Forgot your password?

Tolkien and the Augustinian Tradition

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 1

Many critics claim J.R.R. Tolkien’s works to be fundamentally religious. A majority of these criticisms claim Tolkien’s ideas on evil to come from the thoughts of Boethius, the belief that evil is the absence of good, and others believe his ideas to come from the Manicheans, that evil is always present and warring with good. As Thomas W. Smith declares, “For Tolkien some of the resources for building our future arise from tradition, poured into new vessels through the hopeful work of a Catholic imagination." When reading Tolkien’s texts, this tradition seems to differ from that of Boethius or the Manicheans’; this new Catholic tradition stems from a valued Catholic philosopher. It appears evident that stemming from his Roman Catholic belief, Tolkien portrays the Augustinian tradition in the Lord of the Rings by recognizing the goodness of form, the damning of those with inordinate desires, and rewarding the virtuous.

Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine or just Augustine, is a very important figure in the history of the Catholic Church; when Catholics questioned the origins of sin and the goodness of God, Augustine, a former Manichean, philosopher and theologian, was able to create an idea that allowed for God to be entirely good, while sin still existed. For Tolkien’s works to express the thoughts of Augustine, there must be a god figure that creates goodness.

The Silmarillion represents the Bible; therefore, Iluvatar represents God, which means that everything Iluvatar creates is good. The Silmarillion begins just like the Bible; there exists only the presence of a divine being. In the Bible, God exists before heaven or earth, and in the Silmarillion, Iluvatar is the only being until he creates the Valar. Moreover, the stories are similar because both have a similar etiological myth, that the Supreme Being creates the world, angels and men. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien names the angelic-beings the Valar, the holy ones. The Valar represent the Christian God’s angels in amazing parallels. One of the angels is given extra power and uses it to for its own purposes and corrupts his lord’s design; the Bible has Lucifer, and the Silmarillion has Melkor. Furthermore, among the Valar that follow Iluvatar’s will, there is an archangel Michael figure, Manwë, who leads the rest of the angels to war. These similarities are so striking that the reader of the Silmarillion cannot help but allude to the Bible. The parallel between the Silmarillion and the Bible sets the foundation for the argument that Tolkien’s works illustrates the Augustinian tradition.

In the Augustinian tradition, everything that God creates is good; nothing naturally created by God is evil. Yet, it is evident in the world that evil and sin does exist. How can this be? As Augustine puts it, “Everything that exists is characterized by some degree of order; . . . every nature has form." The perception of evil comes from a lack of order. In essence, order and form is complete goodness, while disorder is a lack of this goodness; therefore, order is good, and disorder is evil. In the world, there are two explicitly evident kinds of disorder: lack of form and inordinate desire. Human beings have freewill, which allows them to choose to value and follow the order of God.  Those who comply with this order live fulfilled lives. Others who tarry from this order have inordinate desire, longing for things that are less important than others, which corrupts their souls and promotes evil tendencies. The idea that evil stems from lack of order is evident in Tolkien’s works.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien expresses that absence of form reflects the absence of goodness through the descriptions of the barrow-wight, the ring wraiths, and Sauron. The barrow-wight is not a good creature; it attempts to suck the life out of the four young hobbits. Tolkien describes the barrow-wight as “a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars." This description of the figure as “like a shadow” implies that the shape has no consistent form; it can shape, change, or shift its appearance so it is unrecognizable. On the same note, the Nazgûl, the servants of the enemy, are described likewise; Tolkien describes the black rider’s face as “shadowed and invisible.” This description reinforces the idea that formlessness is bad. Finally, the Dark lord himself, Sauron, is a spirit with no constant shape; he changes form to deceive creatures to his will and he must take on different forms to regain being after he is defeated. To express the idea that form and order is good, the most evil creatures in the Lord of the Rings are represented as formless.

As previously stated, inordinate desire corrupts a being. This stems from Augustine’s idea that an eternal law exists, which states the good are rewarded and the bad punished. Tolkien illustrates characters with inordinate desire and its negative effects on them in his works. The barrow-wight suffers for his greed; Patrick Callahan notes, “The evil in the wight originated in the intentional order - in the avarice of the barrow's long-dead king." The “intentional order” of the wight is the choice to bend his desire to wealth instead of virtue, which leads to his capacity for evil. Denethor likewise demonstrates evil’s origin in choices of the will and its destruction to those who will these choices; Denethor’s care of the legacy of his family more than the peoples of Gondor causes him to go insane and self-immolate. Just as the Bible, the satanic figure of Melkor exemplifies inordinate desire and the misfortune for such desire; Melkor’s lust fore the imperishable flame causes him to challenge Iluvatar and the Valar, which leads to his destruction. In Tolkien’s works, characters with disordered longings lead lives that end in tragedy.

On the contrary, as stated in the eternal law, the good are rewarded. This too is represented in Tolkien’s works. Aragorn cares for the free peoples of Middle-earth and fights the Dark lord to save it. For this, he is rewarded with the Kingdom of Gondor and the hand of the Lady Arwen. In another case, Gandalf follows the orders of the Valar and is rewarded with a second life in Middle-earth, where he assists in the destruction of Sauron. Consequently, for his virtuous efforts and triumph, he ventures back to Valinor with the realization of the power and courage he has. This is a reward for Gandalf, the Maiar Olórin, for he believed himself to be weak. Tolkien expresses that those who follow the order of God benefit and lead fulfilled lives.

In his works, Tolkien purposes characters to exemplify the beliefs of the theological philosophy of Augustine. Tolkien represents evil as that which has no form through wights, wraiths and Sauron. Tolkien creates characters with inordinate desire to lead lives that end in tragedy so that they serve as an example to Augustine’s belief, that those who do evil are punished. Conversely, Tolkien develops individuals that follow virtue and are rewarded to complete the idea of the eternal law. The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion reveal that Tolkien believes in Augustine’s interpretation of how one should follow the will of God; those who do not follow the appointed order will suffer, while those who form their desire to God’s will, live a life of happiness and solidarity. 



May 12, 2011 8:16pm
Fascinating comparison. Just think of where the biblical scripts came from...thumbs up from me.
Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB Entertainment