Moral Philosophy in the Works of JRR Tolkien

First Lesson

The theme of courage : courage takes a big role in the Tolkienian tales . Let us read The Silmarillion and the deeds of the elf Fingolfin in front the gates of Angband : SIL, pp. 179-180, and the deeds of the man Hurin at the end of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (“the battle of unnumbered tears”) : SIL, pp. 231-232. Let us read The Lord of the Rings and the deeds of the wizard Gandalf : LotR, pp. 348-349, and the deeds of the woman Eowyn : LotR, pp. 873-875 , and the deeds of the hobbit Sam : LotR, p. 938.
Let’s follow the interpretation of Tom Shippey (most renowned Tolkien scholar in the world) : here we are dealing with a
special kind of courage, the Courage till to give up one’s own life, for the sake of one’s own friends , not the courage that ends in itself, as a clue to show one’s proud braveness, one’s skills and human superiority. Tolkien deals with this idea in a writing, The Homecoming of Beortnoth Beorhhelm’s son (set in the 10th Century, during Danes’ invasions of England) , where he shows his appreciation for the courage of the Dark Ages : “Heart shall be bolder, harder be the purpose / more proud the spirit, as our power lessens /…/ these lines from the poem The Battle of Maldon have been held to be the finest expression of the northern heroic spirit, Norse or English ; the clearest statement of the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will”. Tolkien admired the impulse towards the good beneath the pride and sorrow ; in Middle-earth he wanted a similar ultimate courage undiluited by confidence, but at the same time untainted by rage and despair. One may say that the wise characters in the LotR are often without hope and so near the edge of despair, but they do not succumb. That is left to Denethor, who will not fight to the last, but turns like a heathen to suicide and sacrifice of his kin. Tolkien needed a new image for ultimate bravery, one milder bit not weaker than that one of the German heathen warriors from the Dark Ages. He centred it, oddly enough, on laughter, cheerfulness, refusal to look into the future at all. The true vehicle of the “theory of laughter” is the hobbits: their behaviour is calqued on the traditional English humour in adversity, but has deeper semantic roots Of Sam while in Mordor we are told : “he had never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair cpuld be postponed. Now they had come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all the way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him”. Is it possible, one might wonder, to be cheerful without any hope at all? Certainly it seems hardly sensible, but the idea rings true. If we read about Fangorn and the last march of the Ents, according to Pippin, Fangorn is “sad but not unhappy”, and to modern English semantics the phrase makes almost no sense, like ‘hopeless cheer’. The paradoxes put forward Tolkien’s theses that determination should survive the worst that can happen, that a stout pretence is more valuable than sincere despair.

The theme of friendship : Let us compare a character from the Silmarillion, Turin, and from the LotR, Frodo. In Turin the "heredity" is the dispositions of his parents and – beyond them – of their stocks, the House of Hador and the House of Beor. As well as his mother he “was not cheer, he was laconic…he was slow in forgetting injustices and mockeries ; but in him there was also the fire oh his father, and Turin could be impetuous and fierce” (Unfinished Tales). The friends – who, more than parents, share the free and individual part of one person’s life – do not seem affect Turin’s personality, which – actually – doesn’t develop beyond its beginning dispositions. Both Turin’s parents are alive, even if they are different in their minds and then in fact separated one from the other and both from their child. Under their “shadow” Turin’s fate grows, develops and ends (there is a link between Fate and Heredity). Frodo – instead – is an orphan since his childhood, Tolkien soon forsook his initial idea that Frodo were Bilbo’s son, and doing so he broke the continuity of the Heredity (and of the Fate as well). Bilbo apart, other Frodo’s friends were Merry and Pippin. Bilbo is elder than him, they are younger. They are the “friends” in the “teenage” meaning of the word : the people with whom one has fun. Together they go about the Shire, have parties and dinners, exchange each other jests, or play (after the bath at Crickhollow). But this kind of relation develops too : Merry and Pippin are not just jolly fellows, but they become aware of Frodo’s feelings and organize the “conspiracy” to help him in his enterprise. Sam Gamgee is a youngster too, but he is a “servant” an not a relative. When he was keeping the garden he heard Gandalf and Frodo speaking about Elves and things like that , he sighed because he was worried about Frodo and wants to keep after him, but also because he desired follow him and see the marvellous things of the outside world. Frodo is for Sam a mean in his way to have a psychological and moral growth Let us imagine Sam without Frodo, Bilbo and the Elves: what an ordinary hobbit he would have been! It is enough to look at his father, the Gaffer. He was too sure of himself and a little over-confident , but this over-confidence was transformed by his sincere affection for Frodo. Anyway, the Frodo’s “elective family” (Bilbo, Sam, Merry and Pippin), together with the High Friends (Gandalf, Aragorn and the Elves), becomes essential to Frodo and to his enterprise. While Turin behaves notwithstanding the presence and the advice of his friends, Frodo is an hobbit orphan, without special intelligence, courage or strength, who couldn’t do anything of what step by step al last is able to do , if he had not the help of his friends.

The classical tradition much appraised friendship : Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch and others linked friendship and moral virtues. Tolkien agrees with this tradition and shows how friendship is more important than the exterior goods : than power (Faramir, Aragorn, Galadriel do not break their friendship with Frodo and do not take from him the One Ring), than wealth (Bilbo for his friends’ sake gave up his share of the treasure), than honours (Frodo, while the now safe and free people of Minas Tirith are celebrating their victory on Sauron, desires to leave and see his friend Bilbo), than pleasure and peace (Sam leaves his garden and his fiancée to accomplish that “job” together with his master Frodo). Moreover Tolkien agrees with the tradition in esteeming friendship more important than the social prejudices : of class (Sam friend of Frodo and Merry friend of king Theoden), of race (the elf Legolas friend of the dwarf Gimli), of age (old Bilbo friend of young Frodo, adult Pippin friend of the boy Bergil), of intellectual level (the wizard Gandalf friend of the hobbit Frodo, the wise Aragorn friend of the rude Eomer). But Tolkien goes beyond the classical tradition in putting friendship as more important than the political safety (Aragorn doesn’t go to Minas Tirith where his sword is demanded and goes to rescue Merry and Pippin), than the knowledge (while Gandalf wanders about the Middle-earth and become involved in the affairs of his friends Thorin, Bilbo, Frodo, Beorn, Strider, Saruman instead passes his time in reading the old runes in the archives to becoming learned in the “tradition of the Rings”), and putting friendship as more important than virtue itself : Frodo makes a pact with the vicious Gollum, and does thart not jus for utilitarian reasons, but also because he feels compassion and a kind of love for him. And these acts of trust that Frodo performs towards Gollum do not happen without effect : Tolkien himself in one of his letters writes about a “complete moral change” in Gollum, change that unfortunately is ruined by the unaware Sam. One of moral virtues is Wisdom (in Greek phronesis, in Latin prudentia) . There is a passage in the LotR where the wisdom is openly subordinated to friendship : it is when, in contrast to Elrond’s advice, Merry and Pippin offered themselves for helping Frodo e and become members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf says : “I think, master Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom” . ( LotR, pp. 292-294) . Also Elrond, then agrees, and from this decision many good and essential events spring out, events which indeed no wise person could ever had foreseen : Faramir can survive because Pippin is present in Minas Tirith and informs Gandalf of the mortal danger the son of Denethor is passing through ; Eowyn can survive and the Lord of the Nazgul dies because Merry is present on the Fields of Pelennor; Treebeard summons the Entmoot and at the right moment goes and fights at the Helm’s Deep and at Isengard, since he was warned by Merry and Pippin who have told him the war plans of Saruman; the Sauron’s Nazguls and Orcs do not engage themselves in searching Frodo and Sam because they think that the One Ring is hold by Merry and Pippin. Indeed a lot of events and very important too!

The theme of Power and Evil : Let us read from LotR (pp. 59-60) The most evident fact about the Ring is that it is a conception totally modern. In the chapter The Shadow of the Past Gandalf says three basic data about the Ring : 1) the Ring is immensely powerful, in right or wrong hands ; 2) it is dangerous and ultimately fatal to all his possessors, so, in a sense, there are not right hands ; 3) it cannot simply be left unused or put aside, but must be destroyed, something that can happen only in the place of origin.
So there is only one way : The Ring
cannot be kept, it has power over everybody, it must be destroyed. So we remember the sentence of Lord Acton (1887) :

power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

This is the core of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf says :”Do not tempt me! I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great fro my strength.” This opinion is distinctively modern. No medieval chronicler, romancer or biographer would have been likely to concur with this opinion. In Antiquity and in Middle Ages the idea that a person once genuinely good could be made bad by the removal of restraints (absolute power) is not yet present.
Elrond says : “The very desire of it corrupts the heart”. Boromir bears out Elrond’s words. He never touches the Ring, but desire to have it still makes him turn to violence. Obviously his original motive is patriotism and love for Gondor, but when this leads him to exalt “strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause”, our modern experience of dictators immediately tell us that matters would not stay there.
The Ring is “addictive”. Gandalf tells Frodo not to use the Ring (use always causes addiction); Sam, Bilbo, Frodo nevertheless survive their use of it (addiction in early stages is curable); Boromir succumbs to the Ring without handling it (use is preceded by desire); Faramir doesn’t care of it (a wise person is able of stifling the desire to become addicted, though no wisdom will stifle addiction once contracted); Notwithstanding Frodo
wants to get rid of the Ring, he is not able to get rid of the Ring by himself and he needs the violent action of Gollum (the addicts can be cured by the use of external force, though their cooperation certainly helps ; to expect them to break their syringes and throw away their drugs by will-power alone is a delusion).

A good way to understand LotR is to see it as an attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living. One of these is in essence the orthodox Christian one, expounded first by Augustine (5th century A.D.): there is not such thing as evil, evil is nothing, is the absence of good, and it is possibly even an unappreciated good (felix culpa). Corollaries of this theory are that evil cannot itself create and that it will in the long run be annulled or eliminated, as the Fall of Man was redressed by the incarnation and death of Christ. Frodo says : “the Shadow can only mock, it cannot make : not real new things of its own”; and Elrond says : “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so”.
Still, there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, one which has never become “official” but which nevertheless arises spontaneously from experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, evil nevertheless is real, and not merely an absence of good ; and what is more it can be resisted, and what is more still, not resisting it (in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills) is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it tends towards Manichaeism , the heresy which says that Good and Evil are equal and opposite and the universe is a battlefield between them. The strong point of the Manichaean view of evil and the weak point of a Augustinian one is : if you regard evil as something internal, to be pitied, more harmful to the malefactor than to the victim, you may be philosophically consistent but you may also be exposing others to sacrifices to which they have not consented (like being murdered by Viking ravagers or, as
LotR was being written (the Second World War!), being put into gas-chambers. In the 1930s and 1940s Augustine was especially hard to believe.

Anyway, the characters of LotR (Frodo, Sam and all the others), and the readers as well!, are uncertain as regards to the nature of Evil and they swing in their mind : is the Evil internal (absence of Good, intimate craving for Power), or is it external (the Dark Lord Sauron, the One Ring as a physical object)? Thomas Shippey observes that this ambivalence allows the LotR to keep away from either the introversion of the “bourgeois novel” – so insignificant an weak to explain the political and war experiences that heavily influenced the lives of Tolkien and of so many other people during the tragedies of the 20th Century (the Century of the totalitarianisms and of the two world wars! – and the Manichaean superficiality of the popular culture and fiction (on one side the Good Guys entirely good, and on the other side the Bad Guys entirely bad).