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January 12, 2003

Meaning of Tolkien: Mercy not War

Some conservatives have evoked The Two Towers and Tolkien in support of preemptive war against evil. Now, aside from Tolkien's strongly stated revulsion against simple mapping of his tale onto present conflicts, it does miss the personal and human dimensions that make the whole tale interesting.

I especially like this analysis by Slacktivist which highlights the repeated mercy shown by Tolkien characters to those who commit evil, especially the pitiful case of Gollum but extending even to harder cases like the wizard Saruman.

Even as characters engage in war, there is a profound skepticism of the enterprise, for as Gandalf says when Frodo early on in the story expresses surprise that Gollum has been allowed to live despite his evil misdeeds:

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."
I am not a pacificist but death as a solution to problems has a finality that cannot be easily undone. And the more profound moral is not just the slipperiness of execution-style judgements but the profoundly corrupting influence of exercising such power.

If there is a pervasive moral to Tolkien, it is that mercy, even against evil, even when you know such mercy may allow further evil down the line, does less harm than the corruption of the soul that too-ready vengeful judgement exacts.

One of the worst tragedies of the post-911 period has been that we have a President who has little of the capacity for mercy and all too much of the corrupting desire for power and venegeance. In the wake of 911, I wrote one of my favorite columns, The Horror And The Humanity Of September 11, where I expressed the hope that in the horror many Americans felt, we could touch that capacity of mercy for other victims around the world.

That capacity of the American people is still there-- as shown by the skepticism they have for unilateral war-- but it still remains on the progressive agenda to build a stronger message of solidarity and mercy into our foreign policy.

Note: As alerted to in the comments, I wanted to point people to a whole debate on the nature of evil in Tolkien at Avedon Carol's site. Worth checking out for an extensive debate between a number of blog and other posters.

Posted by Nathan at January 12, 2003 10:46 AM

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