And so the time has finally come for me to reread The Lord of the Rings. In case you don’t already know, this is one of my very favorite stories. I’m a huge fan of both the books and the movies–this is one of the rare stories for which I feel that both versions have something great to offer, and that the movies actually did justice to the books. To be honest, I’ve generally liked the movies better than the books. They were always easier for me to connect to, so I was able to see their beauty in a clearer light than I could see that of the books. However, I have now come back to the books again. It’s been probably three years or so since the last time I read them. I attempted to start another reread much more recently, but didn’t get further than the first couple chapters of Fellowship. I can see now that that wasn’t the right time, because having just picked up Fellowship again, I have been completely pulled into it, for the same reasons I was recently pulled into The Hobbit, and more.
Enough has been said in praise of Tolkien’s work (although I reserve the right to say more in a future blog post). What I’d like to talk about right now is something else. One common criticism I’ve seen of Tolkien’s work, and of other fantasies influenced or inspired by it, is the matter of entire races having one moral alignment–namely, the matter of Elves and Orcs. People say that it is very unrealistic and doesn’t make sense for an entire race to be good or evil. I think that argument is bosh. It wouldn’t make sense for all humans to be either good or evil. But nonhumans do not have to and probably should never operate under the exact same rules as humans. And this is what we see in Tolkien. There are many humans in his stories, and some of them are good and some of them are bad, just as humans on earth. There are bad apples even among the nations that serve good purposes, and though we do not see any “good apples” among the men who have pledged themselves to evil, those men have so little a part in the story that it only makes sense for us not to see the exceptions. The Dwarves, who are most like humans, are often good, but also often greedy and self-centered. There are many mentions made in the books of rather shifty dwarves, though none that I can recall of any who are outright evil. Elves and Orcs, who are less like humans, are removed another level, morally speaking. The world is not the same for them. In the Elves there exists a higher good than that which is in humans, and this allowed it to be abased beyond human evil in the Orcs, who came about when Elves were twisted and broken. In this sense Elves and Orcs are a metaphor, but they are also solid and physical, as is everything in Tolkien’s work. They shouldn’t be judged by human standards because they are not human. It makes no sense to say that it’s unrealistic for all elves to be good and all orcs to be bad, because you can’t apply human logic to them. And generally in the books Elves and Orcs are held to be apart from men, unable to truly related to them or to be related to, and perhaps a large part of that is the rigid moral nature that characterizes each race.
It’s true that in The Silmarillion, there were some Elves who went bad, who were traitors or brigands or what have you. But those times were ages before The Lord of the Rings, and it seems to me that the Elves became gradually more rigid as the years passed, less able to change, and more and more aloof from men.
As far as this goes in other fantasies, I think they have to be taken on a case by case basis. It works well in The Lord of the Rings. Other, less masterful stories probably don’t pull it off quite so well. But even in those, I think the basic principle generally still stands. I think it makes for a much more interesting world when the races truly are different, on a deep, moral level, and not just humans dressed up in different disguises, as is often seen in fantasies.
(Disclaimer: None of this is to say that I’m sure this was Tolkien’s intention. But it seems to be the case in his books.)