From Creation to Annihilation: the beginning and end of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 15

The previous post concluded by noting the relentless consistency with which Tolkien juxtaposes each created species in his fictional world with its corrupted counterpart. My present purpose, however, is not to take stock of all the ways in which each of the race of rational beings in Tolkien’s mythical world can or might fail to fulfill their nature. Instead, I want to draw attention to five classes or kinds of evil that are implicitly or explicitly distinguished by Tolkien in his fiction, five classes that at once stratify or diversify evil according to a scale of sorts while at the same time unifying his presentation of evil around a common theme. The first class or manifestation of evil, first both in terms of the order of Tolkien’s narrative but also in terms of it being implicit (or so I shall argue) in every instance of evil, centers on the theme of creation. I speak here of the case of a creature’s illicit and, as Thomas puts it, “unnatural” aspiration for what is really the Creator’s own exclusive power to create, that is, to bring things into being. The second motive in Tolkien’s “hierarchy” of evil involves the corruption of the creature’s legitimate or natural powers of sub-creation. Third, an important subdivision of this sub-creative “evil” in Tolkien’s world concerns the whole issue of preservation, or the keeping of one’s legitimate sub-creations from fading into oblivion, a motive embodied by both the Valar and especially the Elves. Fourth, we will see that the sub-creation/preservation motive corrupts into a new depth of evil which Tolkien identifies under the heading of domination. At this juncture in the argument we may also want to take a moment to consider the metaphysics of Tolkien’s polemic against technology or “the Machine” as one of the key instruments by which domination is exercised. Fifth and finally, even more extreme and desperate in Tolkien’s hierarchy of evil, and yet a topic that (to my knowledge) has hitherto received little attention in discussions of Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, is the flip-side of creation, namely the impulse of annihilation: that is, failing the power to give being, the desire for what (paradoxically) turns out to be the same thing, the power to obliterate it.

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