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[GUEST POST] Tim Akers, author of THE PAGAN NIGHT, on Living Under Tolkien’s Sky

Tim Akers was born in deeply rural North Carolina, the only son of a theologian, and the last in a long line of telephony princes, tourist attraction barons, and gruff Scottish bankers. He moved to Chicago for college, and stayed to pursue his lifelong obsession with apocalyptic winters. He lives (nay, flourishes) with his brilliant, tolerant, loving wife. He splits his time between pewter miniatures and fountain pens.

Living under Tolkien’s Sky

by Tim Akers

I think about religion a lot. This is the avoidable result of my childhood, the specific conditions of my early life and the choices I’ve made between then and now. I’m also a fantasy novelist, choosing that genre over any other because it is my native tongue. I was raised in the church and under Tolkien’s sky, and that has had a deep impact on the books I write. I can’t really talk about the impact other religions have had on modern fantasy, or even how the religion of other writers has changed their storytelling, though I have also thought a lot about that. But I can talk about my experience, and the books that have come out of it.

I love Tolkien, but he always bothered the nascent theologian in my heart. When other kids were learning to ride bikes and worrying about fitting in at high school, I was developing new ways of thinking about evil and its role in our lives. And the thing that rubbed me wrong about Tolkien was his presentation of evil in Middle-Earth. And because Tolkien served as the blueprint for so much modern fantasy, that representation filtered through the genre before anyone could do anything about it.

Evil in Middle-Earth is external, artificial, a corruption of the true creation. Trolls are a mockery of Ents, as Orcs are of Elves. Pages could be written about the One Ring’s analogy to original sin, but at a fundamental level it was an object that caused its bearer to seek darkness. Bilbo, Frodo, even Sméagol were good people who through no fault of their own came into possession of the ring, and this object led them along a dark path. Even at the end of the journey to Mordor, Frodo was incapable of putting this burden down. It had to be taken from him, forcibly, in an act of violence by another servant of the ring’s influence.

The same thing happens with Peregrin Took falling under the sway of Sauron through the palantir before Gandalf can intervene. Wormtongue corrupts the kingdom of Rohan, visibly enfeebling King Théoden before Gandalf casts him out. Evil from the outside, imposed on the souls of decent folks by unfortunate happenstance or the machinations of cruel men. In both cases exorcised by Gandalf, as clear a story about guardian angels as the genre can support.

There’s no question that this view of evil is informed by Tolkien’s Catholicism, fitting neatly into the narratives of salvation and sin nature that form the core of that religion. I wasn’t fully informed of Tolkien’s religious beliefs until college, when I took a course on the works of many of the masters of modern fantasy. That pulled the cover off of a lot of my problems with the mythology, even as I was developing my own belief structure and fantastical voice in my writing. The narrative form of dark lord versus eternal good, a good that is omnipotent and yet bound from acting by some structure of the fantastic world, became the default form for fantasy novels for generations. Because the greater good isn’t able to act, the burden of action falls on the shoulders of some inexperienced and overwhelmed agent of true goodness, the farm boy, the hobbit, the exiled prince or priest of conviction. And that, ultimately, is the Christian story, bolstered by images of dragons and noble knights and twisted orcs, the manifestations of evil that are much less obvious in the real world. Oh, and Ents. If Ents are anything metaphorical, they are the tradition bound leaders of the church, trapped by the inertia of ritual and patient history, impossible to stir from their councils until the threat is immediate and unavoidable. So deeply Catholic, and English, and academic.

What all of these things ignore is the true and deceptive nature of evil. There is a comfortable distance gained by externalizing evil, by attributing it to some flaw in the human condition or allowing it to manifest in the form of demons or devils or trolls. When we do evil, this kind of thinking lets us blame it on some part of ourselves over which we have no control. Worse, believing that our essential nature can be changed by magical formula, by evicting Wormtongue or throwing the ring into Mt. Doom, creating instant and unalterable change in our behavior, that kind of belief is dangerous. We change not through magical action but through a very human and very bloody effort, each of us struggling against ourselves.

We need to learn to approach evil from a place of patient acceptance. We are, each of us, good and evil and ignorant and unformed. We make our own decisions and take our own actions. The evil that I do is mine, and mine alone. The good I do is mine, as well. And that is the only redemption that we can seek, in fantasy and in life. The actions of an average child, overwhelmed and underprepared, seeking a path of light in spite of the darkness they contain.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Tim Akers, author of THE PAGAN NIGHT, on Living Under Tolkien’s Sky

  1. I’ve got to disagree with Mr. Akers on the core of his argument: Evil in Tolkien’s legendarium is not something external but almost always the product of choice. Melkor may inflame jealousy between Fëanor and his brothers but does not create it, and the evil Fëanor’s sons do is entirely of their own making. The Numenorians become conquerors and slave-holders, seeking dominion over Men and envious of Elves, long before Sauron comes to their island. Sméagol was a nasty person before he found the Ring; the desire to possess it may have come from the Ring, but the choice to murder Déagol was his own. The Ring could tempt Bilbo and Frodo to extremes of possessiveness, but could not make them cruel or murderous.

    The danger of the Ring was stronger to those used to wielding power: Boromir, a warrior captain and heir to a mighty ruler; Galadriel and Elrond, rulers of realms; Gandalf and Saruman, with the strength to rule but commanded not to do so; and the danger is primarily of power untrammeled. Yes, the Ring will give a corrupting push—twisting Gollum’s oath so he could lead Frodo into death and become “master of the precious” himself; and Galadriel et al. fear this happening if they wield the Ring—but all the Ring is doing is making it easier & more tempting to do evil (always a danger or Power in the legendarium), not creating the evil.

    I do agree that the morality of the sub-created universe is very Catholic, but at least in Tolkien’s understanding of Catholicism evil is an individual choice.

  2. I always understood the One Ring as a metaphor reflecting personal sin rather than Original Sin. This interpretation is more in line with your worldview I think.

    Just got your book (about 5 pages in); it reminds me a little of the Prince of Nothing series – which is a very good thing!

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