Cruelty, Malice, and the Will To Dominate All Life: Did Tolkien’s Dark Lords Both Make The Same Mistake?


Some time ago, I wrote a post – far and away my most popular to date – concerning J.R.R. Tolkien’s dark lords. In it, I mention that Tolkien’s books were written with the conceit that Middle Earth was in fact our own world, in a mythic time before history as we know it began.

That means that Tolkien couldn’t just make up an artificial pantheon and cosmology for his fantasy world, like most fantasy authors do. The spiritual and moral universe of Middle Earth is the one that he actually believed in – which is to say, that of a devout Roman Catholic. Eru Iluvatar, the Creator of the setting, is clearly the Christian God; the Valar, His most powerful servants, are archangels; and the Maiar, the host of lesser spirits, are angels.

(That said, only one of the Valar really tracks to any familiar figure from Christian mythology, and that is Melkor – later named Morgoth – who is clearly Lucifer.)

Several of the Valar.  Can you guess which one is the bad guy?

Several of the Valar. Can you guess which one is the bad guy?

In the same way, things like fate, free will, and divine providence work the same way in Middle Earth as Tolkien believes they do in the real world. I don’t just mean that good triumphs over evil, and “good” is defined as the author would define it. Everyone does that. Tolkien’s beliefs are much more complex and specific than that.

For example. Melkor is unsatisfied with being a servant of Iluvatar’s will. He wants to create worlds of his own, so he searches the Outer Darkness for the “Secret Fire”. Unfortunately for him, the “Secret Fire” (a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, by Tolkien’s own admission) is at Iluvatar’s throne. Separation from God makes true creation impossible. Thus the later, oft-repeated-in-one-form-or-another statement that “the Shadow can only mock, it cannot make”. The orcs, the most famous Creatures Of Evil in Melkor’s – and later Sauron’s – service are simply elves who were tortured, twisted and ruined until they became something else. Trolls are dark mockeries of ents – though whether they were made from ents, I’m not sure.

I…don’t know how this explains dragons. According to The Silmarillion, Melkor – by then called Morgoth – forged them as weapons of mass destruction. While that may not count as “Making” in the sense of creation ex nihilo, it sure doesn’t look like mockery to me.

Anyway. Tolkien also believed that evil inevitably led to the decay of one’s motives. Melkor started out by wanting to make worlds of his own – which, as hubris, did count as evil. Frustrated in that, he just set about wrecking everything he could while trying to conquer the world and force creatures who should have been beneath his notice to worship him. This is how he earned the name “Morgoth”, which means “Black Foe of the World” in Elvish.

Doesn’t sound like worship to me.

Similarly, Sauron started out by wanting to bring order to the world. Because he’d thrown in with Morgoth to do so, he’d separated from Iluvatar and lost the ability for creation. That meant his version of “order” was a crushing tyranny that would slowly choke the world to death. Eventually he realized that, but by that point he didn’t care. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, at the end of the Third Age, slowly choking the world to death had become his actual goal.

All of which is just to establish context for my question, which I hope any Tolkien scholars out there can answer:

Given Tolkien’s beliefs about the nature of evil, do think it’s significant that both Morgoth and Sauron made the same fatal mistake? If so, what was he trying to say?

Evil is self-defeating; that’s a given. But the mistake they make is much more specific:


As Tolkien’s Lucifer, Morgoth was far and away the most powerful of the Valar…originally. No other spirit could match him for raw power, and he could do anything they could do. Probably better. Originally. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. It didn’t give him the domination that he craved. So what he did was disperse his being throughout the world, which tainted its very fabric and ensured that he would have some degree of control over it to this very day…but which also diminished him to the point that he was actually subject to injury from mortal beings like the elven king Fingolfin and Thorondor, the Lord of The Eagles. When the other Valar finally came for him, he didn’t have a chance.

Sauron Film

By the same token, Sauron forged the greater part of his essence into the One Ring in order to gain control over the other ringbearers. And while it may have worked for a while – it seems that he succeeded in subverting the kingdoms that the Nazgul originally ruled, and he definitely got some powerful generals out of the deal – it left him vulnerable to being defeated by a human swinging a sharp piece of metal, and ultimately to final dissolution when a pair of hobbits dropped his Achilles heel into a volcano.

In other words, both of them were so greedy for power over others, that they sacrificed the power that would have been their birthright as whole beings, which turned out to be their undoing. In both cases, they were ultimately defeated by beings who wouldn’t have been able to touch them if they’d been at their full strength.

So what’s going on here?  Is Tolkien saying that evil is not only self-defeating, but literally self-destructive?  Are you mutilating yourself when you make domination of others your only goal?  Or am I reading too much into this and it’s simply a case of Tolkien creating villains so powerful that they couldn’t be defeated at all if they didn’t throw the game somehow?



Filed under Inspirations, Writing Theory

4 responses to “Cruelty, Malice, and the Will To Dominate All Life: Did Tolkien’s Dark Lords Both Make The Same Mistake?

  1. Have you read Dante, the Inferno in particular? This notion of evil as diminishment that pervades Tolkien’s work and that of his fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, seems to have entered Catholicism via the poetry of Dante Alighieri. Dante portrayed evil-as-diminishment by depicting Hell as an inverted cone, with the deeper circles to which the worst sinners were consigned as having progressively less freedom of movement, until Dante and Virgil come to Satan himself — who is completely immobilized. The cold wind of his wings freezes him in place, but he can’t stop flapping them.

    • I have indeed read The Inferno. I’m a little surprised that it came from a non-canonical source. I would’ve thought it was from some saint’s or church father’s writings. Maybe a rabbi somewhere.

  2. Pingback: Two Sides of Magic – World Building and Fantasy | Dreams of the Shining Horizon

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