Gollum and Frodo, the Suicide and the Martyr

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 47

It’s possible that his link between suicide and world-annihilation is also behind an early, alternative climax Tolkien envisioned to The Lord of the Rings, in which Gollum, rather than falling accidentally into the fires of Mount Doom with the Ring (as the final, published version has it), instead “commits suicide” by leaping into the fires with the Ring of his own accord, but not before pronouncing to Frodo that, in doing so, “I will destroy you all” (Sauron Defeated 5). Gollum’s statement may merely be referring to the eventuality that, in destroying the Ring along with himself, he would also succeed in killing Frodo and Sam in the conflagration to follow. However, it’s not at all obvious that Gollum could or would have known that the destruction of the Ring would result in such a cataclysm. Another, more tantalizing possibility, accordingly, is that Gollum’s declaration has a more symbolic (though for him, very real) force. Throughout the passage, it is worth noting, Tolkien emphasizes the state of Gollum’s “wretchedness” (he mentions it twice), and it is perhaps significant that, although Frodo and Sam are the only other individuals present, Gollum does not say “I will destroy you both,” but “I will destroy you all.” If Gollum, therefore, in this alternative ending saw his own death as a kind of ritual world-annihilation, together he and Frodo, who by contrast saw his own likely death as the means for saving the world, together rather precisely embody the radical metaphysical difference that Chesterton draws between the martyr and the suicide in Orthodoxy (a work that Tolkien was familiar with). As Chesterton puts it:

a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. (Orthodoxy 78-9)

And linking Chesterton’s view of suicide back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation, in a manner no less applicable to Tolkien, Mark Knight writes that “the unique threat of suicide lies in the way that it inverts the act of Creation through an individual’s choice to undo that act” (Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Self-annihilation is an act of resentment towards the fact that God alone gives and ultimately controls being.

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Aquinas and Chesterton at the Inklings

Another significant means by which Thomas’s influence may have impressed itself on Tolkien was by those same, allusive avenues through which so many of Tolkien’s other influences were mediated to him. To quote Peter Candler,

One can only, again, speculate on the influence of a figure like Aquinas on someone like Tolkien, but in any case there is no doubt that some kind of mediated Thomism was certainly in the air Tolkien breathed—delivered, perhaps, through the pipe-bowl.  Perhaps the metaphor is apt—Tolkien’s extra-philological influences seem to have been, so to speak, tobacco- or ale-mediated through the conversations in pubs, drawing-rooms, college quarters (not to mention letters) which were so formative on his imagination.[1]

The most well-known of these intellectual gatherings of Tolkien’s was, of course, the Inklings, the informal literary and philosophical group formed around Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. It was in this venue that Tolkien, over the years, had the opportunity to read significant portions of his Middle-earth corpus, and whose membership at times included the likes of Gervase Matthews, a Catholic priest from Blackfriars, the Oxford house of the Dominicans (St. Thomas’s order).[2] Probably the Thomist whose influence was most present at these Inkling gatherings, however, even if his person was not, was G.K. Chesterton. The thought and imagination of both Tolkien and Lewis were much indebted to Chesterton, and Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which explains many of the literary principles behind his own fiction, owes much in particular to the philosophical outlook articulated by Chesterton in “The Ethics of Elfland,” the third chapter of Orthodoxy, an apologetic work that Alison Milbank has demonstrated Tolkien to have read.[3] Whether Tolkien went on to read Chesterton’s later biography of Thomas is unknown, yet the common metaphysical emphases expressed by these two men are too striking to be wholly coincidental. Chesterton’s study of St. Thomas focuses on three main metaphysical theses of the angelic doctor: the goodness of creation contra the doctrine of the Manichees, his philosophical realism, and the primacy of the doctrine of being,[4] all three of which have and a central importance in the literature of Tolkien.


[1] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche,” 8.

[2] Caprenter, Inklings, 186. Matthews even seems to make an appearance in Tolkien’s time-travel story and “apocryphal imitation of the Inklings’ Saga Book,” “The Notion Club Papers,” in the character of Dom Jonathan Markison, whose “polymathy” is described as extending “to some very recondite knowledge of Germanic origins” (SD 149, 151). (Matthews, by comparison, was an expert on Byzantine history.)

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, x.

[4] Dennehy, “Introduction” to Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works, vol. 2, 414-17.

Being, the source and soil of Myth and Faerie

One place where Tolkien makes explicit the metaphysical foundation of myth and fairy-story is his unfinished and little-known time-travel fantasy, The Notion Club Papers, in which an allusion is made to a broadly Aristotelian and hierarchical understanding of reality and hence of the different sciences responsible for studying that reality. When one character asks what is the source or soil of “ancient accounts, legends, myths, about the far Past, about the origins of kings, laws, and the fundamental crafts” if these accounts are to be something more than “wholly inventions” or “mere fiction,” another character gives the following, sober reply: “In Being, I think I should say… and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and in the designs of Geography—I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance” (Sauron Defeated 227).[1] Again, mythology has its roots in the fertile soil of metaphysics, in a certain intuition of the being of things, and the same certainly holds true of Tolkien’s own mythology. As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has observed, from one vantage point the whole of Tolkien’s Silmarillion represents an “exploration of the implications and ramifications of the one word ,” the Elvish word meaning either the indicative “It is” or the imperative “Let it be,” the word Ilúvatar the Creator speaks when he at last brings the physical world into being.[2] To the question, then, as to the relevance of metaphysics to Tolkien’s mythology, we may say that mythology is concerned with reality, and the question of reality for Tolkien is in its turn a question of being, of what exists and how it exists.


[1] Tolkien alludes to this same hierarchy or “scale” of being and its “patterns” of being in a letter to Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher Rayner, answering Camilla’s question as to the purpose of life: “As for ‘other things’ their value resides in themselves: they ARE, they would exist even if we did not… If we go up the scale of being to ‘other living things’, such as, say, some small plant, it presents shape and organization: a ‘pattern’ recognizable (with variation) in its kin and offspring… And since recognizable ‘pattern’ suggests design, [human curiosity] may proceed to WHY? But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND” (L 399).

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 59.

Metafiction and Tolkien’s “Mythology for England”

Flieger, Verlyn. “Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga.” Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 43-68. An examination of Tolkien’s use of the metafictional device (similar to, but not quite as successful as Vladimir Brljak’s article), focusing on Tolkien’s goal of writing a “mythology for England.” Argues that Tolkien opted to assimilate his early, “Eriol/Aelfwine the Mariner” framework device within the later “inherited memory” method of time travel found in The Notion Club Papers (the “Atlantis story”). This would have the effect of connecting England with the legendarium not only geographically and historically but also psychologically through a kind of collective consciousness and memory. (For a further discussion of Tolkien’s idea of inherited memory, see Flieger, “The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow.”)

Reincarnation, Inherited Memory, and the Merry’s Dream at the Barrow

Flieger, Verlyn. “The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow: Memory and Reincarnation in Middle-earth.” Tolkien Studies 4 (2007): 99-112. Correlates Tolkien’s ideas of Elvish reincarnation and his later time-travel mechanism of inherited memory (most developed in The Notion Club Papers found in vol. 9 of The History of Middle-earth, Sauron Defeated), and argues that the latter in particular is behind Merry’s “dream” of being attacked and killed by the men of Carn Dum.