Annihilation and suicide

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 46

In the previous post in this series I suggested that, in its final manifestation as annihilation, evil makes a kind of return to its beginning: what began as a creaturely attempt to usurp the Creator’s power to give being ends in the equally futile attempt to altogether obliterate it. There is a way, however, in which one can, at least ritually, enact after a fashion, and with some efficacy, the annihilation of the world, and that is through suicide, through the “annihilation,” that is, of one’s own self. Evil may never be able to “corrupt the whole good,” as Thomas says, yet because evil is the privation of being, it follows that every act of evil succeeds in eroding something of the evil-doer’s own being, causing him to be less than what he is. For Aquinas, as Philipp Rosemann observes, “to do evil, or to sin, means to act against one’s own conscience, that is to say, against the innermost core of one’s own being. This split within the human being, this division of the self against itself, is at the same time a split outside the human being, that is to say, a division between the sinner and God” (Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 170). One way of striking out at God, accordingly, is to strike at oneself as his image-bearer, and one way of obliterating the world is, so to speak, to obliterate oneself. We have seen an aspect of this in Sauron and Melkor, who in their desire to dominate and destroy are willing and even required to do violence to their own selves, rending their own spirits in an act that for Tolkien mythically dramatizes the spiritual suicide of the modern self, and all in order that they might invest part of themselves in the instruments and objects of their domination. (This idea has been revisited recently in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, in which the “Dark Lord” Voldemort, in an effort to make himself immortal and invincible, creates “horcruxes” by violently splitting his own soul into seven different parts and putting each part into some fetish-object held to be of great value or lineage in the wizarding-world.)

The link between the destruction of the world and the self-destruction of suicide is brought out in the grim nihilism of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who when asked by Gandalf what he would have if his will could have its way, answers:

‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’ (ROTK 130, emphasis original)

When it becomes evident that he cannot have things as they once were, Denethor indeed chooses “naught” and sets himself on fire (like one of the “heathen kings,” as he puts it), thus revealing the will to annihilation or nihilism latent not only within the will to domination, but even within the will to mere preservation examined earlier.

Of Kings and Hobbits

Both Théoden and Denethor take hobbits as retainers, but their relationship to their respective hobbits differ from each other. Merry tells Théoden that he will be a “father” to him, but Denethor’s relationship is more pragmatic or utilitarian: although he is genuinely touched by Pippin’s gratitude for Boromir’s sacrifice and his offer of service, and as Gandalf himself generously recognizes, Denethor effectively uses Pippin to extract information from him about the Fellowship, as Gandalf also astutely perceives. Both men enter into a feudal relationship with their hobbits, a relationship that has mutual obligations, and yet both men, despite their being in the position of lords, default on their responsibilities to their vassals when they dismiss them from their service. Once you accept someone’s service, you cannot then refuse it at will. Merry is therefore in a sense entitled to accompany Théoden into battle, as Éowyn rightly recognizes. Unlike Denethor, of course, Théoden’s dismissal of Merry is at least partly solicitous: he naturally does not want Merry to come to harm. At the same time, it is also neglectful: Théoden is going into battle and (understandably) doesn’t want to be hindered by what he (wrongly, it turns out) perceives as unnecessary and encumbering “baggage.” The irony, of course, is that, in yet another exhibition of Tolkien’s gospel-logic, it is the small and seemingly insignificant Merry who will deal the all-important blow to the Witch King, giving Éowyn the crucial opportunity to destroy him altogether. Like King Lear’s Cordelia, in other words, they are precisely the two individuals most disenfranchised (or at least least enfranchased) by Théoden who render him the most faithful and effective service in the end. Théoden’s lapse in judgment here is to be contrasted with the gospel-logic exhibited, for example, by Elrond at the Council and Gandalf throughout the Third Age, the ingenious and paradoxical strategy of whom, beginning in The Hobbit, is the calculated enfranchisement of the hobbits, exposing them to and including them in the wider affairs of Middle-earth.

Denethor’s treatment of Pippin, however, is far worse. I have already mentioned his using Pippin to get extract information that Gandalf is loath to divulge, but he later disingenuously and hypocritically, even if indirectly, accuses Pippin of being a spy when he tells Gandalf that he has deliberately planted Pippin in his service for that purpose. It is disingenuous, because Denethor knows the genuineness of Pippin’s offer. If anything, Gandalf suffers Pippin to enter Denethor’s service against his own “better judgment,” and in part for Pippin’s own sake, knowing that he (Gandalf) has more to lose or risk than gain by having Pippin so attached and indebted to Denethor:

“I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. It touched his heart, as well (may I say it) as pleasing his humour. And at least you are free now to move about as you will in Minas Tirith – when you are not on duty. For there is another side to it. You are at his command; and he will not forget. Be wary still!”

In this we see something of Gandalf’s own “generosity” and self-sacrifice in allowing Pippin to serve Denethor despite the risk it may mean for Gandalf’s own purposes. So Denethor sees and recognizes the selflessness of Pippin’s offer, only to insult it later when he feigns to suspect it as a plot. And it is hypocritical in that, as has already been pointed out, it is Denethor himself who employs Pippin as an unwitting spy against Gandalf and the Fellowship.

The “humane” vs. the “political”: Frodo, Elrond, and Denethor

In The Return of the King, Gandalf contrasts Denethor’s mode of stewardship, which thinks of the good of “Gondor only,” with Gandalf’s own, much wider stewardship concerned with the preservation of anything that may “still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come,” and with “other men and other lives, and time still to come.” In a response he wrote to W.H. Auden’s review of the book, Tolkien articulated this antithesis in terms of the supremacy of the “humane” over the merely “political.” Objecting to Auden’s use of the word “political” to describe the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

I dislike the use of ‘political’ in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that  Frodo’s duty was ‘humane’ not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘human’–including those …. that were still servants of the tyranny.

     Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.

     But that was not the policy or duty set out by the Council of Elrond. Only after hearing the debate and realizing the nature of the quest did Frodo accept the burden of his mission. Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a ‘humane’ duty. This did not happen merely as an unfortunate damage of War; it was known by them to be an inevitable result of victory, which could in no way be advantageous to Elves. Elrond cannot be said to have a political duty or purpose. (Letters 240-1)

Related posts: Denethor’s Machiavellianism, Denethor’s Hegelianism, The Nihilism of Feänor and Denethor