Thursday, August 22, 2019

When Evil Loses by Winning

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is most often described with a single word: epic.  And it truly is a sweeping story, full of magnificent world-building, great characters, and an overall story arch of good triumphing over the vast strength of evil.

At least, that’s how most of us think of it.  But take a moment and consider how the main conflict of the story ends at the Cracks of Doom.  Frodo has carried the ring across Middle Earth, through the heart of Mordor itself.  Sam has been his constant companion, sacrificing his strength to carry Frodo when Frodo could no longer make it on his own power.  And our heroes have finally made it to the final ledge.  Good has triumphed.  All Frodo has to do is toss the ring into the lava.

The exact same scenario had happened previously in the lore.  Isildur had cut the ring from Sauron’s finger and had taken it to the very spot Frodo now stood.  All Isildur needed to do was toss the ring into the lava, and he failed to do so.  The ring was too powerful.  It corrupted Isildur.

Tolkien drew the obvious parallel here by having Frodo stand in the same location thousands of years later.  And while most tales of heroes would indeed have the hero conquer the temptation and toss the ring into the lava…

Frodo fails.

Frodo succumbs to the same fate that fell upon Isildur.  Hobbits fail the same way men do.  It should not be overly surprising.  We already saw that with Gollum, who had been known as Sméagol before his corruption.  And we even saw it happen to Bilbo, who for one moment tried to take the ring back from Frodo.  So it really should be no surprise that Frodo could no longer endure the siren song of the ring.

But the story does not end with Frodo’s failure.  Instead, at the very moment he gives in to evil, Gollum pounces.  And here, Frodo fails a second time.  He cannot fend off Gollum and is incapable of maintaining control of the ring.  In a callback to how Isildur severed the ring from Sauron’s finger, Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and takes the ring himself.  But in the process, as the two combatants struggle for control of the ring they both desire, Gollum falls into the lava and the ring is destroyed.

And thus evil is conquered, not because good prevailed but because evil destroyed itself.

This is what makes The Lord of the Rings unique, or at least very rare, in terms of story structure.  Nearly every heroic tale has good conquering evil.  Sometimes, a main character may have to sacrifice a lot to achieve this aim.  For example, in the movie Saving Private Ryan Tom Hank’s character, Captain Miller, ends up dying to achieve the stated goal of saving Private Ryan.  We see similar structure in other stories, such as Neo’s sacrifice at the end of The Matrix trilogy.  Or how Dan Evans dies at the end of 3:10 to Yuma but manages to get Ben Wade on the train and becomes a hero to his son.  Sure, the secondary aspect of surviving the exchange failed, but audiences appreciate the fact that the greater goal succeeded.  Good prevailed over evil.

In other stories, we have the bad guy win.  This has become very frequent in stories involving the antihero.  Take movies like The Godfather where Michael Corleone ends up becoming the ruthless mob boss at the end of the film, having hits carried out on all his enemies during the very baptism of his son.  Or take the example of Primal Fear where Aaron Stampler successfully convinces the court to render a verdict of innocent by reason of insanity, only to reveal he was faking his mental illness all along.

But The Lord of the Rings takes neither of these paths.  The good guy fails in all his tasks so good does not triumph over evil.  He does not destroy the ring.  He cannot even fight off Gollum.  And yet evil does not win either, for the ring is still destroyed and Sauron defeated.  In fact, it is through the very failure of good that evil loses.  There are very few stories that take this trajectory.

For Tolkien, however, this story arc is the only one that could make sense.  He was, after all, a devout Catholic with a view of evil that was shaped by Christian theology.  Evil is a corrosive force, even while it is so tempting.  Therefore, by its very nature, evil is unstable.  The more successful evil is, the more it is doomed to fail. Even though Roman Catholicism does not have as strong a view of depravity as one would find in the Reformed doctrine I subscribe to, Catholicism does strongly hold to the doctrine of Original Sin.  Everyone is born corrupted and bent toward evil, and you do not need to learn how to do evil.  You will be evil, even without a teacher.  No matter how good of a person you are, you cannot be perfect.  You will fail in the end.
Tolkien intended the ring to be an impossible burden, because evil is an impossible burden to bear.  And yet rather than rendering everything hopeless, Tolkien demonstrated that evil will never win in the end.  It is tempting to correlate this to the very heart of the Gospel itself.  After all, the greatest evil ever committed was the murder of an innocent man, and it was that murder that killed death itself.  There is a sort of poetic justice in knowing that death was destroyed by its own actions.

Yet Christ's death is not an instance of good failing and it would be an error to think Tolkien had that in mind here.  Instead, Tolkien examines good and evil from the perspective of imperfect men.  As he writes in Letter 246:
Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal in enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine Nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God.
The story therefore most reflects the path of sanctification.  We live our lives in an evil world and fail to attain the heights we know we should be at, and it is easy to lose heart.  Yet all is not lost even in such a scenario because of the role of mercy.

Though much more could be said on this, and indeed entire books could be written over it, one simple truth remains.  As powerful as evil seems, evil cannot triumph over good for evil must, of necessity, consume itself.  Evil is the harbinger of its own demise.  Even if it destroys all around it, it simultaneously must destroy itself. And this, itself, is due to the mercy of God in ensuring that evil will be self-destructive rather than permanent.


  1. The bad guys lost, not because the good guys won, not because the good guys defeated the bad guys, but because the bad guys died of self-inflicted wounds.

  2. Highly insightful. You should post that on a certain social media platform.

  3. I sometimes think there are so many ways Hitler could have won WW2 save for a single reason, i.e., Hitler himself. For example:

    1. If Hitler hadn't sent his Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, without any concrete plans (as his own staff warned him), but just let the British alone, then it's possible Churchill's government wouldn't have lasted through the war. It's possible the British would have eventually sued for peace. At the very least Hitler wouldn't have lost thousands of what proved to be irreplaceable trained pilots and aircraft that he could have used on other fronts. The Battle of Britain severely harmed the Luftwaffe so that it had difficulty gaining air superiority again. That would've been important in (say) Russia.

    2. If Hitler had not invaded Russia, then he would not have needed to fight a two or in fact three front war, i.e., with an unbowed UK (supplied by the US) and in N. Africa. In fact, Hitler pointed out in Mein Kampf that the reason Germany lost WW1 was because they fought a two front war, but Hitler committed the same blunder. Hitler could have just waited until he had won the other fronts first. He could have invaded Russia later. Indeed, as part of their pact, Stalin was already sending Hitler far more resources than Hitler took for himself when he invaded Russia.

    3. If Hitler had not attempted to annihilate millions of his conquered populations, not only Jews but also Slavs and others, then he wouldn't have had to waste so many personnel and resources on policing these populations, constructing buildings to imprison and exterminate them, and the like. Thousands of German soldiers would have been better allocated in the field rather than monitoring populations. Thousands of miles of railroads transporting prisoners could have been used to transport troops to the Russian front instead. And so on. At the least, Hitler could have waited to genocide entire populations after he had won the war rather than attempting to do so simultaneously fighting a war on multiple fronts.

    4. If Hitler had not tried to play little corporal and meddle in major military decisions, but instead delegated military decisions to his generals. In fact, the German army in WW2 was pound-for-pound the best fighting force of any army in the entire world at the time. I think they killed something like 6 or 7 Russian soldiers for every 1 German soldier killed and maybe 2 or 3 Allied soldiers for every 1 German soldier killed. Indeed, Hitler had genius generals like von Manstein, Guderian, and Rommel. His generals were a heritage of the Prussian military tradition. Unmatched by the Allies except for a handful like Patton, Slim, maybe Zukhov. Yet Hitler's top notch generals were sorely hampered if not outright wasted thanks to Hitler's meddling. That's one thing that Stalin did right - listen to his generals.

    1. 5. If, instead of invading Russia, Hitler had supplied Rommel adequately in the N. African theater, then Germany could have eventually seized the Suez canal and cut the British Empire in twain as well as secured enough oil from the Mideast so the German war machine could have kept running. Instead Hitler opted to invade Russia for oil and lebensraum when N. Africa, Egypt, and the Mideast would have arguably been of far more strategic value for Nazi Germany.

      6. If Hitler hadn't declared war on the US (and without consulting many of his advisors), then the US might never had declared war on Germany, but focused on the Imperial Japanese. Hitler wouldn't have had to fight the US too.

      7. If Hitler, and indeed all the Axis powers, had been able to work together with one another, then they could have coordinated attacks against the Allies. Imagine if Stalin had to fight a two front war with Germany and Japan. In that case Stalin wouldn't have been able to recall entire divisions from the East to come to his aid in the West against Germany.

      8. Similar things could be said for Mussolini who favored his own pride and opportunism over and against what was stratetically best for Italy. Same with Imperial Japan including Yamamoto who is regarded somewhat romantically by Westerners today for his education in the US and for his famous quotation about Japan having 6 months to run rampant in the Pacific before the US would destroy Japan, but who was nevertheless the main architect behind both Pearl Harbor as well as Midway, and who all but threw a tantrum (threatened to resign) if he didn't get his way with Pearl Harbor and Midway. Both of which were strategic mistakes for Japan.

      So many more examples, but all this to say Hitler (among others) was his own worst enemy. Stupid evil Hitler! :)

    2. TL;DR. Hitler's evil twisted hatred for the Jews, Slavs, and others, as well as his pride in thinking he was a military genius, among many other vices, proved to be his downfall.

    3. Say what you want about the guy, Hawk, but he did kill Hitler.

    4. But he also killed the man who killed Hitler.

  4. On TvTropes, this is called 'Self-Disposing Villain'.

    Some other Bible-related films do come to mind.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade had evil defeat itself during its moment of triumph, while the outmaneuvered and helpless Indy recalls faint memories of the Bible to pull through both times.

    The Book of Eli had the villain get what he wanted, while the protagonist slowly dies after giving up the McGuffin. Yet the villain ends up disappointed by his trophy and in effect signed his own death warrant by chasing after it instead of treating his wounds before they turned gangrenous.

    1. There is a bit of overlap, true. However, The Lord of the Rings is critically different from the examples you gave. For instance, with Indiana Jones, Indy never lost who he was, even when the external events seemed to win. In other words, for Indy to fit the same arc as Frodo, he would have had to join the Nazi party and seek to help the Nazis win in their aims and then *that* be the reason why the Nazis actually lost. But Indy always remained opposed to the Nazis.

      The same thing applies with The Book of Eli. Eli (Washington) never joined Carnegie (Oldman) in his goals. He never became corrupted, and even though he surrendered the McGuffin...he really didn't. If that had been the case in The Lord of the Rings, it would have been akin to Frodo seeming to give the ring to Sauron, Sauron believing he had it, and then discovering too late to stop Frodo that the hobbit had just chucked the ring into the Cracks of Doom.

      This is why I said that The Lord of the Rings may be unique, and at the very least is extremely rare, in its story arc.