It's time to continue with my series I probably should have titled Why I Love Tolkien So Damn Much. I'm looking at how Tolkien gives his work a sense of epic myth in part by drawing on cosmological-scale themes, drawing fundamental properties of the universe down into the smaller realms of everyday life.
Last time I began by looking at the Rings as symbols of corruption, but perhaps more importantly Narsil, the sword that cut the Ring from Sauron's finger. Glowing with the light of the Sun and Moon, its greatest deed was only wrought when it was broken and its light lost. Beauty, according to Tolkien, is not at all necessary for goodness, and sometimes the quality is wholly ambiguous : a fiery sword can be a thing of moral virtue but fire is also used in the defence of evil. We also saw that evil characters can feign beauty and use it to flatter and deceive.
Clearly, Tolkien's stories are a lot more complex than they're often given credit for. They are not Hollywood tales of knights in shining armour, even if they do sometimes charge to the rescue atop a white horse. They have grit and muck and gore, and Tolkien thought very carefully indeed about the characteristics he gave to each and every being.
In this second part, I'll up the scale of things just a notch to look at a selection of the denizens of Middle Earth. I'll continue examining the complexity of beauty in Tolkien's world and start to look at how these beasts and beings can embody forces much larger than themselves.
2) Men and Monsters
|Very little good artwork exists of the this part of The Silmarillion. This book cover is sort-of okay, apart from Juan's demented expression.|
Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that have come down to us from the darkness of those days, there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy, and under the shadow of death, light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien.
So begins one of the most epic tales in one of the most epic works ever written, a pinnacle of romantic heroism, full of monsters, vampires, werewolves, a story so grand that even the Spanish-speaking superdog and – yes, seriously – an actual singing contest with Sauron doesn't diminish its mighty accomplishment. But I must carefully restrict myself, lest I wax lyrical and forget what my point was.
Lúthien certainly has the true-sort of beauty, the light of the Eldar. Her power is great enough to contest with the will of Morgoth himself, rendering itself in ways sometimes small and sometimes great.
There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.
Note that last. Flowers may seem a small thing, but mean that Lúthien can create life – a divine power ! At times it almost feels as though beauty itself is a power in the world, but this is not so. Rather beauty – true beauty – flows from Lúthien's goodness. Her song can alter the very seasons, making her ability to overthrow a mere fortress a trifle by comparison.
Then Lúthien stood upon the bridge, and declared her power : and the spell was loosed that bound stone to stone, and the gates were thrown down, and the walls opened, and the pits laid bare.
The use of song echoes the cosmology of the Silmarillion at its most fundamental level. Song was how the world itself was created, which I'll return to only at the end. Through song Lúthien connects to the Valar, the powers that govern the world, allowing ordinary actions to transcend to much higher levels. Tolkien captures what we feel should be happening when in the thralls of deepest emotions and gives it physical form. We can argue all day about the use of rhetoric and logic and correct persuasive argument, but those who think they can completely escape their emotional prisons are simply wrong. Tolkien instead chooses to embrace it.
And the singing contest with Sauron ? It could be meant literally, as in the famous ending to Zulu. Or it could be a metaphor for spells. Part of the appeal of Tolkien is that it's not always clear when he means to say something literally happened and when he's just using metaphorical imagery. More often than not, it's the former. Of course in this case songs could simply be used as spells; they're not always mutually exclusive.
To return to beauty, in a later tale Lúthien wears a Silmaril, and the effect is practically angelic.
It is said and sung that Lúthien wearing that necklace and that immortal jewel was the vision of greatest beauty and glory that has ever been outside the realm of Valinor; and for a little while the Land of the Dead that Live became like a vision of the land of the Valar, and no place has been since so fair, so fruitful, or so filled with light.
But even the beauty of the Silmaril, holding as it does the light of the Trees that preceded that of the Sun and Moon, is not itself pure and innocent. Lust for the Silmarils causes the ruin of uncounted elves : even these most beautiful of works of the elder days can corrupt, sometimes burning the hands of those who set upon them. It is only when they are paired with someone truly good, such as Lúthien, that their full power shines through. Beauty itself may sometimes seem like a force, but it is not : it is only ever a manifestation of moral intent. The effect it has depends on the minds of those who see it, rather than shaping those minds in itself.
Just a quick final example of how subtle beauty can be in Tolkien's writing. Everyone's favourite wizard is unarguably good to the point of saintliness, but he can also be dangerous and threatening. Just as beauty itself does not guarantee goodness, so Gandalf provides an interesting and unusual counter-example : a good character using darkness and menace for his own ends :
Or as written in the novel :
'Well, if you want my ring yourself, say so!' cried Bilbo. 'But you won't get it. I won't give my Precious away, I tell you.' His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.
Gandalf's eyes flashed. 'It will be my turn to get angry soon,' he said. 'If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.' He took a step toward the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.
So yes, Tolkien has fairytale aspects of heroes who flourish the sword in such a way that it goes "ting" when the light hits it, of grace and elegance reflecting the inner virtues of their protagonists. But it's also not that simple. Evil characters can use feign glamour and style, and good characters can use darkness and intimidation. Tolkien's world does have simplistic elements of good-versus-evil, but it would be a mistake to think that's all there is to it.
While the forces of good can create life, the forces of darkness bring about death. One point Tolkien was quite emphatic about was that evil cannot create, it can only corrupt and destroy. Its effects are not easy to fully overthrow – indeed, that may be impossible. For example, after Éowyn and Merry slay the Black Captain and the fell beast on which he rides, the clean-up operation begins. Théoden's horse is buried but the Nazgûl's* corpse is burned :
* Strictly speaking the Nazgûl are the Ringwraiths, and the winged beasts they ride on are simply fellbeasts. However, this is because Tolkien foolishly insisted on giving fifty names for some things and one really stupid name for others. I prefer the convention of the movies, where the Nazgûl are the monsters. It's certainly an improvement when you realise that there are also fell ponies.
Green and long grew the grass on Snowmane's Howe, but ever black and bare was the ground where the beast was burned.
The effects of goodness and evil alike linger on. As Lúthien creates life, so does Snowmane's body – but so too does the body of the Nazgûl bring death even after its own end. Such a creature that continues killing even beyond its own demise is a frightening prospect indeed. Yes, it has big nasty pointy teeth, but it is far worse than that : the very essence of its being is wholly evil.
As an aside, this lingering nature mirrors the fates of all beings in Middle Earth. None are ever fully destroyed, though their influence on the world can be greatly increased or diminished. Morgoth, on his final defeat, is cast into the uttermost void but can still affect the minds of those remaining (albeit not very strongly, but sometimes significantly). Sauron becomes a ghost. The Elves are explicitly said to have an afterlife*, and though it's not known where the spirits of men or dwarves go, it seems that they definitely go somewhere, with the ghostly Army of the Dead being of pivotal importance. And, while life and mind may be insignificant in the real cosmos, in Tolkien myth, as we shall see, they are anything but.
* Indeed their souls are so strong that they slowly destroy their bodies from within, in some cases turning them to ash on their death.
|Glaurung, father of dragons.|
Middle Earth has a wide variety of monsters. A few, such as the wolves, seem to be little more than ordinary predatory animals. Others, like the orcs, are foot-soldiers of the dark powers, with little will of their own. But a few have supernatural aspects that make them altogether more threatening. While Balrogs and trolls are bloody scary creatures, for the most part they're pretty thick.
Dragons are different. Dragons are no mere grunts, but intelligent, thinking beings. Among the most formidable weapons in the Dark Lord's arsenal, they are manifestations of evil. Of course, the obvious way to demonstrate this is to point out that they're huge and scaly and breathe fire and go around killing people en masse and causing general mayhem. Certainly their fire-breathing aspect is important, with Morgoth using volcanic fire at the Battle of Sudden Flame to devastating effect. The dragon's mastery of this elemental weapon imbues them with a capability to inspire a very primal fear, as though they were products of the earth itself.
But more important than this is their intelligence. Dragons are deceptive to the point that they can mesmerise their foes :
Then Túrin sprang about, and strode against him, and the edges of Gurthang shone as with flame; but Glaurung withheld his blast, and opened wide his serpent-eyes and gazed upon Túrin. Without fear Túrin looked into them as he raised up the sword; and straightway he fell under the binding spell of the lidless eyes of the dragon, and was halted moveless. Then for a long time he stood as one graven of stone; and they two were alone, silent before the doors of Nargothrond.
They do not invariably devour them, but manipulate them, telling lies to further the ends of the Dark Powers, to spread further ruin and corruption throughout their enemies. Now you might think this hardly necessary for a huge scaly beast that can breathe fire, but for Tolkien, lies matter infinitely more than strength : morality is at the centre of the tale (incidentally, this is why violations of self-consistency in terms of the basic physics of the novel, e.g. how the Rings work, is largely irrelevant). The dragon's incarnation of evil is not only shown by its spewing flame, but because it can alter the hearts and mind of men. The dragon's size and fiery breath inspire fear, but its lies are what make it evil. They are no mere beasts.
Now this might not seem like a cosmological element, but it is. In Tolkien's moralistic cosmos, mind is necessarily everything, and the corruption of mind is, as we shall see, like a perversion of reality itself.
The hobbit's resistance (though not completely immunity) to the influence of the Ring follows this. They're stupid, fat, lazy little buggers, who are "content to be ignored", wanting nothing more than to sit around smoking their chubby little arses off all day drinking beer. Quite simply, there's not much there for the dark powers to work with. They're basically... pugs.
The hobbits small-minded nature is a literary device, but it's also narratively crucial. Frodo might not actually destroy the Ring as he claims, but his resistance to its effects is crucial in getting it to Mt Doom in the first place : without this, there would have been no chance of destroying it at all. Dwarves can be tempted towards an insatiable lust for gold, but hobbits are so... innocent that even this avenue is not open to the powers of the shadow.
Of course, their stout little hearts are jam-packed with courage too. Anyway, hobbits are an obvious source of sympathy and empathy for the reader. It's far easier to relate to a helpless little hobbit than a mighty Elven warrior : we, like them, don't really know what's going on at first. We learn along with them. We experience their fears and, we may hope, come to understand some of their bravery too.
Towards the very end of The Silmarillion, Tolkien floored me with the following simple quote :
Help shall come from the weak, when the wise falter.
And hobbits are, genuinely, weak. That doesn't make them without value, but exactly the opposite.
One virtue that hobbits do possess is a love of things that grow, of the natural world around them provided it isn't trying to kill or main or squish them. Hobbits do not have any powers of sourcery nor grace of the Valar that causes flowers to spring in their steps. No, they have to do things the hard way. Even so, in cultivating the earth, with Tolkien's love of nature exemplified in the Ents, they touch upon the greater nature of good and evil. Hobbits too reflect the Tolkienian cosmos, but on a smaller scale and in a less mythical, more accessible way.
So beauty and ugliness in Tolkien's world are anything but simple. They can be manifestations of the moral qualities of powerful characters who reshape the world around them. But they can also be used for deceit and intimidation, even by characters who are unarguably good. There's an awful lot more shades of grey than a casual reading might reveal.
Yet there are simplistic elements in the stories too. Good characters embody life and growth, whereas bad characters represent decay and death. These are very primal qualities, found deep in the human psyche that we all instinctively understand. In part three I'll move on to show how these same forces can be manifested on larger scales, from the forest of Fangorn to the hellscape of Mordor. And we'll begin to look at how Tolkien uses landscapes as symbols for powers more potent and primal that reach back into to the deepest time.