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.
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
- The cosmos is providentially controlled.
- Intention structures result.
- Moral and magical law have the force of physical law.
- Will and states of mind (both good and evil) can have objective reality and physical energy.
- 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.