Black, White and Grey

by Rogorn with responses

Last week I was at a literary-festival-cum-fair called Semana Negra (Black Week) in Gijón, northern Spain, where I was able to hear talks by two contemporary fantasy writers. One of them was George RR Martin, best known as the author of the ‘A song of ice and fire’ saga, and the other R Scott Bakker, who is getting rave reviews of his own trilogy, ‘The prince of nothing’.

Both of them staunchly defended fantasy fiction as a legitimate literary genre, with its good, its bad and its ugly, the same as any other, and praises of their avowed master, JRR Tolkien, abounded. Actually, one would think they’d be so tired of having to refer to Tolkien all the time, at having Tolkien compared to them all the time, that they’d try to bring him into the conversation as little as possible, but on the contrary, they were the ones who started it each time. Maybe it’s because they’re used to it, or because they know that Tolkien is the beginning and the end of some people’s knowledge of what is termed fantasy fiction (in particular after the LOTR films), so they were trying to anchor their writing onto something the wider public would be familiar with.

Anyway, one of the things they both said, and one you hear all the time, was about the absolute-good-versus-absolute-evil, black-versus-white-with-no-greys-in-the-middle nature of Tolkien’s writing in LOTR. Which they didn’t see as a weakness, but by the way they (and many other people) refer to it you could see that they were being maybe a bit condescending, as if they were saying: ‘You know, he wrote it in the 1940s, Tolkien was a man born in the 19th century, he was a committed Catholic, etc, etc. Like when you see films from the Errol Flynn era and you think, yeah, they’re fun, I love them to bits, but everything is too polished, they have been improved upon without question.’ The organiser of the festival had no problem to say unapologetically that he considered Martin as much better than Tolkien. On the one hand, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He has to magnify his own event. But on the other I don’t have a doubt that he was saying what he thought.

And I am sure that a big part of the reason for this is this perceived black-and-white thing. I haven’t read Bakker yet, although I’m intrigued by what I heard (there’s Crusade-like wars dominating his world, and it seems to be heavy in philosophy and ideas some characters believe in like extremists), but I have read Martin’s whole ASOIAF saga, and it is all one big grey area. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, but you can tell sometimes that the author is making extra effort to make no character too likeable or too ‘hateable’. It’s a saga of kingdoms, thrones, alliances, betrayals and ambitions, in a made-up continent of medieval setting with the Wars of the Roses as one of the inspirations. It is quite violent, sometimes to the point of graphic, and with liberal amounts of the s, the e, and the x in it. Never gratuitous, one must say. Sure, he chooses not to always pan the camera away to the fireplace, but all the scenes of this type go to motive and have a reason: love, vows, money, dynastic interests, loss of innocence, growing up in the world, etc.

And fans just love it, and they love it I think because it gives them what they feel Tolkien left unexplored. They feel it’s more real, dirty and down-to-earth than grandpa’s high and mighty lords, that those passions and violence are a part they wanted to see in Aragorn or Éowyn and they were never allowed to. No-one has a bad word to say about Tolkien’s black-and-whites, but I feel many readers and writers treat him as a prude of a relic. Lovingly so, but still, lacking a certain street-wise quality, you know, with his pipe and all. Grandpa is from another age, don’t let him catch you reading that, he’d get upset.

However, whereas from the general public one expects received wisdom like this, I was a bit disappointed that self-avowed professionals of the genre fell into the same general clichés. That got me to thinking back on LOTR and its hues of white and black. As you know, Tolkien himself rejected the notion. He felt that characters such as Denethor or Gríma were grey as an English winter sky. So why do people still go on about it?

Let’s explore this. Starting with the black corner, you have to say we have a real heavy-weight. They don’t come blacker than Sauron. He is a god of blackness, literally. He is so evil that the country where he settled became so black from his presence that it became known as Mor-dor, Black Land, literally too. His contact poisons the mind, his minions can’t get away from his presence, and Tolkien himself said that in his legendarium he is the last time in history that Evil will have a physical presence, a source from whence it comes, whose destruction will by itself purify and heal the land. From the Fourth Age on, evil will come from the inside of the Free Peoples. So yeah, Sauron kinda breaks the black-o-meter. But this is not a bad thing. It’s made like this from design, from the beginning. We’re talking about the beginning of everything in the world, when gods actually roamed the earth (and if you think Sauron’s bad, you should meet Morgoth, his erstwhile boss).

What about the other side, though? My feeling is that they only look white when they oppose so black an enemy. Remove Sauron from the equation for a moment, and you’ll see them not that shiny-white. Kind of like when someone paints their face white and their teeth look yellowy in comparison. The Elves and their lore are packing up and leaving, they keep their own counsel, and they only seem to be worried about maintaining their own little sanctuaries. Eventually they join the fight, but only when it’s taken to them, and their big chiefs Elrond and Galadriel choose to sit out the trip to destroy the ring, fearing that after so many years and wisdom they’re not cut out for that kind of risk anyway. The only representative in the Fellowship is what they term a ‘strange’-looking Legolas, who is only middle management. Besides, we know from the Silmarillion about the dark deeds of the Eldar in the past. The hobbits are parochial, blissfully ignorant, mostly xenophobic, and only a handful of the best of them render sterling services to the cause. To say nothing of the inordinate amount of trouble a certain Sméagol caused. The dwarves live underground minding (and mining) their own business, so greedy that their inability to let sleeping dragons lie almost cost the north-east dear indeed.

And what about Men? Some of them live in a glorified military camp called Minas Tirith, all high and mighty, and they don’t deign talk to their cousins the Rohirrim because they’re uncouth, illiterate, live half as long only, and stink of horse manure. Éomer has his posse of bad boys vigilanteing the land because no-one else does, as papa Théoden is too sickly, poor thing, while lil sis Éowyn chafes at the impositions of their male-dominated society. And don’t get me started on Gríma. The Gondorians are governed by not-quite-a-king with a screw loose and delusions of grandeur, whose kids bicker with each other and largely do their own thing. The Arnorians, scattered, leaderless, don’t even have anyone governing them. Or they do, but they’ve been hiding for ages (wait, are there still Arnorians to speak of?). Some Men, for Eru’s sakes, are even serving the guy in black.

As for the help from beyond, Radagast and Saruman didn’t help things too much, did they, while two other guys in blue skipped town as soon as they put a foot in these shores. The one bloke that seems to be useful, that Gandalf guy, marches to his own drum. Sometimes you see him, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes he seems to be someone else altogether. It’s just a wonder we managed to pull this one off and pull that tower down.

So, all in all, I think there’s enough grey to keep everyone minimally interested classifying the shades. Sure, LOTR is the time and the story when everyone pulled together against a common enemy, which makes it seem kind of better. Compared to Bakker’s First Crusade and Martin’s Wars of the Roses, LOTR is World War II. But if anyone can see that there was more to that war than good v evil, black v white, why can’t we see the same about Middle Earth? Just read the whole saga again and you’ll see it.



Response by Maura Labingi:

I agree, its a misperception that Tolkien's work/his characters appear to be all-good vs all-bad. If that were truly the case, I don't think his body of work would have the fascination, longevity and impact it has had over the decades.

The layers of realistic depth he created in his "good guy" characters, who are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, not the Maia nor the elves nor any of the mortals: its amazingly insightful and believable.

Its *how* and *why* these characters work around and through their own flaws and mistakes that makes the story endlessly re-readable for me.

And yes, Tolkien's work is G-rated. I personally find that refreshing and endearing. And beautiful. The grit- and blood-encrusted, sexually explicit hyper-realism of current films and literature loses its impact after one or two readings/viewings, but for me the poetry of Tolkien's writing style is timeless and ageless.

Response by Lithilien Quicksilver:

Edgier isn't always better, and in 100 more years, I will be surprised (or would be, if I were still here) if these authors' works are barely remembered, while Tolkien's Lord of the Rings will always be viewed as Great Literature.

*steps down off soapbox*

Response by MerryK:

Great post! It's true that black vs. white is not the best definition of Tolkien. However, it is a strange comment to make about an intentionally heroic work. There are plenty of works that delve into the depths of humanity, including all it's darkness and filth, but Tolkien deliberately wrote one that sort of stayed on the surface—not up in the clouds of perfection, but not to the other extreme either. It's a work of hope, an examination of (mostly) the better sides of humanity and how they can work together for the greater good.

Response by Dinledhwen:

Legolas is only middle-management?! 0.o   Easy Rogorn! Those are words of blasphemy to us his devoted followers! ;-)

Personally I've always felt that he was the only elf in the book to have the "onions" to be the first to step up to the plate when the call came in to do so.

Why Tolkien had the other elves turn into shrinking violets until the end I still don't understand.


Reply by Rogorn:

Thanks all.
I agree, its a misperception that Tolkien's work/his characters appear to be all-good vs all-bad. If that were truly the case, I don't think his body of work would have the fascination, longevity and impact it has had over the decades.

I agree too, Maura, but for some reason, many readers like LOTR precisely because he doesn't use too much grey, or at least as much as other writers do. The characters in The Silmarillion or the Unfinished Tales don't need their greyness defended, but in LOTR, having argued for their not-too-whiteness, you can also argue against it. Apart from Gríma or Denethor, no-one has really bad misdeeds in their past, as far as we know, and they all end up doing largely the right and courageous and sometimes the beyond-the-call-of-duty thing. And that's the way many readers like it. Many wouldn't like an Aragorn who cheated on women in his youth or a Legolas who once stood away from helping someone in distress in order to save their precious secrecy. But this is the kind of character-building, full of conflict and flaws, that seems to be dominant in today's fiction. Listen to writers and actors and they will all tell you that they like this or that character because of their imperfections. It seems that we don't want our Dúnedain and Eldar to be mere cardboard cutouts, but we like them virtuous too.
It's true that black vs. white is not the best definition of Tolkien. However, it is a strange comment to make about an intentionally heroic work.

That's true, Merry. Besides, I think that if you mentioned the comments I quoted to their authors and asked them whether they were meaning to 'dis' Tolkien with them, they'd be hurt and appalled. 'Oh, no, no, not at all. Don't get me wrong. I love Tolkien!' But still, they can't help themselves in mentioning this black-and-white thing.

On the one hand, maybe all the later authors are glad that Tolkien left that grey door open for them, otherwise the master would have exhausted the topic with just a couple of books, leaving them no room to manoeuvre. On the other, I suppose that they defend that you can't find people like in LOTR in our world, and that they serve the genre better by subjecting their characters to all the possible flaws they can think of and more. It's another way of looking at it.
Personally I've always felt that Legolas was the only elf in the book to have the "onions" to be the first to step up to the plate when the call came in to do so. Why Tolkien had the other elves turn into shrinking violets until the end I still don't understand.

Well, we don't know whether he was a volunteer, or press-ganged or just in for a lark, but he went and made himself very useful, to his credit, and surely it was because he was the right 'size' for the task. I suppose that the reason why a grey elf was chosen (hey, more grey, see?) is because the big Noldor have big ambitions and big passions, and they just were afraid of themselves. If Boromir, who as a Dúnadan carried their blood, conducted himself as he did, what wouldn't have Elrond done, had he felt the lure of the Ring? And later we see Galadriel just barely 'passing the test' and acknowledging Frodo and Sam as her betters in the ring-bearing department. One thing to say for the Eldar at this point is that after so many thousands of years, they know themselves: what they can do, what they can't, and when to exit backstage West.

Hurrah for Leggsy, anyway.

Reponse by Maura Labingi:


...Apart from Gríma or Denethor, no-one has really bad misdeeds in their past, as far as we know,

Precicely! Tolkien gives us only a sketch of his characters.

We aren't given their entire history in great detail, and we aren't inside their heads most of the time. This allows a lot of room for the reader to speculate on the individual characters' past, their flaws and motivations and fill in those blank areas with their own theories.

For all we know, Aragorn (as you mentioned) *might* have been a deliquent youth at Rivendell, or self-exiled because he killed someone by mistake, or has stinky breath, or suffers from social anxiety disorder. But he's dealing with it.

(In hilarious contrast, the person playing "Aragorn" in the pastiche "The DM of the Rings" is openly mercenary and on the lookout for a house of ill-repute throughout the Quest.)

I guess I'm OK with "grey" being defined as a mixture of "good + flaws," not just "good + evil" because I think that is more realistic. But I can understand how an actor would relish playing a more conflicted character having more well-defined and obvious good and bad sides, like Gollum + Smeagol, or like Dr. Jekyll + Mr. Hyde, the meatiest roles imaginable!

To me Tolkien's style is like an exquisite watercolor painting that gives an impression of a mood and a suggestion of figures in the landscape, while today's style is like a high-resolution color photograph will all the nose-hairs and grimy pores highly defined and graphically displayed.

Different styles have different merits; but for myself, I'll take the watercolor.

Response by Doctor Gamgee:

There are two things which I have to add, for what they are worth:

Something which is Heroic in nature tries to preserve the best/ideals of mankind (or Hobbitkind, etc.) and thus, the lines are drawn a great deal more narrowly. I am reminded of the court in Amedeus where the young Mozart talks spending so much time on heroes who are not realistic. One of them says something to the effect of "Exactly why we SHOULD spend time with them, because they are better than we are and their ideals should endure, realistic or not." And even though we live in the world of Identity Theft and rampant misconduct, don't we in some small way hope for a mate who is honorable, virtuous, and true, who does what is right?

And as for Black and White; while that is true on the macro scale, it is not even close on the micro. We have the good guy Boromir who succumbs to the Ring's temptation. So is he black or white? He tries to take it (Black), yet that was not his intent in the beginning (white), and his defense of the other hobbits unto death (white) belies his blackened heart. And yet, it wasn't snow white either. Black+White leaves you wiht Grey.

And of course, you have Frodo the hero who didn't choose to destroy the Ring, but instead selfishly claimed it for himself at the last moment. Not exactly an untainted hero in white there. But it is interesting that his white side mercy of not killing Gollum when he had the chance is what saved him and ME from his moment of Blackness at the Cracks of Doom.

In reality, I believe that the writers have not spent a great time anaylzing Tolkien on their own, and instead have relied on sound-bite clips from others. And even these 'oh, no no no' moments they have are only because they can't really defend their own arguments cogently enough to do battle with fans or those who have studied the works themselves.

As to the history of characters, I am not certain that you are correct in stating that it is only in Denethor and Grima that we see anything -- we have Saruman who was White and after Sauron's downfall, then changed sides and became a force of evil, and even reconstructs the Shire in Orthanc's image. Pretty Grey. And we have Eowyn who lies about her identity to slip into the army of Theoden. No Snow-white there. And it is not until we see Bill Ferny on the trip home that we actually see his perfidy for what it is. He is opportunistic during their time in Bree, but he doesn't actually show his dark nature until later. And am I forgetting Lotho's history, or is not in there at all?


Response by Maura Labingi:

That brings up another fascinating discussion entirely; I'm sure there must be entire treatises exploring that question: did Frodo claim The One Ring, there at the Crack of Doom, or did It claim him?

I myself am in the "it took him" end of the pool; it seems more believable to me that Frodo's will, mind and soul had been eaten away by the Ring by that point and there was no "Frodo" left to withstand it. He didn't fail because he was evil (selfish/greedy), he failed because he was spent in both mind and body, there where the Ring's will was at its strongest. The words "I do not choose now to do what I came to do" were the Ring speaking through Frodo, sez I. But I can see how others might interpret that character's struggle differently. I think that Frodo did have flaws, the chief one being an almost abject naivete. And I've read interesting discussions regarding the idea that Frodo also had too much pride, but my mind is still open on that point.

All these nuances and shades of meaning, of possible motivations amongst the various characters that are still debated amongst fans and scholars to me just underscores the amazing, uncanny depth of Tolkien's mind and talent.

Reply by Doctor Gamgee:

ML, I am sure you are not alone (especially on this board!) in your thoughts. There are many who feel that way. But the passage you quote actually makes my case for me. Had he said, I ...what He came to do." then you would have my whole-hearted agreement that it was the Ring speaking.

However, nowhere in the story are we led to believe that the Ring chose to destroy itself, sez I  (though I am sure I am in the minority). And, of course, you are correct that all of these shadings imply that not everything is pure black and white -- grey is in there too.

Frodo had been released of posessing the Ring by Sam in Shelob's Lair, and yet he demanded that it be returned to him. You might be able to make the case that that was the Ring talking through Frodo, as Sam's "plain hobbit sense" had let him refuse the dream the Ring offered (the only time in the story when the Ring's tactics are shown) and the Ring needed to be in control. But if that is the case, then you have to say that the Ring was posessing Frodo in his claiming of the Ring at the same time that Gollum was being posessed by it when he attacked Frodo. It get's waffelly at that point, and I do not buy it. Frodo's desire to not be separated from the Ring had been established before he hit the Cracks of Doom. It wasn't until he had come to the point of succeeding that he chose to claim it. He didn't have to claim it before that, as he had it willingly given to him -- it was his; and nobody faulted him (except Gollum, of course). But he was allowed to posess it while his goal was to destroy it, not to keep it. Otherwise, he could have let Boromir take it to Minas Tirith and make war on Sauron. But that would make him the new Dark Lord, and that was not the goal of the Fellowship.

Ah well, I will sit back and get pummelled for a while. One cannot fault Frodo on these boards and remain unchallenged. But that is what makes it fun, isn't it? Exchanging ideas, even if you don't agree, is a great way to pass the time. And the folks on this board are really good at gentle persuasion -- even with the Mithril Boot.

Response by Lindorie:

You won't get any argument here, Doc. I think that the possession of the Ring wore Frodo down and held a certain amount of control over him, but in the end, it was Frodo who claimed it. The Ring used Frodo, but if it had come into Sauron's presence while Frodo wore it, I think it would have slipped his finger in an instant. There was no 'claim' on Frodo, only use and abuse.

Frodo had claimed the ring, as you said, after his encounter with Shelob. There was still a bit of the old Frodo left, however, and he quickly repented his accusations against Sam. Even if Frodo had been given the chance on that day, to drop the Ring into the fire, I'm not sure he would have done it. He still had the intention, but I really don't know if he would have been able to do it. I think he had already, subconsciously, perhaps, decided to keep it.

Anyway, that's my two pence. Stay dry, Doc....well, not too dry, but no floods, ok.


Response by Varda:

In a programme aired a while ago on British tv about fantasy writers they included a film clip of an interview with Tolkien where he is asked why right and wrong are black and white in LOTR. Poor JRRT was visibly upset by this comment, and snapped that there was no black and white in his book.

I never take the word of a writer as the last comment on his own work, but Tolkien was so very sure and so offended that I think what annoyed him was that he felt people were barking up the wrong tree; the subject of evil, whether black or white or pink with purple spots, is not quite relevant, as LOTR is not about good and evil, but about power.

The issues of good and evil in the book are incidental. What Tolkien is writing about is power, how it changes people who seek it, how it warps those who have it, and how it is to be wisely used - or better still, not used at all, but put away, like the Ring. In LOTR the only truly 'evil' characters, like Sauron and the Ringwraiths, are nothings, mere shapes. It is those beings - men, wizards or whatever - who are galvanised by the desire for power who are the greatest forces of destruction.

Tolkien very pointedly started the Silmarillion with themes of good versus evil up front. But LOTR is a different book with different themes, and although Mordor is spoken of as the essence of evil, everyone on Middle Earth has lived in its shadow for a very long time and it is only when Mordor seeks to control everyone else that evil and good become subjects of concern. Power is the dynamic that forces good and evil into the debate. But as the story of Aragorn's rise to kingship shows, power itself is not evil, but can be a force of good if used wisely and justly.

Tolkien was right to be hurt when told that his writing was black and white because to say that characters are black or white - or even grey -is to say that they lack complexity, and are not convincing as human beings. Which is to say the writing is no good.

But Tolkien is not trying to write 'good' or 'bad' characters, he is writing a narrative set in desperate times, when characters are tested under extreme conditions. Even Frodo, who would be seen as 'good', fails at the end under great pressure and tries to take the Ring. Does this make him a 'bad' character? We are sure it doesn't, but this shows that Tolkien's characters are defined in action, not in character studies or shades of black or white and they can't be completely good or bad.

The Ring is power, and it is the Ring which acts like a touchstone to bring out the qualities of the character it encounters. When Gandalf first tells Frodo about the true nature of the Ring and the need to get it out of the Shire, Frodo, far from being a goody two shoes saying 'what must I do?' panics and argues heatedly with Gandalf, in the end wishing that Bilbo had killed Gollum. In the story, Frodo grows in wisdom and courage until he is able to shoulder this great task, then he can't complete it through physical and spiritual weakness. This seems to me to be a quite complicated moral and psychological development, and to talk about it being a black or white scenario does not do justice to the depth of Tolkien's character creation.

In the book, Faramir resists the temptation to take the Ring, but Boromir fails to do so. But these brothers are not one black and one white; we know Boromir is brave and honourable. It is just that he fails to resist the temptation to take power, while Faramir succeeds. But Faramir has not had the Ring near to him, whispering and luring, for months on end. Similarly, Denethor has governed Gondor with an iron rule but a just one for a very long time, and his spectacular blotting of his copybook at the end is the result of wanting power that is not his to take, but this fall does not make him a 'black' or even a grey character. It is just that in this confrontation with power he fails. Denethor is in the medieval ideal of tragedy as a bad luck story. He is not evil, he just made the wrong choice on the day.

Even a character as apparently golden-hearted as Sam is capable of cruel actions when events threaten him. With Sam it is Gollum who brings out petty acts of cruelty because he fears Gollum is gaining power over his beloved master. Sam is not bad, but he certainly is jealous.

To complicate matters further, Tolkien makes it clear, through Gandalf, that apparently evil characters can effect good deeds, almost unwillingly, as Gollum does in the end by falling into the fire wearing the Ring. Boromir, by attacking Frodo, actually gives him the chance to slip away from the Fellowship, a chance he had almost despaired of ever gaining. For this reason, as Gandalf says, we cannot ourselves make final judgments on who is good and bad, for even in a dark heart like Gollum's some light can still enter, and we 'cannot see all ends'.

Perhaps this is a good summing up of Tolkien's morality in LOTR; it is not absolute, or black and white, because one part of it is always hidden by fate, and none of us can see all ends either. In the concluding chapters of the book, Frodo is brought face to face with Saruman, someone who has turned his back on his duty and misused his great powers to do terrible damage to Middle Earth. But Frodo does not see Saruman as evil; he sees a being who was once great, one of a race far above all those who dwell on earth. Frodo has himself gone through the fire to attain a more profound understanding of how the moral universe works than just seeing good and evil. His reaction is one of understanding and forgiveness, not judgment. The tragedy is that someone who is nominally far greater than Frodo cannot reciprocate and accept forgiveness, preferring to be destroyed than to live without power.

Just my thoughts

Thanks for listening - V

Reply by Doctor Gamgee:


I like much of what you say, but keep getting stuck on this point. Perhaps I am not understanding correctly. When you say, "The Ring is power, and it is the Ring which acts like a touchstone to bring out the qualities of the character it encounters," you seem to be implying that Power (as expressed by the Ring) is neither bad or good; it just pulls out that which is in the one it touches. This is a lovely sentiment, but I am not sure that the Book bears this out.

The book clearly shows that the Ring is not a talisman of power only, for if it were, then like a sword it would be neutral -- Able to Defend the Law (good) or Oppose the Law (bad) as by the will of the character of the Hand that weilds it. That is power only, and power is only a tool to be used by others. Boromir could have weilded it, overthrown Sauron, and established what Aragorn did. Or Aragorn could have used it and saved us the Battle at Minas Tirith.

However, the book clearly shows that the Ring is not neutral. It has a will of its own, and in its betrayal of Isuldur, it shows itself not disposed to align itself with Good. Galadriel clearly shows that should she use it, she would begin justly, but become a Dark Lady more terrible than Sauron. Gandalf refuses to use it because it corrupts and is not neutral. He has no trouble using eldrich magic when needed (an example of simple power as you suggest), so he is not afraid to use power when needed. But the Ring, he abjectly refuses. The Ring calls to the Wraiths in the Shire in short order, but not to Gandalf for years on end when Frodo had it. It is not just a neutral beacon of power, the book shows us that it is a force for evil.

Thus, I have a hard time accepting that Tolkien's Morality can be summed up by " it is not absolute, or black and white, because one part of it is always hidden by fate, and none of us can see all ends either." Where that the case, then why does he spend so much time tellling the story only from the perspective of those on the side of Good, and not show us the face of Sauron and the machinations behind it? And why do we feel relief when the Ring is Destroyed and the Dark Lord falls? If all sides are equal in the quest for power, then shouldn't the professor have spent some time explaining what was going on in the enemy camp? Rather, he champions the side of Good, offers characters who are not perfect charicatures of saintly goodness, shows that even when life is imperfect, that flaws and forgiveness still allows that all things can work for Good. This follows Tolkien's beliefs. But it is literature of the first rate, and thus, trying to sum it up completely is difficult; I am not equal to the task. There are many facets to consider. If it were a black and white fairy tale, it would be easy to define, and lack that which keeps it in our minds and thoughts.

My tuppence; for what it is worth.


Reply by Varda:

Thanks, Doc!

I don't think I was too clear on how the Ring carries power. It is a 'ruling ring' but it also, as Gandalf said, it is part of Sauron; into it he poured all his malice, and without it he is not whole. So you are quite right, Doc, it is not a neutral power. As Sauron is evil, so his Ring and its power is evil. I did not say there is no evil in Lord of The Rings. I said it is incidental; the story revolves round how people react to the existence of great evil and great power that seeks to enslave the world. In the end, it is about hope, because faced with the tyranny of great power all people can do is persist in hoping and resisting - which is what the book is about, for me.

But you are quite right, the Ring does have a will of its own. As Gandalf says, it abandons people -Isildur, Gollum - when it wants to move on. I would like someone possessed of more lore than me to explain how the Ring can have a will of its own, yet also be an intrinsic part of Sauron without which he isn't whole. And also how, if the Ring is so much part of him, he can't sense it close when it is in Mordor with Frodo.

The truth is, Doc, that the nature of the Ring is a bit of a mystery, for it is a magic ring. But what is beyond dispute is that the Ring tempts people by giving them a promise of power,and that is why or one of the reasons why they try to take it. Gollum dreams of slaying Frodo and Sam, and being 'the Master'. Denethor dreams of defeating Sauron. Galadriel as you say, dreams of throwing him back as well. Boromir dreams of using it in battle, to win victories. As Gandalf says, the power the Ring offers is altogether evil. But the book shows that power itself is dangerous too, and even those who seek it outside the power of the Ring, like Wormtongue seeks power over Theoden or Denethor seeks to retain the Stewardship or Saruman seeks power over the Shire, wreak terrible destruction.

In the film, when Elrond reminds Aragorn of the power that is his birthright, he replies 'I do not want it, I never wanted it'. Tolkien seems to suggest that the only people who are fit to rule are the ones who don't thirst for power. In my post Doc, I merely suggested that it is this paradox of the good ruler as one who wants to lead but doesn't want to force his will on others that is at the heart of Tolkien's ideals on power, and that these ideals are as central to the Lord of The Rings as the battle of good and evil, for it is out of the misuse of power that the greatest evils spring. That was my humble thesis wink

Doc you say;
I have a hard time accepting that Tolkien's Morality can be summed up by " it is not absolute, or black and white, because one part of it is always hidden by fate, and none of us can see all ends either." Where that the case, then why does he spend so much time tellling the story only from the perspective of those on the side of Good, and not show us the face of Sauron and the machinations behind it? And why do we feel relief when the Ring is Destroyed and the Dark Lord falls?'

Well firstly we can't have the story told from Sauron's side because Sauron does not have a face, body or voice - he exists only as a shade and he can only speak by some kind of thought transference, as he doesn't have a mouth. Hence he hires the Mouth of Sauron. In fact, the disembodied nature of Sauron throws us back to look for the face of evil in those he corrupts, like Saruman or the Witchking. You are right to ask why Tolkien does not show us the machinations of Sauron, because as I said in my post, Sauron is a nothing, a shape only. He is literally a blank, and can't do anything but must enslave others to do it for him. So he can't even tell his own story.

But Doc, I said that Tolkien's morality is not black and white, I did not say Tolkien did not have a morality shock Tolkien's morality is about choosing the right thing do to, whether you are a hobbit or a king of Gondor. It is about right and wrong, and above all it is about the duty to always hope, and always try. If we stretch Tolkien's morality to absolutes of good and evil, we miss the truth that Tolkien's morality is a morality for the hobbit on the ground, making hard choices with the lives of his friends in the balance. And at the end, with Frodo's forgiveness of Saruman, Tolkien shows us that absolutes tend to miss things like compassion, chance and sheer luck.

You are right to say that Tolkien writes from the perspective of those on the side of 'good'. But that is because they are his heroes. And there are limits to how far Tolkien lets us into the minds of the good; we are not actually told much of Frodo's inner thoughts and must learn what he thinks from his words to Sam. Nor does Aragorn reveal what he is thinking under his ceremonial exterior at the end of the book. So we are not given unrestricted access to the minds of the 'good', and the fact that Frodo must leave Happy Valley after the war and try to find peace across the sea shows that Tolkien's good heroes often visit a nightmare land that he never reveals to us.

What is important is what Gandalf says at the start, that Bilbo spared Gollum and out of that deed might come salvation. If we act in accordance with absolutes of good and evil we might kill the Gollums, because they are evil, and close off that avenue by which fate could bring about the happy but unexpected victory. What Tolkien called the eucatastrophe. What is necessary is keeping our hope, and striving to make the right decision of our own, and showing compassion.

Doc, I never said 'all sides are equal in the quest for power'. I said that power holds the key to good and evil in the book, not that good and evil are all the same. But I believe that Tolkien quietly trips up anyone trying to tell others who should be killed and who should not. Gandalf is quick to reprimand Frodo for wanting Gollum dead;
'don't be so quick to deal out death'. He snaps. I think most people can agree that Sauron is evil and must be destroyed; but Grima? Boromir? even Denethor? Do they deserve to die? And Frodo himself goes the second mile and forgives Saruman. There is good and evil in Tolkien's universe, but as Gandalf says, it is for each person to do what he or she thinks is right in the time given to them.

And expect the unexpected.