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There's more to fantasy than the elves and orcs of Tolkien
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Oct 20 2013, 10:33am

Post #1 of 27 (526 views)
There's more to fantasy than the elves and orcs of Tolkien Can't Post


I thought this was interesting purely as a jumping off point for discussion. Like with most Tolkien related pieces (positive or negative), I found the author of this one to be maddeningly non-committal to his larger point as well as lacking any real critical insight. I'm sure the topic of Good Vs. Evil in Tolkien has been discussed to death over the past 50 plus years, but I'm still very interested in hearing anyone's general thoughts about the topic as well as a few specific questions:

What do you think of the "dialogue" that may (or may not) be happening between modern fantasists and Tolkien on the topics of good vs. evil, moral ambiguity etc. etc.?

Is there anyone who you think is doing anything interesting with such ideas, or is it all just "grimdark" nonsense?

Do you think that Tolkien is sometimes unfairly criticized for lacking nuanced characters and conflicts? Is his world really so simple as black and white?

Anyone who has read Letters knows JRRT didn't really buy into the "us vs. them" dynamic in real life, and in fact expressed great sadness at the wastefulness of war for all involved. Some of this is, perhaps, echoed in the idea of the long defeat. Anyway, this may be a little too broad a topic, but I still think it's an avenue exploring anyway.

"In the beginning the Universe was created.This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(This post was edited by demnation on Oct 20 2013, 10:33am)


Oct 20 2013, 11:54pm

Post #2 of 27 (345 views)
Hmmmmmm [In reply to] Can't Post

I've been interested in this debate for some time now. I guess I find most of these "critiques" of Tolkien pretty superficial for the most part - evil in Tolkien consists of more than just "monsters" or "external forces".

I noticed one comment even claimed that Tolkien's evil is all external while that depicted in Thomas Covenant is internal. If anything is nonsense, it is opinions like that.

I like what Michael Drout has to say about this. His point is that correct moral action is often present in Tolkien, and that this reflects something of the real world, when correct moral actions are indeed sometimes obvious.

Drout uses the example of addiction. One ought to cure an addiction that is causing harm. This isn't always easy to do, but there is no doubt about the correct course of action. One may wonder about how to do it, but actually becoming addicted so substance abuse is clearly not a morally correct action in most cases.

With regards to "grimdark" fantasy. Well I think Tolkien wrote one himself, before it was hip - The Children of Hurin.

Of course, the modern incarnations of this genre are quite famous now - I for one like GRRM and Scott Bakker in particular, who is, in some ways, an anti-Tolkien (at least Tolkien in LoTR). Rather than being shot through with Providential purpose, Bakker's world is characterised by its maliciousness. We're never quite sure about the intents of the gods.

Are these novels making any substantive points? Yes, I think so. Bakker, especially, is engaging, if you like, with big philosophical questions about the nature of our universe. Ultimately, Bakker's point is that the universe is indifferent, and in his world, possibly even malevolent.

You may not like those answers, and they might be quite different to Tolkien's answers, but I think at a fundamental level both Tolkien and the modern fantasists are dealing with the same problem: The problem of evil.

Why is there suffering in this world, and how does it come about. Bakker is perhaps the most pessimistic, but personally, and perhaps ironically, I've always found the novel The Children of Hurin to be THE most pessimistic take of all, because it offers the reader no answers as to the nature of suffering. It just is - it has no purpose, sacral power and nor is it part of a divine plan, it either just occurs, as a result of the whims of chance and character, or is thrust on us by malevolent forces.


Oct 21 2013, 12:29am

Post #3 of 27 (358 views)
Naughty Guardian [In reply to] Can't Post

The whole point of the article was to slam people who do not hold the view the author does and use Tolkien as the hammer. And he doesn't even understand the hammer he is using. Orcs are not the other. They are us in our most base form. We are all capable of committing the kind of unthinking evil orcs commit. We chose not to do so and have to continue to do so every day. Sauron was not evil from the beginning. He mad a choice to follow Melkor. The Children of Hurin explains what happens when the spiritual leader of a house defies the Great Enemy. It also is a caustionary tale about letting your anger and grief control you. Turin had choices to made and he repeatedly made the wrong ones.


Oct 21 2013, 1:07am

Post #4 of 27 (325 views)
Fair to say that Tolkien's approach to fantasy is neither best nor worst [In reply to] Can't Post

The Professor himself admitted that The Hobbit turned out to be a bit too patronizing in spots. I don't find The Lord of the Rings to be too pedantic, but some other readers have had that complaint. Tolkien's Middle-earth is an idealized place that refuses to deal with certain elements of the Human Condition. Rape is almost non-existant even in times of warfare. Slavery is found in only the most brutal, non-human societies. There were no camp followers servicing Bard's army or the soldiers of Gondor or Rohan.

As much as I love and admire Tolkien's works set in Middle-earth, sometimes I want the earther fantasies of Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard or Michael Moorcock. Or the darker supernatural horror of H.P. Lovecraft.

'There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.' - Gandalf the Grey, The Fellowship of the Ring


Oct 21 2013, 1:08am

Post #5 of 27 (317 views)
I agree with your point on the orcs [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't think they're ever really characterised as "the other" in the books, they're definitely a representation of a part of human nature. In one of the appendices Tolkien says something about the orcs' speech being similar to that of certain humans. Also, every time the orcs have dialogue it's usually very "humanising". I don't think at any point are the orcs made to feel utterly alien and other, there's always a similarity between them and us. That's probably what helps to make them so unsettling.


Oct 21 2013, 2:13am

Post #6 of 27 (320 views)
I get what you are saying [In reply to] Can't Post

 And I agree that Tolkien's approach is neither best nor worst. Then again, no one's really is. But I can't agree that Middle-earth is an idealized place. In fact, I find that it is often not. (Especially in The Silmarillion, but also in LOTR.) The idea of not engaging with certain elements of the human condition is true of others, of course, and even those who do engage might not do so in the most agreeable manner. For example, I find R.E. Howard's approach to things like rape, slavery and the position of women in society to be unconvincing and in some cases extremely offensive. Lovecraft has a strong racial undercurrent in his work that happens to be far more disturbing than anything Howard or Tolkien ever did about race. (and that is saying something.) GRR Martin and others of his ilk seem to be in outright denial that good people actually exist and that life is actually worth living (exaggerating, but the point still stands). Of course, engaging with every aspect of the human condition in any manner is not a requirement for any writer, and nor should it be. And this is all assuming that it is fair to infer a writers personal beliefs through their works of fiction.

"In the beginning the Universe was created.This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(This post was edited by demnation on Oct 21 2013, 2:23am)


Oct 21 2013, 6:57am

Post #7 of 27 (299 views)
Tolkiens good versus evil is not simple [In reply to] Can't Post

On the contrary his work has a solid and deep grounding on why these two states of being exist, exploring creation, sub creation, falls or failure of morality and the ensuing conflict. His story telling contains subtly in it that is in stark contrast to the obvious and clumsy work of other writers. All the critics see is simple because their own view is simple, not because Tolkiens writing is simple. They need the opposite of subtle and nuanced writing to realise that the good/evil state is not simply black and white in Ea.

Anyone is subject to criticism and Tolkiens works have been subject to negative criticism on a literary level that I will never understand, but these are largely separate to the criticisms of a simplified good/evil conflict state.

The repetitive nature of such accusations just makes me think at least some if not many such professional critics are just repeating what they have heard said before, it is nothing new, nothing of their own thought, that is why they fail miserably to make any sort of successful argument to support their claims on even the most basic of levels. They do not understand the subject matter or the true nature of Tolkiens work.

Such questions as would any of them even know Tolkiens thoughts on absolute evil, the state of Denethors mind and how he viewed his Stewardship, why did Eru let Aule's dwarves live and give them their own wills, why were the orcs and so many evil things easily bent to the will of a superior evil being.

They can all go suck eggses with Smeagol's grandmother.

(This post was edited by ElendilTheShort on Oct 21 2013, 7:01am)


Oct 21 2013, 7:34am

Post #8 of 27 (285 views)
Agreed [In reply to] Can't Post

for the most part. I remain unconvinced by many in the pro and anti Tolkien camps (generally speaking), and this article is no different. I long ago decided the the only "truths" I can know are what I observe for myself, and every time I open LOTR or The Silmarillion I see work that is far more nuanced than it is often given credit for. Far from being mere adventure stories, I find much of the Middle-earth saga to be a deep and thoughtful meditation on the consequences, wastefulness and futility of war for all involved. (and a myriad of other things besides)

"In the beginning the Universe was created.This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Oct 21 2013, 6:27pm

Post #9 of 27 (273 views)
Spot on Elendil [In reply to] Can't Post

The reality is there is a lot complexity of Good versus Evil in Tolkien's world take fore Example: Denethor, Wormtongue, The reality that no one can use the Ring even the Good Guys without being corrupted, any look at the history of the Elves and/or the Dwarves (esp. thorin) would show this complexity.

What the author of this article is rebelling against is that there is an absolute evil and an absolute good in Arda. This is because Tolkien wrote, as he put it, from a Christian perspective and though his work is not "Christian" he does tell us that his work shows us he is a Christian and that his work is in line with Christian thought. Sure, you can rip on Tolkien for writing from Christian perspective but to do so shows great ignorance on the part of the author.

Not all those who wander are lost


Oct 21 2013, 6:29pm

Post #10 of 27 (272 views)
Good and Evil in Arda... [In reply to] Can't Post

I like this discussion and for now I will leave it be except to say come back for the Symposium in a few weeks, I will be touching on this in my paper on Eru and how he rules Middle Earth. While not an exhaustive look at good and evil in Middle earth it is most definitely addressed in my paper.

Not all those who wander are lost


Oct 21 2013, 7:43pm

Post #11 of 27 (260 views)
Looking forward to it Ranger!// [In reply to] Can't Post


Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!


Oct 21 2013, 10:39pm

Post #12 of 27 (258 views)
Yes the exmples of characters and races you refer to are good. [In reply to] Can't Post

The only thing I would say is that Tolkien did not beleive in absolute evil. It is in a letter where he also states that Sauron (not Melkor) was as close as possible to a wholly evil will.


Oct 21 2013, 10:46pm

Post #13 of 27 (253 views)
we will have to agree to disagree here [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien in my estimation most certainly believed in absolute evil (whether or not one specific character represents that or not) for I can remember various spots where he talks about evil in his letters and not just in reference to Middle Earth, but to the real world especially when it came to the wars he lived through.

But the Ring is described as "all together evil", Melkor I believe is actually described in the Silmarillion as more evil than Sauron for Sauron at least for awhile served someone other than himself. And Ungoliant is to a manifestation of pure evil, IMO.

Not all those who wander are lost

(This post was edited by rangerfromthenorth on Oct 21 2013, 10:47pm)


Oct 21 2013, 10:53pm

Post #14 of 27 (255 views)
Evil vs. evil [In reply to] Can't Post

I wish I had my copy of Letters handy, because I believe it's somewhere in there that Tolkien contrasted Melkor and Sauron in their brand of evil. Melkor primarily wanted to corrupt and destroy, whereas Sauron primarily wanted to enslave and oppress. They had plenty of overlap, of course, but slightly different inclinations. So, which brand is more evil, or are they equally evil?

Sauron had that little period of repentance after the War of Wrath, partly because he was afraid of the Valar, partly because he didn't think his boss could lose. And he partly wanted to bring order to a Middle-earth neglected by the Valar, which wasn't a bad idea to begin with. Though as Galadriel would say, it didn't end there, alas.


Oct 22 2013, 12:40am

Post #15 of 27 (256 views)
These aren't my thoughts I am putting forward but Tolkiens writing. [In reply to] Can't Post

I will dig out the letter tonight and provide a quote. He wasn't talking just about Sauron, but absolute evil as a concept that he did not believe existed.

The main difference between Melkor and Sauron is that Sauron wanted to order everything to his own will. Melkor got to the point here he hated everything as nothing had it's origin in him as a creator, and he wanted to rage on until everything was levelled, and he would have even destroyed the orcs once he had finished using them. All paraphrased from Tolkiens own writing on the matter, this is not my opinion.


Oct 22 2013, 2:32am

Post #16 of 27 (243 views)
Here is the exact quote from the Silmarillion calling Melkor more evil [In reply to] Can't Post

"In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deciets of his cunning, Sauron had a part and was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself. But in years after he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the void." Silmarillio, Valaquenta, page 24.

Sauron was not as evil as Morgoth and rose "like a shadow" and "ghost" of Morgoth but he remains the comparison point.

Not all those who wander are lost


Oct 22 2013, 3:01am

Post #17 of 27 (236 views)
Here is your quote from his letters and how I think we are talking past each other [In reply to] Can't Post

"In my story I do not deal with Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is zero. I do not think at any rate any 'rational being' is wholly evil."- Letter 183

But there are other quotes from his letters which indicate otherwise as I mentioned. He writes of the Third Age, "We are to see the overthrow of the last incarnation of Evil, the unmaking of the ring..."-Letter 130, page 160.

Here is another, "But one must face the fact; the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'...and after a grand crash (and the end of visibly incarnate Evil) before the Dominion men..."-Letter 191, page 252.

So how do we bring these two seemingly contrary aspects together? My suggestion is not that one individual is the incarnation of Absolute Evil. Indeed, I think this is exactly what Tolkien is getting at in the first quote about Absolute Evil. None of Eru's creation are absolutely evil, because they were originally created good. That is a very christian concept. But the Ring is something else, as in the quote from Letter 130, the Ring is the Incarnation of Evil. It is as I mentioned earlier, "all together evil." This incarnation is destroyed, hence why there is no longer an incarnation of total evil in Middle Earth.

When I referenced "Absolute Evil" I did so sloppily without defintion. What I meant was there is an absolute standard of what is good and what is evil. And this is what Tolkien believed. I was not arguing for a character to be "absolutely evil" but rather that there is in Arda an absolute standard. Certain things (like the Ring) and certain acts are absolutely evil. I hope this clarifies things.

Not all those who wander are lost


Oct 22 2013, 3:04am

Post #18 of 27 (238 views)
to me that sounds like [In reply to] Can't Post

[ rangerfromthenorth ]

In Reply To
"In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deciets of his cunning, Sauron had a part and was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself. But in years after he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the void." Silmarillio, Valaquenta, page 24.

Sauron was not as evil as Morgoth and rose "like a shadow" and "ghost" of Morgoth but he remains the comparison point.

[ / rangerfromthenorth ]

to me that sounds like morgoth and sauron are ultimately of equal, evil nature when viewed of themselves. when viewed on a linear timeline, there is a span in which sauron is less evil, because he was following orders. which i'm not sure i entirely buy, myself.


aka. fili orc-enshield
the scene, as i understand it, is exceptionally well-written. fili (in sort of a callback to the scene with the eagles), calls out "thorRIIIIIIN!!!" just as he sees the pale orc veer in for the kill. he picks up the severed arm of an orc which is lying on the ground, swings it up in desperation, effectively blocking the pale orc's blow. and thus, forever after, fili is known as "fili orc-enshield."

this earns him deep respect from his hard-to-please uncle. as well as a hug. kili wipes his boots on the pale orc's glory box. -- maciliel telpemairo


Oct 22 2013, 3:17am

Post #19 of 27 (230 views)
I had exactly the same point of view to you with respect to what is evidenced in Tolkien's writing [In reply to] Can't Post

and refered to that very quote you provide when I was first came accross someone saying Sauron was more evil based on the letter I refered to, but prior to myself being aware of the letter.

The Silmarillion is generally considered by some to be less canon than other examples of Tolkiens writing, because it was compilied by CT from various unfinished sources of his fathers work and it contains many inconsitences with other works or information we have such as the Balrogs being numerous and Galadriels role in the exile of teh Noldor.

Whereas Letters and such are more clearly JRRT's specific thoughts on matters and may be considered more relevant on respective subjects at least at a certain point of time.

I still find what Tolkien wrote confusing and contrary to my own understanding or take on the situation of teh nature of evil though because when considering the two, Melkor and Sauron, if their main defining 'evil' was complete destruction vs complete domination I personally consider destruction which was Melkor's trait to be the more evil.

So you could say on the surface I agree with you in what you consider evil, and I consider Melkor's evil by nature and action to be gretaer than Sauron's because Melkor's evil was spread throughout the material of Arda, and in his beginnings Melkor was by nature much greater and had a much greater capacity for evil action, but Tolkiens thoughts on the concept of evil itself seems to vary from this. If evil is action against the will of Eru then it seems to me he considers the domination of Eru's creations, and the subjugation of them to ones will and use, whether it be a sentient being, or the natural resources of Arda, to be greater than the destruction of them.


Oct 22 2013, 3:19am

Post #20 of 27 (227 views)
you could take it that way... [In reply to] Can't Post

but I think the clincher is that Morgoth is the standard of evil, Sauron is only a "shadow" of it and "ghost" of the evil that was Morgoth.

And what Tolkien meant here is in reference to serving someone else shows that at least for a time he is not seeking merely himself.

but I can see your point, it could be taken either in regards to the first paragraph.

Not all those who wander are lost


Oct 22 2013, 3:32am

Post #21 of 27 (233 views)
simul posts [In reply to] Can't Post

and yes I see what you are saying and we may well have been talking past each other, at a glance I agree with your main points of view, thanks for clarifying.

Whether or not the One Ring is entirely evil, goes back to Tolkiens letter in part, it contained the greater part of Sauron's native power and therefore would be subject to the state of his being, but I agree it seems to have no redeeming features, no trace of good. It's ability to corrupt is not absolute as evidenced by Bombadil but really he is 'in the story but not of it'. Any fortuitous actions surrounding the One Rings history such as Bilbo finding it and Gollum's final fall seem to be entirley attributed to divine providence as opposed to any trace of goodness in the One Ring.

The fact that there is no further incarnation of a great evil as a demonic form is something I have more considered to be a last man standing scenario, and not specific to the One Ring but Sauron himself if one can manage to separate the two as a matter of principle in their roles as creator (or sub creator) and creation. Simply put there were no more evil spirits of sufficient stature to set themselves up as potential God-Kings.


Oct 22 2013, 4:04am

Post #22 of 27 (233 views)
The Ring has one redeeming feature, making it not wholly evil. [In reply to] Can't Post

The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious." - LoTR I.2

Granted, the language is double-edged here with the ominous use of 'precious' at the end. Yet when Tolkien uses the word beautiful, as he does quite often, it is almost never with irony; nor are the other terms of description insincere in themselves.

So we are invited to contemplate the Ring not just for what it is - as you say, the epitome of an evil will - but also for how it appears, as an aesthetic object. By the latter view it is a simple perfect circle made of unadorned pure gold. The circle, of course, has endless mystical associations and symbologies that have attracted the human eye and mind since ancient times, and gold is, by itself, universally regarded as a material of high visual quality due to its reflectivity and lack of tarnish. The Ring as a work of metalcraft is a masterpiece of art. As I said, this is clearly done in aid of and mockery of its true evil nature, but that does not remove its goodness as art, it only overpowers it.

As we learn throughout the story, nothing else associated with Sauron is attractive in the slightest, to the point that it becomes difficult to understand how he seduces the various spies, agents, and servants that run his empire for him. Sauron generally is an artist of bombast and terror, not of proportion and finish - yet here, most deadly of all, is his only work of art that stands by itself as excellent!
'But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair'.

squire online:
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Oct 22 2013, 6:08am

Post #23 of 27 (227 views)
It is part of Tolkien's mythos [In reply to] Can't Post

That those things which are fair may appear foul and those things that are foul may appear fair. The ring was often downplayed by Sauron, when he sent messengers to Dain and mentioned that Sauron needed help for the least of rings, but one most favoured by Sauron. Similarly, even Saruman is able to appear still quite fair and pleasing, as well as appealing to Theoden even after his defeat.

As for the Ring, clearly it was an artistic masterpiece, showcasing Sauron's abilities that he had learned from the Elves. Obviously, the Elves did not intend for making of rings to be evil, but as part of their love of beauty and craftsmanship, there obviously would be an appealing aesthetic. To think that Sauron could not use that appealing nature of ring creation really makes him a shallow villain.


Oct 22 2013, 3:49pm

Post #24 of 27 (209 views)
Since you mentioned it... [In reply to] Can't Post

providence is a great theme to look at in the history of the Ring, so here is my shameless plug: Come back for the symposium as i will look at Eru's providence in depth.
Shameless plug number two: you mentioned Bombadil's unique relation to the Ring as he is "in the story but not of it..." how do we make sense of that? I humbly suggest you check out my entirely to long in-depth bombadil analysis: www.whoistombombadil.blogspot.com/

And as far as the Ring being totally evil, the question is not "is gold evil" but rather the purpose and ability of the Ring. The is all together evil. Why? Because it was created to be a force to dominate others, to increase the power of Sauron and others who wore it. There is nothing in its will which is good, for if there were then it might have been redeemable, maybe Gandalf or others could have latched onto that good and thus used it for good. but Gandalf makes it plain that could not happen, Tolkien does as well. The Ring corrupts. This is also what evil does, it corrupts what was once good by lusting for power and domination.

Not all those who wander are lost

Hamfast Gamgee
Grey Havens

Oct 22 2013, 11:04pm

Post #25 of 27 (191 views)
Melkor was the anarchist and Sauron was the bureaucrat then! [In reply to] Can't Post


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