Suite101: Beware that Baker in the Kitchen! - What is the nature of evil in Middle-earth, and at what point does it become True Evil?

In this week’s Suite101 essay, Michael Martinez examines good and evil in Tolkien’s universe.

Here is an excerpt:

There's nothing like a good villain in Tolkien and, unfortunately, he has so few of them. Now, before people go hanging me, let me say that I think Tolkien intentionally kept the good villains to a minimum. The really evil folk were rare because they were corrupting and manipulating everyone else toward evil. Neither Melkor nor Sauron would have tolerated a rival Dark Lord. Almost all the other guys were just their minions. It's debatable whether the Balrog of Moria was really serving Sauron in the Third Age.

But Tolkien's evil is different from the evil in most stories. He is not focusing on evil in human beings. He is focusing on external evil, what he sometimes calld Evil Incarnate. One would almost expect to hear those words reverberate when he spoke them. Thunder should peel across the sky, and clouds should block the sun. Melkor and Sauron may have been good to begin with, but they walked down that dark path ahead of everyone else. Heck, Melkor blazed the trail and Sauron widened it.

There is human evil in Middle-earth: greed, avarice, pride, and so on. Kings and heroes can easily run amok and leave the path of Goodness and Light. Tolkien derives his tragedy from these human characters. But neither Melkor nor Sauron is tragic, though they could be. That is, there is no regret over the fall of these two once truly great and magnificent beings. They were Ainur, angels, children of the thought of Iluvatar before there was Time, before the Children of Iluvatar were brought into being. They weren't always dark, but were once of the light. And yet the choices they made led them down into destruction. Their corruption wasn't a foregone conclusion.

On the other hand, there is nothing of petty evil in Tolkien. No one gets mad at the village and poisons their bread, so to speak, in a petty act of revenge over cheap shots and insults. All acts of evil are universally despised. People have a sense of what is right and wrong, and they generally try to live by it. Except for "those other guys", the enemy. In every war the victors are the good guys in their own sight. So Sauron's followers undoubtedly enjoyed the successes they experienced because they were on the right side. It was the evil Elves and the domineering Dunedain who needed to be destroyed.

On the other hand, one might be quick to point out, who would think the Orcs are "good" people? Even the Orcs seemed to despise themselves. Yes and no. We define good and evil by the values we are taught or learn while growing up. The Orcs were corrupted. What they might deem to be good wouldn't necessarily make sense to us, but it would make sense to them. "What is best in life?" "Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women." Not exactly classic Tolkien dialogue, but it reflects the values of warriors in some people's imaginations.

Good in the sense of what is best for the community also existed among the Orcs. Aragorn pointed out that they would travel a long way to avenge a fallen captain. Why? The Orc was dead, after all, right? What was in it for the living Orcs to risk their lives trying to pay back someone who had killed a captain they probably hated? Pride. But not just pride. There had to be a pack sense, a tribal feeling which underlay all the inevitable abuse. The growling and fighting and snarling was part of the social pecking system. Chickens determine a social hierarchy and so do Orcs. That's just the way things are. So what if the head Orc probably killed five other Orc chiefs to take over the tribe?


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