Study Guide

The Return of the King Good vs. Evil

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Good vs. Evil

"But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the Door?" said Éomer. "And that way I would not go though all the hosts of Mordor stood before me, and I were alone and had no other refuge. Alas that a fey mood should fall on a man so greathearted in this hour of need! Are there not evil things enough abroad without seeking them under the earth? War is at hand." (5.3.53)

Even before Aragorn goes on his voyage along the Paths of the Dead, we've gotten plenty of indications that disturbing the dead is a bad idea in Middle-earth: you've got the Barrow-wights of the Old Forest in The Fellowship of the Ring and the ghostly faces of the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers Book 4, Chapter 2, for a start. But the story of the Sleepless Dead is a weird one, morally speaking: Aragorn is reaching across time and death itself to give these soldiers a chance to fulfill their oath to fight Sauron. That's good, right? He's restoring their honor. But on the other hand, it seems bizarre to use ghosts to fight Sauron. Sauron has his own ghost army, controlled by the Lord of the Nazgûl (see The Two Towers Book 4, Chapter 8). Should Aragorn be using the tools of the enemy? Then again, maybe that's all a part of Tolkien's moral lesson. The people on the side of good are able to take Mordor's own instruments (evil ghosts) to fight evil. Sauron isn't the only one who can make the weapons of his enemies work to his advantage. And evil contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Flinging on some clothes, Merry looked outside. The world was darkling. The very air seemed brown, and all things about were black and grey and shadowless; there was a great stillness. No shape of cloud could be seen, unless it were far away westward, where the furthest groping fingers of the great gloom still crawled onward and a little light leaked through them. (5.3.76)

Sauron's power has grown so great that he can actually stop the sun from shining with his evil. That's serious business. But this hushed, dark stillness serves another purpose besides demonstrating that Sauron will be an extremely tough enemy to beat. The hush of the world before the final battle raises the reader's expectation that the actual battle is going to be huge and climactic when it finally comes. This repeated trope of "Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn" (5.1.198) underlines how high the stakes are in this war against Sauron, and raises our suspense as readers. We have to wonder how this ragtag bunch of soldiers (plus a bunch of dead guys) are going to win against a power strong enough to blot out the sun.

"The Lord has given me leave. But, Beregond, if you can, do something to stop any dreadful thing from happening."

"The Lord does not permit those who wear the black and silver to leave their post for any cause, save at his own command."

"Well, you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir," said Pippin. "And as for orders, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord." (5.4.181-3)

Pippin makes it very clear that Beregond has to choose between his orders to stay at his post and his inclination to save Faramir. The greater good would obviously be served in saving Faramir, but Beregond's own moral code tells him that he has to follow his Lord's orders (thanks to years of military training). To us, this situation seems like a pretty black-and-white one, in which disobeying orders is justified. For crying out loud, Beregond's lord is about to set his own son on fire, alive. But still, it's a tough moral call for Beregond to make. Neither choice is a good one per se. So which is the right one? Where would you draw the line between an individual soldier's sense of good and evil and the larger good and larger evil being faced by the military as a whole?

"Good tidings!" cried Éomer. "Even in this gloom hope gleams again. Our Enemy's devices oft serve us in his despite. The accursed darkness itself has been a cloak to us. And now, lusting to destroy Gondor and throw it down stone from stone, his orcs have taken away my greatest fear. The out-wall could have been held long against us. Now we can sweep through—if once we win so far." (5.5.36)

In one of Tolkien's many, many letters to his son Christopher, he comments: "All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in" (source, pg. 76) In other words, even as evil works hard to achieve its goals, all it does is pave the way for "unexpected good." Evil holds the seeds of its own destruction. Here, Éomer echoes his creator's words: Sauron's darkness is actually giving cover to the side of Good, as the Riders of Rohan travel to Gondor. In the middle of all of the wickedness that is covering Middle-earth, the Good side can still find hope in the fact that Evil is so destructive that it even damages itself. Smooth move, Sauron.

Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you have commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me. (5.7.36)

Um, jealous much, Denethor? Even before Denethor looks into the palantír, there is obviously trouble brewing between him and Gandalf. And it is difficult to imagine such a proud man willfully stepping aside for Aragorn once he arrives. Unfortunately, this means that when the time comes, Sauron plays on Denethor's pride and ego like a violin. All of the things Denethor shouts at Gandalf in the House of the Stewards are merely amplifications and exaggerations of his own, earlier jealousy of Gandalf, suspicion of Pippin, and resentment of Aragorn. Denethor is a strong man in many ways, but his pride makes him vulnerable to Sauron's manipulations. His big ego makes him an easy target for evil.

Concerning this thing [the Ring], my lords, you now all know enough for the understanding of our plight, and of Sauron's. If he regains it, your valour is in vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; […] And so a great evil of this world will be removed.

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 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 life after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. (5.9.61-2)

Gandalf's account of the war against Sauron contains hints of a larger Good-vs.-Evil spiritual worldview. For example, Gandalf notes that, as wicked as Sauron is, he is also "but a servant or emissary" of a larger Big Bad, implicit in creation itself. By contrast, Gandalf describes himself as "a steward" of "all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands" (5.1.87). In other words, he, too, is a servant or emissary, but of the light force rather than the dark. So while we are watching a war between servants of larger forces of light and dark, the actual nature of these forces (be they God and Satan or Good and Evil more generally) remains pretty undefined in The Lord of the Rings.

The river-bed was now some way below the path. [Frodo and Sam] scrambled down to it, and began to cross it. To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up in the valley. Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lured and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled. (6.2.44)

As Frodo and Sam trudge through Mordor, they discover (much to their surprise) that, as unhappy and polluted as this land is, it's not quite dead yet. There are still living things: thorny plants and biting flies. They aren't nice living things, to be sure, but they are still clinging to life in this unhealthy place. So here is our question: is the persistence of life itself a sign of lingering goodness in this land? Or do these scrubby trees and "hungry midges" form part of the evil of Mordor? Given Tolkien's affection for all things green, would you say that the things that still grow in Mordor, "harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life" though they may be, symbolize hope for Mordor's rebirth? Or are they just part of the horrifying landscape of the Land of Shadow?

Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo's hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. […] There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep. (6.2.49)

At long last: a moment of clarity. Sam sees that their current struggles against Sauron (while still important) cannot touch "light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach." As pressing as the evil all around them may be, Frodo and Sam's doom is still dwarfed in importance by the larger good of the universe. Sam's sudden faith in the basic goodness of creation is what soothes his fear and allows him to sleep.

"It all began with Pimple, as we call him," said Farmer Cotton; "and it began as soon as you'd gone off, Mr. Frodo. He'd funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more, though where he got the money was a mystery: mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations. He'd already bought Sandyman's mill before he came to Bag End, seemingly.

"Of course he started with a lot of property in the Southfarthing which he had from his dad; and it seems he'd been selling a lot o' the best leaf, and sending it away quietly for a year or two. But at the end o' last year he began sending away loads of stuff, not only leaf. Things began to get short, and winter coming on, too. Folk got angry, but he had his answer. A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great wagons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay." (6.8.166-7)

"Pimple" is, of course, Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Farmer Cotton is sharing the story of his fall into greed and wickedness with Frodo and Merry. The first part of Lotho's story could be the self-made-man story for any number of businessmen working in capitalist economies: Lotho starts with some money, which he uses to invest in "mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations." And he keeps pouring the profits from these enterprises into more industries, for even greater profits. When does Lotho cross the line from savvy businessman to exploitative monster? How does Tolkien seem to regard the world of business in general, based on this description? When does business go from good to evil?

"No, Sam!" said Frodo. "Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it."

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. "You have grown, Halfling," he said. "Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell." (6.8.228-9)

Throughout this chapter of the "Scouring of the Shire," we see Frodo incredibly reluctant to take a life. Here, as with Gollum, Frodo has every provocation to kill Saruman. If it hadn't been for Frodo's mithril-coat, Saruman would have stabbed Frodo in the belly; what's worse, Saruman is responsible for much of the pointless damage that has been done to the Shire. So Frodo would be forgiven if he allowed Sam to kill Saruman. Instead, Frodo decides, "I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find" his cure. As a sinner himself (what with claiming the Ring and all; to see thoughts on that subject, check out Frodo's "Character Analysis") Frodo is wise and humble enough not to judge others too much. He is willing to believe that anyone who has fallen into evil may be redeemed. So here is the last moral lesson of The Lord of the Rings series: don't be too quick to pass judgment. Instead, believe that everyone can be cured of evil.