Tolkien's good and evil races reflect Christian eschatology

Justin Swanton

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To set the stage, here is a definition of eschatology:

The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.​

In the Christian context, all sentient beings (humans and angels) end up in one of two final states: in heaven with the blessed or in hell with the damned. Once in those states, they do not change: the will is irrevocably fixed in good or evil.

Whilst on Earth, however, humans can be either good or evil, and transition from one state to the other and back again, eventually fixing on one or the other at the moment of death. The angels started out not definitively fixed, but were given the ability to choose one side or the other - once, after which they remained either angels (good) or became demons (bad).

One sees all this in Tolkien's Middle Earth, which is inhabited by races who haven't yet committed to their final state and races who have.

Elves, humans, dwarves and hobbits are the in-betweeners, capable of being either good or evil and changing from good to evil and vice-versa.

Orcs, trolls, wargs, balrogs, ringwraiths and the Dark Lords Sauron and Morgoth are damned: fixed in evil and unable ever to choose good again.

Are there any races that are definitively good? I can think of two: eagles and ents. Nothing in LOTR suggests that any eagle or ent ever went bad (unless you include Old Man Willow and he doesn't seem to have been an ent). What is interesting about them is that whenever they encounter evil races in battle they make mincemeat of them. Good is always inherently more powerful than evil.

Comments?
 
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Overread

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The concept of good and evil exists long before Christianity, indeed you could say that Christianity stole it from the other religions of the time and if you study the history you can see that there are a lot of Pagan influences (heck Christmas is a totally Pagan holiday adapted into Christianity). Religions have often been like this, the Roman major religion, before christianity, was basically a stolen Greek religious system.

Remember that Tolkien was basing his works more of the Norse mythology and religions than off Christianity. I think you'd be well advised to read some Norse Mythologies and such and see the connections there, I think you will be surprised to find how strong the connections are there; then you can study how Norse and following religions, influenced Christianity.


As for good always beating evil, don't forget that basically the only reason Mordor didn't win is because the One Ring was destroyed. Without that act its very likely that the forces of Sauron would have managed to win. It was far from a landslide victory. Don't forget the Elves were running; the Dwarves mostly fractured and in hiding within their mountains and the armies of men were only recently allied and had already suffered great losses. The Siege at the Black Gate wasn't ever going to be a victory if the One Ring hadn't been destroyed. Indeed its likely that it would have been a valiant last stand that might have set the forces of Mordor at bay for a while, but wouldn't have stopped them.

AT the very least its shown that Orcs and Goblins can breed at far greater speed than humans; so in a war of attrition the dark forces would win.
 

Justin Swanton

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The concept of good and evil exists long before Christianity, indeed you could say that Christianity stole it from the other religions of the time and if you study the history you can see that there are a lot of Pagan influences (heck Christmas is a totally Pagan holiday adapted into Christianity). Religions have often been like this, the Roman major religion, before christianity, was basically a stolen Greek religious system.

Remember that Tolkien was basing his works more of the Norse mythology and religions than off Christianity. I think you'd be well advised to read some Norse Mythologies and such and see the connections there, I think you will be surprised to find how strong the connections are there; then you can study how Norse and following religions, influenced Christianity.

I've read history and, no, Christianity is not an adaptation of a totally pagan holiday nor is it a stolen Greek system nor is it influenced by Norse mythology. But this is devolving into an argument about religion which is a no-no on this forum, so I'll leave it at that. I suggest we stick to the subject of whether LOTR shows signs of Christian eschatology regardless of what we think about that eschatology.

As for good always beating evil, don't forget that basically the only reason Mordor didn't win is because the One Ring was destroyed. Without that act its very likely that the forces of Sauron would have managed to win. It was far from a landslide victory. Don't forget the Elves were running; the Dwarves mostly fractured and in hiding within their mountains and the armies of men were only recently allied and had already suffered great losses. The Siege at the Black Gate wasn't ever going to be a victory if the One Ring hadn't been destroyed. Indeed its likely that it would have been a valiant last stand that might have set the forces of Mordor at bay for a while, but wouldn't have stopped them.

AT the very least its shown that Orcs and Goblins can breed at far greater speed than humans; so in a war of attrition the dark forces would win.

Read the Silmarillion. Sauron was the lieutenant of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, i.e. Morgoth was more powerful than him. Despite his power Morgoth was utterly beaten by the host of the Valar in the War of Wrath. Notice that the Valar themselves did not participate in the war, but sent their herald and and army of High Elves which nonetheless was enough to take out Morgoth and Sauron. Good is inherently more powerful than evil.

In LOTR Tolkien makes it clear that this is not going to be another slugfest between the most powerful good and evil beings, but a contest where good beings that are weak, i.e. the Hobbits, will win against Sauron by staying true to the task they have been given. So long as they stick to the course, circumstances will work in their favour and get them past all obstacles and to Mount Doom.

If the Valar themselves had come and fought Sauron, the annals would have recorded it as 'The Battle of Five Minutes.'
 

Extollager

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Is appeal allowed to Tolkien's writings other than those published in his lifetime + The Silmarillion (1977)?

If so, everyone should get hold of the relevant volumes of The History of Middle-earth, wherein will be found a major work, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, musings on the Orcs (how can they be rational beings but evidently irredeemably evil? -- see the section on them in the Myths Transformed portion of Morgoth's Ring), etc.

Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth - Tolkien Gateway

Orcs - Tolkien Gateway

It does seem to me legitimate to discuss such matters without recourse to the posthumous writings (with The Silmarillion squeaking by as acceptable?), since these were not subject to Tolkien's final review and it is plain, so far as his written remains indicate, that he had not resolved some matters as of the time of his death. On the other hand, the posthumous drafts contain a lot of fascinating material. The Athrabeth is a moving piece of work that, in my opinion, ought to be much better know.

There is also relevant material in Tolkien's letters. In some cases Tolkien tells a correspondent some item of lore that Tolkien clearly regards as definitive although it didn't appear in his published work. In other cases, he is more tentative.

As for the Christian foundation of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said that was his conscious intention, in 1953:

Ents, Elves, and Eriador

What I take that to mean is that, negatively, where an interpretation of something in LotR is in plain violation of traditional Christian doctrine and morality, Tolkien would rule it out. For example, let's suppose Gandalf hadn't said that the Shadow can't create but can only mar; even so, Tolkien would want us to rule out the idea that Sauron or Melkor created the Orcs ex nihilo. And I take that to mean, positively, that the book is intended by Tolkien to be pervaded by Christian understanding and values, though never as a plain allegory (e.g. in which the Vial of Galadriel = Holiness, etc.).

This doesn't mean that Tolkien's imagination wasn't profoundly responsive to and influenced by Norse mythology and folklore, of course. His "In Fairy-Stories" essay is a must for anyone interested in Tolkien's Christian understanding of myth and fantasy. There are also gleanings to be found in his Beowulf essay. He had thought very deeply about these things.

Finally, his little drama The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son should not be overlooked for its relevance to Tolkien's take on the Norse ethos. It is a Christian and Catholic work that conveys appreciation of, and a critique of, the heroic pride of the Norse aristocratic warrior ethos.

The Tolkien newsletter Beyond Bree published my essay on typology as the key to understanding Christian elements in LotR. If anyone wants to read it, he or she may email me: extollager AT gmail dot com. Basically the idea is this. "Types" are past things and historical events that point to Christ, the Sacraments, the Church, etc. They are real things, not verbal symbols, with their own integrity, but they also manifest something greater that was to come. This is well established with regard to the interpretation of what Christians call the Old Testament. Well, Tolkien is imagining what are to be taken as historical events that occurred before the calling of Abraham, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, etc. Just as events from the time of the Old Testament patriarchs pointed towards the New Testament, so also did events in the ancient Ages of Middle-earth.
 
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farntfar

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First of all, is the absoluteness of a one off judgement even for angels and demons as definite as you make out. Or is it simply that we don’t know of any side changing since the initial alignment by some of them with Lucifer’s team.
If tomorrow demon “Leslie” repented, has she no possibility of regaining heaven, and if angel “Gil” goes rogue, will he get on the relegation list?

I don’t know, and I expect that an awful lot of theologians would come out on either side of that discussion.
When the rule is applied to people, it’s even more uncertain, and your choice as to how you see it largely depends on what flavour of Christian you are. Whether or not a particular church or sect has a concept of Purgatory is the most obvious example of that breadth of opinion.
(Tolkien was a Catholic. So presumably he did.)

As for Middle-earth, it is suggested (and only suggested) that Orcs are Elves that were twisted by Morgoth. Wouldn’t it therefore be reasonable that they retain the same in-betweenness as the Elves? (Even worse when you take another suggestion that the Uruk-Hai of Saruman were Orcs bred with humans.)


A Balrog is simply a Maia who happens to be bad, just as the Wizards/Istari are Maia who happen to be good.
Saruman was a good Maia who became bad. Could a Balrog become good?

Sauron himself was only a bad Maia, if a pretty strong one.
At he beginning of “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, at the end of the Silmarillion it says that following the the downfall of Thangorodrim, Sauron begged forgiveness of Eonwë, but Eonwë said only Manwë could forgive him.
Sauron was unwilling to go and ask him, but Eonwë had certainly thought that, if he had, Manwë could have given him forgiveness and taken him back into the good side.

Isn’t Tolkein suggesting that that possibility is open even to demons?
And Manwë is, after all, only a sort of Archangel. If he can do it, surely Eru (and therefore God) can do it even more easily.

As for the Eagles and the Ents, both are implied to be sort of direct agents of either Manwë or Yavanna. I would assume, therefore that they were good or evil entirely as Manwë and Yavanna are.
Are there similarly direct agents of Morgoth?
Clearly not the orcs or the Balrog. Possibly the Dragons, but Morgoth took some time to develop (selectively breed?) these up from somewhere as described when first talking of Glaurung.
 

Justin Swanton

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I've read somewhere about Tolkien's dilemma over the orcs. From a strictly Christian perspective, any rational being alive on (Middle) Earth must by definition have free will, and hence be able to choose good or evil right up to its death. Hence orcs should be able to choose good and, by this logic, some at least would have done so and become good orcs.

The fact that none do so or are able to do so indicates for me that orcs are, spiritually at least, in a damned state: they are irremediably fixed on evil, capable only of evil impulses and reactions, incapable of a single good thought. The problem then, from the Christian perspective, is explaining how they got into that state without free choice. They are created damned and never have an opportunity to decide whether they will choose evil or not (rather Calvinistic). It's an insoluble dilemma, a point of improbability that appears sooner or later in any story. One just lives with it.
 
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Justin Swanton

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First of all, is the absoluteness of a one off judgement even for angels and demons as definite as you make out. Or is it simply that we don’t know of any side changing since the initial alignment by some of them with Lucifer’s team.
If tomorrow demon “Leslie” repented, has she no possibility of regaining heaven, and if angel “Gil” goes rogue, will he get on the relegation list?

I don’t know, and I expect that an awful lot of theologians would come out on either side of that discussion.
When the rule is applied to people, it’s even more uncertain, and your choice as to how you see it largely depends on what flavour of Christian you are. Whether or not a particular church or sect has a concept of Purgatory is the most obvious example of that breadth of opinion.
(Tolkien was a Catholic. So presumably he did.)

I'm just giving Tolkien's theological outlook which BTW is my own. It is probably off subject to discuss here the merits of that outlook, just the extent to which that outlook appears in LOTR.

As for Middle-earth, it is suggested (and only suggested) that Orcs are Elves that were twisted by Morgoth. Wouldn’t it therefore be reasonable that they retain the same in-betweenness as the Elves? (Even worse when you take another suggestion that the Uruk-Hai of Saruman were Orcs bred with humans.)

But they don't. Orcs and Uruk-hai are utterly committed to evil. They will never choose good. That's clear enough from Tolkien's writings.

A Balrog is simply a Maia who happens to be bad, just as the Wizards/Istari are Maia who happen to be good.
Saruman was a good Maia who became bad. Could a Balrog become good?

Sauron himself was only a bad Maia, if a pretty strong one.
At he beginning of “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, at the end of the Silmarillion it says that following the the downfall of Thangorodrim, Sauron begged forgiveness of Eonwë, but Eonwë said only Manwë could forgive him.
Sauron was unwilling to go and ask him, but Eonwë had certainly thought that, if he had, Manwë could have given him forgiveness and taken him back into the good side.

True, I'd forgotten that. I'll qualify what I said about Sauron and Balrogs in that they were originally created good, chose evil and pursued their choice to the point where they were no longer able to choose good, i.e. becoming definitively committed to evil can happen before death.

Isn’t Tolkein suggesting that that possibility is open even to demons?
And Manwë is, after all, only a sort of Archangel. If he can do it, surely Eru (and therefore God) can do it even more easily.

Point is it doesn't happen. If it could happen it would have happened at least in some cases, probabilities being what they are.

As for the Eagles and the Ents, both are implied to be sort of direct agents of either Manwë or Yavanna. I would assume, therefore that they were good or evil entirely as Manwë and Yavanna are.

They seem entirely committed to good, with none of them turning to evil. Like good beings in the afterlife.

Are there similarly direct agents of Morgoth?
Clearly not the orcs or the Balrog. Possibly the Dragons, but Morgoth took some time to develop (selectively breed?) these up from somewhere as described when first talking of Glaurung.

Dragons are in the same category of orcs, something Morgoth twisted into creation from another being already alive, and by that incapable of good.
 
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farntfar

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I maintain that "Hasn't been known to happen" doesn't mean "Will never happen".
Probabilities are dangerous things.

And there is more joy in Valinor over one balrog who repenteth than in 99 Estari who stay on track, to misquote Luke.
 
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Teresa Edgerton

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I thought that was supposed to be one of the most evil acts of the Dark Lord who created them, that orcs have been robbed of the choice. (That is what the ring is all about, after all: you force your will on others, robbing them of their own, so that even if it's done "for their own good" it is inevitably evil and corrupts you and whatever good you tried to do.) There are places in LOTR where orcs appear to have latent good instincts, concepts like loyalty to one another. For instance, when the Mordor orcs and the Saruman orcs quarrel and part company, those who left come back out of loyalty to some of those left behind. Yet even so they are treacherous. The orcs guarding the pass criticize Sam (who they think is a mighty Gondorian warrior after his battle with Shelob) for leaving Frodo behind while he is still alive (though Sam, of course, doesn't know Frodo is alive), while in the next breath recount leaving one of their own to Shelob's mercies because it doesn't pay to thwart her. And the thing is, they don't appear to be aware of the contradiction. It's like a connection has been severed, like something has been erased.

But being ruined elves, maybe when they die their spirits go back to Valinor where they have a chance to be made whole and rehabilitated.

Breeding orcs with men is only presented as a rumor, I think. I don't believe Tolkien ever lets us know for sure if it is actually true.
 

Brian G Turner

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I thought that was supposed to be one of the most evil acts of the Dark Lord who created them, that orcs have been robbed of the choice. (That is what the ring is all about, after all: you force your will on others, robbing them of their own

Just wanted to say I do like that idea. :)
 

Justin Swanton

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I thought that was supposed to be one of the most evil acts of the Dark Lord who created them, that orcs have been robbed of the choice.

I had thought about that one. The underlying idea is that the orcs were created in such a state of pain and misery that their minds were embittered right from the start (I remember that passage about Orcs secretly hating Morgoth as the maker only of their misery). They did not experience anything good hence could not conceive of good hence were confirmed in evil, and subsequent generations of orcs confirmed each other in evil in much the same way.

In this optic they would be open to a possible redemption after their deaths since their free will had been so completely overridden.

Yeah, it's the most coherent explanation, though not entirely satisfactory as Orcs still possessed free will and one would expect some - a few at least - to have chosen good, say during those ages when they were not under the direct control of either Morgoth or Sauron.
 

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one would expect some - a few at least - to have chosen good

But what evidence would you expect to see if some had? If a few orcs had decided to be kinder to their fellows in the breeding pits under Mt Gundabad, we would hardly have heard about it in the stories. Or does "choosing good" mean absconding and trying to join the armies at Minas Tirith? Given that they know the rest of the world hates them, is that likely?
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I seem to recall reading somewhere—was it one of Tolkien's letters?—something to the effect that Sauron was always directing the orcs to some extent. That's why when Barad-dûr fell the orc army fell apart and they began running around in a panic, like ants when their nest is disturbed.

If I am remembering this correctly—and if it represents Tolkien's final thinking on the subject (as we know, the mythology was continually evolving throughout his adult life, so even if I am remembering correctly he might have changed his mind)—then any such orcs choosing good would have to come after the fall of Sauron. If Tolkien had written that sequel to LOTR that he barely started, maybe we would have seen a few reformed orcs, or maybe learned that they were beyond reclamation, at least in life.
 

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Tolkien's various "races" were all meant to display various aspects of the human condition. The Hobbits were the pre-industrialized English that Tolkien loved so much. The elves were the artistic/spiritual ideals of humanity. The orcs were industrialized humanity enslaved to "the machine."

But I don't think any race was irrevocably or inherently evil. The whole point of the Ring, Gollum, the Ringwraiths, etc. is that it is our choices that define whether we are Good or Evil. It is not inherent. Remember that Gandalf believe there was even hope for Gollum.
 

Pyan

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But I don't think any race was irrevocably or inherently evil.

Except for Orcs. JRRT makes it crystal clear at several points that Orcs have absolutely no redeeming (in all senses of the word) features whatsoever, which causes rather a problem for the, admittedly, beguiling 'facets of humanity' theory.
 

Marks

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Except for Orcs. JRRT makes it crystal clear at several points that Orcs have absolutely no redeeming (in all senses of the word) features whatsoever.

Where did he make that clear exactly?
 

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But I don't think any race was irrevocably or inherently evil. The whole point of the Ring, Gollum, the Ringwraiths, etc. is that it is our choices that define whether we are Good or Evil. It is not inherent. Remember that Gandalf believe there was even hope for Gollum.

And yet there was no hope for the Ringwraiths at all, and they were corrupted by the same magics that corrupted Gollum. And before they were turned the wraiths were humans.

I think that you can, in part, see the human condition in different creatures, but its important not to read too much into it. Like a lot of similes and such if you read too much into it you start to draw conclusions that were likely never intended. Instead its good to take it at face value for what it is.

Also don't forget that the Orc wasn't the only one saved to machinery. In the scouring of the Shire machines are brought to the Shire by men and Sauron. Indeed Sauron had many evil men come to his bidding, so humanity in itself is shown to have many facets through the film.

I seem to recall on character even spoke of the Men of the East and how were they truly evil or just misguided in the war.
 

Pyan

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Where did he make that clear exactly?

From Tolkien's Letters (Letter 153 - September 1954):

They would be Morgoth's greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad. (I nearly wrote irredeemably bad; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making - necessary to their actual existence - even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God's and ultimately good). But whether they could have 'souls' or 'spirits' seems a different question; and since in my myth at any rate I do not conceive of the making of souls or spirits, things of an equal order if not an equal power to the Valar, as a possible 'delegation', I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, not making them.

From the 'Orcs' essays in Myths Transformed, in the History of Middle-earth 10: Morgoth's Ring.

But even before this wickedness of Morgoth was suspected the Wise in the Elder Days taught always that the Orcs were not 'made' by Melkor, and therefore were not in their origin evil. They might have become irredeemable (at least by Elves and Men), but they remained within the Law.
 

farntfar

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So actually, Py, Tolkien always leaves a back door, to allow for the possible redemption of the orcs.
In the first case he says irredeemably is going to far.
In the second, the implication is that they are redeemable but not by elves or men, but may be by someone/something else.
But by the Istari, Valar or Maia?
What about by hobbits, or maybe women? (cf Elwen and the witch-king.)
What about by themselves?
 

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