Tolkien 103: Doom, Despair and Agony on Thee (LOTR Part Deux)


While the Fantasy of Middle Earth – its recovery of how things should be – is an important element of the epic tale, the very real doom at stake is a necessary evil, as it were, to propel the story.  In this second (of three) segments on the Lord of the Rings, we examine the workings of the Dark Side of Middle Earth in excruciating detail. What fun! let’s begin …

Mordor and Shadow: As Ugly as Sin

The pale of Death, and of Shadow, are how Tolkien represents the wages of The Enemy of Mordor throughout LOTR.  The One Ring itself embodies and enforces this, as Bilbo Baggins’ years of wearing it have left him feeling “all thin, sort of stretched … like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”[1]  The power of evil to diminish the good is born in Bilbo’s very body.  This follows writers such as Dante, who held that evil is simply a privation of the good, (and hence, a no-thing, or nothing); in response to the Manicheeans who taught about active and equal (but ultimately impersonal) principles of light and dark at work in the world, Augustine in his Confessions stated “I did not know that evil is nothing but the diminishment of good to the point where nothing at all is left,” thus forming his privatio boni position on evil.[2] [3]  C.S. Lewis imaginatively deployed this idea in The Great Divorce, where the saints are weighty and substantial while sinners become increasingly small and ghost like.  In Tolkien’s LOTR in fact, when the ring is put on by its bearer, the individual vanishes entirely altogether!  And Tolkien explicitly states the difference between good and evil when Sam spies some stars twinkling through the dark Mordorian night, and “hope returned to him … the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”[4]

Tolkien provides even more details on the workings of sin and Death throughout the LOTR saga.  The dehumanizing effects of sin – described so aptly by Tolkien’s friend C.S Lewis in The Great Divorce [5] but perhaps most succinctly stated in his Screwtape Letters (given below).  The parallels between Lewis’s account and Tolkien’s are fairly remarkable, but Tolkien first. The journey towards Mordor is one from “a dun, shadowless world, fading slowly into a featureless, colorless gloom,”[6] and “a land of darkness where … all who entered were forgotten.”[7]  The landscape approaching Mordor is not one of light and cheer and beauty but “a fuming, barren, ash-ridden land”[8] and a “broken, tumbled”[9] and craggy landscape vomited up rather than created.[10]  The pernicious nature of evil is described with liberal use of terms such as hateful, full of malice, dread and gloom, but perhaps the most telling statements of its workings are offered when Gandalf states “often does hatred hurt itself,”[11] when Theoden observes of the crystal ball ‘palantirs’ of Sauron, that “strange powers have our enemies and strange weaknesses … but it has long been said: oft evil will shall evil mar,[12] or when Tolkien states that Sauron had “few servants but many slaves of fear.”[13]

mordor blast magazine

Mordor – courtesy

  The ultimate vacuity and emptiness of evil is not to be confused however, with the idea that it has no intentional source.  Quite the opposite, in fact! Behind Saruman, the watchful eye of  Sauron and even Mordor lies the Nameless Enemy, a sleepless malice. Shelob the spider to whom Gollum leads Frodo and Sam offers just a telling a view of this evil. Her lair smells of the very rottenness of decay, but not just “the sickly odor of decay … but a foul reek, as if filth unnamable were piled and hoarded in the dark within.”[14] Shelob’s lair is likened to “veritable darkness itself that, as it breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of color and of forms and of any light faded out of thought.”[15] Shelob herself exudes a “lurking malice,”[16]  exercises on Gollum “the darkness of her evil will … cutting him off from light and regret” while reserving for herself “a glut of life” which is Tolkien picturesquely, perhaps unfortunately for a reader about to sit down to dinner, describes with

she served none but herself, drinking the blood of elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless broodings on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. [17]

The table is now set, as it were, for a comparison with C.S.  Lewis’s  description, by agents of Satan in the Screwtape Letters, of the differences between their agenda and God’s (referred to here as The Enemy)

               One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food;
                He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.[18]

The rich connections between Lewis and Tolkien should not be discounted, as Lewis in fact dedicates Screwtape Letters to Tolkien.  One further striking parallel remains, before moving on to examining the ways in which death and immortality play out in the fates of the various characters of Middle Earth: The Problem of Pleasure, or as Lewis would call it, Joy.  Joy is a central feature of Lewis’s novel contribution to what is termed Christian Apologetics, or arguments for the existence of God.  While arguments from design, order, beauty and purpose are approaches one typically considers as arguments for the existence of God, Lewis took the simple concept of pleasure, or joy, and reflected it back to its original source, God Himself.  In that vein, Lewis famously states

it would seem our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.[19]

And even more poetically, Lewis contrasts this eternal joy with that described by William Wordsworth in the poem Surprised by Joy, where Wordsworth despairs of the fading moments of joy he has known in his life,

            that spot which no vicissitude can find …

            To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return

            Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

            Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

            Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

            That neither present time, nor years unborn

            Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.[20]

By contrast, Lewis (who incidentally titled his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, giving Wordsworth’s poem as an opening quote) shows the source of these moments of earthly joy:  sbj

If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found  the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would only turn out to be itself a remembering.  The books or beauty in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was longing.  These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, news from a country we have not visited. 

Lewis then continues

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of  the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.[21]

            And Tolkien follows Lewis’s lengthy discussions of joy with his many descriptions in LOTR, which will be more apparent in the next section. But one curious way in which the two mirror each other in this area is the inability of evil to produce any actual, substantial pleasures.  Lewis makes this plain in Screwtape Letter 9:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden… An ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and its better style.  To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return – that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.[22]

Tolkien echoes the same argument (ever so briefly!) when Sam asks “Don’t Orcs eat, and don’t they drink Or do they just live on foul air and poison?”  Frodo replies

No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make:  not new real things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them. [23]

Just as Orcs are but twisted Elves, and Trolls evilly-transmogrified Ents, Lewis and Tolkien are in accord with the nature of good, and how evil is but a perversion of it. In fact, in Lewis’s sci-fi Space Trilogy, the unfallen race of the Hnau on Malacandra (Mars) have no words for the fallen humans who visit, and declare them simply bent.[24]  But the original vision of man, as an image of the Creator, imago Dei, inundates the Lord of the Rings story. Tolkien pays homage to this vision of man, “as he was meant to be,” a sub-creator made in the mold of the original, in his Mythopoeia:

            The heart of man is not compound of lies,

            but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

            and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,

            man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

            Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,

            and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,

            his world-dominion by creative act:

            not his to worship the great Artefact,

            man, sub-creator, the refracted light

            through whom is splintered from a single White

            to many hues, and endlessly combined

            in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

            Though all the crannies of the world we filled

            with elves and goblins, though we dared to build

            gods and their houses out of dark and light,

            and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right

            (used or misused). The right has not decayed.

            We make still by the law in which we’re made.

            In the dual nature of man – his glory and fall – and the celebration of humanity, the scholarly Tolkien actually seems to echo in part the Elizabethan era Alexander Pope and his Essay on Man:

            Created half to rise, and half to fall;

            Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

            Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:

            The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! [25]

            Such is at risk when engaged with evil, and its powers of – not so much transmogrification (to borrow a term from Calvin & Hobbes), but simply of – erasure.  But please follow along to the finale: Tolkien 104: Deeper Meanings and a Far Green Country under a Swift Sunrise

[1]     Tolkien, Fellowship, I.1 “A Long Expected Party,” 58.

[2]     Augustine, The Confessions, III.7.12.


[4]     Tolkien, Return of the King,  VI.2 “The Land of Shadow,” 211.

[5]     C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

[6]     Tolkien, The Two Towers, IV.7  “Journey to the Cross-Roads,” 349.

[7]     Tolkien, Return of the King, VI.1 “The Tower of Cirith Ungol,” 181.

[8]     Ibid., VI.3“Mount Doom,” 228.

[9]     Ibid., VI.3, 225.

[10]   Heavens to Betsy / Mergatroid/ help me – have yet to track down this reference.

[11]   Tolkien, The Two Towers, III.10 “The Voice of Saruman,” 210.

[12]   Ibid., III.11 “The Palantir,” 221.

[13]   Tolkien, Return of the King, VI.1 “The Tower of Cirith Ungol,” 185.

[14]   Tolkien, The Two Towers, IV.9, “Sheob’s Lair,” 368.

[15]   Ibid, 369.

[16]   Ibid., 370.

[17]   Ibid., 376.

[18]   C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (NewYork: HarperCollins eBooks, 2009), Chapter 8, p. 37. Nook. Screwtape Letters was originally published in 1959.

[19]   C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses , ed. Walter Hooper, New York: Collier Books, 1980), 3.

[20]   William Wordsworth, Surprised by Joy,

[21]   C.S. Lewis,  The Weight of Glory , 7.

[22]   C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 8.

[23]   Tolkien, Return of the King, VI.1 “The Tower of Cirith Ungol,” 201.

[24]   C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003). Origianlly written in 1938, this is the first of three books in the trilogy, which follows with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. In chapters 18 and on, for instance, humans are described as ‘bent.’

[25]   Alexander Pope, Essay on Man , 1733-1734. Online available, also partially reprinted in  E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, 1942),67


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