Welcome back to Saturday. I’ve been trying to hit up a few letters on the weekend, and here’s what I’ve got for today. Since we’ve been talking about Saruman, I thought I’d look to see what Tolkien had to say about him. I didn’t find a whole lot, but there’s definitely some gems for future posts.
Today, I want to look at Letter No. 181 (from Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), written in early 1956. By this point, the last volume, Return of the King, had been out for a few months. Michael Straight, an editor at New Republic, was curious about the use of allegory in the tale. Of course, Tolkien’s views of allegory are well known now (he hated it), but then, it was a mystery.
Tolkien began by saying: “There is no ‘allegory’, moral, political or contemporary in the work at all.” As an example, he uses Gollum, explaining that he was to him “just a ‘character’ – an imagined person – who granted the situation acted so and so under opposing strains, as it appears to be probable that he would (there is always an incalculable element in any individual real or imagined: otherwise he/she would not be an individual but a ‘type.’)”
Most of the letter is fairly dry, delving into the concept of Frodo’s failure: “Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He ‘apostatized’ – and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor, not honoured.”
The letter swims for a long time in the discussion of God and the Humane aspects of Men and Elves. If that is your thing, you’ll love Letter No. 181. But that leads to a discussion of his thoughts about evil as they pertain to the wizards.
“His [Gandalf’s – but also all of the wizards] function as a ‘wizard’ is an angelos or messenger from the Valar or Rulers: to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided. But since, in the view of the tale & mythology, Power – when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) – is evil, these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.”
Let’s take a look at this. The wizards were sent to help the Elves and Men resist Sauron. Power that seeks to dominate is evil. The wizards were flesh and could suffer.
“They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means.”
Impatience was the greatest sin that the Istari could commit. This goes a long way to explaining why it took so ridiculously long to do anything about Sauron and the Ring (as talked about here). Patience was so important because without it, they would attempt to bend others to their will.
“To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. But the situation became so much the worse by the fall of Saruman, that the ‘good’ were obliged to greater effort and sacrifice. Thus Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power.”
So without Saruman’s fall, the Ring couldn’t have been destroyed. That could go for almost every aspect of the story. Without everything fitting just right, the Ring and Sauron would be unconquered.
There’s so much more to this letter. It’s especially useful to those who try to see the Bible or Christ in everything Tolkien wrote. He certainly discusses parallel philosophies and the like, but cautions that “though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all.”
A Few Notes
Incidentally, this is also the letter than confirms that Smeagol was bad even before finding the Ring: “The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Smeagol. But he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean sort of thief before it crossed his path.” Though in Smeagol’s defense, Tolkien does admit that he was “not wholly-corrupt” when he found it.
About the Photo
I love letters and post offices, and I wish I had more photos of them. I should start trying take more so that I can use them for the Tolkien letters posts. Hmm… Hmm…
- Day 150
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 741 (287 from Rivendell)
- 53 miles to the Doors of Moria
- 180 miles to Lothlórien
- 1,038 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Gaining in elevation 18th night out from Rivendell. January 10-11, 3019 TA. (map)