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  • Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius:Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord Of The Rings
  • John Wm. Houghton (bio) and Neal K. Keesee (bio)

"'Good and ill have not changed...nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men.' ...This is the basis of the whole Tolkienian world."

As this passage from C. S. Lewis's 1955 review essay (Zimbardo and Isaacs 12) demonstrates, Tolkien criticism has been concerned from the beginning with the question of good and evil in the novel. From an almost equally early point, critics have recognized Tolkien's view on this great issue as part of a larger philosophical tradition. Rose Zimbardo wrote in 1969: "As in St. Augustine's, so in Tolkien's vision, nothing is created evil. Evil is good that has been perverted" (Zimbardo and Isaacs 73).1 In contrast to Zimbardo's position, T. A. Shippey has argued in both of his ground-breaking studies of the novel that Tolkien creatively combines in The Lord of the Rings two contradictory views of evil, one rooted in a Boethian understanding of evil as non-existent (and therefore internal and psychological), the other based in the semi-Manichean heroic perception that evil is an external, active force which must therefore be actively resisted (Road 140-46; Author128-142). More recently, Colin Gunton reasserts the Augustinian association, identifying as one of the parallels between LotR and Christian theology the idea that "evil is the corruption of good, monstrous in power and yet essentially parasitic." He observes in a note that "It will be seen from these remarks that I find somewhat more consistent a theology of evil in The Lord of the Rings than does Shippey, who seems to me to make the mistake of drawing too absolute a distinction between 'inner' and 'objective' evil…." (Pearce 133, 140). Similarly, Scott A. Davison, writing for a popular audience in The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All, reasserts Tolkien's Augustinianism:

Tolkien accepts this Augustinian view of evil. In a letter, he writes, "In my story I do not deal with Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero" (L, p. 243).... So St. Augustine and Tolkien agree that nothing is completely and utterly evil, because such a thing could not even exist, since existence itself is good. And they both believe that whereas goodness is primary and independent, [End Page 131] evil is secondary and dependent on goodness.

(Bassham and Bronson 102-103)

We would argue that Tolkien adopts a consistently Augustinian theory of evil, and that what Shippey sees as two views of evil held in ambiguous tension is, rather, one self-consciously paradoxical understanding. Following along the lines of Zimbardo, Gunton and Davison, we wish, as historical theologians, to give a somewhat more thorough account of this Augustinian tradition within which Tolkien works, considering both its antique originals and King Alfred the Great's medieval translation; to review the application of the tradition to several elements of LotR, and particularly the Ring itself; and then to look in some detail at the account that tradition would give of one of the novel's key moments, the scene of Frodo claiming the Ring for himself in the Sammath Naur.

I. Shippey's Reading

In his interpretations of Tolkien's theory of evil in LotR, Shippey uses terms such as inconsistent, contradiction, uncertainty and ambiguity.2 In neither of his two major works does Shippey see these as strong negatives; indeed, he acknowledges that without itsambiguity, its"double vision," LotR would not have the explanatory power it has in interpreting evil.3 In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Shippey quite cogently argues that Tolkien must be seen as a twentieth-century author in his treatment of evil, alongside such others as Golding, Vonnegut, T. H. White and LeGuin (xxx-xxxi, 115-117, 119-121, 158-160).These writers have in common that they react to "the distinctively twentieth-century experience of industrial war and impersonal, industrialized massacre" by rejecting the inadequate "moralities of earlier ages" (120). Shippey cites, among other examples, Rosewater's rejection...