Tolkien’s Shades of Gray

by Apr 30, 2008Essays


By Tony LeTigre

There seems to be a common perception that The Lord of the Rings represents a simplistic world solely concerned with a struggle between good and evil in which everyone falls clearly on one side or another. But the people who promote this opinion must have never read the book, or perhaps they read it only as children and their memory fails them, or its subtleties passed them by. For the truth is that there is a great deal in Tolkien that does not fit neatly into either category, from neutral but benevolent creatures like Tom Bombadil and the Ents to those, like Saruman and Gollum, who were not evil in the beginning but became so for various reasons, to Frodo himself, who ultimately (technically) fails in the final moment of his quest. This complexity of moral orientation and alignment is a major ingredient in the richness of Middle-earth, arguably the most fully realized, internally consistent and tantalizingly believable subcreation in all of fantasy literature. (Long live the King!)

A couple years ago I read a New Yorker article on Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy which begins with The Golden Compass. (The article, by Laura Miller, appeared in the December 26, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.) This was before I’d read anything by Pullman or had ever heard his name. The author of the piece made the inevitable comparison to Tolkien, and Pullman, in his irascible manner, brushed it aside with the assertion that “The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally an infantile work.” He goes on to aver that “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other,” but only in “maps and plans and languages and codes.” Presumably, based on these remarks, Pullman would also be among those who would criticize Tolkien for a simplistic good vs. evil worldview that fails to take in the complexity of how “grownup, adult human beings interact with each other.”

This comment certainly gave me some pause when I first read it. There is undoubtedly some truth to the assertion that Tolkien is not interested in the way adult humans interact in the modern world. I suspect Pullman’s remark also alludes to the fact that there is no sexuality and no explicit treatment of current political realities in Tolkien’s work. But surely this is exactly what people love about Middle-earth: the escape portal it provides to exit our world into one where things are purer, more alive and more magical than our own. After all, Tolkien’s inspirations were medieval and mythological texts that are far removed from our modern world, and The Lord of the Rings is an anachronistic addition to that genre. While I sometimes wish Tolkien had included eroticism in his work in some way, at other times I’m glad to be able to flee the hungers of the flesh along with everything else that’s rather difficult about being a human in 21st century America.

As for Pullman himself, I had to return The Golden Compass to the library before I finished it, but my impression was that while it was an interesting, original, and well-written story, it wasn’t as satisfying as fantasy literature because it’s only slightly removed from our world. (But I understand it’s much better than the egregious film that was made from it.) In other words, it doesn’t fully satisfy the E (for Escapism) that Tolkien names one of the criteria for fantasy literature in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.” It could also be considered hypocritical for an author whose works are populated with talking animals to dismiss another’s work as “infantile.” (Snap!)

But to return to the topic of the shades of gray in The Lord of the Rings. The most obvious and blatant example is of course Gollum, who is basically an ancestral hobbit creature warped and twisted by the power of the One Ring over a long span of years until he is barely recognizable as his original self. Yet flickers of that original self reveal themselves in the second book of The Two Towers, as Sam and Frodo are forced to use him as their guide in order to penetrate the mountains of Mordor. This leads to remarkable scenes in which Gollum’s split personality emerges and the part of his mind that still has a conscience and fears to break his pledge of allegiance to Frodo argues aloud with the part that is corrupt beyond all hope. These brilliant scenes are something we can all relate to, as we argue with ourselves in our head (the cartoon image of a miniature devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, whispering contradictory advice into someone’s ear), but Gollum is tormented by them to a degree that makes his life wretched. Frodo may feel no pity for Gollum, but it’s likely that the audience does.

There is also Saruman, once the head of the council and therefore one of the wisest and most revered beings in Middle-earth, who is ultimately corrupted by the power of the Ring and falls from grace, to use a Christian euphemism. In this sense Saruman is to Gandalf what Gollum is to Frodo: his dark alter ego, what he could be if he fell pretty to the Ring’s lust for power. Another tragic character is Boromir, whose weakness is pride and a too-sure belief in his lord, Denethor. Whereas Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is presented as ideal, Boromir’s allegiance to Denethor is a weakness and leads to his undoing, another example of how values in Tolkien are not constant but can mean different things according to their context. Lastly, there is Frodo himself, with his failure to throw the Ring into the fire at the end of his quest. It is Gollum who saves Frodo in the end, fulfilling Gandalf’s prophecy and proving once again (as it has many times in the past of Middle-earth) that evil is its own worst enemy.

These are the most obvious examples. But there are also a number of entities or tribes that are more or less neutral, that is, not directly involved in the War of the Ring in that they care nothing for the ring itself, but end up joining in one side or the other as befits their own survival. Among these are Shelob, whose uneasy truce with Sauron echoes that of Melkor with Ungoliant in The Silmarillion; the Balrog, an evil entity left over from the First Age whose attack on Frodo’s company may or may not be connected with the Ring in any way (that is never made clear); Treebeard and the Ents, who wish only to be left in peace in their ancient forest but end up being drawn into the conflict in response to the atrocities of Saruman; the Woses or wild-men of Dunharrow, who are also minding their own affairs but end up aiding the Rohirrim on their ride to break the siege of Gondor; and my favorite shades of gray, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.

Unlike the others, Bombadil and Goldberry remain aloof from the war and help Frodo only indirectly; they are never seen again after the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring, although they are often recalled fondly at later points in the quest. Interestingly, in drafts of the story published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher we see Tolkien initially conceiving a larger role for Tom. In one of these drafts Gandalf says of Tom, “We have never had much to do with one another up till now. I don’t think he quite approves of me somehow. He belongs to a much older generation, and my ways are not his. He keeps himself to himself and does not believe in travel. But I fancy somehow that we shall all need his help in the end – and that he may have to take an interest in things outside his own country.” But of course, this never comes to pass. The idea of Bombadil as a nature spirit ultimately entering the war to turn the tide, as Beorn does in The Hobbit, seems in The Lord of the Rings to be shifted onto the Ents. Bombadil remains an island of neutrality, and Gandalf suggests, at the end of the quest, that he would not even be interested in hearing the story of their journey, so complete is his indifference to matters of warfare, power and possession.

But even more so than the particular alignments of specific characters in the story, the nuanced quality of Tolkien’s world comes from the ambiguities he weaves into the story. This is again what separates him from lesser writers of the fantasy genre, such as Terry Brooks (I read The Sword of Shannara years ago, or rather I started to read it, but it seemed like such an insipid, watered-down Tolkien ripoff I couldn’t finish). It is also what accounts for the bittersweet, elegiac mood of The Lord of the Rings in general. It begins with the cheerful innocence of The Hobbit but ends with The Silmarillion’s tone of lamentation and loss.

This would be the final counter-argument to those who claim The Lord of the Rings is a facile yarn about good triumphing over evil: unlike in so many happy-ending stories, or even in the works of someone as great as Shakespeare, which usually end with either marriage and joy (comedies) or death and despair (tragedies), in Tolkien the two are inseparable from one another. The Fellowship finally fulfills its quest, Aragorn marries Arwen and is crowned King, but the last of the Elves of the Elder Days must depart Middle-earth as a result, “slowly to forget and to be forgotten” (in the words of Galadriel). Ultimately, the victory achieved in the War of the Ring is neither total nor permanent.


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