Delving into Tolkien’s Dark Sides (Part 2)
by John Pletcher

Crashing rocks, flashing flames, and a crumbling bridge. The doom, boom, doom of Khazad-dûm echoes off the deep walls of our souls. We feel like we are running for our lives, in the thick of it with the Fellowship. Looking back, we tremble as the Wizard faces off with the Balrog on the Bridge.

Gandalf had hauntingly warned, “There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”1The Wizard’s prophet-like words invited the Company to deep-dive in their understanding. From their current perspective, they saw the ugliness of dark shadows and menacing goblins. The Fellowship was quite familiar with first-hand fears. But Gandalf knew it was time they began to grasp the deeper scope of the darkness.

In Part 1, we explored Tolkien’s dark side from above. With the arrival of Shadow—the Black Riders and Nazgûl—the Fellowship’s leading characters experienced foreboding fear. And we discovered the unique role of the darkness-to-light motif. The Professor intentionally used such rich metaphor to advance his consistent aim of eucatastrophe. All across Tolkien’s tales, that sudden turn—a hinge of hope and joy amid catastrophe—swings open via the overcoming power of bright light.

Now in Part 2, we take up Gandalf’s age-old challenge, to go deeper in order to explore the underbelly of Tolkien’s dark side. You might recall as darkness filled Bilbo’s hole in the ground, the dwarves sang of dungeons deep and caverns old.2 If we dare ourselves to journey into deeper and older places of Tolkien’s world, we will discover an even more dastardly, diabolical side to darkness. But we also encounter three hopeful, powerful applications for our own current journeys in Present-earth.

Deeper and fouler places of the soul

Let’s be honest. We all feel sad and sickened as we survey people’s choices upon our Present-earth landscape.

. . .

 

Crashing rocks, flashing flames, and a crumbling bridge. The doom, boom, doom of Khazad-dûm echoes off the deep walls of our souls. We feel like we are running for our lives, in the thick of it with the Fellowship. Looking back, we tremble as the Wizard faces off with the Balrog on the Bridge.

Gandalf had hauntingly warned, “There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”1The Wizard’s prophet-like words invited the Company to deep-dive in their understanding. From their current perspective, they saw the ugliness of dark shadows and menacing goblins. The Fellowship was quite familiar with first-hand fears. But Gandalf knew it was time they began to grasp the deeper scope of the darkness.

In Part 1, we explored Tolkien’s dark side from above. With the arrival of Shadow—the Black Riders and Nazgûl—the Fellowship’s leading characters experienced foreboding fear. And we discovered the unique role of the darkness-to-light motif. The Professor intentionally used such rich metaphor to advance his consistent aim of eucatastrophe. All across Tolkien’s tales, that sudden turn—a hinge of hope and joy amid catastrophe—swings open via the overcoming power of bright light.

Now in Part 2, we take up Gandalf’s age-old challenge, to go deeper in order to explore the underbelly of Tolkien’s dark side. You might recall as darkness filled Bilbo’s hole in the ground, the dwarves sang of dungeons deep and caverns old.2 If we dare ourselves to journey into deeper and older places of Tolkien’s world, we will discover an even more dastardly, diabolical side to darkness. But we also encounter three hopeful, powerful applications for our own current journeys in Present-earth.

Deeper and fouler places of the soul

Let’s be honest. We all feel sad and sickened as we survey people’s choices upon our Present-earth landscape. It seems that every day we learn of fresh scandal, newly discovered abuses of power, run-rampant greed, and other ugly choices by societal influencers. We encounter dark disappointment in the choices made by entertainers, politicians, as well as business and religious leaders. But we also see it in our own families and friends. And if we are deep-down honest, we feel it in the caverns of our own souls.
If Professor Tolkien were alive, I am quite certain he would be saddened and disturbed. Yes, his concern for our crises would run deep, but I doubt he would express great surprise. Tolkien was well aware of the dismal depths of human nature. In fact, his literal, spatial treatment often mirrored metaphorical meaning for his character’s choices of right and wrong, good versus evil. Michael N. Stanton aptly noted: “The story is the chronicle of a struggle between Good and Evil, and they are frequently symbolized or represented by Light and Dark, in varying forms.”3 Hence, our present age is not the first to face such epic struggles over choices, vices, and moral uprightness.

A diabolical story scene is tucked into those old and deep places of The Silmarillion. In the account “Of Beren and Lúthien,” a dreadful moment emerges.4 Their aim was to recapture one of the three fiery gems—those coveted-by-everyone Silmarils. They were crafted by famous Fëanor of the Noldor. During the climax of their perilous quest, Beren and Lúthien were disguised as a werewolf and bat-vampire.
Angband was Morgoth’s dungeon-fortress. Many years prior, the Evil One Morgoth, had descended and carved out his abysmal stronghold. This fallen one—originally named Melkor—had rebelled against his Creator, Ilúvatar. (Yes, Melkor was Tolkien’s treasonous Lucifer-like, Satanic being). In fact, those infamous, flame-whipping Balrogs—just like the one Gandalf confronted in the depths of Moria—had their origin with Melkor. In the ancient battles, they were sent out from Angband.5
When Beren and Lúthien arrived at the Gate of Angband, they found the entrance guarded by writhing serpents, embattled walls, carrion foul, and the ferocious red wolf, Carcharoth. In a tense standoff at the gate, Lúthien discovered “some power, descended from of old from divine race.” Wonderfully empowered, she cast a lightning-like sleep spell upon vicious Carcharoth. Tolkien tells:

Then Beren and Lúthien went through the Gate, and down the labyrinthine stairs; and together wrought the greatest deed that has been dared by Elves or Men. For they came to the seat of Morgoth in his nethermost hall, that was upheld by horror, lit by fire, and filled with weapons of death and torment. There Beren slunk in wolf’s form beneath his throne; but Lúthien was stripped of her disguise by the will of Morgoth, and he bent his gaze upon her. She was not daunted by his eyes; and she named her own name, and offered her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel. Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor. Thus he was beguiled by his own malice, for he watched her, leaving her free for a while, and taking secret pleasure in his thought.

Tolkien’s vivid word choices set afire the reader’s grasp of both scenery and character description. Amidst fiery Angband, we feel the pitch-black, lustful nature of Morgoth. Upon careful rereading, diabolical words paint the picture. “Horror,” “fire,” “weapons,” “stripped,” and “evil lust.” Additional terms denote Morgoth’s deeper choices and even darker intentions. “The will,” “his gaze upon her,” and “a design more dark than any that had come into his heart.”
And do not miss these potent phrases: “he was beguiled by his own malice,” and he took “secret pleasure” in his thought. I will resist my urge to recount more and risk spoiling the story for you. If you have never read this tale—or perhaps it’s been many years and you have forgotten the outcome—please grab a copy of The Silmarillion. You won’t be disappointed!

We might shrug and say, “Well, what do you expect to see from the Evil One in his Hell of Iron?” But there is a good bit more at work in this tale. Tolkien was aware of the dismal parallels that run through the depths of human nature. Should it surprise us that Tolkien assigned affinity and influence between Morgoth and humans? Earlier in The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” we read of Morgoth’s movement:
“. . . secretly under shadow he himself departed from Angband, and went forth into Middle-earth, leaving to Sauron the command of the War. Of his dealings with Men the Eldar indeed knew nothing . . . To corrupt or destroy whatsoever arose new and fair was ever the chief desire of Morgoth; and doubtless he had this purpose also in his errand: by fear and lies to make Men the foes of the Eldar, and bring them up out of the east against Beleriand.6

We dare not forget these early words of incrimination during the beginning of days:

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony . . . it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur, although he has ever feared and hated them, even those that served him.7

Can any good be found in catastrophic caverns?

Catastrophe still abounds in our cavernous places today. It seems bad news has reached epic proportions. If he were still living, Tolkien would not be shocked by our Present-earth’s ugly buzz of accusations against influencers. Politicians, preachers, business tycoons, artists, performers, athletes—prominent leaders from every societal level—are swept into the fray.

If we contemplate too long, our media feed feels overwhelming. Dark lists of ugly tidings emerge. Allegations include spousal abuse, embezzlement of company funds, and sexual harassment. Extra-marital affairs, substance abuse, and racism also make the vicious list. Some days, the dreadful news flies nonstop. We have arrived at a precipitous moment when almost nothing shocks us about anyone. Sadly, we have grown numb to it.

It is frequently noted that Tolkien frowned on allegorical interpretation of his stories. But he was a strong proponent of applicability. One of his chief aims was the discovery of eucatastrophe. There is often an opportunity to encounter a good and sudden turn of discovery amidst life’s cataclysmic moments.
Perhaps some good might be seen, even and especially amidst such dark and dismal places. When we think even deeper, three brighter applications emerge from what appears in this dusty, dark tale of Beren, Lúthien, and evil Morgoth.

First, Present-earth dwellers can ponder past pitfalls. Then choose anew.

We dare not forget, Melkor was created as a leading Ainur, a brother of Manwë in the mind of Ilúvatar. His Creator made him to lead well, to lead strong in the earthly realm. Designed to co-create beautiful things, Melkor’s downfall in the opening pages of The Silmarillion was musical. As the Creator Ilúvatar’s harmonious Great Music was unfolding, we read “. . . it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar . . . Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straight-way discord arose about him . . .”8

Morgoth had a serious issue, a dark penchant with music. There is no doubt about it; Lúthien’s singing was wonderful. During early scenes of Beren and Lúthien’s tale, we read: “The fame of the beauty of Lúthien and the wonder of her song had long gone forth from Doriath . . .”9

We can sense more than a hint of irony as Beren and Lúthien descended into the depths of Angband. The Evil One was spellbound by Lúthien’s song. For Morgoth, music proved to be his recurring downfall.

Wise people grow to know their own shadow sides. We all have serious weaknesses and moral shortcomings. But something better—in fact, something very good—happens when we realize we can make wiser choices. In his essay “Virtue and Vice in The Lord of the Rings,” Aeon J. Skoble explains:

. . . for hobbits and humans (our ultimate concern), the idea of moral self-development demands that we take seriously our flawed nature. We are capable of becoming better or worse through our dispositions and choices, and while our dispositions color our choices, our choices can alter our dispositions.10

Present-earth influencers seeking to strengthen their self-awareness will learn their blind spots and determine not to repeat their own dark history. Stronger, growing people develop greater self-awareness and resist the music of the night.

Such personal development merits a serious level of attention, indeed. But for Tolkien there was an even deeper level for serious consideration by influencers.

We can learn to guard our hearts.

Tolkien steps deeper than just self-improvement. He pulls no punches about the condition of both Melkor’s heart and the heart of the Followers, humans. Our inner framework can be treacherously akin to Morgoth.

An ancient Hebrew proverb urges: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”11

The young wise guide from Galilee said: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”12

Both the ancient Hebrew Wise One and the Lord of Heaven and Earth believed that the Children of Ilúvatar could walk a better path. We need not just assume today, “Leaders and all the societal influencers are destined for failure; bad news will always prevail.” We can embrace good news and not allow just anything willy-nilly to issue forth from our hearts. Let us dare to believe again—

We can be humble and honest about our own hearts.
We can learn to choose wisely, gaining insight and power beyond ourselves.
We can boldly resist Morgoth-like vices of greed, lust, and self-indulgence.
We can—much like Beren and Lúthien—stand and fight against the Evil One.
We can courageously lead with growing character and intensifying integrity.
And there’s a third, hopeful, essential application we can make.

Present-earth dwellers embrace much-needed grace.

Across Tolkien’s tales, not every descent is dismal. Sometimes the heroes descend into the lower realms and travel deep paths on a good mission of hope. Such journeys often result in good news. As Húrin discovered in the midst of his own desperation, “The King’s grace is greater than you know . . .”13 For avid Tolkien fans, recalling the bigger story is instructive.

Crucial to remember for both ancient Middle-earth characters and today’s Present-earth Followers, grace abounds. There was a long-range descendant through the line of Beren and Lúthien. With the waxing and waning of many moons, the Third Age on Middle-earth arrived. And a long-awaited king arrived, a king who courageously traveled through the deep, dark Paths of the Dead. Such bold, daring descent underground by Aragorn and the Grey Company aimed to deliver surprising victory and resplendent hope.

Such descent and subsequent ascent brought healing hands, joyful renewal, and a host of gracious gifts to the Elves, the Halflings, and all Men. All was grace. Still today in Present-earth, all is grace. When everyday influencers do stumble and fall—and sadly, we all do—there is grace to receive, and also grace to extend to others.

Bask in the wonder that is still true today. The King’s grace is indeed greater than you know.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring, 369.
  2. The Hobbit, 22.
  3. Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, 16.
  4. The Silmarillion, 190-222.
  5. Ibid., 23, 121.
  6. Ibid., 165.
  7. Ibid., 36.
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. Ibid., 205.
  10. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule them All. Edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, 117.
  11. Proverbs 4:23 (The Holy Bible, New International Version)
  12. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7, verses 21-23 (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
  13. The Silmarillion, 186.