The conflict between good and evil is at the heart of all great stories, and the best ones offer thoughtful insights into this conflict. Is it possible that we might be able to learn something about good and evil from a fantasy story such as The Lord of the Rings? It is quite possible indeed.
There is a scene near the end of The Lord of the Rings that has brought tears to the eyes of many readers. The hobbits Sam and Frodo have been rescued from certain death after completing their quest. When Sam awakes, he sees someone he never expected to see again and exclaims: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Sam is not a poet, but the words he uses to describe his surprise at finding his friend alive capture very movingly the longing all of us feel to see death and evil overcome. The conflict between good and evil is at the heart of all great stories, and the best ones offer thoughtful insights into this conflict. Is it possible that we might be able to learn something about good and evil from a fantasy story such as The Lord of the Rings? It is quite possible indeed.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings over a twelve-year period between 1937 and 1949, which means he wrote it while witnessing the evil unleashed on mankind by the Second World War. The “Lord” in the title refers to Sauron, a fallen spiritual being (much like an archangel) who seeks to conquer Middle-earth (Tolkien’s term for the world inhabited by men). Sauron had created a ring that he used as a weapon to dominate the wills of free creatures. The ring was lost for many thousands of years, but several decades before the beginning of our story, it was found by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. If Sauron regains it, nothing will be able to stop him, and Sauron will stop at nothing to find it. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, who, along with eight companions, embarks on a long and dangerous quest to destroy the ring and, along with it, Sauron himself.
One of the most amazing aspects of Tolkien’s story is the depth of context he provides. The bulk of the story told in The Lord of the Rings occurs over a period of one year. But that single year is preceded by thousands upon thousands of years of history, which Tolkien fleshed out, often in painstaking detail. Many of the events that occurred in these earlier ages are recounted in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and his Unfinished Tales. Over the course of many decades, Tolkien created entire languages, genealogies, and cultural histories of the peoples and races that inhabit his subcreation. Knowing the background is not absolutely essential for enjoying The Lord of the Rings, but it does help us to grasp some of the deeper nuances of his story.
Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith informed his understanding of the nature of evil. He rejects two opposite extremes in his story. He rejects the idea that evil is an illusion, as well as the Manichaean idea that evil is equally as ultimate as good. Evil, in Tolkien’s story, is the absence of good. He regularly expresses his understanding of evil by using the concept of “shadow” to describe it. Scott Davison explains the significance: “Evil is like the darkness of a shadow: light is necessary for shadows to exist, but shadows are not necessary for light to exist.” The parasitic nature of evil means that it is ultimately self-destructive because when it destroys the good it hates, it destroys the very thing it requires for existence.
Evil is also not eternal. As the elf Elrond says in the story: “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” Evil came about as the result of a series of “falls” in Tolkien’s legends: the Lucifer-like fall of Melkor (one of the Ainur — the most powerful angelic beings in Tolkien’s legends), the fall of the elves, and the fall of men.