For J.R.R. Tolkien, no one is beyond redemption—even orcs
Last month Amazon debuted its mega-super-massive television series “The Rings of Power,” a “Lord of the Rings” prequel (in the same way that ancient Egypt is a prequel to today—the events take place 5,000 years before The Hobbit). And six episodes in, the big question is, which character is actually the evil wizard Sauron? Is it the dark elf who the orcs called Father? The mysterious man with tremendous magical ability who crashed to earth seemingly from the stars? The tormented ironsmith who doesn’t want to go back to his kingdom and has unexpected dexterity as a fighter? The adorable Harfoot who is just trying to help everyone?
O.K., no one is asking whether it’s the adorable Harfoot. She is clearly good. But otherwise it really is an open field. Even the lead character Galadriel seems as likely as not to be an unwitting agent of evil.
In our own modern-day world of would-be trolls and heroes, Tolkien’s work offers important lessons on the ways we treat others and ourselves.
Obviously, this is Storytelling 101: You want to keep people guessing. But it’s also emblematic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision of human existence, in which the difference between villains and champions is far less than we might expect. In our own modern-day world of would-be trolls and heroes, Tolkien’s work offers important lessons on the ways we treat others and ourselves.
Nothing Is Born Evil
In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s ancient history of Middle-earth from which “The Rings of Power” draws, Tolkien explains that only Ilúvatar (Tolkien’s version of God) can create life. And this has a major implication for his universe: No race of creature is inherently evil. Evil is a corruption of something that was once good. So orcs were created from elves who had been kidnapped and tortured by the Lucifer-like Melkor. Trolls are believed to be a similarly warped version of Ents, the trees that walk and speak. And Balrogs like the one that attacked Gandalf the Grey in The Two Towers are the Middle-earth equivalent of Lucifer’s fallen angels.
For Tolkien, every creature exists on the same continuum between good and evil, and has the capacity to travel either way along it.
Of all the races in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy the orcs are the one group who seem utterly evil. Never in any of Tolkien’s books do we meet a single orc that is good, or who resists the commands of Sauron. Yet in The Silmarillion, Tolkien reveals that orcs are among Middle-earth’s greatest victims, because their corruption is a result not of their choice, but of Melkor’s torment and abuse. Long after they have become a species of their own, they remain trapped and in pain: “Deep in their dark hearts,” Tolkien writes, “the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery.” In a sense, perhaps they are the most universally evil of all the forms of life in Middle-earth because they are the most universally abused and imprisoned.
Good People and Bad Are Not Fundamentally Different
Grounding the idea of evil in corruption has major consequences for Tolkien’s way of thought. Most importantly, it undermines any attempt to separate life on Middle-Earth into heroes and monsters. Every creature exists on the same continuum between good and evil, and has the capacity to travel either way along it. Good people can go bad: Tolkien repeatedly shows even the noblest of creatures, like Gandalf or Frodo, falling prey to the same temptations to greed and power that drives monsters like Smaug or Melkor. The Nazgul who fight at Sauron’s side, though they are some of the most frightening creatures in Middle-earth, were likewise originally nine human kings, at least some of whom were almost certainly good before they donned the rings that corrupted them.
For Tolkien even the very worst of monsters have within them the potential to turn back toward the good. The central part of The Silmarillion concerns three jewels known as the Silmarils, which shine with the most beautiful light in the universe and are widely coveted, including by Melkor (who the elves know as Morgoth). But as mentioned in Episode 2 of “The Rings of Power,” when Morgoth actually gazed upon the Silmarils, he was so overwhelmed by their beauty that he had to turn away from them, lest his heart be changed permanently toward the good. For Tolkien, even Satan himself is capable of conversion.
For Tolkien even the very worst of monsters have within them the potential to turn back toward the good.
Perhaps no character embodies these ideas more fully than Gollum, the violent, lizard-like creature Bilbo Baggins encounters living in the caves of the Misty Mountains and obsessing over his precious ring. In The Hobbit he seems like a vile and treacherous monster, his external filthiness indicative of the state of his character. But over the course of “The Lord of the Rings” we discover that before he found the ring Gollum was a hobbit himself named Smeagol. It was the ring’s power and his obsession with it that slowly transformed him into the monster we meet. And over the course of the “Lord of the Rings,” Gollum fights his own compulsions to try and be more good.
We Have a Role in the Goodness or Evil of Others
What made Gollum want to change? The kindness of others. In The Hobbit, despite Gollum’s villainy, Bilbo refuses to kill him. And in “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo’s persistent charity toward Gollum does much to undo the corrupting process he had undergone. Indeed,Tolkien wrote in a letter to a reader that “things might have turned out differently” for Gollum if not for Frodo’s companion Samwise Gamgee. While most (including myself) tend to see Sam as one of the noblest characters in “The Lord of the Rings,” faithful above all, Tolkien insists that he, too, is tempted by a pride and possessiveness—in his case, of Frodo. And that has devastating consequences.
“It prevented him [Sam] from fully understanding the master that he loved,” Tolkien writes, and from seeing as Frodo did the “…damaged good in the corrupt.”
When Sam dismisses the change in Gollum’s behavior at the end of The Two Towers, Tolkien writes, Gollum’s “repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted. Shelob’s lair [into which Gollum leads them to try and kill them] became inevitable.” Once again, for Tolkien the good are capable of great evil—notably, even through seemingly very small deeds—while the “monsters” are not inherently evil but “damaged good.”
The more you read Tolkien, the harder it gets to completely write anyone off. Without calling attention to it, Tolkien’s stories keep pushing readers to see those around them through the eyes of God. Our heroes are also sinners and our monsters are “damaged goods,” just like us. Some might say no one escapes God’s justice. But in Tolkien’s books no one escapes God’s mercy, either. In the end that might be the most revolutionary and in some ways disconcerting aspect of Tolkien’s body of work.