Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head..

Taken from WH Auden’s review of The Return of the King, “At the End of the Quest, Victory”

I was going to write some of my own thoughts, but I realized that it has already said better than I probably could. “Evil…has every advantage but one – it is inferior in imagination.”

I have observed that the failure to find nonviolent solutions to problems is almost universally a failure of imagination. It is as if, given that we must not fail to resist evil, and that we must not become evil by doing violence against our enemies, there were nothing in between.

As if the Bible is absolutely true in what it says about sex, or gender, or the “end times”, but completely idealistic and foolish in what it says about violence, or love, or justice, or mercy, or enemies, or neighbors.

I find that view impossible to abide without a great deal of frustration.

Tolkien wasn’t a practicing pacifist by any means, and even he could imagine a great deal more. Even more than that, he could imagine a core difference between good and evil – that evil is such because it imagines only evil means – power, domination, violence, force.

A light shone into the darkness, but the darkness didn’t understand it.

And still doesn’t.

3 thoughts on “Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

  1. By the way, I think you may have an incorrect link under your “Loyal Opposition” sidebar. You list the New Wineskins. I assume that’s the association formed by disgruntled PCUSA types. Their website is actually I followed the link you had in place and found myself at the New Wineskins Magazine, which I think is a different outfit altogether. However, it was great that you had the wrong link in place because the magazine had an article by the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune that gave me some great information for a sermon I’m preaching on child abuse and sexual assault prevention.


  2. Thanks for the note on The Loyal Opposition – I’d put up that link a long time ago, and obviously never click on it 🙂But it should be what I intended now.In the meantime, reading Marie Fortune is almost always a superb use of time.


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