Tolkien: Ringwraiths and the Nature of Evil

Copyright 2003 by Seth W. Daire If you have ever read Tolkien, or seen the Lord of the Rings movies, then you’ve heard of the Ringwraiths, otherwise known as the Nazgul, Black Riders, Dark Riders, or the Nine. The Fellowship of the Ring Special Edition DVD had a great special feature on Tolkien, the Ring, the Ringwraiths, and the nature of Evil.

The ring itself is an outside force, created by Sauron, and is pure evil. Yet, part of its allure is that is it a ring of power. Baron Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt.” 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Money and power can, and are, used for good in this world. There’s a problem with money and power though. Once we have them, we want to keep them, and we want more. So, they corrupt.

The Ringwraiths in Tolkien’s lore were kings of men. The nine kings were given rings of power, and they accomplished great things. This power was intoxicating, addicting, and the kings ceased to rule, but instead became bondservants of Sauron, doing whatever he willed. They could have removed the rings, but they wanted to keep the power they had, and after awhile, they became shadows of their former selves, losing any sense of self, till their physical form faded from view.

Tom Shippey summarizes Tolkien’s view of evil as it relates to the Ringwraiths quite well on the DVD:

The nature of evil in the 20th century has been curiously impersonal. It’s as if, at times, nobody particularly wants to do it. In the end, you get the major atrocities of the 20th century being carried out by beaurocrats. Well, the people that do that kind of thing are wraiths. They’ve gone through the wraithing process. They don’t know what’s good and evil anymore. It’s become a job or a routine.

You start off with good intentions, but somehow it all goes wrong. So it’s a curiously distinctive image of evil, and I should also say, it’s a very unwelcome one. Because what it says is it could be you, and in fact, under the right circumstances, or should I say, under the wrong circumstances, it will be you.

When people say that this kind of fantasy fiction is escapist and evading the real world, well I think that’s an evasion. It’s actually trying to confront something that most people would rather not confront.

That, to me, is a very Christian-inspired view of evil. What do you think?

Ringwraith photo by Seth W. Daire

3 thoughts on “Tolkien: Ringwraiths and the Nature of Evil”

  1. Believe it or not, I transcribed that exact same passage by Tom Shippey from that same DVD because I thought it was a tremendous summation of the problem of evil, plus it’s current situation and application.

    And actually, I think it captures something important about the reality of transformation. All of us are transformed in one direction or another. Either we are ennobled in our character and engaging into our design and destiny, like King Aragorn. Or we move toward being corrupted, like the nine kings who are wraithified. Which do we choose? What influences us to get on that path and/or stay on it? Is there a point of no return?

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. My transcript is hiding in a box of LOTR notes somewhere, so it’s good to see it in print here!

  2. Isi says:

    I think that one thing missing from this analysis is the essential subversion of the individual will that occurs among the nazgul.

    Sauron’s evil is rooted in the subjugation of the free wills of other beings. This is the function of the ring, after all: to subjugate the wills of other Ringbearers (including the Nine). It is not surprising that Sauron’s main enemy, the Istari known as Gandalf the Grey (and later the White) Wizard, identifies himself as a Servant of the Secret Fire.

    The Secret Fire, or Flame Imperishable, is that gift from Iluvatar (God) that allows all sentient beings the free will to choose between good and evil. In the Silmarillion (Tolkien’s epic telling of the creation of Middle Earth), Tolkien is clear that Morgoth (the original “Dark Lord” and Sauron’s master, akin to the Christian Satan) was incapable of creating life or beings with free will. He could pervert life but the end result (orcs and trolls etc) were subject to the guiding will of their master. At the end of Return of the King, when Sauron is finally destroyed upon the ring being destroyed in Mt. Doom, the orcs and trolls and other monsters (including the Nazgul) are either destroyed outright or collapse on themselves in self-hatred and violence once they are deprived of the guiding will of their master. Turning one’s self completely over to evil always involves a loss of individuality and self. The metamorphosis of Smeagle into Gollum (a play on the concept of a “golem,” a creature from Jewish mythology that lives but has no soul–or rather, no independant will).

    Just as you draw a parallel between the nazgul and the faceless, amoral, beaurocrat, I think it is impossible to ignore the evil of all authoritarian systems, implied in the archetype of Sauron and the rings of power.

  3. Seth Daire says:

    Thanks Isi. I really appreciate you taking the time to add your commentary to this.

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