Jun 6, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 21: The Shadow of the Past

The talk did not die down in nine or even ninety-nine days.

Bilbo's dramatic departure is the talk of the whole Shire. Popular opinion has it that Bilbo finally went mad and ran off into the wild, and it's all Gandalf's fault. Meanwhile, Frodo settles in at Bag End to a life of, well, I'm not actually sure what, exactly. Material comfort, certainly, but all we're told is that he lives on his own and takes long walks around the countryside, and is therefore considered slightly strange. What he lives on I have no idea. Certainly Frodo has no trade, nor did Bilbo, yet a year from the previous chapter, he can give a birthday party for himself and the absent Bilbo where "it snowed food and rained drink". As no landholdings or business dealings are suggested, the easiest explanation seems to be that Frodo inherits a massive pile of wealth from Bilbo that enables him to basically loaf around. This does raise several interesting questions, though: where did the Baggins fortune come from? Where is it kept, if there aren't any jools to be found in Bag End? Is there a hobbit bank? We have no idea. Throughout, everything related to the practicalities of life in the Shire is elided.

In addition to his moonlit walks, Frodo has a couple of friends, most importantly Meriadoc ("Merry") Brandybuck, who we met previously in the previous chapter, and Peregrin ("Pippin") Took. Note the last names: these are representatives of two of the most ancient and influential families in the Shire. In other words, Frodo's social circle is a hobbit Drones Club.

Gandalf doesn't show up again for years, and Frodo spends his time trying to gather any news of the outside world he can. What he hears is grim: the Necromancer of Mirkwood, a figure barely mentioned in the Hobbit, has been driven out of Mirkwood, only to take residence in Mordor. There's talk of orcs, trolls and war. This dark foreshadowing is juxtaposed with a barroom conversation in the Green Dragon, a Shire inn, where we meet Sam Gamgee, the son of Bilbo's gardener. Sam tries to start up a serious conversation about current events, like a walking tree his cousin saw in the Northfarthing, but he's defeated by the relentless schoolyard witticisms of Ted Sandyman, the miller's son, who's hell-bent on deflecting everything the slightly dreamy Sam says with a cheap joke. For my money, the conversation is an excellent example of the duality of Tolkien's Shire. On the one hand, we've seen that it's an idealized minarchist paradise. On the other, though, there's a certain oppressiveness to the aggressively small-minded Sandyman and his approving audience, who are convinced that both Bilbo and Frodo are completely mad, and only fit to be laughed at. Their confident dismissal of all potentially uncomfortable outside news as moonshine and nonsense only fit for crackpots is all too familiar.


Speaking of crackpots and moonshine, Gandalf eventually shows up, and the bulk of the chapter is taken up by a conversation between him and Frodo. In the first chapter, Tolkien had Bilbo hand over the narrative baton to Frodo and make his exit; in this one, he lays out the groundwork for Frodo's own, much darker story. There's a gradual buildup of tension throughout, from the ominous tidings of the beginning to Gandalf's dramatic revelations, and also a gradual estrangement of Frodo and the reader from the Shire. What may have seemed to be a rustic paradise starts to look like an insular, ignorant backwater.

To make a long story short, Gandalf tells Frodo and the reader all about the Rings of Power: forged by the Elven-smiths of old, powerful and perilously corrupting to mortals. We're told that Gollum's ring, the ring Bilbo gave to Frodo, is definitely a Great Ring, and was responsible for his longevity. Gandalf points out the similarities between Gollum's story of getting the Ring as a "birthday present" and Bilbo's almost inexplicable lies to the dwarves about how he got it, and calls the Ring "an unwholesome power". Saruman and his ring-lore is mentioned as assuaging Gandalf's fears, but his argument with Bilbo in the previous chapter finally prompted him to find out once and for all what the Ring really is, and he's now come to Bag End to perform the final experiment. Gandalf throws the Ring into Frodo's fireplace, and the fire reveals an inscription on it. This confirms that it's the Ring of Sauron, the One Ring to rule them all.

Gandalf proceeds to give the terrified Frodo a concise account of the Rings: three for the elves, seven for the dwarves, nine for men and the One Ring, with which Sauron dominated the Nine and into which he invested much of his power. The Ring was taken from Sauron in war by Isildur, son of Elendil, who later fell, and the Ring was lost in the Great River - where Gollum eventually found it. We're also told the story of how the Ring turned Sméagol into the Gollum we met in the Hobbit, and how losing the Ring eventually drove him out from under the mountains, and eventually to Mordor, where Sauron, the Enemy, has re-established himself.

So we now know that the Ring Frodo carries is in fact an incredibly powerful and dangerous artifact of the Enemy, and that he knows where to find it: in the hands of the thief Baggins, in the Shire. The question, obviously, is what to do with it. Frodo suggests destroying it, but can't bring himself to even try. He offers it to Gandalf, who emphatically refuses: the corrupting power of the Ring would be an even more horrible threat to him than it is to Frodo. Gandalf's opinion is that the only way to destroy the Ring is to take it to Orodruin, the great volcano of Mordor where it was originally forged, and throw it into the Cracks of Doom. Eventually, Frodo decides to leave the Shire with the Ring, to hide it from the enemy and keep the Shire safe until they figure out what to do.

There's a brief interlude as Gandalf warns Frodo of the Enemy's many spies, and reaches out of the window to grab an eavesdropping Sam Gamgee. Sam confesses to having listened to their conversation, and wants to go with Frodo, which Gandalf decrees will be suitable punishment for his eavesdropping. Confusingly, Sam repeats the phrase "Lor bless you/me" several times when questioned by Gandalf; one of the few direct references to god in the book. And so it's settled: Frodo will leave the Shire, under the nom de guerre Mr. Underhill, accompanied by Sam.


In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey puts forward the idea that the Lord of the Rings is suffused by a tension between two fundamentally incompatible theories of evil; in his words:

...a deep-seated contradiction between Boethian and Manichean opinions, between authority and experience, between evil as an absence ("the Shadow") and evil as a force ("the Dark Power").
(Author, 134-135)

One of the key passages Shippey refers to is in this chapter, as Frodo gives Gandalf the Ring.

It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.

This, to Shippey, is the great question: does the Ring represent an active outside evil, or does it merely amplify the evil in Frodo?

One can never tell for sure, in The Lord of the Rings, whether the danger of the Ring comes from inside, and is sinful, or from outside, and is merely hostile.
(Author, 142)

As quoted above, Shippey labels these views Boethian and Manichean, after the Roman senator Boëthius, author of De Consolatione Philosophiae, and the religion founded by the prophet Mani respectively. Unfortunately, this is where we get into trouble, because Shippey has got his theology quite badly wrong.

Boëthius did, as Shippey says, identify evil as an absence of good, and argued that therefore evil is fundamentally weaker than good, and in the long run its purposes will turn against itself. This is fairly orthodox Platonism and therefore also good Christian theology: since god is the omnipotent creator, evil cannot have equal status or power to good. In this sense, Shippey's identification of Boëthius with "authority" is correct.

However, for some reason I can't understand, Shippey equates this with a denial of the very existence of evil:

The trouble with this view [Boëthius] is that it is both highly counterintuitive, and in many circumstances extremely dangerous. One might, for instance, conclude that the proper response to it, if you accepted it, would be to become a conscientious objector, and to refuse to resist what appears to be evil on the ground that this is just a misapprehension.
(Author, 133)

The key argument here is in Saruman-like weasel words! One might, after all, conclude anything from anything, human inventiveness being almost unlimited, but to go from Boëthius's discussion of the ultimate futility of evil to a notion that evil will automatically defeat itself - let alone that it doesn't actually exist! - and therefore does not need to be fought is a leap of logic that De Consolatione Philosophiae in no way suggests or even supports. More importantly, the idea that orthodox Christian theology maintains evil should not be actively resisted is quite clearly wrong. So to create his juxtaposition between two views of evil, Shippey ends up distorting Boëthius and Christian theology quite badly.

Shippey's construction of Manicheanism is similarly flawed. In defining the two theories as "...the internal/Boethian and external/Manichean theories of evil" (Author, 136), and equating Manicheanism with "experience" versus "authority", what Shippey is actually saying is that a belief in an external, active force of evil is not authoritative Christian theology. In other words, for a Christian to believe in the existence of Satan is a heresy. This is simply absurd, and shows the terrible confusion of ideas at the heart of Shippey's analysis. The actual Manichean heresy is the notion that the created world is a battleground between equally matched powers of good and evil, not the existence of any active evil whatsoever.

In Christian theology, the contradiction Shippey sees between the Ring either being a manifestation of an external evil or an amplifier of the desire to evil inside everyone is a false dichotomy. It is quite clearly both, and both aspects are direct results of what Tolkien named as the first fundamental principle of what "all this stuff" is about (Letters, 131): the Fall.

The Fall generally refers to the Fall of Man, i.e. the incident with the fruit I dealt with in the previous installment of this series. Before the Fall of Man, however, was the fall of the angels; "God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell" (2 Peter 2:4). Tolkien opens the Silmarillion with the story of the creation, which is marred when Melkor tries to hijack it to his own ends. He fails, and is banished from heaven; "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven", as Jesus says in the gospel of Luke (10:18). Christian theology came to identify Satan with the serpent of Paradise, who brings about the Fall of Man. Therefore, it's because of these two Falls from grace that humanity is imperfect in itself and lives in an imperfect world, under threat from the forces of evil.

So in Christian doctrine, the two theories of evil that Shippey considers as opposites both follow from the same event, which Tolkien placed at the core of his work: the Fall. The Ring and its Lord are manifestations of active evil, Sauron himself being a former subordinate of the Satan-analogue Melkor. Because Melkor is weaker than his creator, his rebellion will, in the end, fail, as will Sauron's; a solidly Boëthian view that expressly rejects Manicheanism by reaffirming the superiority of good. However, the conflict against evil isn't a simple matter of good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats, let alone the notion mentioned in connection to the Hobbit of a side that is "100% good" fighting pure evil, because the good guys are fallen as well.

Shippey is right in maintaining that Tolkien framed his view of evil in response to a heresy, but he's got the wrong heresy. If anything, Tolkien's concern is with Pelagianism. Attributed - possibly incorrectly - to a fourth-century ascetic from Britain, Pelagianism is the idea that people can choose to act ethically and in accordance with god's will and laws. In this thinking, the role of faith and revelation was to guide people toward the right choices. Pelagianism was strongly opposed by Augustine, who taught that the original sin of eating fruit had destroyed humanity's ability to live ethically, and people could not avoid sin simply through the exercise of their will. Shippey detects this theme but doesn't understand it:

If evil was just the absence of good, then the Ring could never be more than a psychic amplifier, and all the characters would need to do would be to put it aside, perhaps give it to Tom Bombadil: in Middle-Earth we are assured that would be fatal. (Author, 142)

The problem is framed in terms of Shippey's false dichotomy, but even if we accept that the Ring is only a "psychic amplifier" and does no harm if not used, then why is it that Frodo can't just lock it in a drawer and forget about it? Because that would be Pelagianism. In a story whose central theme is the Fall, it isn't possible to resist the temptation of evil through will alone. Even Gandalf must refuse the Ring, because even an angel can fall from grace, and even more so a mortal like Frodo. The Ring must be destroyed because it can be neither used nor refused.

So if we want to frame the problem of evil in the Lord of the Rings in terms of early Christian philosophy, we can say that Tolkien takes a steadfastly Boëthian and Augustinian view of evil that is entirely orthodox, and decisively rejects the heresies of Manicheanism and Pelagianism. The force that doesn't want to give the Ring to Gandalf is both an external and an internal evil, both Ring and Frodo: sin, both active rebellion and inherited fruit-eating. In Tolkien's terms, what the Ring is is a Machine built to defeat the plans of God. It gives Frodo long life, defying Mortality, and tempts him to a further Fall into sin. Because the Machine is inherently evil, and all creatures are inherently imperfect due to the Fall, the only possible solution is to destroy the Machine. After this chapter, this is now what we know Frodo must attempt.


So the second chapter introduces us to Tolkien's view of evil, which is deeply rooted in Christian theology. Does that make the Lord of the Rings a Christian novel? Tolkien certainly thought it did. However, if you put aside daft stories about women eating fruit because of snakes, there's also a much simpler way to view the Ring, and with it the central moral of the story: power corrupts.

It's been seriously maintained by some critics that there isn't really any particular difference between the good and evil side in the Lord of the Rings. They can't have read the book very intelligently, if at all, to arrive at this conclusion, and the Ring is the reason they're wrong. If the good guys were just bad guys in lighter-colored hats, then they'd have no qualms whatsoever about taking the Ring and using it to destroy Sauron. Instead of using this power they find in their hands, they instead want to destroy it, so no-one can use it. Given that this is a fairly crucial plot point, it's actually quite difficult to understand how a critic could miss it. When Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring, he physically recoils:

"No!" cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly." His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself."

The point made here and reiterated several times is that unlike so many other stories, the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is not that they're designated good or bad respectively. Instead, if you give the good guys too much power, they become bad guys. So the chief virtue in this world is to refuse power. It's simply astonishing that this can be interpreted as fascism. It's pretty much as close to its exact opposite as possible.

Unfortunately for Tolkien's faith, we don't need to believe in silly primordial fruit-eating stories to understand that power corrupts. This is also firmly in line with Tolkien's liberal, even anarchist political views. However, as we'll see, Tolkien isn't exactly consistent with this theme. For now, though, in the minarchist rural utopia that is the Shire, the idea of Power as a terrible evil to be firmly resisted is quite plausible. On a personal note, it never occurred to me to attribute the Ring's corrupting powers to fruit, let alone to begin constructing a theology of the Machine around it. The story of the Ring works as an allegory of political power just as well as of the Fall, and the first is what I always read it as. In retrospect, I think it was probably Tolkien who set me off on a personal political trajectory that ended up in my becoming a conscientious objector. I don't know what he would have made of that.


So there's quite a lot riding on this chapter. Not only does it give us Tolkien's philosophy of sin and evil, touch on themes like "peace in our time" and the death penalty, but it also sets the scene for the entire story: Frodo's role as Ringbearer, leaving the Shire like Bilbo to go on an adventure completely unlike Bilbo's, not to find treasure but to destroy it. Stylistically, this is a really heavy chapter, with lots of speech and reported speech, stories, names and histories. It's also, for whatever reason, my favorite chapter in the whole book. I've always found the darkening, ominous mood and the dimly remembered stories of the past coming to profoundly frightening life in the present to be compelling and strongly evocative. Now that I think about it, it's entirely possible that this chapter had a hand in my choice of vocation as well.

Be that as it may, this chapter's job is to set the scene. Now we know what Frodo's Ring is, who the Enemy is, and why the Ring needs to be destroyed. For my money, this is done quite well; Gandalf tells his story effectively, and most importantly, as a character, rather than an encyclopedia-like info dump. Crucially, we've also been introduced to the main themes of the story: power and corruption.

Next time: rambling hobbits, singing elves and black riders.


Leon said...

Nice job as always. You could seriously turn this into a course you know...

Michael Halila said...

I'm sorry, I thought I replied to this already! Thank you again, and you never know, we'll have to see what they let me teach...