Tolkien’s fiction is more than just stories they are myths with underlying metaphysics which differ from the rational and scientific narratives that dominates modern Western understanding of the World. The languages are not just intertwined with the cultures of Arda; they can be seen as expressions of the fiction and so of the underlying metaphysics of Eä (the physical and perceived world). The Black Speech is an expression of evil in the mythos and hence it is necessary to explore the philosophical and ethical aspects of Tolkien’s fiction. The following text was written for the LARP Utumno.
1. Freedom and dominance
In the fiction of Tolkien, the foundation of evil could be said to be envy; a prime example being the envy of Melkor towards his siblings which leads to his inevitable downfall. Envy is in many respects the opposite of love and expresses itself through hate and abhorrence. Like the expressions of love are understanding and freedom, the expressions of envy are narrow-mindedness, antipathy and domination along with the inability to forgive. The will to dominate stands in stark contrast to freedom and the notion that one should not hinder the development of others. This is an evident theme in The Lord Of The Rings where the ”Free Peoples” stand against Mordor and its will to dominate all life.
The question is what this will to dominate actually means. Tolkien writes that magic is a part of evil. But the term ‘magic’ is equivocal (according to Tolkien) and in for example Quenya there is a difference between good and bad magic. The word ‘felu’ means ‘bad magic’ while ‘good magic’ is connected to various terms for knowledge. In letter 131 Tolkien explicitly links magic to the Machine and technology which is contrasted by art. This is the same division as the one between art and technology that is found in the western tradition of ideas. This is a relatively new concept in our culture that appeared in the 19th century when the Latin word ‘ars’ (art) came to stand for something free and more intuitive while the Greek word τέχνη (techne) was connected to the practical through the term ‘technology’. It should be said here that the difference between these two terms is not clear even for Tolkien himself.
Tolkien discusses the differences between different forms of magic – magia and goeteia for example in Letter 155. Here Tolkien describes how both magic that directly influences the world (magia) and magic that only influences the mind (goeteia) is used by both sides (good and evil). The difference lies in purpose; the evil act is intended to control free will which can never be the purpose of an act of good.
Eru, Ilúvatar (The One, Ashi in Zhâburi), creator of Eä, also created the Ainur (children of his thought). Ainur in turn created Arda through their music. Among the Ainur was Melkor, later Morgoth, the mightiest of them all. Eru also created the Elves and Men and is the only entity with the ability to create life, an ability which Melkor envied.
“But of those unhappy ones who were ensnared by Melkor little is known of a certainty… Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar… And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery…” (The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, III – Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor)
One could say that Tolkien differentiates between ”magic/art” and ”technology/sorcery”. That does not mean that evil alone uses technology. A few examples are the wizards (Gandalf’s fireworks), the Dwarves and their contraptions (like the toys that Bilbo gives away at his last party), and the Elven Rings of Power. Tolkien called this ”sub-creation” which is creation within the greater creation of Eru. The Quenya word for ‘wizard’ (istar) means ”One Who Knows” (‘ista’ means ”knowledge”). Both art and technology in Eä, the world, has its base in knowledge and thus cannot be intrinsically evil. It is good or evil depending on how it is used and why. If it is used to dominate others it is evil. Knowledge used for other purposes, like art or anti-dominance or the defense of freedom is good. A good example of how sub-creation can be either good or evil is on one side Melkor’s twisting of Elves into Orcs (with the purpose to create slave creatures which he could rule over) and on the other side Aulë who created the Dwarves (because he wanted to share his love of minerals and the art of smithing) (see letter 212 for an explication of this by Tolkien.)
For mortal Men, magic seems to be a double-edged sword – good or evil depending on one’s own choice. Elves seem to lack the ability to directly choose evil. While they can fall (see for example the obsession over the Silmarils and the rebellion of the Noldor against the Valar) the main purpose behind their actions is never dominance although the consequences can in practice be dominance or destruction. Elves do not embrace evil until they have been twisted into Orcs by Melkor and practically turned into inherently different beings. If the Orcs and other creatures of Darkness are the very opposite of Elves, one can imagine that they are incapable of understanding how others can not be evil or lack the will to dominate their surroundings. This interpretation is well in line with what Gandalf says about Sauron being unable to understand how someone would want to destroy the Ring instead of using it.
3. The Machine versus the Garden
In the works of Tolkien, evil is manifested through the Machine – the worst parts of human civilisation, especially in the modern state. The Machine is centralised power over all living things with social tools like bureaucracy and mass production. The individual is lost in the collective and the collective exists only for the power that is gathered under a single leader. What the Machine means becomes apparent when placed next to its opposite which could be called “living” or “growth”. Sam and his garden is no coincidence, nor is the description of Elves as woodland-dwellers. It is also interesting that it is the Elves in Eregion, who were close to the Dwarves of Khazad-Dûm and lived near the mountains, who made the Rings of Power.
The difference between a machine and a growing thing is that the machine has a thought-out purpose from the start, while the growing thing can only be guided but not fully controlled. The growing thing already has a purpose of its own, while the purpose of the constructed machine is always second to the will of its creator. It is when one takes control of something and forces its development according to one’s own will that the act turns to evil. This is visible in the difference between the two wizards Gandalf and Saruman. For all his wisdom and knowledge, Gandalf never tries to force or trick someone to act in a certain way. Gandalf gives advice that helps for example Frodo grow through his own choices. Saruman on the other hand becomes evil as he believes his own great knowledge and abilities gives him the right to govern those who know less than he.He passes from guidance to dominion, and when that happens his magic turns to mass production and the Machine.
4. The choice and the fall
A red thread runs through the works of Tolkien, lined by recurring events and fates which all reflect the idea that those who give in to the desire to dominate are doomed to fall. The temptation is great even for the Elves. Not only in the fall of the Noldor when they seek to retake the Silmarils at any and all cost but also when Frodo attempts to give the One Ring to Galadriel. Her conviction falters for a moment but she recovers in time. Men, however, are easier to corrupt which Boromir portrays when he hardly has time to reflect over his mistake before he falls to Orcish arrows. Through and through, Tolkien’s works are about the free choice of the individual to act and do the morally good, which does not have to be the same thing as the right choice for the best outcome. An example of this is how Gandalf sacrifices himself so that the Fellowship can escape the Balrog even though he knows that he is the only one who stands any chance against Sauron. A rational choice (seen from a viewpoint of utility maximisation) based on the knowledge Gandalf had at the time would have been to sacrifice the others in the company and not himself (see letter 156 where Tolkien discusses this).
Evil is therefore an active choice by the free individual to try to rule the choices of others. The question of what makes one commit evil acts remains. Emotions like hate, fear and guilt, but also inferiority complex and envy, leads to the desire for power and control, which in turn is a form of evil in the shape of dominance and the Fall.