Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37

In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.

It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.

Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.

5 thoughts on “Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

  1. While I agree it’s probably true that all philosophical frameworks, in the Western mind, are mere footnotes to Plato and Aristotle and, as for the discussion of Evil, Manichaeism & Augustinianism, Tolkien is not as comprehenable (under the lens of philosophical treatments of evil) because he is far more comprehensive in his representations of the nature of evil. Throughout his work, I detect an almost “Druidic vibe” that works more like pan-european or neo-animistic ideas about blessed and cursed objects, amulets, etc. When addressing the literary text itself, I sense that Tolkien wanted to embody all philosophical antecedents within the text itself–to create a new world and, like Adam, not only name all the animals but name the spiritual realities. The New Criticism’s strong influence, at the time, would have insisted strongly that all that which can be understood as having been communicated by a text must be found within the text itself.

    The Ring’s ability to corrupt, because it’s evil (as the Druids would have perceived it) has an objective-correlative in the laws by which the human psyche operates: The Ring is the “will to power” in the most contemporary and Nietzschian sense and, if power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, the will-to-power may be seen in the same light–especially in its embodiments in the macrocosm of contemporary 20th Century history. I do not think the Manichaeism line of reasoning holds up, when washed through Tolkien’s text. There are flashes of Manichaeian insight, if you want to call it that, but too many detours from the purely philosophical line of reasoning. However, my sense is Tolkein’s text is constructed to be a source-text for any discussion about evil that is written, content-wise & stylistically, in order to give the sense it pre-dates the foundations of Western Philosophy. As we know, Tolkein is all about the ‘resonance of words’ opening up vast caverns of meaning in the subterranean collective unconscious of humanity. I think the strictures of philosophical systems are really somewhat at odds with the mind of a Philologist. One might say: “Why write the Lord of the Rings as a “revealing of the nature of evil”, if we already know the answer from the Manichaens and Augustinians?” Many literary purists would say that a great body of literary work can be a source of revelation on most questions that goes way beyond philosophy–and must, for it to be true.

    • Thanks for the response, Mike. I agree that Tolkien’s treatment of evil (or his treatment of anything, for that matter) mustn’t and in fact can’t be reduced to the merely philosophical. I’m fond of Tolkien’s statement in one of his letters, for example, that the Light of Valinor represents the light of art “undivorced” from reason, and so embodies the kind of perception that sees things both sub-creatively/imaginatively/mythopoetically and philosophically/scientifically. As I’ve put it elsewhere, Tolkien is trying to get behind and overcome the opposition of mythos and logos. Yet the logos (philosophical rationality) of his work is still there. Thus, my point would not be that everything Tolkien says about evil was already said, say, by Augustine, but rather that what he says is at least compatible with Augustine, and belongs philosophically (so far as that goes) within that tradition, even if he also goes beyond it.

      What you say about Tolkien’s treatment of objects as being Druidic is interesting. I do think there is a pagan aspect to many elements of his story, yet in the final analysis his isn’t a superstitious but a clearly moral and causal universe: things are always evil because of their associations with, and hence representations of, evil agents, wills, and intentions. Sauron’s Ring is a case in point: it represents the will-to-power because that is the philosophy Sauron lives by, and yet if one could presumably “exorcise” the spirit of Sauron out of the Ring, the gold, for example, might be put to use for an otherwise noble purpose. Indeed, judging from “Morgoth’s Ring,” something like this cosmic exorcism is precisely what the eschatology of Middle-earth has in store.
      Thanks again.

  2. Dr. McIntosh, you might be interested in the final essay (by Ralph C. Wood) in Tree of Tales ( Wood tackles Shippey’s claim and argues that Tolkien is actually more Augustinian.

    Thanks for your work on your blog. I just came across it while working on a graduate paper focusing on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” I just started working on a PhD in English (Religion and Literature) at Baylor.

    BTW, we met at the 2011 Wordsmithy. I suggested some mp3s by Alister McGrath (

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