Rejoinders to Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 9

While many readers have been convinced by Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien, others have not found his thesis persuasive. Theologian Colin Gunton, for example, writes that he finds “somewhat more consistent a theology of evil in The Lord of the Rings than does Shippey,” whom Gunton faults for making “the mistake of drawing too absolute a distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘objective evil.”[1] Scott Davison has similarly repudiated Shippey’s thesis in favor of a consistently anti-Manichaean and Augustinian reading of Tolkienian evil according to which, in Davison’s words, “the more evil something is, the more nearly it approaches nothingness.”[2] John Houghton and Neal Keesee have taken a slightly different approach, arguing that the alleged tensions and ambiguities identified by Shippey in Tolkien’s account of evil are in fact already present in Neoplatonism, thus rendering Shippey’s Manichaean thesis otiose. Although Houghton and Keesee do not discuss the aforementioned, almost Gnostic dualism of Plato’s and Plotinus’s views of matter as an eternal and even necessary source of evil, they do note that the Platonic tradition recognizes that evil

can nonetheless be both internal temptation and real external threat, leaving the evildoer both dead and alive, corrupted to the point of intangibility and yet truly dangerous, something to be both pitied for what it has lost and fought for what it is…. From Plato on, those who defend the position that Evil is nothing make consciously paradoxical, openly counter-intuitive, statements… The Neo-Platonic tradition, then, would teach us to see evil synoptically, if paradoxically…[3]

As for the climactic Sammath Naur scene at the end of The Return of the King discussed by Shippey, Houghton and Keesee show how Tolkien’s own interpretation of the scene in light of the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”) belongs squarely within the tradition of Christian-Neoplatonic exegesis of this passage represented by St. Augustine and St. Thomas.[4] Houghton and Keesee conclude their study by affirming with Shippey that Tolkien does indeed offer “a complex and nuanced assessment of the nature of evil,” yet they object that “this view is not a departure from Boethius; it is consistently paradoxical rather than ambiguous or contradictory. Rooted firmly in the Neo-Platonic tradition, Tolkien… perceives evil’s true nature: nothing, yet paradoxically powerful.”[5]

[1] Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” 140n6.

[2] Davison, “Tolkien and the Nature of Evil,” 102.

[3] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 134-138.

[4] “On Shippey’s analysis, the [Sammath Naur] scene showcases the contradiction between evil as internal temptation (and so ‘Boethian’) and evil as external force (and so ‘Manichaean’)…. In this context, [Shippey] reports, from a 1955 letter to Douglas Masson, Tolkien’s connection of Frodo at the Sammath Naur with the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer … [C]onceding that the petitions might merely reinforce each other, [Shippey] proposes that they are more likely to frame a contrast, ‘the first asking God to keep us safe from ourselves (the Boethian source of sin), the second asking for protection from outside (the source of evil in a Manichaean universe)’. But would Tolkien have understood temptation in quite this way, or had precisely this contrast in mind?… Neo-Platonist theologians of the sort we might think Tolkien likely to have followed put forward other interpretations. Augustine, for example, discusses these two petitions in several places, while Aquinas… follows Augustine when he discusses the Lord’s Prayer in the Summa. These doctors do not see temptation as interiorized, for on their understanding temptation can come from God or from Satan: if the interior conflict were all that counted, there would be no point in insisting on the distinction between the exterior elements. In Sermon 57, Augustine tells those who are about to be baptized that even after they have been baptized, they will face an internal struggle, a battle against their own lusts; if those lusts are conquered, the Tempter will find no opportunity for his evil work. Thus far, Augustine supports interiorization; but he sandwiches this statement between two comments that the individual capacity to resist depends upon God’s aid, and that without that exterior support, Satan ‘finds in [the individual] no resistance against his power, but forthwith presents himself to him as his possessor.’ Thus without God’s support the individual seems to be in the ‘Manichaean’ situation, one where the active force of evil needs no internal echo in order to overpower the person. This idea of being abandoned by God is not merely hypothetical. Following St. Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor. 10:13 that God does allow us to be tempted, Augustine and Aquinas insist that ‘lead us not into temptation’ does not mean merely ‘do not tempt us,’ but rather ‘do not allow us to meet with temptations we cannot bear,’ ‘do not abandon us to temptation’, interpretations which assume that God could abandon us… Rather than a complementary division between God’s interior (in saving us from our own weaknesses) and exterior (in defending us from evil forces) work, Augustine and Aquinas see instead the contrast between God’s not abandoning us in the future to evil forces and his liberating us now from the results of the past…. Frodo, at the Sammath Naur, is in fact at precisely the position Augustine and Aquinas describe: tempted to the very point of abandonment, and surrounded by present evil… On this reading, the Sammath Naur episode fits squarely within the Neo-Platonic tradition of biblical exegesis.” Ibid., 148-151.

[5] Ibid., 151. 

2 thoughts on “Rejoinders to Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

  1. One of the things that I find is very valuable about Shippey’s approach is that he shows how Tolkien’s work in a number of ways responds to some particular twentieth century evils: here in particular the great ‘advances’ in Man’s ability to hurt his fellow Man such as the mechanised warfare of the Great War (which probably influenced the development of Tolkien’s ideas about ‘the Machine’ very heavily).

    As I understand Tolkien’s writings (in particular his letters), there is a direct line between ‘the Machine’ understood as the ability of Man to make his will effective in the real world, and both the evil and the attraction of power.

    I am not particularly well-read in terms of philosophy, and so I do not know to what extent Tolkien’s approach is particular to him, nor how is views fit with the views of other philosophers, whether ancient or modern, but as I read Tolkien’s work, the significant point about the Master Ring is it’s ability to tempt those around it — you only have to know about it to be tempted by its ‘lure to power’ (Saruman), and it seems to require a constant exertion of willpower to reject this temptation (particularly if the Ring is within reach). I don’t think that Shippey’s discussion is particularly successful in explaining this relationship — the corrupting power, as I read it, comes from within the person being tempted, but it does seem that the Ring has some power for temptation (though one that does need some internal response as can be seen in Tom Bombadil).

    Tolkien, in my view, created an excellent investigation of the temptation of evil with power, and while I certainly haven’t read everything that has been written on the subject, I have yet to come across a critical explanation of this that puts it convincingly into a formal philosophical framework.

    I am not really sure what I am aiming at here — possibly I just ought to stay silent ;) I suppose you might say that I am trying to sort out my own thoughts prior to reading yours, and I guess I am also hoping that you will eventually address the issues that I raise :-)

    • Thanks again for the comments, Troelsfo. I think I would like to see what you are looking for as well, but alas, I doubt my own treatment of evil in Tolkien’s writing will scratch this particular itch. As important and, indeed, perhaps primary as an ethical and psychological discussion of Tolkien’s treatment of evil is, as you have perhaps gathered by now, my approach largely remains at the metaphysical level, which has its admitted limitations. I think I have a cogent answer to Shippey’s charge of Manichaeism (which at the same time acknowledges some of the complexities Shippey points out), but it remains to be seen how far this might go in addressing the more practical and personal aspects (i.e., “temptations”) of evil.

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