Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tolkien Week: All the Villains Get a Second Chance

In celebration of Tolkien Week and the release of The Sword of Six Worlds, I'm hosting guest posts about J.R.R. Tolkien all week. Today's fascinating post comes from M.K. Hutchins. Her short fiction has appeared in IGMS and Daily Science Fiction.  Her longer work is represented by the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency.  She studied archaeology at BYU, giving her the opportunity to compile ancient Maya genealogies, excavate in Belize, and work as a faunal analyst.  She lives in Idaho with her husband and their two small children.  She blogs about books, board games, writing, and fiction-inspired recipes at www.mkhutchins.com.

All the Villains Get a Second Chance
M.K. Hutchins

"Deserves death!  I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some die that deserve life.  Can you give that to them?  Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety.  Even the wise cannot see all ends."
--The Lord of the Rings, Book Four, Chapter One

Tolkien's actual life was not as peaceful as Hobbiton.  His sickly constitution prompted his mother to take him to England, out of the heat of South Africa.  Rheumatic fever killed his father before he could join them.

Tolkien's widowed mother was made poorer still when she joined the Catholic church: her relatives cut off financial aide in protest.  She died from diabetes when Tolkien was twelve years old.

Edit Bratt, at about age 19.
The home Tolkien's guardian placed him in contained another orphaned tenant, Edith Bratt.  Tolkien fell in love.  But he was supposed to be studying, not going for "cycle-rides" and having window talks1.  His only chance at an education was a scholarship, after all.  His guardian removed Tolkien from the residence and banned him from meeting Edith.*

Firsthand, Tolkien experienced the grimy trenches of WWI, arguably one of the most horrific wars in history.  Two of his three closest friends died.

Tolkien's life seems like a recipe for grim, disillusioned stories, yet his work is optimistic.  Good triumphs over evil.  Humble hobbits can overthrow dark Lords.  But nowhere do I find the optimism more poignant than in the villains.  All of them, it seems, are granted a second chance.

Morgoth: This is Sauron's master.  Before the Sun and Moon even existed, he was torturing elves.  Wars against him destroy continents.  The Valar imprisoned him for three ages, then gave him a second chance.  He used his freedom to steal the titular Silmarils and wreak havoc.

Sauron: After Melkor was thrown down a second time, Sauron declared, honestly, that he'd do no more evil.  But, "he was unwilling to return in humiliation and to receive from the Valar a sentence, it might be, of long servitude in proof of his good faith; for under Morgoth his power had been great.  Therefore...he hid himself in Middle-earth; and he fell back into evil"2.  Sauron had a chance to change -- and almost did.

Saruman & Wormtounge: Sauruman, the greatest of the wizards, betrayed his responsibility.  Wormtounge was detestable to begin with.  When Frodo meets Saruman in the Shire, delighting in the ill he's caused, Frodo has no hate for him.  He says, simply, "Well, if that is what you find pleasure in, I pity you."

Frodo commands the bloodthirsty hobbits to let them go.  Frodo even offers Wormtongue food and rest in Hobbiton.  This doesn't soften Saruman, but leaves him furious: "You are wise, and cruel.  You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy.  I hate it and you!"3

Gollum: Gandalf could have killed Gollum before The Lord of the Rings takes off.  Gollum flirts with change, but he never takes the reverse of Boromir's story and becomes a hero.  But allowing him a chance to change translates directly to (*spoilers!*) the destruction of the One Ring.

The above listed villains never change, but they're given a chance anyway.  Mercy and kindness triumph over evil -- on both the personal and epic scale -- even when evil refuses to change.

The Lord of the Rings never sinks to easy victory or saccharine endings (note the Scouring of the Shire), but hope breathes from the pages -- hope for a victory over tyranny and evil, hope for good changes in ourselves and others.  That optimism, against a backdrop of suffocating odds and bitter-sweet victories, is part of the reason I love Tolkien's work.  I can't help but think that Tolkien's early life gave him much practicing in hoping and struggling against seemingly insurmountable tragedies.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977. Ch 3, p 48.

2. The Silmarillion, Second Edition, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.  Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (page 285, in my edition)

3. Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Book 6, Chapter 8.

*This story ends well, but talking about Edith, who "was(and knew she was) [Tolkien's] Luthien" would require another post entirely.