Sauron the Manichee

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 36

The connection between modern mind-body dualism and the Platonic and Tolkienian theme of invisibility drawn by Levinas and Eaglestone brings us to the second point I wish to make about Sauron’s Ring, which is that it is precisely one’s material or physical appearance which is suppressed in wearing the Ring, a point leading Alison Milbank to suggest a certain Manichaeism behind the domination of Sauron and Melkor. They are Manichaean “not just because they wish to claim equal if not superior power for evil, but because they denigrate the material and physical world and ‘save’ their subjects from it. The Nazgûl, for example, have lost bodily form as a result of their subjection to the power of Sauron, while he himself is reduced to a single eye” (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, 80). On the other hand, Milbank also notes a tendency in Tolkien to attribute physical imperfections to his evil characters, something she sees, however, as the result not of a Manichaean but of a peculiarly Thomistic influence: “It is because Tolkien has an Augustinian attitude to evil as a privation—and not a positive force in itself—and a Thomist understanding of evil is a deficiency in being, which he shares with Chesterton, that he presents his evil human characters as physically warped and grotesque in the manner of medieval devils, who were represented in ugly and hybrid forms with bestial characteristics. Since human embodiment is a positive thing in itself, evil must be a warping of that nature” (71).

It is also possible that Tolkien himself meant to allude to the presence of a kind of Manichaean impulse behind the Rings of Power when he describes their power as a capacity to render “invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible” (Letters 152). As Milbank further observes, although The Lord of the Rings is almost entirely devoid of religious practice, in the tragic history of the Númenóreans recorded in the Silmarillion we see the Manichaeism of Sauron and Melkor actually established as a formal religion (Milbank 80). Brad Birzer has similarly observed that it is a “Gnostic interpretation and reading of what was left of traditional Númenórean theology” that Sauron gives when he seduces the Númenóreans into worshipping Melkor instead of Eru:

Ilúvatar was the false god, the “God of Darkness,” said the dark prophet and priest Sauron. Melkor was the true god, the “Giver of Freedom” to men. “The wretched soul has strayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders without a way out,” ancient Gnostic writings teach, “it seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out.” In Tolkien’s mythology, Sauron presents himself as the Gnostic savior, urging the Númenóreans away from the labyrinth of Ilúvatar’s time and space and toward the “true god” Melkor. (Birzer, Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 98)

Whether or not Sauron was able to convince himself of this great delusion, the salient point is that he found–or at least believed–the promulgation of this false doctrine to be an effective means for corrupting Elves and Men. Thus Tolkien writes in one commentary of Sauron and his master Melkor how their “cunning motive is probably best expressed thus. To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it” (Morgoth’s Ring 398).


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