So, I love The Lord of the Rings.
(For which work of literature the following post contains many a spoiler. Be ye warned.)
It’s always rather bothered me that some people don’t, which in one sense is silly – people’s tastes are different, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even if it’s something you love as much as I love The Lord of the Rings.
But under certain circumstances, it’s perfectly valid to be bothered by people’s negative opinions of something you love – when, for example, those opinions are founded in falsehood.
What’s the most common reason people give for preferring more gritty, realistic fantasy like Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read, but it’s the most common example given) to The Lord of the Rings?
Moral complexity, my friends. Moral complexity.
The Lord of the Rings, the argument goes, is almost entirely devoid of moral complexity. Its characters are paper cutouts in a conflict that, while epic, is very black and white, without subtlety or shade of grey. While George R. R. Martin creates real people, with real flaws, who act the way real people do. No one is good. No one is bad. Everyone is a conflicted muddle of both, allowing him to deeply explore humanity, morality, and humanity’s often startling lack thereof.
Comments like this used to disgruntle me. Make me a bit defensive, too. All right, fine, you can prefer that kind of thing, I guess. Meanwhile I prefer those stark good vs. evil stories.
Because, you’ve got to understand, it’s not that I don’t agree that humanity is complicated, that morality is complicated (in application, at least), that human beings all have a dark side and it’s good for stories to explore this. I agree with all of that. I just…prefer not to think about it? Apparently? I prefer to exist in my black-and-white fairy-tale bubble?
How pathetic of me.
But I have finally come to the conclusion that I have a better reason than that for being disgruntled. I have decided that the claim The Lord of the Rings is lacking in moral complexity is about as valid as the equally-common claim, “Atheists are more moral than Christians, because they don’t need a God with thunderbolts in his fists to tell them it’s wrong to murder.”
What I mean to say is, it’s balderdash.
The case that The Lord of the Rings lacks moral complexity begins with Sauron. (Which my autocorrect changed to Dayton. Thank you, autocorrect, that’s very thoughtful of you. I do indeed prefer Dayton to Sauron.)
Sauron is the quintessential Dark Lord of Pain and Death and Terror and Night and Utter Evil. You know. The sort of villain they’re always telling us aspiring writers not to write because he’s a cliche, he’s a paper cutout. What reader’s going to be scared of a paper cutout?
I don’t know about you, but I’m plenty scared of Sauron. Although I’ve rolled my eyes at my fair share of mustache-twirling villains, it’s not the idea of pure evil I find unbelievable.
In recent years I’ve picked up N. D. Wilson’s books, and they’ve become new favorites – partly, I think, because of the purely-evil villains. Nimiane is creepy, terrifying, and wholly without redeeming qualities. Her motive is sort of to rule the world, but it’s sort of the most basic, primal motive ever: hunger. Nimiane really will destroy the world just out of pure, hungry hatred, and I one hundred percent believe it.
Radu Bey, also, is pure evil and wants to rule the world, and I don’t find him unbelievable either. In fact, I think he’s an amazing, amazing villain. I think these books are amazing, amazing books. This portrayal of evil, some way or another, resonates with me.
Similarly, Sauron doesn’t need complex motivations and a tragic backstory. He doesn’t even need to make an on-page appearance, ever. He is there behind the scenes, palpable evil pulling the strings of Saruman, the orcs, the Nazgûl (who are pretty much more than our heroes can handle, all by themselves). He’s not a paper cutout because he can’t be: he is shrouded in too many layers of shifting, sinister shadow. And his power is felt everywhere, through his servants.
But I digress. The point isn’t whether or not Sauron is a successful villain; the point is whether or not The Lord of the Rings is morally simplistic. I’ve talked so much about villains because I think, perhaps, there is a difference of opinion there which comes down to worldview.
All I remember about Inkheart (besides Dustfinger and how great yet annoying he was) is this one throwaway line that disturbed me so much as a child: Mo didn’t believe in the devil. He thought the devil was just something humans had made up.
Looking back, in the light of the story itself, that’s a very interesting line. The villains of the story are evils that people really did make up out of their heads. (I think. Like I said, I don’t remember the book very well.)
But to small Sarah, the line was incomprehensible. Small Sarah could understand not believing in God, but not believing in the devil? Empirical data about the world surely gave us evidence of him. (Small Sarah’s only interaction with people who doubted God’s existence was, at this point, probably confined to people who didn’t understand how a good God could allow so much suffering and all that.)
Slightly older Sarah eventually came to realize that there are in fact people who don’t believe in the devil. Even people who believe in God but not the devil. (Which still seemed totally backward to her, but whatever.) Slightly older Sarah came to realize that Mo believed (probably) the devil was evil people’s excuse for their own evil, or the only explanation simple folk could find for the incredible depths of depravity their fellow creatures could sink to.
So maybe, thinks current Sarah, modern readers in search of morally complex stories subscribe to Mo’s philosophy. There is no such thing as Pure, Unadulterated Evil in the world. There are only humans, their sometimes surprising capacity for heroism, and their always shocking capacity for cruelty.
This means, when looking for moral complexity, they look in a different direction than I do. I look to find heroes with flaws; they look to find villains with virtues. Pure evil isn’t convincing to them, and so, by extension, goodness isn’t quite as compelling. Light scattered amidst twilight shadow can’t be as compelling as light shining into midnight.
This gives us stories where we follow what would traditionally be the “bad guys.” Where there are no “good guys.” Characters make choices we can’t condone, and they make choices that force us to see them, nevertheless, as human beings. We explore the psyches of murderers. We discover the depravity that hides in some people’s hearts, and we discover that their hearts are not so different from our own.
I don’t necessarily think that’s bad. It’s not what I would care to read a lot of, but there is a place, I think, for those kinds of stories.
Still, stories like that don’t give a complete picture of the world. Not as I see it.
N. D. Wilson’s villains resonate with me. They cast his stories in fiercely contrasting colors that hold up in ordinary daylight. But while reading Dandelion Fire, I most curiously found myself loving another aspect of the story. Namely, the faeren.
By which I do not mean so much that how faeren mounds and green men were woven into the story was cool (although it definitely was), but rather that I loved the petty squabbling. You’d think the faeren would be the good guys in the situation, but instead they were a corrupt, complacent, inefficient bureaucratic mess who made everything worse. On purpose.
And that resonated with me.
In Empire of Bones, which is a book full of dragons, hopeless last stands, ancient evil women making palaces out of people, and a mohawk-sporting Irish monk named Niffy giving the most beautiful and breathtaking speech about love and courage I’ve ever heard, one of the things that captured my imagination most was the crumbling of the Order of Brendan.
There’s nothing, you’d think, so very compelling about that – well-meaning people a little lacking in courage and a little lacking in foresight undone by treachery, partisanship taken too far, and their own unwillingness to open their eyes, until there’s a final shove and everything falls like a house of cards. It’s sad, but why does it stand out among all the other stuff?
I can’t say for sure. But that resonated with me too.
I do believe in evil that will triumph unless people stand against it. I do believe in the importance of honor and the necessity of courage. I do believe there is right and wrong, a good side and a bad side. But at risk of sounding like a snobby literature teacher (or, worse, someone who thinks Game of Thrones is better than Lord of the Rings – I know that, not having read it, I can scarcely judge it, but Game of Thrones? There are Reasons I haven’t read it), I also am a little tired of paper-cutout conflict. White hats vs. black hats. Good vs. evil, no nuance.
I too am hungry for moral complexity.
Not necessarily in my villains, but most necessarily in my heroes.
Maybe that’s why N. D. Wilson’s “good guys” who aren’t resonate so much with me. They satisfy my desire to see people represented as they are, cowardly and selfish and dishonorable, even when they try not to be. People with good intentions who nevertheless fail to follow through on those intentions when it counts – when they’re given their bare choice, face to face with the devil. Some people run. Some people cling to pettiness. Some people shrug and turn traitor. As Niffy says, only a few stand up.
Maybe that’s why The Lord of the Rings is so powerful.
Those who complain of Tolkien’s writing for being black-and-white are, I suspect, looking in the wrong place. Villains aren’t, of necessity, a story’s only repository of moral complexity. Stop fixating on the villains for a second – stop looking at Sauron, or even at Saruman or Gríma Wormtongue or Gollum (who is, I think, actually a very morally complex villain) – and look at the good guys. There are shades of grey there enough to satisfy the ‘satiable Elephant’s Child himself. (We can now check Just So Stories off the list of Fantasy Stories From Sarah’s Childhood to Appear Tangentially and Irrelevantly in This Post.)
Take the protagonist. Frodo Baggins – the goody-two-shoes little hobbit from Wholesomeville, the Shire, who selflessly volunteers for the hopeless mission, never appreciably wavers from his purpose, makes the right choice again and again and again…and, in the end, at the final pinch, throws all that away. In Tolkien’s world, even pure-hearted everyman heroes from down home have some inner darkness, and Frodo embraces his. He makes the wrong choice; he falls. His innate hobbit goodness doesn’t triumph over the baser elements of his nature.
Yeah, Tolkien – simple black-and-white morality, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad Tolkien – he Went There.
I haven’t read many of those stories with extremely morally grey characters, where you want to like them but they’ve done terrible things and keep doing terrible things, but I am skeptical they could be as effective as that one choice of Frodo’s.
The more you think of it, the more surprising it is that Tolkien went there. It’s so heartbreaking. But beyond that, it’s so chilling – because as much as I would prefer to think Frodo acted out of character, I don’t think he acted out of character.
They’re right, the people who say humans are capable of any atrocity, even the very good ones. They’re right when they say stories that reflect our usually losing struggle with morality are the most true to life. The only thing they’re wrong about is placing Lord of the Rings outside this category.
The fact that there is a truly evil side and a truly righteous side in its central conflict doesn’t diminish that. The fact that Tolkien is more interested in exploring his heroes’ struggle with darkness (not a simplistic struggle, nor even always a victorious one) than his villains’ occasional glimmers of light (although don’t forget Gollum) doesn’t diminish that.
So, I think, The Lord of the Rings is morally complex after all. In the best of ways. Or at any rate in a way that makes it horrifying, heartbreaking, strangely hope-filled, and one of my favorite stories ever written.
So…yeah. What do you guys think?
[Frodo isn’t my only example, by the by; I have whole arguments ready for Boromir, Denethor, and Gollum and half-formed thoughts regarding Faramir, Éowyn, and Theoden. But this post is already long, even for me, so I shall leave that for another day. Frodo is the example who sums it up best, probably, anyway.]