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Author: Linaewen
Title: Good Vs. Evil in the Lord of the Rings
Rating: G
Theme: Nonfiction
Subject: A comparison of good and evil in Tolkien's trilogy.
Type: Essay
Word Count: 3,859
Author's Notes: This is a very old essay from my relatively early days as a Tolkien fan, recently located in a box of mementos from my younger days and retyped on the computer -- it was originally typed up with an electric typewriter on onion skin paper! This is probably my first serious attempt to write something related to the fandom. It was written for a university English class where we had to research and write about a literary topic. I still remember working on this paper, even though it was almost 40 years ago! I had so much fun with it, and I got the highest marks as a final grade. In retyping the essay, I tried to keep it "as is" from the original paper, but there were a few errors that I could not allow, so I fixed those -- but for the most part, the writing stands as originally presented. My understanding of Tolkien, his writing and his characters, has grown immensely since I first wrote this, and while I'm not certain I would write it exactly the same way now, I am surprised at how well it still fits with my view of canon. I was very much a lover of Boromir, even at this early stage! I have included the notes and the bibliography, as well, mostly because I wanted a complete record of the paper as it was originally presented. I will not, however, make the reader submit to reading the sentence outline that had to accompany the original paper!

Good Vs. Evil in The Lord of the Rings
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Moral Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.1

This is the inscription written on the inside of the Ring of Power, the basis behind Good's struggle against the evil Sauron.  This Ring, which was secretly forged by Sauron in the Cracks of Doom, is lost.  Sauron's attempts to find it and Good's to destroy it ultimately lead to the War of the Rings.  J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings is essentially the story of this struggle between the forces of good and evil.

This contest is presented almost immediately and just as immediately demands decisions of several kinds.  First of all, there is the question whether or not to resist at all.  Evil is formidable, and the odds involved in resistance are so great and discouraging that surrender hardly seems worse than the actual fight.  The, of course, there is the second possibility: the moral choice of rejecting evil regardless of the consequences.  The prospect is still a formidable one.  Thirdly, there is the temptation that is dangled before the great ones: "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em."  Needless to say, there are a few who yield to this temptation.  The fourth problem is that of ends and means: what to do with the Ring.  Elrond states this problem quite clearly at the Council:

We cannot use the Ruling Ring.  That we now know too well.  It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.  Its strength...is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.  But for them it holds an even deadlier peril.  The very desire of it corrupts the heart...If any of the wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear...As long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the wise.  For nothing is evil in the beginning.2

Free will enters into the picture here, for all life in Middle-earth has the power to work for good or evil, and each creature must choose for himself which side he wishes to support.  The eagles are allies of Gandalf, while the crows spy for Sauron.  The evil wargs, which are a kind of wolf, work with the orcs, and even allow them to ride upon their backs as horses.  Even forests and mountains choose sides.  The Old Forest just outside the Shire leads wayfarers astray by causing the paths to shift, while Mount Caradhras tries to kill wayfarers with snowstorms and falling rocks.

Each good creature has a perverse counterpart.  There is Gandalf, who sacrifices himself for the Fellowship,3 and Saruman, his counterpart, whose lust for power and the Ring drives him into evil.  The counterparts of the elves are the orcs, who were actually made as a mockery of elves.  While elves are refined almost to an essence, orcs are grotesquely gross.  Man's counterparts are the nine Ringwraiths, Sauron's chief servants.  Man has his will and his heroic identity, while the Ringwraiths have no identity beyond the hollow malevolent force that drives them.  Even the hobbits have a counterpart, Frodo in particular.  The counterpart is Gollum, who was once a hobbit himself.  But under the torment of his lust for the Ring, every aspect of hobbit nature is distorted to parody.

Besides the differences between the more general forces of Good and Evil, there are several more specific ones.  Good is loyal and courageous, while Evil is treacherous and its courage is dependent on numbers.  Good loves nature and is close to it, while Evil ignores it and even destroys it.  Good survives on wholesome food -- bread and honey, mushrooms, compressed grain cakes -- whereas Evil eats corrupt flesh and drinks intoxicating beverages made from dreadful, nameless ingredients.  Good has a great regard for freedom of choice, whereas Evil's will is enslaved.  Even the languages of Middle-earth reflect the personalities of those who use them.  Good speaks Quenya and Westron, both of which are musical and highly sophisticated languages.  Evil speaks variations of Sauron's Black Speech and corrupted forms of Westron, all of which are crude and painful to the ears.  But perhaps the greatest difference is expressed by Rose A. Zimbardo in her review of The Lord of the Rings: "As the Fellowship of love is the ultimate positive power, the negation of fellowship...is the ultimate negative power."4

Despite all these differences, Tolkien continually stresses the point that nothing is evil in the beginning.  Sauron became evil by choice and was consequently diminished.  The Ringwraiths were formerly men of Númenor, a powerful yet wise race of men.  Saruman was originally "Saruman the White," the greatest of the five wizards.  Gollum was originally a hobbit, and even now, after his fall into evil, he still retains some of his hobbit traits.

The fact that nothing is evil in the beginning does not, however, dismiss the reality of evil now.  There is a limitless penetration of evil into the farthest crevices of conscious life, much of which Sauron has been able to enlist under his banner in one way or another.  He uses a Balrog5 to drive the dwarves from the mines of Moria and later looses him on Gandalf in an attempt to destroy him.  Shelob the great spider, though unconcerned about Sauron and his war, is quite effective as a boundary guard as well as a way to deal with unwanted prisoners:

Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone...And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked.  It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised.  And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty...Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for...6

The barrow-wights, evil spirits who live just east of the Shire, entrap passersby and kill them.  These spirits are an example of the extent of Sauron's powers and hopes.  "A shadow came out of the dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds.  Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places..."7 A barrow-wight who is about to kill the hobbits he has captured condemns them to death "till the dark lord lifts his hand over dead sea and withered land."8

Yet, despite the many forces of evil under his command, Sauron falls, for it is his own evil nature that is his undoing.  Sauron, no matter how powerful, cannot help making mistakes to his undoing simply because he is evil.  He is not exempt from the feelings of doubt and dread which he inspires in others; therefore, the finding of the Ring by his enemies causes him great alarm.  "Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war."9

Another mistake of Sauron's is that he is not satisfied if another does what he, Sauron, wants; he must be bade to do it against his will.  At times, this desire to dominated causes Sauron to be unduly hasty.  When Pippin looks into the palantír stone of Orthanc,10 and encounters the Dark Lord, Sauron is so eager to torment Pippin that he does not ask the right questions and therefore loses a chance to recover the Ring.  Gandalf points this out: "He was too eager.  He did not want information only: he wanted you, quickly, so he could deal with you in the Dark Tower, slowly."11

Another problem Sauron has is the fact that all alliances of Evil with Evil are unstable and untrustworthy.  Since evil loves itself and bases its alliances on fear or hope of profit, it is inevitable that these alliances will, in time, destroy themselves.  Sauron believes he has made an enslaved ally of Saruman, the fallen wizard, yet in reality, Saruman is not so enslaved that he does not try to get the Ring for himself.  As Gandalf says in The Two Towers: "...The Enemy has failed -- so far.  Thanks to Saruman...Saruman also had a mind to capture the Ring, for himself...The Dark Lord...now has Isengard to fear as well as Minas Tirith."12

But Sauron's primary weakness is his lack of imagination.  He is unable to imagine what Good will do, except what he would do in Good's place; Good has this ability to imagine what Evil will do, and thus is somewhat prepared for each of his blows.  Says Gandalf, "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.  That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream."13 This turns out to be quite an advantage for the forces of Good.

Another one of Good's advantages is an ironic one: it is often evil that brings forth eventual good.  The rival orc bands of Sauron and Saruman promote a good they never intend when they capture Merry and Pippin.  Gandalf explains, "between them our enemies have contrived only to bring Merry and Pippin with marvelous speed...to Fangorn, where otherwise they would never have come at all!"14

Wormtongue's flight to his master, Saruman, seems harmless at the time.  But later, Wormtongue tries to kill Gandalf by throwing down at him the precious palantír.  With this palantír, Aragorn reveals himself to Sauron as Elendil's rightful heir.  This shocks the Dark Lord so much that he is frightened into launching his attack on Gondor prematurely, even though he is not ready.15

Most important of all, though, is the role played by Gollum.  With Gollum's help, Frodo and Sam find their way through the Dead Marshes, up the stairs at Cirith Ungol, and eventually into Mordor and the Cracks of Doom.  Little does Gollum know that he is aiding in the destruction of his Precious.16

Providence played a crucial role here, as it does throughout the epic.  There is a certain ordering of elements to one end: the ultimate triumph of Good.  First, and most important, is the fact that Bilbo was "meant" to find the Ring, and thus pass it on to his nephew, Frodo.  Gandalf says this very plainly: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also [Frodo] were meant to have it."17

Secondly, it is evident that some great force besides Elrond summoned the Free Peoples to the Council of Elrond, as Elrond states:

What shall we do with the Ring...?  That is the purpose for which you are called hither.  Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands.  You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem.  Yet it is not so.  Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.18

Last, but definitely not least, is Gollum and his unknown part in the design.  Gandalf feels, however, that his part will be an important one.  "For even the wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many -- yours not the least."19 Later, he goes on to say, "Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend."20

Each character has his future course laid out for him, provided he himself chooses to follow that course.  Elrond accepts Frodo's offer to take the Ring as one of free will, yet at the same time, he believes Frodo was "appointed" to undertake the task.  Sam, though not partial to the hard journey ahead, feels that he has something to do before the end and he says so.

I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way.  I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back.  It isn't to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want -- I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.  I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.21

Providence does not always watch over Good with tender loving care, however.  Evil is necessary in order to bring on hard times that test Good to the utmost, morally and physically.  Thus, Evil may even be allowed to triumph -- for a time, at least.

One of the saddest parts in the book occurs when Boromir, one of Frodo's companions of the Fellowship, succumbs to the lure of the Ring and attacks Frodo.  Frodo, shocked and heart-broken, leaves the Fellowship, taking with his only his closest friend, Sam.

But Boromir's temporary fall into evil is quite necessary to the successful completion of the Quest.  With the Fellowship broken, Frodo and Sam are able to slip into Mordor unseen.  Merry and Pippin, captured by orcs, are transported to Fangorn Forest where they arouse the Ents22 to attack Saruman.  Aragorn, pursuing the captives, meets Éomer23 and begins the awakening of the country of Rohan.  He also meets the reincarnated Gandalf,24 who frees King Théoden from Saruman's evil influence, thus destroying Saruman's threat to Rohan.  With the kind freed, Rohan is now able to send her army to the city of Minas Tirith and save her from the first onset of Sauron's hosts.  Aragorn, too, is free to ride the Paths of the Dead and bring the armies of southern Gondor to the rescue.

Another example of Providence at work through hardship is when Elrond, at the last minute, includes Merry and Pippin in the Fellowship, only to have them captured by the orcs.  This capture, however, is just as necessary as Boromir's fall.  It allows Boromir to redeem himself by dying to protect them: "It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir's sake..."25 It also allows them to be brought to Fangorn where they incite the Ents to action: "...But that is not the only part they have to play.  They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains."26 Later, Pippin goes on to become Denethor's27 esquire and saves Faramir's life when Denethor goes mad.  Merry becomes Théoden's esquire and aids Théoden's niece in killing the Lord of the Ringwraiths.  the final and greatest evil, however, is committed by Frodo when, on the verge of destroyi8ng the Ring, he weakens, and claims it as he own.  It is only by an act of Fate that he, and all of Middle-earth with him, is saved:

...There on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.

'Master!'28 cried Sam.

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice...it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roofs and walls.

'I have come,' he said. 'But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is Mine!'  And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam's sight.29

...Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him...

Sam got up.  He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes.  He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing.  Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe...The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum's long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm's edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle...

'Precious, precious, precious!' Gollum cried. 'My Precious! O my Precious!' And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone....

'Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,' said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away...

'Yes,' said Frodo. 'But do you remember Gandalf's words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end...'30

Sauron is finished.  In the endless struggle between Good and Evil, Good has triumphed again.  Yet, even now, even after the Dark Lord is destroyed and his servants are scattered, the creatures of Middle-earth are turning their eyes toward the next evil to come; the new Dark Lord in the never-ending war between Good and Evil.  As Gandalf says in The Return of the King:

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.  Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.  What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.31


End Notes

1.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), p. vii.
2.  Ibid., p. 350.
3.  The Fellowship is the company of Free Peoples which accompanies Frodo on the first stage of the Quest of Mount Doom.  Included are Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, representing Hobbits, Aragorn II (the future king of Middle-earth) and Boromir (a noble man from the southern city of Minas Tirith), representing Men, Legolas, representing Elves, Gimli, representing Dwarves, and Gandalf, a wizard.
4.  Zimbardo, Rose A., "Moral Vision in the Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), p. 105.
5.  A Balrog is an evil being who wields both shadow and flame.  The Balrog mentioned was second only to Sauron in evil power; his strength was almost equal to that of Gandalf.  This Balrog was killed by Gandalf after they fell together into the pit in the mines of Moria.
6.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), pp. 423-424.
7.  Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 181.
8.  Ibid., p. 195.
9.  Tolkien, The Two Towers, p. 127.
10.  The palantír was one of seven crystal globes in which scenes from far away could be seen.
11.  Tolkien, The Two Towers, p. 254.
12.  Ibid., pp. 128-129.
13.  Ibid., p. 127.
14.  Ibid., pp. 128-129.
15.  Sauron is shocked because Aragorn is the direct descendent of Isildur, Elendil's son who cut off Sauron's finger and stole the One Ring.
16.  Gollum calls the One Ring his "Precious."  Gollum found the Ring in the river many years after it had slipped off Isildur's finger.  He kept it for a long time: until Bilbo happened by one day and picked it up.
17.  Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 89.
18.  Ibid., p. 318.
19.  Ibid., p. 93.
20.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), p. 108.
21.  Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 127.
22.  The Ents are the oldest speaking race in Middle-earth and look like a fourteen-foot tall cross between a tree and a man.
23.  Éomer is King Théoden's nephew.
24.  Gandalf, after killing the Balrog, dies and comes back as Gandalf the White three days later.  His power is much greater now.
25.  Tolkien, The Two Towers, p. 127.
26.  Ibid.
27.  Denethor is Boromir's father.  Denethor's other son is Faramir.
28.  Throughout the trilogy, Tolkien uses single quotes when someone is speaking.  He uses italics for a spoken quote.
29.  Along with its many other talents, the Ring has the power to make a person invisible.
30.  Tolkien, The Return of the King, pp. 274-277.
31.  Ibid., p. 90.


Auden, W.H.  "The Quest Hero."  In Tolkien and the Critics, ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 40-61.

Foster, Robert.  A Guide to Middle Earth.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.

Fuller, Edmund.  "The Lord of the Hobbits: J.R.R. Tolkien."  In Tolkien and the Critics, ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 17-39.

Kocher, Paul H.  Master of Middle Earth.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972.

Spacks, P.A.M.  "Power and Meaning in the Lord of the Rings."  In Tolkien and the Critics, ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 81-89.

Tolkien, J.R.R.  The Fellowship of the Ring.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

--------.  The Return of the King.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

--------.  The Two Towers.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

Urang, Gunnar.  Shadows of Heaven.  Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1971, pp. 93-130.

Zimbardo, Rose A.  "Moral Vision in the Lord of the Rings."  In Tolkien and the Critics, ed. N.D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 100-108.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 10th, 2014 11:00 pm (UTC)
A very thoughtful and well-crafted essay on the parts Good and Evil had in Middle-earth and the way that each played its role. The quotes and the research are perfectly chosen!
Sep. 10th, 2014 11:58 pm (UTC)

Another mistake of Sauron's is that he is not satisfied if another does what he, Sauron, wants; he must be bade to do it against his will.


But Sauron's primary weakness is his lack of imagination.

A very interesting and well thought-out essay. I enjoyed it.
Sep. 11th, 2014 12:23 am (UTC)
It certainly was! I can't think of anything to add to what dreamflower02 and shirebound have said.

One question. Regarding Sauron, did you mean "he must be bade to do it against his will" or "he must be made to do it against his will"?
Sep. 11th, 2014 12:31 am (UTC)
Good catch! I did mean "made to" -- it was a long paper to retype, and my spell checker missed that one because bade is actually a word!
Sep. 11th, 2014 12:36 am (UTC)
LOL! Yes, it is, indeed, a true word, so I can see how the spell-checker would miss it.
Sep. 11th, 2014 05:30 am (UTC)
Superbly reasoned. Each individual has been offered the choice to serve good or evil, and rises or falls according to his or her choice, as I've often noted. And as to who will rise the next time to try to take Sauron's place--that is revealed in its own time.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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