Middle-earth and Modernity. Part 1: Don’t deal out death in judgment.

In recent years I have read many criticisms of Tolkien’s works, some of them more elegant and convincing than others. As with any writer of his time and age, particularly in comparison to the changes in values the world has witnessed coming into the 21st century – and not all of them to the better, I’d say – there is much room for debate. I will be looking into some of those topics and would like to draw attention to some of the statements made by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author, the academic and the person on issues relevant to this very day. Some issues never go out of fashion, so to speak.

In this first blog post I would like to draw attention to one of the most often quoted passages from The Lord of the Rings, usually to ‘prove’ the book is not all about violence and war (which it is not, in my opinion but that is for another post.)

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. [Gandalf to Frodo in: The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring. Book One. II. The Shadow of the Past.]

It is quite obvious this would be one of the more debatable statements in this work – the question of life and death is an essential one which is being answered very differently all over the world. However, most readers don’t realise J.R.R. Tolkien goes out of his way to make a very particular point by repeating it – and I give here a slightly longer version depicting a scene where Frodo and Sam are confronting Gollum in Mordor:

It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends. [The Lord of the Rings. The Two Towers. Book Four. I. The Taming of Sméagol. My emphasis.]

To me this particular stress Tolkien uses in his wording, ‘in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety’, reminded me of an article I recently read called A lesson from author: Who watches the watchers? With the news of PRISM and Tempora one cannot but fear that out of a supposed threat for one’s own safety the elements guarding a democracy will be erased, bit by bit (and that is not an IT pun.) George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were visionaries realising the real threats of so-called modern civilisation but they did not know how far beyond mankind would go. Tolkien realised this threat as well as a soldier at the Somme and a man who lived through two world wars – that by a steady onslaught of supposed threats the powers that be would slowly but surely chip away at freedom and the opportunity of a single individual to live his or her live without restrictions.

Most people won’t care for any of this. Why shouldn’t government agencies read my emails – I have nothing to hide? For a very simple reason – they are abusing their power given to them by the people without telling the people about it. This mindset will lead to the build-up of structures limiting civil rights until they are beyond those limitations and a technology is set in place which will stop your car if you don’t as you’re told (and no, you don’t have to be a thief for this to happen then), which will freeze your bank account (see Cyprus), which will shut down your phone and your internet connection if you are supposedly engaging in ‘unlawful behaviour’ (see Turkey), determined no longer by the will of the people but a small and select group of persons whose abuse of power can no longer be limited by democratic means.

Conspiracy theory much, you are inclined to ask? One might think that, yes. However, the moment the largest database in world history is available it will be abused. Not for countering terrorist attacks but for personal gain. And how human beings behave the moment power and money are involved is not part of a conspiracy theory but a fact you may observe every single day in your country, wherever you are, whoever you are.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote those lines he most surely remembered his days as a young academic when war had broken out and all those who would not volunteer to become a soldier right away would be shunned, sometimes even attacked as traitors to their country (see John Garth. Tolkien and the Great War. Chapter Two: A young man with too much imagination or the symbol of the white feather.) He very well knew hatred could in the long run only breed more hatred; if you succumbed to fear, fear would rule your life. Quoting Gandalf, by the way, is not proof of an intended allegory by the author but rather of the applicability of many of Tolkien’s works – they are as relevant today as they were many years ago. Time to re-read them.

[This blog post is the first headed under the category “Rants from the Wrath Celerdain.”]

Featured image: (c) Warner Bros. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. All rights reserved. Gandalf is watching you – but who is watching Gandalf?

TheTolkienist

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

6 Responses

  1. ohminus says:

    I still remember watching the first movie at a movie theater in Texas, of all places. I didn’t see a single person in the theater flinch at the quote. I’m still not quite sure if they were all long-time Tolkien fans who had internalized some of his values long ago or simply didn’t understand the implications…

    • Well, the point with the films is they are very impressive, audio-visually, and will make you pay attention to action scenes and imagery. As such they are entertaining and what a lot of people would hope for when going to the movies … 🙂 I myself appreciate a good action flick; I would have wished “The Hobbit” to be more than just that; “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy had more of the serious and quiet moments.

      I like it how McKellen plays the scene – the dismay at hearing those words from Frodo, that Gollum should be slain as he is wholly evil, wiithout having seen him, without knowing about the real threat.

      A book is much better at implications, i.e. thinking; a film is very good at emotions, i.e. not thinking. 😉

  2. Logothete says:

    It also follows Tolkien’s Catholicism…only God can make that decision (or so I suspect that belief system goes). It also adheres to the entrenched feeling we all (or at least hopefully most) get that tells us killing the vulnerable is…wrong.

    • I think one of the issues at stake most surely is who to give the power over life and death and how to ensure it is not abused by those with vested interests – and particularly the question: would you know all the facts, would you know all that is relevant in passing such judgment? There is, indeed, only one all-knowing being.

  3. Tom_H says:

    Also a lifelong (40+ years now) Tolkien reader and devotee. . . .

    I agree with you that this is one of the most arresting passages in the Lord of the Rings. Was reading the biblical parable of the wheat and the weeds (or “tares”) the other day, and thought of this passage. In the parable, a farmer, confronted with weeds sown among his wheat crop, refuses to pull up the weeds immediately, lest the wheat be uprooted as well.

    Peace to you.

  4. Kareem Ali says:

    How do you get out of control government from that quote? I see it more as a plea for compassion and warning against capital punishment. It is pretty easy to pity Tolkiens villains. In fact, the Silmarillion reminds me of Paradise Lost in how much I pity the fallen Valar, Maiar, and later Noldor.