Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reads: The Fellowship of the Ring

The concept of good and evil seems so quaint today. It is no wonder that the most popular adult fantasy series of the past decades is A Song of Ice and Fire, with it's host of morally ambiguous characters set against each other with competing ambitions, thus reflecting our modern secular worldview where morality is at best a vast jungle with no clear path, or at worst a myth created for social control. But at times this borderline nihilism presents an essentially negative view of mankind, which is odd that despite our decrease in violent crime and increase in worldly comforts, we are so much more pessimistic about ourselves than our per-industrial forebears. Tolkien's morality, in contrast to today's trendy cynicism, is clearly Catholic in origin, and more nuanced that the good/evil binary employed by more derivative writers.

Tolkien admitted that Christianity influenced themes of Lord of the Rings, even while he disparaged the blatant allegory of C.S. Lewis. Like Satan, Sauron is a corrupted angelic being, and the personification of evil. Though for the characters in the story most of his deeds are done through his agents, he is also a literal person who rules over a very real place. Frodo's descent into Mordor is an intentional echo of the mythical journey to the underworld, the Hero Cycle's symbolic death. But the conflict between good and evil in the Lord of the Rings does not simply come from battling Sauron's orcs, Ringwraiths and other minions, but from battling against the corruption of one's heart. In a universe where objective morality exists, evil is committed by willfully siding the the Enemy of good. The Christian notion of temptation requires socially agreed upon sins, so that when transgressions occur, it is obvious to the one who commits them. We can look at Boromir, who at the end of the novel succumbs to the temptation of power and attempts to acquire the ring for himself, but he knows full well that the ring cannot offer him the power to protect his homeland only a temporary blindness confuses him, and when it passes he acknowledges his sin and repents. But when evil can be identified, it can also be overcome. It gives us the option of choosing righteousness and bettering ourselves as individuals. 

As a secular person myself, I'm not trying to claim that either Tolkien or Martin have a superior moral worldview, but am just trying to observe them from a cultural historical perspective. It is interesting that Tolkien, who survived WWI, by all accounts a nebulous and ultimately pointless waste of human life, would believe in objective morality, and George R.R. Martin, who had a working-class but fanciful childhood in suburban New Jersey would view morality as so ambiguous. Perhaps the answer to this mystery of human nature is that objective morality is a survival technique for those who face truly horrific conflicts, but likely it is more complex.

The disclaimer here is that I only just reread Fellowship (I originally read the series in 8th grade), and everything I've gleamed about Tolkien's extended universe comes from Wikipedia, so I'm sure some  Tolkien scholars, or fanboys, might be more informed on his moral system than me.

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