Like the Christian theology that inspired him, J.R.R. Tolkien could never explain why a benevolent creator permitted the existence of evil.
[Small spoiler for season 1 of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.]
I was skeptical of the Rings of Power TV series. I thought it would be another cash-in, a familiar name slapped on a generic fantasy property, in an era when every streaming service has to have its own big-budget tentpole epic.
But I gave it a chance, and I’m enjoying it more than I expected. It’s remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s vision while taking advantage of the creative freedom of its setting, an era of Middle-earth that he said relatively little about. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a gorgeous show, capturing the look and feel of the Lord of the Rings movies very well. You can see every bit of that $1 billion Amazon supposedly spent on it.
However, while watching it, I kept noticing a nagging problem that no amount of money can hide. It’s not a flaw in the show, but a recurring problem with the underlying mythology itself.
It’s a problem that Lord of the Rings alludes to as well: the seemingly limitless resources that evil has at its disposal. Even when the bad guy seems to be defeated, he can always return with a new army of monstrous, violent orcs and trolls to do his bidding.
Where do these faceless hordes come from? And why do they obey their overlords so unquestioningly?
A deep dive into J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology: The contradictory origin of orcs
In Tolkien’s cosmology, which was inspired by his Catholic beliefs, the world was created out of nothing by Eru (also known as Iluvatar), his version of God.
Eru’s first creations were the Ainur, primordial spirits equivalent to angels. The most powerful of the Ainur were called the Valar: archangels in a Christian cosmology, or lesser gods in a polytheistic view.
One of these beings, Melkor, is Tolkien’s version of Satan. He rebelled against his creator, seeking power for himself and dominion over the world, and drew some of the Ainur with him. After a great war, the rest of the Valar defeated Melkor and imprisoned him in the outer void. Sauron, the villain from Lord of the Rings, was Melkor’s lieutenant who set up shop for himself after his boss was gone.
Melkor created the orcs, trolls and the other evil races, but Tolkien could never settle on an explanation of how. His original version was that Melkor created the orcs out of “subterranean heats and slime” in mockery of the elves.
However, Tolkien later discarded this explanation. He decided that only Eru possessed true creative power. Melkor could twist and corrupt Eru’s handiwork, but couldn’t create new living things of his own.
“The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.”The Return of the King, Book VI, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”
But this is like pushing the bubble around under the wallpaper. It solved one problem by creating another: If Melkor didn’t make them, how could there be intelligent beings who were inherently evil? In one of his published letters, Tolkien rejected the idea that any race could be irredeemable. If the orcs have free will, shouldn’t there be some good ones?
This led to his second origin story. Orcs started out as elves, who were captured by Melkor and tortured until they were spiritually and physically broken:
“Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressea, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were ever afterwards the bitterest foes… This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar.”The Silmarillion, chapter III, “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”
(Spoiler alert: The Rings of Power endorses this theory. It depicts a character who’s one of these original corrupted elves.)
However, this created yet another problem. In Tolkien’s cosmology, elves are immortal, and their souls are bound to the world. If they’re killed, their spirits travel to the halls of the Valar, where they can reincarnate into new bodies and even return to Middle-earth under some circumstances.
If orcs are corrupted elves, shouldn’t the same be true of them? Shouldn’t it be possible to redeem them? However, that’s never brought up as a possibility in any of Tolkien’s works. We never hear about an orc dying and then coming back to life as an elf (“Man, I’m glad that’s over!”), nor do any of the characters hint that this is possible.
In any case, Tolkien didn’t care for this explanation either. Although the passage quoted above was ultimately published in The Silmarillion, he jotted a marginal note next to it in the manuscript: “Alter this. Orcs are not Elvish.”
Tolkien’s final (chronological) explanation is that orcs are beasts. They’re animals perverted into humanoid shape, and their speech is no more than mindless mimicry. Under this explanation, one would assume they have no immortal souls.
However, this is even less plausible than the other explanations. From the glimpses of their society that we get in Lord of the Rings, the orcs are cruel and violent, but they’re sentient beings with free will. Their speech is intelligent and conveys information about their beliefs and desires. They’re not just echoing sounds they’ve heard. In one passage from The Two Towers, we even hear orcs long for a life of peace, without constant war.
Tolkien’s theology inherits the problems of Christianity
This problem doesn’t just affect the orcs, but Tolkien’s other evil races, like trolls, dragons and giant spiders (about whose origins he says even less). For all the effort he put into imagining the history of Middle-earth, their presence is simply taken as a given.
Another passage from The Silmarillion, about the creation of the world and Melkor’s attempts to twist it to his own design, is his most direct attempt at explaining the existence of evil:
Then Iluvatar spoke, and he said: “Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Iluvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”The Silmarillion, “Ainulindalë”
In Tolkien’s telling, evil is merely the instrument of a greater good. Specifically, Melkor’s attempts to corrupt the world only give rise to more beauty and goodness.
However, this poetic metaphor downplays the reality that Melkor’s interference resulted in the destruction of lives and the torture and enslavement of countless sentient beings. Is the world better with war, bloodshed, torture and slavery than it would be without those things?
In the passage quoted earlier, Tolkien wrote that the corruption of the elves into orcs was “hateful” to Eru. He contradicts himself here by saying that, actually, it was just a way of making Middle-earth even more wonderful. Which is it? Is the existence of evil something that the creator intended, or a flaw in his original design—and if the latter, why didn’t the creator prevent that flaw from arising in the first place?
This goes to show that Tolkien’s mythology inherits the same philosophical problems as the Christianity it was derived from. Of course, we can still enjoy his world for its epic scale, its sense of adventure, and the imagination that went into constructing it. But like any theology, real or fictional, that’s overseen by an all-good and all-powerful deity, it has no good explanation for why evil exists.