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  • Writer's pictureGrace Johnson

Middle-Earth and the Nature of Evil

The Lord of the Rings is known for many things. The books helped form the fantasy genre as we know it today, and the films continue to garner acclaim nearly two decades after their creation. But though Tolkien’s incredible world of Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits remains a prime example of worldbuilding, this isn’t the only thing that continues to draw people back to these stories. Every story set in this world explores topics that are critical in an understanding of our own world, using fantasy to explain why things are the way they are. One theme to which Tolkien frequently returned is that of the nature of evil.

Evil wasn’t always present in Middle-Earth. In the beginning, there was only Eru Ilúvatar, the supreme being in charge of all the world. He created the Ainur, angelic beings, and taught them to create beautiful music. But one of the Ainur, Melkor, became unhappy with this. Tired of singing Ilúvatar’s songs, he began to play his own music. It was enchanting, enthralling, and soon more and more of the Ainur began to conform their songs to his. This resulted in a clash of concerts, which Ilúvatar finally won by a simple lifting of his hand. He didn’t rebuke the wayward Melkor; not yet. Instead, he took them all to the edge of the Void, a black abyss of nothingness, and showed them the fruits of their music. Every bit of it had had a purpose. Each note was a spark of creation, calling things yet unknown into existence. Even Melkor’s deviances had been worked into the fabric of this new world, creating things like fire and rain.

            Then Ilúvatar did turn to Melkor. His words, though calm, must have pierced the heart of this powerful being.

“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.” The Silmarillion, pg. 17

Evil, then, is a perversion of good in this world. It is the result of taking something good and twisting it to one’s own ends. Melkor didn’t create his own music; instead, he deviated from the theme given to him by Ilúvatar. Even the things he called into being as a result of his music were not his own inventions. Nor were they the opposite of Ilúvatar’s designs. Everything Melkor created was simply a grotesque imitation of what Ilúvatar had originally conceived. Ilúvatar was able to work them into his greater design, but they had sprung from nothing but a hideous imitation.

This commentary on evil permeates the entirety of the Middle-Earth canon. Melkor created the Orcs, the vicious enemies of all free peoples, but he could only do so by torturing Elves and corrupting Ilúvatar’s perfect design for them. He had servants to do his evil bidding, but they were only Ainur who had bound themselves at the beginning to his disruptive theme. His works of depravity were made all the worse because he took what ought to have been beautiful and twisted them to his own wicked purposes.

            The Ring of Power is the epitome of this evil. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo attempts to give Gandalf the Ring, insisting that with his great power, the wizard will be a much better guardian than he. Gandalf, however, refuses the offer.

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. […] Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.” The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 60

The Ring was made by Sauron, the chief servant of Melkor. He had learned his master’s tricks well, and he was an expert at taking good and shifting it just enough for it to become evil. This is why the Ring was so dangerous. Even those who would take it for the best of intentions would eventually fall prey to its deceptions. Believing they were doing good, they would destroy themselves and everyone they loved. And they wouldn’t realize it until it was done, because the evil was seemingly so close to the good.

Though in a slightly different form, this same principle holds true in the real world. Satan was once an angel of light, the leader of the heavenly choir. But he desired the glory that belongs only to God, arrogantly believing that he was equal to his Creator. And so he was cast from heaven, along with all those who had listened to his whispers that they deserved more. Furious, he set out on the best path for vengeance he could: he struck at humanity, God’s prized creation. His first lie to Eve was convincing because it was rooted in truth. He knew exactly what God had said, but he put just enough of a spin on His words to make her doubt. He didn’t come up with his own rules; instead, he took God’s and twisted them. The result of Eve’s listening to his lies was a cursed world and separation from God.

Evil continues to be seductive because its root is always in something God created. What is theft? Taking what doesn’t belong to us, stemming from the God-given desire to own things. What is lust? Having sexual desire for someone outside the bonds of marriage, stemming from the God-given desire for a man and a woman to take pleasure in one another. What is hatred? The pangs of disappointed hope, stemming from the God-given desire to trust and love unconditionally. There is just enough truth left in evil desires to make them sound attractive. Just as the Ring seduced even the most noble of hearts by appealing to their desires to do good, to make a better world, so our own evil natures compel us to do wrong out of a perverted sense of what is right. We are so lost in our sinfulness that we often can’t even tell the difference between good and evil. And so we continue to give in to evil. We do wrong even when we want to do right. Evil is not dangerous because it is the opposite of good; it is dangerous because it ought to be good.

“For I do know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19).

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