Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Evil...has every advantage but one"

From C.S. Lewis's 1954 Time and Tide review of The Fellowship of the Ring:
.... Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called "sub-creation". The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe, is here deliberately reduced to the minimum. Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, palaeography, languages, and orders of beings—a world "full of strange creatures beyond count". The names alone are a feast ... [and are] best of all ... when they embody that piercing, high, elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much. ....

Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits (or "the Shire") and the appalling destiny to which some of them recalled, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by the powers which Hobbits forget against powers which Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up into that high conflict. More strangely still, the event of that conflict between the strongest things may come to depend on him, who is almost the weakest. ....

Even now I have left out almost everything—the silvan leafiness, the passions, the high virtues, the remote horizons. Even if I had space I could hardly convey them. And after all the most obvious appeal of the book is perhaps also its deepest: "there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain". Not wholly vain—it is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment. [more]
W.H. Auden in 1956 reviewing The Return of the King for The New York Times:
.... Mr. Tolkien's world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader's sense of the credible is never violated.

Even the One Ring, the absolute physical and psychological weapon which must corrupt any who dares to use it, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis from which the political duty to destroy it which motivates Frodo's quest logically follows. ....

.... As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation in the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one—it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil—hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring—but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head....

The demands made on the writer's powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds—the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling—but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. .... [more]