Part 1; Part 2.

Lewis, Tolkien, and Similar Views about the Nature of Evil

Another observation about the understanding of the nature of evil is that in both worlds, evil is often the result of an over-pursuit or a lust for knowledge, based on a motive of using that knowledge to exercise domination over others. Obviously neither Tolkien nor Lewis (great Oxford professors, remember) is against learning or knowledge; quite the opposite in fact. However, both authors point out that the motivations behind one’s pursuit reflect both one’s true desire and one’s true goal: in both worlds, desire for power is shown to turn quickly to evil, while desire for wisdom (most often resulting in humility, not pride) is shown the be the proper motive for desiring knowledge. In addition, both writers also created characters that are set up as examples of how knowledge gained from improper motives also corrupts proper morals, resulting in evil.

In Narnia, this is most clearly seen in both Queen Jadis, as already mentioned, and in Uncle Andrew, whose pursuit of knowledge results in some destruction in London and the introduction of evil into Narnia from its very creation. In both cases, the characters set themselves up as beings to whom traditional rules of morality do not apply, with Uncle Andrew saying, “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” (Nephew, p.  21) Later, Jadis repeats the same sentiment about a ‘high and lonely destiny,’ which even the character of Digory remarks as ominous. A final observation to make here is how Uncle Andrew falsely equates knowledge with wisdom, a mistake also made by various characters in Middle-earth.

In Middle-earth, two examples will serve to show the point of the danger of an over-pursuit of knowledge that stems from an impure motive. The first is the character of Saruman, known as Saruman the White. He is a Wizard and thus of supernatural origin, originally sent to Middle-earth as a type of guide and guardian for the other dwellers there. He played a positive role at various times, from the White Council that took place concurrently with the events in The Hobbit to having been a friend and ally to Rohan for many years. However, it is made clear that his original research into the lore of the One Ring that stemmed from his time leading the White Council eventually resulted in a prideful desire to obtain the Ring for himself. Because of that, he slowly but surely turned to evil. In doing so, he left behind traditional views of morality, he forgot his original calling to be a guide and helper, and he eventually revealed himself as openly evil in creating his own army of Uruks to pursue the Ring being transported by the Fellowship.

In the conversation between Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard, Saruman showed himself to be on the same immoral path of both Uncle Andrew and Jadis, asking for Gandalf’s aid while also justifying his own corruption, saying, “We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils down by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.” (Fellowship, p. 260) Here Saruman reveals his improper motives, his evil intentions, and his mistaken equating of knowledge with wisdom in much the same way as Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew did in Narnia.

A final observation about Tolkien’s view of evil concerns how evil is more than simply the absence of good; it often results from the perversion of good. Things that were created with a proper purpose have been corrupted, misused, or otherwise changed in ways that result in evil. Again I am indebted to Ralph C. Wood for showing clearly how Tolkien’s understanding of evil comes from his biblical understanding of the world: in the beginning, evil did not exist; it was allowed to come into being because of free will; and it continues so long as creatures are allowed to make choices. But in all of that, evil is incapable of Creation. In The Two Towers, Treebeard explains the origins of trolls as evil’s attempt at creating Ents, and Frodo further explains this to Sam in The Return of the King when he says of the orcs that, “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make.” (Chapter 1: The Tower of Cirith Ungol, p.893). This idea of evil attempting and failing at real original creations is also related to the last point to be explored here: despite its inherent selfishness, evil ultimately results in a loss of self for the practitioner.

Evil as de-humanizing (or de-characterizing, since some of the characters are not strictly human) is a theme seen in various places of the literature of both Lewis and Tolkien. The examples to be explored here are the characters of the Nazgul and of Gollum in Middle-earth, while in Narnia this is seen in both Eustace Scrubb and in Prince Rabadash (though for those most interested in this theme, it would be worth reading Lewis’ Space Trilogy and paying attention to the character of the Un-man).

In Middle-earth, evil corrupts from within, and as it does so it chips away at the being’s inner self until it is entirely corrupted. This is seen in a relatively minor being like Gollum (minor in the sense of his place in the cosmos), as well as in the much more powerful Nazgul. In the case of Gollum, he had been an ordinary hobbit until he encountered the Ring. Upon seeing it, his selfish desire for it caused him to commit murder, and then he continued to travel down the path of evil by spying on friends and neighbors until he was finally exiled from his community. In his many years of living, he survived by killing and eating orcs, stealing from them, and, if rumors of Middle-earth are to be believed, preying on other sentient creatures as well. By the time of the events of The Lord of the Rings, he is little more than a shell of a creature: shrunken, misshapen, starved-looking, and with no ties to any community whatsoever. This is also seen in the case of the Nazgul, though they are a group of Nine and so are not as isolated as Gollum. Still, once they had been great kings and rulers in Middle-earth until they accepted the gifts of the Nine Rings. The desire for control, for Rule (as Saruman put it), caused them to accept these gifts; and once that was done, it was only a matter of time until they fell totally under the control of Sauron. Rather than being better or even more powerful rulers, they became less human and less in control of even themselves. And while the evils of the Nazgul were to have larger effects than that of Gollum, the result for all of them was very similar: both the Nazgul and Gollum lose their names, their homes, their very selves, due to the enslaving power of evil.

In Narnia, the same theme is seen in the character of Prince Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy and in Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Prince Rabadash is a powerful heir to the throne in Calormen, and his desire is to marry a Narnian queen. In his desire, he invades the neighboring area of Archenland as part of his preparation for kidnapping Queen Susan, who has previously spurned his advances. In this, Rabadash is responsible for various deaths and much destruction, and he is ultimately defeated. However, despite his defeat, he remains unrepentant, even go so far as to mock and spurn the good will and grace and mercy of the Narnians and Archenlanders who have captured him. As a result of this, he is turned into a donkey by Aslan himself. Only by returning to his homeland and staying there forever can Rabadash regain his true self. He does this, yet his nickname of Rabadash the Ridiculous stuck with him forever, and he even became a warning for others, who when they acted ridiculous were often referred to as “a second Rabadash.”

A similar fate happened to Eustace Scrubb, a young boy who was transported to Narnia and quickly involved in adventures there. Like Gollum compared to the Nazgul, Eustace’s evils are much smaller than those of Rabadash: he is not guilty of murder or attempted kidnapping, but only of pettiness, meanness, and selfishness. However, on his adventures, and due to his selfish desire to keep the gold of a dragon that he has stumbled upon, Eustace wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a dragon. His desire for gold, his meanness toward his traveling companions, and his lack of any sort of compassion, result in his transformation. Only through the direct and very painful intervention of Aslan is Eustace restored to his true self. And here we see the main exception of Eustace: of the characters explored in this essay, he is the only one who ever regains his true self, and when he does, he finds that he has been transformed into a very different sort of boy than he had been. He is by no means perfect, but he does begin to show compassion and kindness toward others, even if he does still fail sometimes.

So here, in both worlds, we see that evil stems from selfish or prideful motives, and we also see that this desire eventually corrupts and de-humanizes. The main difference in how these themes are explored is in the seriousness, or rather, the gravity with which evil is treated. Tolkien’s exploration of evil has very little, if any, humor, whereas Lewis chooses to make evil the object of its own mockery, as seen in Rabadash. This can perhaps be attributed to the different audiences intended for the books of each author, though it might be more accurately ascribed to the different ways in which Lewis and Tolkien chose to focus their writings and their understanding of the End. This idea of the End will be explore later; before we get to the End, and having discussed Evil, now it is time to explore how Tolkien and Lewis understand and write about the Power and Purpose of Good.

Part 4 on Sunday 3rd of January.

Joel W. Hawbaker is a high school history and Bible teacher and soccer coach in Alabama, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His hobbies include sports, literature, music, and spending time with his family. Joel has written for