view, as Shippey interprets it, evil is primarily “internal, caused by human sin and weakness and alienation from God,” in his more Manichaean moments Tolkien represents evil as an objective, “external” force. Two examples Shippey notes are Tolkien’s depiction of, first, the Ring as a thing evil in and of itself, and second, those moments in the story when Frodo’s will feels the Ring beating down upon him as a force coming from without, as in the climactic Sammath Naur scene toward the end of The Return of the King. In representing evil as having a certain ontological independence, Shippey summarizes, Tolkien’s intention is not so much to flirt with heresy as it is to express an empirical fact about the universe and human experience, a fact Shippey believes to be unaccounted for in a one-sidedly Boethian perspective on evil.[4]


[1] Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 120-1.

[2] Ibid., 130.

[3] Ibid., 131-3.

[4] Ibid., 141. Shippey’s argument concerning Tolkien’s ambivalence towards the traditional, Augustinian privation theory of evil parallels the more general critique a number of recent philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Jean Luc Nancy have made of the privation theory in light of the “radical evil” of the twentieth century. For an overview and response to this critique defending privation theory, see John Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence.”

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2 thoughts on “Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

  1. My feeling is that these arguments work at different levels.

    The striking thing about LotR is the clear and compelling depiction of Unseen Warfare, the conflict of Good (the One God and his Angels and servants) and evil (Satan/ Morgoth and his demons and slaves).

    But this is, at a higher and more abstract level of analysis, perfectly compatible with the Boethian/ Augustinian view of evil as privation of Good; since the triumph of evil always leaves a residue of Good until there is utter extinction with the suicide of Satan/ Morgoth, presumably (which might follow destruction of all created things, but would not prevent another creation).

    So proximate evil as we experience it is a personified force directed again God (and the Good), yet at the highest level evil is necessarily subordinate to the creator God.

  2. Pingback: Other dualistic readings of Tolkien | The Flame Imperishable

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