"A simplistic story of good and evil"
I don't remember the name of the reviewer who gave this description to The Lord of the Rings, or where I read the review, but I remember my internal response: LotR may be "simply" about good and evil, but when you're talking about Tolkien, good and evil themselves are anything but simplistic. This is one aspect of Tolkien that many of his imitators have failed to grasp, with differing results depending on the author; those writing from a non-spiritual point of view not uncommonly will take the route that good and evil are entirely subjective with magic being more of a science than a supernatural power, while those attempting to embed a religious message in their fantasy are more likely to take the stance that good and evil are entirely objective and, therefore, easy to sort out. When an author follows either of these ideas to the point of ideology, something begins to ring untrue in the story. But Tolkien's approach, I believe, is more realistic because he's not pushing an ideology; he's speaking from lived experience about "how the world works."
One of the best statements made about Tolkien's approach to good and evil comes from Thomas Shippey, who said that, for Tolkien, "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart." Good guys can make bad choices and bad guys can do good things. It's interesting that Boromir was originally written as an out-and-out traitor, but in Tolkien's revisions became a basically good man whose desire for power (even power in defense of a good cause) drew him to the Ring. One of the things that makes Tolkien's characters so recognizably real is that line between good and evil running through their hearts. We real human beings are more complex than one-note "good guys" and "bad guys." Elrond says that not even Sauron was evil in the beginning.
In the earlier discussion on paradoxes, I mentioned Shippey's chapter on Tolkien's philosophy about evil, especially as embodied in the Ring. Something he addresses and, I believe, successfully refutes, in that chapter is the claim by some people that Tolkien's attitude toward good and evil is Manichean. Manichean dualism is one of those things humans can come up with to explain away paradoxes, something Tolkien didn't seem to be interested in doing.
The "question of evil" has been around much longer than Christianity. The book of Job asks it, and God's reply is not an answer but a reminder that the answer is beyond our understanding. If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist? The importance God places on human free will is a partial answer, but not even close to a complete one; not all evil is caused by the human exercise of free will. Some people say it's because we live in an imperfect, fallen world, but that simply begs the question. Some theories take away either God's absolute goodness or God's absolute power, which drops half of the paradox in return for an answer we can understand. Manichean philosophy, for example, denies God's unique power.
In regard to the question of evil, Manichean dualism in essence claims that good and evil are equal in reality and power. Any cause of evil was not created by God but by an evil "parallel" to God. Good and evil forces are constantly in battle against each other, and because their power is equally balanced, that struggle will never end. It's not too difficult to see why the early Church declared this to be a heresy: it gives the full power of creation to someone other than God, and makes evil as powerful as God. It would be a simple way to answer the question of evil, but when you're dealing with a mystery a simple solution is generally more intellectually satisfying than it is true.
I don't think it's difficult to see that Tolkien's cosmos is not Manichean, but Shippey is writing about the subject because there are people who think otherwise. Some mention a comparison Tolkien made between the Valar and "demiurges," the term used in Manicheism for the beings responsible for creation; but it's clearly a partial comparison rather than an equation - as is his comparison elsewhere between the Ainur and angels. Importantly, none of the Ainur, including the Valar, has the power to create independently from Eru. There's no other primary creation, good or evil, that runs parallel to that of the One.
But the claim that Tolkien's philosophy is Manichean seems to be primarily based on the very true statement that he considered evil to be real, rather than being only a label applied subjectively by human beings. An action, for example, can be intrinsically evil in and of itself, no matter what a human court - or court of human opinion - says about it. In the dialogue from which this section takes its title,
Aragorn tells Éomer that what is right and wrong doesn't change with the wind or the passing of the ages. Note that making a judgment that an action is objectively good or evil is completely different from judging the conscience or soul of the individual who performs the action, something that will be discussed in a later essay in this section. Catholic teaching draws a very clear line between those two kinds of "judgments," and Tolkien's writing does also.
But believing that there is such a thing as objective evil doesn't make Tolkien a Manichean. The posits that make Manicheism a heresy are not in his philosophy. In both his nonfiction writing and within his own secondary creation, Tolkien clearly gives the power of primary creation only to God. What Men, or even Elves, create is secondary creation, or subcreation. As far as supernatural evil powers, we have Frodo's statement to Sam in "The Tower of Cirith Ungol" that 'The Shadow that bred them [orcs] can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.'* Of course, Frodo's knowledge of the subject is limited, as he admits. Through Elrond's remark about not even Sauron being evil in the beginning, as well as through the story of Creation as told in The Silmarillion, Tolkien says even more forcefully that the Manichean idea of an evil creation parallel to God's good creation has no place in his view of things.
Does Tolkien's writing show good and evil to be equally powerful? If we look at his creation story at the beginning of The Silmarillion, it's clear that he doesn't; when Morgoth, who plays a part similar to "our" Lucifer, adds discordant notes to the harmony of the other angelic beings, Eru weaves those notes into the Music of creation to make a harmony even more complex and beautiful than the original. But what about in LotR, where we're limited to seeing things through the eyes of inhabitants of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age? Although they live with the mystery of the "question of evil" at least as much as we do, there are indications in the story of Tolkien's thoughts on the subject. The very way that evil tends to be its own undoing is a parallel to what Ilúvatar brings out of Morgoth's dissonance. LotR can be read from start to finish with one eye on the background where Ilúvatar is weaving the hate, suspicion, and despair spread by the Enemy into the love, trust, hope and redemption that comes from the Good. (In fact, if looked at through the Eternal Now, the events we see in LotR could be considered part of the weaving of that Song as it occurs.)
Tolkien has also been accused of a posit of Manicheism that flows out of the belief in the equal balance of power between Good and Evil. That is, that the struggle between them will go on unendingly because neither can claim victory. Tolkien's lack of belief in that idea will be discussed in the essay on salvation history, so doesn't need to be talked about here. God's ultimate victory is part of orthodox Catholic belief, and certainly part of Tolkien's.
*The story of the creation of the Dwarves is a bit off-topic here, since it occurs long before LotR, but it says something about the power to create. Aulê, one of the Valar, is so taken by the experience of being involved in Eru's Song of Creation that he oversteps the bounds of his legitimate power to create a race on his own: the Dwarves. But because he doesn't have the power to truly create, his Dwarves can only be automatons with no will of their own. Eru reprimands Aulê for his action. Aulê is remorseful and Eru not only forgives him but also adopts the people Aulê has created. The Dwarves aren't included among the "children of Ilúvatar," with Elves and humans (which includes Men and Hobbits), but this adoption allows them to truly live and to have free will. They carry, you might say, the "original sin" of their creation in that they have a tendency to love too much the things they make. Their fate after death is unknown, and not spoken of in any legend. This means, of course, that Tolkien as a historian had no knowledge of it to pass along to us, so it remains a question open for reflection and discussion. But the story shows again that Creation belongs only to God.