The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings
by Tom Simon
In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero.
—The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 183
Evil is its own best propaganda, especially in fiction. Few people can entirely resist its fascination: many a hero has been upstaged in the popular imagination by his opposing villain. Milton’s Satan is a more interesting figure than Milton’s God, and Darth Vader is far more popular than Luke Skywalker. J. R. R. Tolkien actually made his villain the title character of The Lord of the Rings, but wisely chose not to portray him directly in the story. Sauron is always off stage, mysterious and menacing; in his absence, the One Ring becomes the focus of evil. The Ring, and the evil for which it stands, have an unwholesome glamour that draws the attention of nearly every reader and critic. In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, possibly the definitive work in the field of “Tolkien Studies,” Tom Shippey devotes a 51-page chapter to “concepts of evil” in The Lord of the Rings. I know of no comparable inquiry into Tolkien’s concepts of good. These tend to be mocked (by hostile critics), or passed over in silence, or at best taken for granted.
To the philosopher, this lacuna presents both a symptom and an opportunity. Ethics is not primarily the study of evil; it is the attempt to define and understand the Good, and evil is defined merely by its opposition to that. We know that Sauron is Evil with a capital E; but what is the good to which he is opposed? What did the “speaking peoples” of that place, as Tolkien calls them, consider worth doing, and what, by their standards (and their author’s), made for a life well lived?
All of the major “speaking peoples” were represented in the Fellowship of the Ring: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Let us begin, as Tolkien does, with the hobbits. Hobbits are anachronistic in Middle-earth, and deliberately so; they have clocks and umbrellas, tea-parties and tobacco, as befits an idealized and sanitized version of the rural English among whom Tolkien spent his formative years.
The Prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and the opening chapters give us more than enough information to go on with. The Shire, which Tolkien describes as a “half republic half aristocracy” in the letter quoted above,
[They] had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.…
They attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.
As Frodo observes, “No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire.” The few swords in the Shire had not exactly been bent into ploughshares, but they were preserved as mathoms, keepsakes or museum pieces, not for use.
Clearly we are looking at an idealization; which at any rate makes it easier to identify the ideal. This is preindustrial Western man, not as he ever actually was, but as he aspired to be; and sometimes the aspiration was nearly fulfilled. In the peaceful and sheltered society of pre-1914 England, the habit of violence was easy to avoid. Moral softness acted in concert with the Christian moral code, which persisted long after the decline of the churches. The society of the Shire takes this tendency to the point of caricature. All kinds of serious crime, not just murder, were virtually unknown: we are told that the principal duty of the Shirriffs was chasing down stray livestock. It is a utopian society, but utopian in a peculiarly English vein: hedonistic without addiction to pleasure, liberal without the selfishness that is the frequent vice of liberty. Hobbits were governed not by laws and magistrates, let alone police and soldiers, but by their own deeply ingrained sense of the fitness of things – their moral sentiments. Adam Smith would have approved, though probably with a knowing smile at the author’s thumb on the scales.
But it is not enough to be hedonistic and liberal. Pleasure and freedom do not maintain themselves without effort. In the life we know, that means both the moral effort of following “The Rules,” and the physical effort of defending one’s society against enemies who do not share these values. We find both in the Shire. A number of hobbits desert “the Rules” at the first serious temptation, and enlist as bullying Shirriffs under the rule of Saruman, in his guise as “Sharkey.” Robin Smallburrow describes the process:
‘There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told, and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big. And there’s worse than that: there’s a few as do spy-work for the Chief and his Men.’
Minding other folk’s business: the cardinal sin of the liberal Utopia. In Tolkien’s youth, one of the worst insults one Englishman could offer another was “Nosey Parker.” But every liberal society is vulnerable to Nosey Parkers, as the history of the last hundred years has shown. When Lotho Sackville-Baggins made up his mind to take over the Shire, he was minding other folk’s business with a vengeance; but the other folk were not willing to mind his business by stopping him. Only when Sharkey’s rule became unendurable did the hobbits resolve to throw him and Lotho out; and they did so only with outside help. For the four hobbits of the Fellowship had been trained in a sterner school, and knew how to deal with Sharkey by sterner methods than name-calling and complaining.