Virtue Ethics in Middle-Earth
Issues in Virtue Ethics
Virtue and Story
In our course of study, we’ve looked at a few different virtue-ethical systems, including those described by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and James F. Keenan. Aquinas, Keenan and others offer modified versions of Aristotle’s system of virtues, but they do so outside of the context of a narrative. Their virtue systems are presented and applied to various problems and subsequently analyzed, but life is not breathed into them. In order to do that, one requires a story. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 121)
One might argue that for Christians, that story is salvation history as expressed in scripture, but this is not quite the narrative that a virtue ethic requires. A virtue ethic requires a story of ennoblement, wherein the virtues espoused are demonstrated to function. Scripture, on the other hand, is a wildly various collection of ancient genres of writing, usually seen as whole but not composed as a whole. Aristotle’s culture, in contrast, was steeped in these heroic and epic stories (Ibid, 122-125) constituting a rich storytelling tradition, the surviving fragments of which we still treasure thousands of years later.
It is my contention that, despite the great interruption in the development of virtue ethics, which MacIntyre identifies as the entire experiment of modernity, this storytelling tradition continues to this day. The difference is that we do not identify it as such, and it is not widely used as a source for virtue ethics. But we are still steeped in our own stories of ennoblement, and these can be a source for our ethical reflection in the context of virtue ethics.
The example I will focus on is the corpus of J.R.R. Tolkien, with specific focus on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with reference to this other works, books, essays and letters. Tolkien is a potentially superb example of modern stories as living virtue ethics because he is in an interesting position. On the one hand, he is steeped in the heroic storytelling of northern Europe – the languages, traditions, cultures and so on, from Beowulf to the Elder Edda to the Kalevala. He also set out, particularly in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, to create stories which reflected his own Catholicism (Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 172), including the tradition of Catholic moral theology in the tradition of Aquinas. Finally, his stories are avidly devoured by millions of fans worldwide, and have been adapted many times into various media since their publication. (Endnote 1) It seems that there is a clear potential here for one to find living, breathing virtues expressly located in modern storytelling.
In Tolkien’s work, we are inoculated against some of the intrinsic ills of modernity which MacIntyre describes. Tolkien was profoundly anti-modern in almost every way, watching with horror and disgust as modern society devoured itself in two great wars, and then set upon devouring his beloved English countryside, one ugly building after another. (Letters, 88, 165, 190) You will not find many “witches and unicorns” (MacIntyre, 70) in his works – there is little reference to rights or rules of conduct, and only a light smattering of language one might call consequentialist. He is steeped in premodern values, and it shows.
But we must ask – did he intend to do what I am describing? Did he in fact set out to embody virtue in story? It is hard to say that this was his primary motivation, but there can be little doubt that his intent is there. He writes, in a draft of a letter, that “I would claim, if I did not think it presumptuous in one so ill-instructed, to have as one object the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments.” (Letters, 194)
This is the best example of a theme in his letters when he is discussing the purpose behind his writing, particularly of The Lord of the Rings. He is doing what the authors of the ancient works he was so familiar were doing – clothing truth in story, for the purpose of “ennoblement”. (Ibid, 215, 237) In fact, this vision came to him and a group of friends very early in life, that he was called expressly to “rekindle an old light”. (Ibid, 10)
But was he successful? Because his virtues are expressed through story, and because the story is more than a simple virtue allegory, one cannot posit a comprehensive system of virtues in the works of Tolkien. Systematization is one thing and story is another. However, it is possible to identify embodiments of certain virtues, and also identify their opposite number, characters that fall and are destroyed because of their lack of the same virtue.
The three virtues I will focus on are fidelity, hope, and mercy. I will present Sam Gamgee as a character who is ennobled and saved by fidelity, and Saruman as a character who is destroyed by a lack of it. I will then go on to discuss Gandalf and his calling to foster hope in the world, contrasted with Denethor, who destroys himself for lack of hope. I will follow with a discussion of how Frodo is saved by mercy, and how Gollum is undone from the beginning by a lack of it. In all three cases, Tolkien has his own understanding of these virtues which needs to be discussed in order to understand how they function in his mythopoeia. (Endnote 2) I will then go on to a brief discussion of courage, in Bilbo contrasted with Boromir. Finally, I will discuss Tolkien’s understanding of the source and manifestation of evil, and how that affects his ethic at every level.
Tolkien describes Sam as a character who is saved by his fidelity to Frodo. (Letters, 161, 329) Not only is he saved by it, but he is empowered by it to go beyond the usual limits of his stature and accomplish great things. He is constant in fidelity when he is constant in little else, even putting the rest of Middle-Earth at risk for the sake of friendship and devotion. (The Lord of the Rings, 877-881) It is his fidelity which leads Gandalf, at the beginning of the story, to include Sam on Frodo’s quest, encouraging Frodo to take along friends he can trust. Gandalf sees that Sam has little else to offer in the way of help, but also correctly predicts that Sam’s virtue will be crucial to ultimate success.
The turning-point for Sam comes at Cirith Ungol, when he learns that Frodo is poisoned but not dead as he had appeared when he was attacked by Shelob. On the one hand, he should continue down into Mordor to destroy the Ring and save the world. On the other hand, he feels he can’t leave Frodo behind – but to rescue him he has to face an evil tower brimming with Orcs. He does not have a natural store of courage, but he is empowered to go beyond himself by his fidelity.
At the emotional climax of the Ring quest, Frodo collapses on the slopes of Mount Doom. Sam knows he can’t take the Ring again, but decides to carry Frodo the rest of the way up the volcano to the Cracks of Doom. He has already been moved beyond himself to great courage, but now he is moved to self-sacrifice as well, which we will see later is the heart of courage for Tolkien.
Saruman, in contrast, is defined by his “treason” and violation of all fidelity. His betrayal is revealed to Gandalf. Saruman, like Gandalf, was sent to Middle-Earth as an emissary of the Valar (Ibid, Appendix B, 1057), who are lesser gods in service to the one greater God, which is described in The Silmarillion in the Ainulindale (Endnote 3), which depicts the creation of the world. He is the head of the order of Wizards, or Istari, who are themselves supernatural beings called Maiar, servants of the Valar – the same kind of being as Sauron, or the Balrog.
In his betrayal, Saruman is not only violating his position among the Istari and peaceful relations with his neighbors the Rohirrim, but is also violating his position as emissary of the gods. He is breaking all bonds, the equivalent of oaths and blood ties, for the sake of personal power. He also spreads his treason, in particular through Grima Wormtongue, whom he sends to corrupt the court of the Rohirrim.
When Gandalf confronts him, he receives the first part of his punishment for his shattered fidelity. He is stripped of his position, and ultimately flees his tower at Orthanc. (Rings, 568-569, 960-962, 994-995) Ultimately, he comes to the Shire, and begins working corruption there as well. In a last ironic twist, he is killed by Wormtongue, who until that point was the only of Saruman’s servants who showed any fidelity to him. Saruman’s viciousness comes full-circle, and the most powerful of the Istari is stabbed to death on a doorstep in Hobbiton.
For Thomas Aquinas, Hope is a theological virtue, a gift from God, and this is essentially true in Middle-Earth as well. Gandalf is doubly charged with spreading hope in resistance to evil in Middle Earth. He is first sent as emissary of the Valar, but he is given particular training which the other Istari do not receive. He studies with Nienna, the Vala who represents wisdom that comes from suffering. (Endnote 4) She is something like the goddess of tears and grief, but in the mythological beginnings of Middle-Earth, her grief is a crucial ingredient in healing and restoring light to the world when it is almost snuffed out. (Ibid, 113) The connection between grief and suffering on the one hand and hope and wisdom on the other cannot be overstated where Gandalf is concerned.
He is charged with bringing hope again upon his arrival in Middle-Earth, when he meets Cirdan the Shipwright, an ancient and powerful Elf living on the western shore of Middle-Earth. Cirdan is the keeper of Narya, the Ring of Fire, but he gives it to Gandalf. He can see that Gandalf will be called upon to kindle hope in the coming darkness, and will need the help of the ring more than Cirdan ever will.
As a divine being, Gandalf is actually quite limited in what he can choose to do to affect change in the world. He cannot accomplish anything through a show of force or a direct demonstration of power. His task is primarily to call mortals to go beyond themselves in the resistance of evil. (Letters, 159; Rings Appendix B 159-160) He can only call upon his full power when battling other Maiar or spiritual beings, and even then only when others aren’t around to see. This is the case when he faces the Balrog in Moria and falls into the abyss. (Rings, 321-323)
In the case of Theoden, Gandalf is successful in fostering hope in the face of despair, exemplified by his healing Theoden of Saruman’s spiritual and psychological poison delivered through Wormtongue’s machinations. Because of the hope which Gandalf kindles, the Rohirrim are rallied to the defense of their own lands, and then mobilized for the defense of their old ally Minas Tirith. Tolkien describes the passage where the horns of the Rohirrim are heard on Pelennor Field, turning the tide of the battle for Minas Tirith, as one of the passages in the book that moved him when he re-read it throughout his life. (Letters, 376)
For Tolkien, hope is tied up in providence and in the concept of eucatastrophe. These are both complex and multifaceted concepts in their own right, but as briefly as possible: providence is not specifically identified with God in Tolkien’s stories, but it is without a doubt a primary aspect of Middle-Earth. When Gandalf talks about how “even the wise cannot see all ends” (Rings, 58), he is referring to providence. When references are made to the great importance of “chance meetings” (Endnote 5), which are often so crucial to Tolkien’s narratives, this is also in reference to providence. Fate is not blind but is in benevolent hands, not simply the sum total of chance and mortal decisions.
“Eucatastrophe” is a word that Tolkien invented to describe a sudden turn of events which could be seen as an act of providence. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, eucatastrophe is heralded by the same words: “The Eagles are coming!” (Hobbit, 256; Rings, 874) This is the point when the tide of a crucial battle turns in an unexpected way, bringing victory out of disaster. In his speech and essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien discusses eucatastrophe, using it to connect even the Gospel to what he describes as a fundamental aspect of “fairy stories” or fantasy – the moment when all seems lost, and then beyond hope, good enters into the story and overcomes evil. (Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) For Tolkien, the reason that hope can persist beyond all reason is the possibility of eucatastrophe, and providence is the theological category to describe this kind of hope.
In a parallel situation to his rousing success inspiring Theoden, however, Gandalf fails utterly to engender hope. When he comes to the court of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor is prepared to refute his encouraging claims. Denethor has already essentially abandoned hope, and he finally breaks when he sees the vast army of Mordor marching on the city. Denethor has given up all hope of any eucatastrophe, believing that he can see all ends and that defeat is inevitable. (Rings, 805-807) He abandons his position and attempts to burn himself and his son Faramir on a pyre in the ancient mausoleum of Minas Tirith before he is forcibly stopped by Gandalf.
Perhaps the difference between the two is that Theoden was poisoned by betrayal, whereas Denethor was poisoned from within by pride. He actively and consciously denied providence, and instead of eucatastrophe saw only catastrophe for himself and his city. This isn’t to say that he was being unreasonable. His circumstances were incredibly dire, and he had no rational source for hope beyond trust in providence. But when that hope was offered as a gift, he refused it, and was destroyed. In Middle-Earth, hope is still a theological virtue, offered as a gift of divinity, rooted in providence, rather than arising from personal effort and reflection.
“The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” When Gandalf says this, he is of course speaking on behalf of the writer, but this is another instance where Tolkien is closer to Aquinas than to Aristotle. For him, pity, or mercy, is more important than justice. In fact, he describes pity as that which perfects justice (Letters, 191, 326), even when it contradicts what Tolkien calls prudence, which amounts to common sense. (Miller, Aristotle: Ethics and Politics, 196-197)
In The Lord of the Rings, it is the pity Frodo exhibits that is the most influential in the success of his quest, both in the short term and overall. In the short term, he reflects Bilbo’s treatment of Gollum, his pity on him which leads to mercy when prudence might demand a harsher reaction. Gollum is thus made a temporary ally, enabling Frodo to enter Mordor by a way he would never have found on his own. (Rings, 601-605, 623-624)
In the long term, it is pity which insulates him from the evil influence of the Ring for as long as it does. Because his ownership of the Ring began with pity rather than greed or a will to power, Frodo is able to resist its corruption far longer than others of much greater stature could have. (Letters, 327) In this, Tolkien is connecting pity to humility, a vice to Aristotle but a virtue in a Christian context. The Ring is the manifestation of the will to power (Letters, 160, 200), from Smeagol’s petty desire leading to murder to Isildur’s failure to destroy the ring when he had a chance, from Galadriel’s temptation to take the ring and make herself Queen of Middle-Earth to Boromir’s desperate grasp for the ring so he could use it to save his people. The Ring is power and the desire for power both made manifest. Humility is the best defense against this, and humility manifests itself in pity, in the understanding that it does not fall on an individual to judge a life as good or evil, as deserving or undeserving. Through pity, justice is perfected because ultimately justice is left to God, or to providence perhaps in the context of Middle-Earth. “Even the wise cannot see all ends”; therefore, justice must always be tempered by pity.
Gollum is a creature without pity. He does not even have true pity for himself (In the virtuous sense, distinct from self-pity, which he has in abundance), though he is clearly pitiable to anyone who meets him. He began his ownership of the Ring by killing is cousin Deagol, who was the actual finder of the Ring. Because of this lack of the inoculation of pity, he is lost almost immediately, turning to petty crime in his community until he is ultimately exiled, and then crawling down into the roots of the mountains to eat raw fish and strangle the occasional Goblin, muttering to himself in the dark until he meets Bilbo hundreds of years later (a good example of a “chance meeting”).
In more than one way, Gollum and Frodo appear similar. Even Bilbo and Gollum shared some elements of culture, such as the riddle game described in The Hobbit. (Hobbit, 69-74) They are racially and culturally from similar stock, though now many generations removed. (Rings, Appendix B, 1062) They also share the burden of the Ring, though it had far longer to work its evil on Gollum than on Frodo. The difference between them is Frodo’s pity. He is able to see another from their point of view, able to empathize, and able to see that good can come even from apparent evil. Gollum is almost entirely unable to see beyond his desire for the Ring, for the thing that has destroyed him and corrupted him beyond repair. His lack of pity, at the beginning, necessitated his utter downfall in the end.
Tolkien describes his characters as having that which he saw himself lacking – courage. Courage is the catalyst in much of his stories which enables characters to act despite fear which would otherwise hold them back. It is exemplified best in the character of Bilbo as he changes over the course of The Hobbit. Its redemptive power, beyond its power to catalyze right action, is best demonstrated by the heroic death of Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.
For Bilbo the first act of courage is one of self-preservation, when he kills a huge spider that is trying to poison and then eat him when he becomes lost and separated from his companions in Mirkwood. (Hobbit, 141-142) This act, defending himself against something monstrous and hungry, alone and in the dark, is described as working a great change in him. At this point, his position in the company changes significantly, and he goes on to rescue the Dwarves first from spiders and then from the prisons of the Elvenking.
His most courageous act that is described in The Hobbit also comes when he is alone, when he is going down into the darkness of Smaug’s lair. He is making his way down into the earth, and comes to a point where he can no longer see the light from above, nor hear his companions’ voices, but he is certain of the reality of a Dragon at the end of the tunnel below – he can see the red light that Smaug gives off faintly before him. Continuing onward down the tunnel is an act of bravery – almost for its own sake. One might say that it is for the sake of fidelity, since he has promised the Dwarves to do just what he is doing, but the courageous act itself is presented as having its own value, particularly when it is not a response to a direct threat but a conscious decision to do something despite being terribly afraid. (Hobbit, 193)
Boromir’s situation is quite different. He is already a person of proven courage, but by the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, he has fallen from grace, betraying Frodo’s trust when he is overwhelmed by desire for the Ring. He tries to take it by force, and Frodo escapes him and disappears. Soon after, Uruk-Hai attack the Company, and they are scattered. Aragorn commands Boromir to protect Merry and Pippin, who go running off to find Frodo and Sam in the confusion.
Boromir finds them being hounded by dozens of Uruk-Hai, and dies defending them. Though they are ultimately captured, he has time before he dies to speak with Aragorn again. He repents and is absolved, because in the end he died with courage, defending the weak and obeying a command given to him by someone he had accepted as his liege. (Rings, 395, 403-404) For Bilbo, courage is a catalyst, but for Boromir, courage is redemptive.
In Tolkien’s narratives, the will to dominate others is at the heart of all evil. It is not simply a Nietzschean will-to-power, but it is dominion in place of God. (Letters, 152, 200, 220, 262, 326) It is usurpation of divine sovereignty for one’s own purposes. The ultimate example of this is in the story of the creation of Middle-Earth found in The Silmarillion. In it, the music of Eru, or Illuvatar, or God, brings forth creation, and the Valar join in the music, each fulfilling their allotted part – except for Melkor, the most powerful of the Valar and a clear parallel to Lucifer.
Melkor corrupts the music to his own ends, and even turns to the outer darkness and seeks to create for himself. He fails in both counts. He cannot create on his own – for Tolkien, evil is ultimately impotent, and can only corrupt and twist what is good. (Letters, 146; Silmarillion, 50, 106) His attempt at corrupting the music of creation is also a failure, because Eru/Illuvatar/God finds a way to re-incorporate even his corruptions into the overall music. (Silmarillion, 4-5)
If you look into why characters fail to demonstrate virtue, the answer is essentially self-will.
Saruman succumbs in his study of Sauron’s crafts of control and mechanization and attempts to put himself forth as a second Sauron in a second dark tower. Denethor trusts in his own wisdom and his own visions through the Palantir as absolute, and his last act of control is to choose his own death, and to choose death for his son who is sick but could still be saved. Gollum’s ownership of the Ring begins with greed and petty desire – he lacks the stature of Saruman or even Denethor – but it is a species of the same sin – self-will.
The virtue of fidelity moves the focus from the self to the relationship with those you are bonded to. The virtue of hope is ultimately trusting not in your own power but in the power of providence to bring good out of evil, eucatastrophe out of catastrophe. The virtue of pity perfects justice because it puts ultimate judgment aside. It is the ability to identify with the one you might otherwise judge. Courage is expressed as self-sacrifice on behalf of others and never as recklessness. These virtues are set in opposition to domination in Tolkien’s works.
Story before system
In his essay and speech Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien helps redefine the study of Beowulf for a generation of scholars continuing into the present. What he espouses, in essence, is taking Beowulf at face value, rather than lamenting what it is not. He uses the analogy of a person who owns a plot of land covered with ancient stones. He builds a tower out of the ancient stones, but scholars knock the tower down in order to study the inscriptions on the stones. They never realize that, from the top of the tower, the man could glimpse the sea. (Monsters and Critics)
In engaging in analysis like this of a narrative, the danger is that the beauty and wholeness is sacrificed for the sake of analysis itself. Tolkien did not set out to present a comprehensive virtue system, and one probably cannot be derived from his writings. I think he did, however, present a functioning virtue system in his writings, once which, in the scope of the narrative, served to ennoble and even to sanctify. (Letters, 234, 251-252)
This may be a fruitful endeavor for anyone who wants to present virtue ethics as a functioning way of making decisions and living a life. When deontology is presented in narrative form, for example, it takes on the shape of a morality play, where the rules are broken and the consequences meted out predictably. But life is not a morality play. It is messy and indistinct and unpredictable. Virtue ethics finds in narrative its natural habitat, and our culture is no less steeped in stories than ancient cultures were. The success of Tolkien’s works is proof that there is a thirst for what those stories provide, which Tolkien observed when his books far outsold anyone’s expectations in his lifetime. (Letters, 98, 147) Among other things, his stories provide a living, breathing virtue ethic, not comprehensive, but certainly comprehensible. What else might narrative do to change the nature of moral discourse in our culture?
1. The Hobbit has been made into an animated feature. The first half of the Lord of the Rings was made into an animated feature, but the second half was never finished, so the Return of the King was made by the same company that made The Hobbit. Of course, there are also Peter Jackson’s recent films, and there is also a musical version of The Lord of the Rings in London. These are just the major examples of adaptations of Tolkien’s works (not including obscure rock albums and so on).
2. Published in Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien with Christopher Tolkien as editor.
3. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, 3-13; (Translation: “The Music of the Ainur”)
4. The Silmarillion, 21-22, 24-25; here he is still known as Olorin
5. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson., Appendix A, 376
Works Cited and Consulted
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Questions 49-64.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1985
Carpenter, Humphrey, Ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.
Keenan, James F. Proposing Cardinal Virtues. Theological Studies 56:04, 2006.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, Third Edition. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
Miller, Fred D. Jr. Aristotle: Ethics and Politics. From The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, Shields, Christopher Ed.
Pope, Stephen, Ed. The Ethics of Aquinas. Georgetown University Press, 2002.
Shippey, Tom. Author of the Century. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Humphrey Milford for the British Academy (First Edition), 1937. Originally a Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture at the British Academy.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Ballantine Books, 1977.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. Del Rey, 1986.
Tolkien, J.R.R. and Tolkien, Christopher, Ed. Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1989.