Aragorn vs. Saruman

Aragorn the Libertarian King: “[O]nly of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and greater fear, and maybe worse.” And a little later: “for I go on a path appointed. But those who follow me do so of their free will; and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be.” (“Passing of the Grey Company”)

Saruman, Keeper of the Common Good: “[O]ur time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” (“Council of Elrond”)

When Gandalf Votes

“So you see, Gandalf, that by not voting for me, you’re really just voting for Sauron.”

I posted a few days ago on the subject of “When Elves Flirt.” This and my previous post might be filed under “When Gandalf Votes.” Here’s another passage from The Lord of the Rings remarkably apropos our current election season. The passage is taken from Gandalf’s speech to the traitor Saruman:

“Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?”

“Folly it May Appear to Those Who Cling to False Hope”: Tolkien’s advice on how to vote

Tis an election year here in the USA, and for my American readers who seem to have missed it, I thought I’d take this moment to point out that, among other things, The Lord of the Rings is a 1000-page, devastating and conclusive refutation of the principle of voting for the lesser of two evils.

‘…That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. `It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak…”

One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.

Wisdom’s Policy of Folly: Thucydides, Paul, and Tolkien

In the Melian dialogue from his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek Historian Thucydides has the Athenian embassy (infamously) declare that the “strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.”

Several hundred years later, the Apostle Paul characterized the gospel of Jesus Christ’s victory over death through his resurrection in very different terms: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1.25).

The central conflict of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings might be fairly described as a conflict between just these two philosophies. As Elrond summarizes the task and hope of the Fellowship, “This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

Saruman the Gollum

Where some critics have faulted Tolkien’s treatment of evil as sentimental and simplistic (Edmund Wilson’s 1956 article “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs” is the classic example), his work has been admired by others precisely for the subtlety and even sympathy with which he treats the darker side of human nature. Sam alone is sufficient refutation of there being any partisan and bigoted “us-vs.-them” prejudices in Tolkien’s fiction, when, in his “first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much,” he has this reflection upon the fallen body of a Southron killed by Faramir’s party: “He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…”

One dimension to Tolkien’s sophisticated portrayal of evil is his presentation of it in both its more grandiose and complex (e.g., Denethor) and in its more loathsome and de-personalized (e.g., the Mouth of Sauron) moments. Some of what I have written before on Fëanor’s heroic nihilism, moreover, might be taken as an exploration of Tolkien’s ability to harness these two extremes within a single character. Another character, I suggest, through whom Tolkien examines at once the noble heights and the pathetic depths of which his villains are capable, is that of Saruman, someone whose greatness we are continually reminded of throughout The Lord of the Rings, and yet in whom we see the pitiful process of “Gollumification” playing itself out from the very beginning.

The passage that first suggested to me a certain resemblance between the high Saruman and the low Gollum occurs in his speech (reported at the Council of Elrond) to Gandalf that the latter would remain a prisoner at Orthanc

“Until you reveal to me where the One may be found. I may find means to persuade you. Or until it is found in your despite, and the Ruler has time to turn to lighter matters: to devise, say, a fitting reward for the hindrance and insolence of Gandalf the Grey.”

    “That may not prove to be one of the lighter matters,” said I. He laughed at me, for my words were empty, and he knew it.

Although it is Saruman’s statement that we are principally interested in here, I include Gandalf’s reply and his diffident admission of its hollowness only to point out the irony the exchange attains in light of later events: dealing with Gandalf, of course, does prove not “to be one of the lighter matters” for the Enemy. In The Two Towers, accordingly, Tolkien will answer this scene with another encounter at Orthanc in which this time it will be Gandalf who will deploy laughter–not the sneering, self-important, cynicism of Saruman, but what Pippin later describes as “a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth–to similarly shatter and deflate the deceptive pretensions of Saruman.

The ultimate smallness of Saruman’s threat to Gandalf, however, is seen not only in what transpires later, for this is not in fact the first time we have heard someone promise to enlist Sauron’s aid to punish his offenders. In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf describes his encounter with Gollum in which the latter “muttered that he was going to get his own back. People would see if he would stand being kicked, and driven into a hole and then robbed. Gollum had good friends now, good friends and very strong.” As petty, sullen, vengeful, and pusilanimous as Gollum’s boast may sound–a mentality Nietzsche acutely diagnosed in his discussion of ressentiment–when stripped of its high rhetoric, it is edifying to observe that this is essentially what much of Saruman’s speech to Gandalf at Isengard reduces to. When Gandalf first arrives at Isengard seeking Saruman’s help, Saruman “scoffingly” addresses him as “Gandalf the Grey,” and the sarcastic, passive aggression of his address is remarkably Gollum-like: “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.” Gandalf says that he “looked at him and wondered,” and well he might have: Saruman is sounding like a learned Gollum.

(to be continued)

Tolkien on evil: the Platonic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 2

“In my story,” Tolkien unequivocally writes in one letter, “I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil” (Letters243). (Perhaps the closest Tolkien comes in his fiction per se to making this kind of claim is Elrond’s statement at the Great Council, in regard to Sauron, that “nothing is evil in the beginning” [FOTR 281].) Similarly, in his letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien contradicts the latter’s claim that anything Sauron made “could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one,” countering instead that in the Creator’s “accepting or tolerating [Sauron’s] making—necessary to their actual existence—even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good” (Letters 195). In passages such as these, Tolkien clearly aligns himself with the classic Augustinian tradition according to which evil “exists” as a privation of being and consequently as a non-entity in and of itself. The Augustinian equation of evil with non-being has its roots in the thought of Plato, whose views on the subject were deeply ambiguous. In the Republic, for example, Socrates makes the claim that “the good is not the cause of everything; rather it is the cause of the things that are in a good way, while it is not responsible for the bad things” (Republic 379b, trans. Bloom), and in the Gorgias Plato almost seems to suggest that evil exists in its own right when he says that things can be either good, bad, or neutral (Gorgias 468c). Part of the difficulty in Plato’s theory of evil, as Leo J. Elders points out, is that while evil may be a privation of the good, “in the Platonic tradition privation is seen as something subsistent and is identified with matter,” though scholars have debated as to whether matter or the soul for Plato is the true cause of evil (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 124). According to Carlos Steel, for example, although Plato’s explanation of evil has dualistic elements, his account is ultimately psychological, yet he leaves unresolved the problem which would occupy later Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, namely how it is that an individual soul which (according to Socrates and Plato) only ever intends good and not evil should nevertheless commit evil out of ignorance or stupidity (Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’ Answer,” 252-4).