Morgoth’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 43

The idea that Melkor had “disseminated” part of his own, evil self into the very material being of the Earth is a peculiar one and may again seem to lend support to Tom Shippey’s identification of a Manichaean-dualistic strain in Tolkien’s thought. While there are a number of different levels at which Tolkien’s notion of Morgoth’s Ring might be evaluated, for the present we may simply note Tolkien’s emphatic denial, and in overt contradiction with one of the central tenets of Manichaean thought, that matter in his fiction is by any means inherently evil. On the contrary, in good Augustinian fashion Tolkien writes: “‘Matter’ is not regarded as evil or opposed to ‘Spirit’. Matter was wholly good in origin. It remained a ‘creature of Eru’ and still largely good, and indeed self-healing, when not interfered with: that is, when the latent evil intruded by Melkor was not deliberately roused and used by evil minds” (Morgoth’s Ring 344). One statement Tolkien would appear to be making through his concept of Morgoth’s Ring, accordingly, is that if material being should at least seem to have an inherent tendency towards evil, as per the Manichaean explanation, this tendency is in fact not inherent in matter at all, but is adventitious, the result of a Fall of which all creation, and not just its free, spiritual or moral beings, has partaken. If so, then the dualism we find in Tolkien might perhaps best be compared with the “provisional dualism” David Bentley Hart has suggested is to be found in the New Testament: matter “stained” by a “Melkor ingredient” would be comparable to the stoicheia the Apostle Paul speaks of (Gal. 4:3), the “rudimentary elements” of an otherwise good world subject for a time to futility, groaning for its redemption, and awaiting the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19-23)—a world, that is, (and as Tolkien put it in his letter to his son Christopher), in which “evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain…” (Letters 76). The Morgoth’s Ring concept, accordingly, might be viewed as a concession to the appearance of a kind of Manichaean dualism on the one hand while at the same time attempting to give an orthodox cause or explanation of the reality behind this appearance, much as Tolkien, as I have argued previously, affirms an “apparent Anankê” of “nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death,” all the while positing the existence of an absolute divine providence working behind this “apparent Anankê” and governing all things towards their own higher, “eucatastrophic” purpose. I’ll want to come back to this idea in a future post.

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