When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

© C A Lovegrove

I shall begin this discussion by citing Professor Rendel Helms‘ always useful Tolkien’s World (1974), and especially Chapter Five (with the same title, and subtitled ‘The structure and aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings‘). He begins by telling us that

We shall misjudge The Lord of the Rings unless we grant that the aesthetic principles governing a fantasy world are different both from the laws of our own realm of commonsense reality and from those governing ‘realistic’ literature.

Rendel Helms (1974), Chapter Five

He goes on to emphasise that “Since fantasy characters react for the most part only as heroes or villains, wise men or fools, the value of a work of fantasy depends not on the possibilities of reaction, but on the richness and quality of action.” But whatever the quality of that action, good or bad, it is dependent on its relationship with the “internal laws or structural principles of the fantasy action,” principally the physics and metaphysics of that Secondary World. Helms then draws up the internal laws of Middle-earth. These state that

  1. The cosmos is providentially controlled.
  2. Intention structures result.
  3. Moral and magical law have the force of physical law.
  4. Will and states of mind (both good and evil) can have objective reality and physical energy.
  5. All experience is the realization of proverbial truth.

Luckily Helms goes on to give examples of these otherwise very abstract principles. To illustrate how this world is controlled by Providence he quotes Gandalf’s remarks to Frodo: “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.” Much fantasy has this kind of Providential interference, this deus ex machina, even if only suggested through mysterious prophecies or gnomic predictions.

Next is Middle-earth’s moral structure, the workings of which I’ll begin discussing in a moment but for which Helms cites the occasion when Frodo says it was “a pity that Bilbo did not stab [Gollum], when he had a chance,” and Gandalf replies, “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity; and Mercy: not to strike without need.” From this one positive action, Helms reminds us, flowed all that was to occur in the trilogy.

To exemplify that metaphysical laws are as powerful as physical ones we have the Ring itself, imbued with a will of its own and the power to affect its bearer or wearer; next, states of mind having physical power is shown by the mere presence of a Nazgûl and its effect on bystanders; finally, the proverbs uttered in this secondary world have the inevitable result of coming to pass and thus proving significant, as when Éomer declares “Oft the unbidden guest proves the best company.”

Let me expand a bit on Helms’ observed law that intention structures result.  He expresses this mathematically. A good action magnified by a good intent will give a good result (that is, plus times plus equals plus); whereas an evil act combined with an evil intent will also ultimately yield a good result (minus times minus equals plus). These equations (+ × + = + and – × – = +) constantly crop up throughout The Lord of the Rings as much as do the other laws. Helms then dedicates the rest of this chapter to itemising the many examples confirming these laws, right down to Frodo’s last-minute decision to not destroy the Ring (an evil intent) coupled with Gollum’s final seizing of it (an evil act) resulting in the Ring’s destruction and Sauron’s downfall (a positive outcome). In other words, two wrongs can and do make a right in Middle-earth.

Tolkien himself in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1939, revised 1964) discussed — among other matters — the relationship between fairytales and fantasy. Here I want to indicate a couple of points he made about morality as expressed in fairytales identified as such. First of all he distinguishes what he calls the beast-fable (he cites Beatrix Potter’s tales as typical) as a narrative type lying “near the borders of Faërie, but outside it, I think, for the most part. Their nearness is due largely to their strong moral element: by which I mean their inherent morality, not any allegorical significatio.” Later he observes, when discussing the entanglement of mythology and religion, that

Even fairy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man. The essential face of Faërie is the middle one, the Magical. But the degree in which the others appear (if at all) is variable, and may be decided by the individual story-teller.

J R R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1939, revised 1964)

So, Tolkien saw that fairytales have an inherent morality; they may hold up to us the Mirror of scorn and pity; and, as well as other virtues (such as escape and consolation), they offer us fantasy. Small wonder, then, that his fantasy has a moral dimension which we’d do well to consider. Walter Scheps, in a short but wide-ranging essay from 1975, also discusses the trilogy’s “fairy-tale morality” while touching on certain important distinctions, which I come to now.

Middle-earth, he reminds us forcefully, is not our world: “looking to our experience for verification would be as perverse as it would be futile;” so we mustn’t muddle up being black like the orcs in Middle-earth with being black in ours, nor confuse trolls ‘speaking common’, humans from the south and east, or individuals having “an insatiable thirst for knowledge” with being evil in our world. As Scheps emphasises, the trilogy’s morality is “radically different from our own” and that “any apparent similarity between the two moral systems is neither significant nor relevant to an understanding of The Lord of the Rings.” This of course reiterates the underlying premise in the argument presented by Helms.

Scheps goes on to summarise how the saga characterises good and evil: they are generically defined by their origins, language, appearance; and evil characters pursue knowledge regardless of the consequences while the good trust in “their own goodness and in the innate perversity of evil as means to overcome it.” However,

If we attempt to transfer the moral values inherent in the trilogy to the “real world,” we find that they may be called paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and, perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant.

Walter Scheps (1975) ‘The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings

A similar state of affairs applies with fairytales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel. The protagonists cheat, dissemble, steal and murder, none of these acts we naturally condone in our world but which often crop up in this narrative genre. And why do they? Because they are symbolic of a stand against evil, an evil which (like that personified by Sauron) is the very epitome of negativity. Paul Kocher, in a chapter titled ‘Sauron and the Nature of Evil’, discusses Sauron’s manifestation as the Eye:

To see into Sauron’s Eye is to look into nothingness. Sauron is getting as close as a subsisting creature can get to absolute non-Being. […] Over and over Tolkien’s own words connect Sauron and his servants with a nothingness that is the philosophical opposite of being.

Paul Kocher (1972), Chapter 4

Nothingness — negativity — negation, attributes of everything inimical in this fantasy world. The trilogy doesn’t of course deal with all individuals (whether hobbits, humans or other sentient beings) in terms of the absolutes of Good and Evil: there are those who move around on the continuum — such as Saruman, Boromir or Gollum — and those who stand outside it, such as Tom Bombadil. But they act according to social norms attributable to their species (whether human, hobbit, elf, dwarf, Ent or other), following or departing from them according to the situation presented to them: nature encompasses inclination and intent.

But now I want to conclude with a consideration of the just world hypothesis (or fallacy as it’s often termed).

The concept of the Just World is familiar to many of us from our childhood, whenever we’ve been tempted to voice the phrase “It’s not fair!” In philosophical terms it’s the notion that actions undertaken by certain individuals will have “morally fair and fitting consequences,” that good or bad things deserve to happen to us or others according to what we or they have done. It’s akin to karma, which can be defined as the “causal law by which good or bad actions determine the future modes of an individual’s existence.”

Of course, this aspect of karma doesn’t always happen in the ‘real world’, however much we may recite proverbs like “We get the politicians we deserve” or “They had it coming to them” or “It couldn’t happen to a nicer person”. But in much Epic or High Fantasy that in fact turns out to be the case (even when there are exceptions to the rule, such as in G R R Martin’s fantasies) and that is indeed the position in Middle-earth. Underpinning what Rose Zimbardo calls “the vision of romance” epitomised by The Lord of the Rings is, she posits, a theme which questions whether “the All versus the self in human consciousness” really holds true as it does in tragedy: instead, she suggests that in a ‘romance’ (in the medieval sense of the term)

The physical nourishes the metaphysical in man because in human nature, as in the cosmos, physical and metaphysical are complementary parts of an embracing whole. […] Evil in the romance vision is not an aspect of human nature, but rather the perversion of human will [author’s emphasis].

Rose A Zimbardo (1968): ‘Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings‘.

This, in a nutshell, is the vision in The Lord of the Rings of how a Just World operates. Evil is a perversion of human will. To make things fair and to restore balance in the ’embracing whole’, the All, two things need to happen: hobbits must not only remain true to their hobbit nature but act upon it (good actions combined with good intents), and Evil — as embodied particularly in Sauron — must do evil acts which, magnified with evil intent, will also ultimately result in natural justice being done.

Maybe you too remember when, as a child, you had done a forbidden thing and were then caught, and resorted to some such defence as My friend did it too and didn’t get in trouble. Perhaps you recall the dreaded unfairness of the parental rejoinder, Two wrongs don’t make a right!

Well, sometimes two wrongs do indeed make a right.

Part of an ongoing series called Talking Tolkien

  • Rendel Helms (1974): Tolkien’s World. Panther Books, 1976.
  • Paul Kocher (1972): Master of Middle-earth. The Achievement of J. R. R. Tolkien. Penguin Books, 1974.
  • Walter Scheps (1975): ‘The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings‘, in Jared Lobdell, editor: A Tolkien Compass. Ballantine Books, 1980.
  • J R R Tolkien (1964): ‘On Fairy-stories’, in J R R Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. HarperCollins, 1997.
  • Rose A Zimbardo ‘Moral vision in The Lord of the Rings‘, in Neil D Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo: Tolkien and the Critics: essays on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

19 thoughts on “When two wrongs make a right

  1. Very interesting, Chris. This line “Middle-earth, [Scheps] reminds us forcefully, is not our world” in particular made me think about my own reading of the trilogy when I was 15 and a fairly intense teenager with a strong sense of what was and wasn’t “just”. I think of The Lord of the Rings as teenage books, not just because I was a teenager when I had a deep relationship with the trilogy, but because I remember feeling that the world around me wasn’t my world and that the books spoke to that. It was a world that belonged to conservative adults, that I was trying to make a different sense of with my green, animal rights, save the planet, act local think global ethos. There are things about Middle Earth that, at the time, I aligned with my world – the high moral ground some people (parents, teachers, politicians) took countered by the poor decisions made in apparent negation of that high moral ground, in particular. 35 years on, and an adult of around the age my parents were back then, I know why adults appear bizarre to teenagers. I’ve dismissed The Lord of the Rings for a number of years, now – partly because of the effect Peter Jackson’s films have had on popular culture’s perception of the trilogy, partly because I was an intense teenager and so the books can’t possibly be as rich as I thought they were – but your essay has made me think that I might revisit it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is the joy of rereading certain works every few years, I think, we can appreciate them at different levels, and LOTR is definitely one of those. I recognise your eco principles from when I was a similar age, Jan, but those haven’t changed for me (I suspect not for you either) and if anything are even more relevant now. I still have that idealism and LOTR resonates absolutely with that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I will definitely appreciate LOTR differently now that my idealism is tinged with realism. There’s still a lot of teenage Jan in me, though – I think the person we form in those years from around 15-25 is the person who hangs around the longest. Certainly for me, anyway!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Most interesting, Chris. I read LOTR in my early teens, and didn’t really read it in any ‘depth’….this really adds to my previous reading. But I shan’t be revisiting it, I no longer have the stamina for long reads

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sue, glad this helped. I’m not trying to persuade others to read or reread this though, we all can only do what we can do—and I know you’ve talked about what you can manage these days in past posts. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting, Chris. I’ve long admired some of the philosophical bits of LOTR — the Gaffer’s saying that “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish” (pure mathematics there), and Gandalf’s statement that we can’t control the times we live in — we can only do our best to face what happens. But to look at the fantasy/fairy tale trope [good actions] + [good intentions] = [good outcome] as a moral philosophy — that’s new to me. (I’m thinking of the third son or daughter in so many tales — intentions and actions are always good, and they’re rewarded for it: thus [good outcome] is represented in fairy tales by [reward] (marriage to a royal, wealth, etc.).

    I have two quibbles, one of which is major. If intellectualism (personified by Saruman, I assume) is evil, what about Gandalf’s intellectualism? He delves into manuscript troves as deeply as Saruman, knows languages and lore, and spends a great deal of time thinking.

    My bigger quibble is with Scheps point about how it’s wrong to read LOTR with a real-world view of morality — wrong to find racism, for instance, in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. There are two issues with Scheps’ view: 1) Scheps’ point is based on the Intentional Fallacy. No matter what Tolkien intended, his audience brings varying life experiences to their reading, and neither Tolkien nor Scheps can control how readers understand what’s in the books. And 2) whether conscious or otherwise, one has to wonder WHY Tolkien chose to portray orcs, Haradrim and other villains as he did. Of course elves and hobbits are not racists. But, if nothing else, Tolkien was writing from within his bubble.


    1. I’m sure you’re right, Lizzie, that the youngest sibling with the nicest character and showing charity would’ve been a strong input into LOTR’s moral system. I should’ve also made clear that Scheps’ point about intellectualism was that when it’s allied with technology (as with Saruman as well as Sauron) that’s potentially where the evil arises. (I suppose the dwarves’ use of technology, for example, wasn’t informed by evil intent.)

      Your final points are well made. It’s not enough to say that black in Middle-earth doesn’t refer to real world humans, readers rightly or wrongly are going to make the analogy and draw conclusions. It may not be as blatant as Lewis’s drawing on pejorative Arabic stereotypes for his Calormenes but it’s unfortunate to say the least in Tolkien’s case.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Super interesting article! I found myself particularly interested in Helms’ idea that “an evil act combined with an evil intent will also ultimately yield a good result (minus times minus equals plus).” At first glance that seemed counter-intuitive to me even though I can see what he means in LOTR. But then I began to think more generally about how evil actions are so often self-defeating.

    This is also true in the natural world to some extent, although applying the word “evil” to animal behaviour may not make sense since I’m not sure animals can have evil intent. However they can have more selfish life-strategies or more altruistic life strategies. Many living organisms show a lot of cooperation and apparent altruism in their behaviour. But this is simply because altruism is generally a really good strategy for success. This is contrasted with the strategies of some animals who seems to deviate from the norm of their species and cause a lot of harm to the living organisms around them, both inter-species and intra-species.

    Unbalanced animals like that who cause a great deal of harm (which as humans we might think of as evil) frequently experience serious negative consequences for such behaviour including being thrown out of their group, and finding their environment much more hostile (since other creatures defend against their actions). Since these effects would shorten that animal’s life and breeding capacity there are direct evolutionary consequences to such behavaviour too.

    Sauron in LOTR had such a name for causing pain and devastation that all of the races of Middle Earth were involved in bringing him down (This includes, I think, the Dwarves – in the Return of the King Appendix it says that they fought in Dale, Erebor, and the Iron Hills from attacks made by Sauron’s forces in the North.) If he had been more altruistic and less “evil” I think fewer groups would have been drawn to fight him.

    On the other hand animals which show apparent altruism quite often gain the benefits of cooperation. For instance when 2 species cooperate there may be emergent abilties which neither species was able to do on their own. e.g. algae and fungi working together to live in places neither could live alone when they form a symbiotic partnership as lichens.

    I think when Aragorn calls the dead men of Dunharrow to fight for him he shows an example of the benefits of a more altruistic approach. He doesn’t enslave them, like Sauron, but trades with them – offering forgiveness and release from the curse in return for their help. They recognise he is honest in this and agree to fight.

    Obviously Tolkien wasn’t aware of any of this since the research for most of it is more recent that the LOTR but I like it that these Ethological theories fit with the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pretty much everything you say here makes sense to me, Jo, whether in the context of LOTR or in the natural world. A couple of thoughts in reply.

      I think we’d like to believe that evil men (and it’s largely men, I think we’d agree) will eventually get punished in due course for their evil actions but sadly that doesn’t often turn out to be so; I wonder if we prefer going for narratives in which evil is ultimately defeated or (at the very least) the status quo is restored because an infinite diet of tragedies would be too much to bear? What Tolkien called the opposite of eucatastrophes (happy endings) he dubbed dyscatastrophes.

      Unfortunately there are humans who are the equivalents of aberrations like bubonic plague, coronaviruses and cancers where organisms seem so intent on consuming their hosts that they risk running out of victims and engineering their own demise. These are the idiots we’ve seen running for example Syria and, for a period, the USA. They think that by waging war on their own people and dragging others into their engineered conflict they benefit themselves and their own circle of associates, but they don’t appear to see the wider disaster they’re contributing, a disaster in which most if not all the human and other species will suffer massive diminution. Symbiosis and cooperation on social and ecological levels are concepts beyond their grasp, to our loss.

      You’d know more about altruism in the animal world than me, Jo, but surely the larger part of it must be down to an instinct for the continuance of the species, however that may be formulated in their ‘minds’, individual or hive? That’s evident in our own species however much we may dress it up as empathy, charity or compassion? Still, imagination — the capacity to picture a situation that may not exist or even have existed — is probably not peculiar to us humans, so I suppose that’s a prerequisite for emotions like empathy.

      I haven’t read enough NY and about Tolkien to know how much he thought about ethics and parallels in natural history, but clearly his war experiences on the field of battle and on the home front will have informed him hugely, and that comes through in LOTR.


      1. >I think we’d like to believe that evil men (and it’s largely men, I think we’d agree) will eventually get punished in due course for their evil actions…

        Oops, I should have made this clearer! 🙂 When I wrote about evil behaviour being self defeating I was thinking about the fact that such behaviours are not optimal and have long term biological consequences rather than that they constitute punishment or justice.

        Hitler’s behaviour, for example, caused push back in the end with the UK, US and various national resistance organisations fighting together to stop him. I think this is a fairly common response to extreme aggression and I suspect it has biological roots. That said biological defensiveness is not justice. Justice would have stopped him (and those entranced by his story) before he systematically murdered so many people and spread hatred and death across most of Europe.

        I do totally agree with you that there are powerful people in the world who have no regard for anything but their own gain and cause nothing but devastation in their wake. I think they have no clue about the power of genuine cooperation. I think Sauron and Saruman represent them quite well.

        >You’d know more about altruism in the animal world than me, Jo, but surely the larger part of it must be down to an instinct for the continuance of the species…

        Oh absolutely! Altruism in nature works *only* because the strategy ultimately benefits the individual(s) being altruistic. Where there is no benefit altruism dies out.

        On the surface an altruistic strategy seems very much weaker than a more straight forward selfish approach which is why I think certain powerful people with very selfish aims are clueless about its strengths. The real power of it lies in the emergent functionality which altruistic organisms can access. The tree of life is stuffed full of organisms who became successful through cooperation (for their own benefit). While bacteria, cyanobacteria and other simple replicating organisms have managed very well in the world for millions of years, once some combination of them grouped together they became the start of eukaryotic cellular organisms. These are still single cells but are much more advanced. So much so that they practically exploded into the tree of life. Then when these advanced cells started grouping together both the kingdoms of animals and of plants developed, culmiating in us (a highly invasive and self-interested species) and the rest of more complex life.

        I think what I was trying to get at was that some of the most successful life on our planet has come about through cooperation. Certainly it is self-interested cooperation, but it is very effective and I would argue, in stable conditions, this form of life is more effective than simpler, more individualistic life forms.

        Because of these biological ideas I see cooperative human strategies as much more effective than selfish ones in the long run – not because they are morally good necessarily but because they are more powerful. This leaves me wondering if Sauron loses because he is not cooperative whereas Aragorn and his allies are? I do think that I am reading into Tolkien’s story my own understanding of things here. But I suspect that Tolkien’s war experiences had a deep effect on him and I wonder if he may have seen something of the powerful nature of genuine cooperation during those times, or if, maybe, he saw the opposite, say, a lack of cooperative ability when a man in a dreadful situation loses his head to fear?

        Anyway thank you so much for such an interesting post! It really made me think.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oooh, lots of interesting points here, Jo, thanks! which it’s tempting for me to waffle on about, but I’ll try and limit myself to a couple of thoughts. You quoted me at the start in a passage which I don’t think was intended to be a criticism of anything you said, just a comment on a universal wish that a Just World was a reality, but in the biological context you mention the ‘self-defeating’ principle does certainly apply — as you go on to clearly distinguish.

          I got a lot out of a Lynn Margulis book (The Symbiotic Planet, reviewed here https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4O) which talks about the mutuality of different organisms and how over time it permeated life on earth with a plethora of cooperative relationships. And your point about Sauron’s weakness being, I suppose, parasitic rather seeking true mutuality is spot on, as I think a principal subtext of LOTR must be.

          There, I limited myself to two paras in response to your wonderfully informative response, that may not happen again! Glad you found this post stimulating.


          1. 😊 I didn’t think it was a criticism (and I wasn’t trying to be critical either if I accidentally did that). I just thought I’d muddled up my explaination. I too wish for a just world.

            “The Symbiotic Planet” looks awesome – that’s going straight on my TBR! I’m just coming to the end of “Other Minds” by Godfrey-Smith so I could do with another more factual read. 😁 I remember being fascinated by Lovelock’s theory while I was at University and trying to justify another book to myself while on a slim student income! I got a remaindered copy the next year in the end.

            Thanks for your kind reply.

            Liked by 2 people

  5. Lots of interesting topics in this post! But I think that the “evil tends to fail” half of of the just-world equation is more reliable in LotR than the “virtue is rewarded” half.

    Regarding the Walter Sheps essay: I’m not convinced that Tolkien thinks that an “insatiable thirst for knowledge” is evil, so much as that it’s not inherently good, and can be corrupted.

    I don’t have a copy of the collection this is from, but was able to do a quick read of the essay in Google Books and I think it goes too far in its moralistic reading of LotR. Take this sentence:
    “The very complexity and internal self-containment of Middle-earth make it virtually impossible to abstract any of it without seriously rupturing the whole, and the very alienness of the central characters — the hobbits — should indicate to us that the central moral system which governs their world cannot, without serious consequences, be applied to our own.”

    It seems like a substantial part of the argument for “the fairytale morality of The Lord of the Rings,” for Sheps, relies on his view that the Hobbits are impossibly virtuous. I don’t share that view, so I’m a bit skeptical of his conclusions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this full response, Beth, which I’ll now attempt to reply to in a not too disjointed way! I probably didn’t make it clear enough that Scheps (I seem to recall) didn’t see a thirst for knowledge as evil in itself but that the thirst for that knowledge as a means to power over others was. Gandalf of course was minded to go research the Ring’s history in Gondor, but that didn’t make him evil; but Saruman, for instance, wanted the knowledge he could gain via his palantír, with his eventual acquisition of the One Ring, so he could have absolute power over Middle Earth.

      That said, I wouldn’t go overboard with Scheps’ analysis—it is rather dated, apart from anything else, and as you point out with some faulty concepts—but I was struck by his equation of an evil intent multiplied by an evil act resulting in evil rebounding on the perpetrator, which to me still seems to hold good since I read it nearly fifty years ago.

      Where Scheps gets the notion that the hobbits are unlike humans and exceptionally virtuous I don’t know; all common sense points to some of the hobbits being reflections of Tolkien himself in their love of pipe weed and good ale and a cosy home, and as is clear some hobbits (like the Sackville-Bagginses, just to take one example) seem to lack basic scruples.


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