The Tolkien Bias

A 14 February 2000 article in the New Statesman reviewing a BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy states the following about Peake’s peer in the fantasy writing business:

Tolkien’s fictional writings are fantasies, and not only in the literary genre to which they belong. The donnish cleverness with which Tolkien fabricated his imagined world cannot disguise the truth that it is no more than a fusty pastiche, composed from his own deeply conventional Christianity and the class hierarchies of prewar England. It is a regression to a vision of childhood as understood by a certain sort of adult. Lord of the Rings answers the need for a world in which good and evil are not intertwined, and where the final outcome of their conflict is never in doubt. It is essentially an escape (Gray).

This constitutes what I believe is the “Tolkien Bias,” or the false notion that Tolkien’s literary works are merely escapist in that they constitute the unrealistic idea that good and evil are always separate and clearly identifiable. In reality, the opposite is true: Tolkien’s works are ultimately not escapist because, as a survey of the texts will show you, Middle-earth is not a world of black and white, but instead one of many shades of gray.

On a strictly superficial level, the Tolkien Bias seems to have some validity. According to this notion, the “bad guys” are supposedly naturally bad because they look, sound, and act bad. We understand the Ringwraiths to be evil because they are clad in black, ride black horses (and later, hideous flying creatures known only as “fell beasts”), and otherwise do evil things. Similarly, the orcs are understood as antagonistic because they are ugly (“mockeries” of the beautiful Elves, according to Tolkien’s legendarium), speak vulgarly (meaning, it seems, they sound like they are from the lowest dregs of the East End of London), and also otherwise do evil things.

The “good guys,” on the other hand–still speaking strictly on the superficial level–are supposedly good because they look, sound, and act good. The Elves, for example, always look pretty, as when Glorfindel first approaches Aragorn and the Hobbits en route to Rivendell:

“Suddenly into view below came a white horse, gleaming in the shadows, running swiftly. In the dusk its headstall flickered and flashed, as if it were studded with gems like living stars. The rider’s cloak streamed behind him, and his hood was thrown back; his golden hair flowed shimmering in the wind of his speed. To Frodo it appeared that a white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if through a thin veil” (Tolkien 1994 204).

But are we to believe that everything in Tolkien’s Middle-earth is so easily discernible? Let us not forget, too, that the only reason Glorfindel appears “shimmering” and “shining” to Frodo is that Frodo at this point has been stabbed by the Witch-King’s Morgul Blade, which is drawing him into the “Wraith World”; thus, because Frodo is fading into a supposedly dark place, Glorfindel only appears to be shimmering and shining. To Aragorn and the Hobbits, he would look positively normal, if still somewhat pretty (his flowing golden hair is a trade-mark of his family, and is not a facade put upon him by the Wraith World). This gets to the root of the problem with the Tolkien Bias: it is based entirely on appearances, and not at all on the realities of Tolkien’s universe. Sure, the Ringwraiths and Orcs look evil and are evil, and the Elves look good and are good, but they are only parts of an immense legendarium, and in no way do they stand as exemplars to go by.

Departing from the strictly superficial reading of Tolkien’s texts, we begin to see this contrast between appearance and reality: things are not always what they seem. One of the most obvious examples of this in Lord of the Rings is the character of Boromir, who for all intents and purposes appears to be a good man, but by the end is driven to a horrible and damnable act. When we first meet him in Rivendell, he is described as “a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance” (Tolkien 1994 234). According to the Tolkien Bias, Boromir should be an eternally good man who always fights the good fight. But alas! this is not how the narrative unfolds, for several chapters later, we find Boromir confronting Frodo, demanding from him the One Ring, which he believes will help him protect his people and defeat Sauron. When Frodo refuses, Boromir flies into a wild rage, attacking the Hobbit and trying to steal the Ring away. Moreover, at this point his appearance seems to transform: “His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes” (Tolkien 1994 390). Even though Boromir now appears evil as he is committing an evil deed, he is not inherently evil. We know by his actions that he does good things and that his morals usually seem to be in good order. The frightening aspect here that the Tolkien Bias overlooks is that good men like Boromir can easily be driven to evil; they are not by their nature “good guys”–even though they may appear to be good guys–but rather can be swayed one way or the other depending on the situation at hand.

Another “gray area” in Tolkien’s legendarium comes in the character of Saruman, one of the five Istari, or Wizards, originally sent from the West (meaning sent by the godly Valar, the “Lords of the West”) to help speed the process of defeating the Dark Lord Sauron. He is initially referred to as the “White Messenger”; according to the Tolkien Bias, White=pure=good. Moreover, Tolkien himself wrote of Saruman and the other Istari, “We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar, that is persons of the ‘angelic’ order” (Tolkien 1980 411). We therefore have a direct link here between Saruman and the adjective, “angelic,” a word that is most usually not applied to antagonists, at least not in texts that depict evil and good in terms of black and white. Nevertheless,  Saruman–despite the fact he is of an “angelic order”–commits evil and, in fact, becomes one of the Lord of the Rings‘ primary antagonists. At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf speaks of Saruman’s treachery: after Gandalf refuses to aid Saruman in his quest to obtain the One Ring in order to defeat Sauron and then subjugate the Peoples of Middle-earth, the “White Messenger” imprisons him atop Orthanc, the tower in the midst of Saruman’s home of Isengard. From that vantage point, Gandalf says, he saw that

“whereas it [Isengard] had once been green and fair, it was now filled with pits and forges. Wolves and orcs were housed in Isengard, for Saruman was mustering a great force on his own account, in rivalry of Sauron and not in his service yet. Over all his works a dark smoke hung and wrapped itself about the sides of Orthanc” (Tolkien 1994 254).

So we again have a person who initially appears good (i.e., Saruman is the “White Messenger”), but ultimately reveals himself to be capable of evil and, indeed, commits many evil acts. Saruman explicitly defiles the beautiful (and “pure,” if we consider nature to be as such) areas of Isengard for personal benefit, something not befitting of one of “angelic” stature in a world where good and evil are always separate and clearly identifiable. Thus the Tolkien Bias is again proven false, as Saruman appears to be good, but is ultimately anything but.

The last of the “gray areas” to be discussed here comes at the end of the Lord of the Rings: according to the Tolkien Bias–especially that found in the New Statesman article–the outcome of the main conflict is “never in doubt.” Take, then, this passage from The Return of the King, at which point Frodo, the main protagonist of the Lord of the Rings, has finally reached the final destination of his journey and should by all means–according to the Tolkien Bias–simply cast the evil One Ring into the fiery depths of the volcano and thus fulfill his quest: “‘I have come,’ [Frodo] said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight” (Tolkien 1994 924). Thus, Frodo is not a clearly identifiable “good guy,” despite the fact that he has done good deeds and displayed good morals and otherwise appears to be as such. He goes all the way to the end of his journey and even then falls to evil, just as Boromir and Saruman fall in their own turns. His quest fails for he claims the Ring–a tool of immense evil–for himself. Again the Tolkien Bias falls short, for though Frodo appears to be good, he is in fact just as susceptible to evil as everyone else and ultimately sways to that end. This, of course, also throws into disarray the Tolkien Bias’ contention that the outcome is obvious because at this point, Frodo is no longer a protagonist in the narrative’s main conflict, but indeed an antagonist. He is deliberately working against the destruction of evil, becoming an agent of darkness himself.

Perhaps most irksome about the Tolkien Bias is the fact that it [and by extension, those that adopt it] overlooks one of the fundamental themes of all of Tolkien’s work: the idea of free will. All three of the characters mentioned above are given the opportunity to do good–indeed, are set up to do so. Each of them, however, decide of their own free will to do evil, or at least to proclaim it. This is a frightening depiction of human nature for–even though Saruman and Frodo are not technically human–the reflection of these characters in our daily lives is quite clear: we are frequently presented with the opportunity to do the “right thing” or the “wrong thing,” and to be sure, we do not always choose to do the right thing; and more to the point, those of us who appear to be evil sometimes do good while those of us who appear to be good do evil. Thus, Tolkien’s supposedly “escapist” world–the so-called “regression to a vision of childhood”–has a much stronger connection to our grown-up reality than proponents of the Tolkien Bias would lead you to believe. Much like our own world, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a realm rendered in many unsettling shades of gray and is not clearly delineated in black and white. Knowing right from wrong, good from bad, and so on is just as difficult in Tolkien’s world as it is in our own.

[…]

Works Cited

Gray, John. “Fictional special – Draughtman’s contract. Graham Greene thought that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast triology could never be rendered into film form. The BBC’s recent adaptation of this great epic proves him wrong.” Newstatesman.com. 14 February 2000. 14 January 2009. <http://www.newstatesman.com/200002140050&gt;.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.

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One response to “The Tolkien Bias

  1. i’ve read books where someone can tell who’s the hero and who’s the guy that “supposed” to be evil and is evil. to tell you the truth, that’s very boring. a book where the character seems good at first, then turns out to be evil is a little more exciting. for one thing, there’s a possible climax right there.

    even though i read only the fellowship of the ring, i understood what you were talking about to an extent. sad thing is, one of the movies also helps me understand this to an extent, even though i was probably half asleep or not paying close attention when you showed it to our english class way back in my freshman year. luckily, i can’t remember which movie it was.

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