20 August 2017

It Wants To Be Found



Near the beginning of his chapter on 'The Heavens' in The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis quotes from Chaucer to illustrate the view of Medieval science that '[e]verything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct':
Every kindly thing that is
Hath a kindly stede ther he
May best in hit conserved be;
Unto which place every thing
Through his kindly enclyning
Moveth for to come to.  
(Chaucer, Hous of Fame, II, 730 sq.) 
'Kindly' here has its old meaning of 'natural' or 'innate' -- every natural thing has a natural place and a natural inclination to go there.  This is not anthropomorphism, but metaphor, just as it is a metaphor to say (as Lewis also points out) that an object falls to earth when released because it is 'obeying the law of gravity'. Moderns aren't attributing sentience to the object when they speak thus, any more than Chaucer would have been if he said that a stone had a 'kindly enclyning' -- 'a tendency, a propensity, a bent' -- to fall to earth.

I have long been dubious of the position we often encounter, in various forms and places, that the One Ring is in some way sentient. At one extreme, in Peter Jackson's films, we are not just told that 'the Ring is trying to get back to its Master. It wants to be found', but presented with a Ring that can even whisper the names of those it would corrupt. We may also see view of the Ring in William Senior's more sober entry in The Tolkien Encyclopedia: 'as an extension of Sauron, it appears to have a power and sentience of its own' (484). Most scholarly and daunting of all is Tom Shippey. In The Road to Middle-earth (2003), he argues that The Lord of the Rings may be understood as an 'attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living, both seemingly contradicted by the other' (140).  The view of St Augustine and Boethius is that 'evil is nothing', that it has no independent existence and cannot create, and that it will in the end be 'redressed' by good. The other view holds that evil is in fact 'real, and not merely an absence' (140-41). Our own experience of this world makes the latter view a tempting one to embrace. Shippey continues:

Tolkien's way of presenting this philosophical duality was through the Ring. It seems in several ways inconsistent. For one thing it is notoriously elastic, and not entirely passive. It 'betrayed' Isildur to the arrows of the orcs; it 'abandoned' Gollum, says Gandalf, in response to the 'dark thought from Mirkwood of its Master'; it all but betrays Frodo in The Prancing Pony when it slips onto his finger and proves his invisibility to the spies for the Nazgûl then present. 'Perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room', thinks Frodo, and he is clearly right. For all that it remains an object which cannot move itself or save itself from destruction. It has to work through the agency of its possessors, and especially by picking out the weak points of their characters.... These two possible views of the Ring are kept up throughout the three volumes, sentient creature or psychic amplifier. 
(142)
As we can see, it's a very simple matter to come up with quotations from the book that point in the direction of sentience if we take them literally. Even the film's 'It wants to be found', which does not occur in the book, is a reasonable extrapolation from the book's choice of active verbs -- 'betrayed' (FR 1.ii.55), 'abandoned' (56), 'is trying' (55) and many, many more -- to describe what the Ring is 'doing'. Indeed it is difficult to think of a way to speak of the effect the Ring has without making it sound as if the Ring is sentient. Which brings us back to 'obeying the law of gravity' and 'a kindly enclyning.'

What I wonder is this: what if we consider statements such as those Gandalf makes about the Ring betraying Isildur and abandoning Gollum and trying to get back to its Master from the perspective Lewis describes? As he tells us, such a way of speaking was Medieval, and Tolkien was, after all a Medievalist. Sauron made the Ring and 'let a great part of his former power pass into it', so much so that destroying it will undo him forever. Given this, Chaucer might well say that the hand of Sauron is the Ring's 'kindly stede' to which it would, of its nature, try to return, just as a stone returns to earth and fire to heaven.

But the Ring is not a natural thing, someone might object, unlike the stone Pippin which drops in the well in Moria. True enough. But surely even our benighted age does not yet require a demonstration that any object will fall if let go, regardless of whether it is a work of nature or craft? That palantír plummets rather nicely (TT 3.x.583-84); Frodo drops his sword at Weathertop (FR 1.xi.196); Gollum his fish at the forbidden pool (TT 4.vi.689); and, as everyone knows, 'not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall' (TT 3.ii.424).

How would our understanding of the problem of evil in The Lord of the Rings change if we took these expressions of what the Ring is 'doing' as metaphors? If we step back and say 'the Ring slipped off Isildur's finger' or 'the Ring fell out of Gollum's pocket,' doesn't the burden of evil shift? A complete answer would, I think, involve a long and complex examination of the Ring and all those affected by its 'gravity', both individually and together, and especially Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum. I think I've been moving in this direction for a while. Let's see where it leads. 

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