More dualistic readings of Tolkien on evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 8

Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien on evil has met both criticism and approval from Tolkien’s readers. Hayden Head, for example, in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien’s ponerology, cites sympathetically Shippey’s claim that “evil for Tolkien is both an absence and a presence; theologically speaking, evil is both Boethian and Manichaean.”[1] Lee Oser likewise follows in Shippey’s train when he pits Tolkien’s allegedly dualistic account of evil against the Augustinianism of St. Thomas:

There are grounds to suggest that Tolkien, like C.S. Lewis, had a strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism. Lewis found evidence for dualism in the New Testament. He recognized the danger of Manichaenism and, while stopping short of heresy, conceded ambiguity. The same kind of metaphysical problem exists in The Lord of the Rings… What is peculiarly modern in Tolkien’s intuition of evil is how he differs from Aquinas with regard to the orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist. He is closer to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, and to Yeats, all of whom recognize a creative element in the conflict of psychological drives or, as Nietzsche called them, “inspiring spirits.”[2]

Similarly, Verlyn Flieger, although not dealing directly with Shippey’s Manichaean-Boethian thesis, nevertheless agrees with Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter that Tolkien was a “man of antitheses.” Whereas Shippey, however, contextualizes Tolkien’s complex account of evil in terms of his attempt to represent the ambiguities of modern forms of evil, Flieger traces it to significant aspects and events in Tolkien’s own personality and experience, especially the death of his mother when he was still a young boy. Speaking of the tension “between belief and doubt” she finds in Tolkien’s writings, Flieger writes:

They are emblematic of the poles of his emotional life. Even more, they are the boundary markers of his worlds—both the world he perceived around him and the world he created in his fiction. No careful reader of Tolkien’s fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and tension. His work is built on contrasts—between hope and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and ignorance—and these contrasts are embodied in the polarities of light and dark that are the creative outgrowth of his contrary moods, the “antitheses” of his nature. Carpenter describes him as a man of extreme contrasts, one who was “never moderate: love, intellectual enthusiasm, distaste, anger, self-doubt, guilt, laughter, each was in his mind exclusively and in full force when he experienced it.”[3]

One place where Flieger particularly finds the “extreme contrast” of Tolkien’s temperament on display is in the conflicting pessimism and optimism of his two famous essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-Stories,” the one representing the tragic spirit of “dyscatastrophe” at one end of Tolkien’s emotional spectrum, the other a spirit of hope and joy or “eucatastrophe” at the other end. Together the two essays are “devoted to exploration of dark and light, and to affirmation of both.”[4]


[1] Head, “Imitative Desire,” 145.

[2] Oser, “Enter Reason and Nature,” 118-19.

[3] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 129.

[4] “Although one speaks movingly of man’s defeat by ‘the offspring of the dark’ and the other celebrates ‘the joy of deliverance,’ each essay acknowledges that both light and dark are elements held in interdependent tension. The darkness that is the focus of the first passage needs the ‘little circle of light’ to give it meaning; the ‘Joy’ of the second passage is consoling only in light of the possibility of sorrow…. In the Beowulf essay dark heavily outweighs light; heroes go from the circle of light into the surrounding dark and down to final defeat. In the fairy-story essay, light is victorious and joy triumphs over sorrow.” Ibid., 12-13.

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2 thoughts on “More dualistic readings of Tolkien on evil

  1. I think that the Christian position is that evil is ultimately an absence of Good, but at the same time evil is ALSO a force powerful enough in this world to create the illusion of dualism. Christianity is a synthesis of both views.

    Christi pax.

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