. Alas, not me: Sufficient Tragedy -- An excerpt from "To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power"

12 February 2021

Sufficient Tragedy -- An excerpt from "To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power"

‘sufficient tragedy’


‘[Beowulf] is a man, and that for him and for many is sufficient tragedy.’

            (M&C, 18, italics original)


In Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics Tolkien lays out his understanding of Beowulf, its Christian poet, and the legendary past he was writing about, an age whose ‘days were heathen – heathen, noble, and hopeless’ (M&C, 22). That hopelessness is rooted as deeply as Yggdrasil because the final defeat of men and gods alike is inevitable. It is the way the world ends. Their nobility, however, reveals itself in their fighting on regardless, in doing deeds worthy of song even if no one is alive to hear it, in the conviction that even final ‘defeat is no refutation’ of their ‘northern courage’ and the worth of their struggle against the darkness.[1]

We can see this nobility in Théoden, Éowyn, and Éomer during the battle of the Pelennor Fields. The old king has no regrets because he is dying well, having done great deeds himself. Éowyn, ‘one without hope who goes in search of death’ (RK 5.iii.803), defies the Witch-king to defend her own. Éomer, the young king, ‘laugh[s] at despair’ and sings his defiance of the doom that seems to be approaching them all (RK 5.vi.847). At the same time within the city, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor in whom ‘the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true’(RK 6.i.758), is yielding to despair (and madness) and failing this test. And just as the Beowulf poet reproaches those who turned to the heathen gods in despair when their own strength proved too little to defeat Grendel (170-88)[2], so Gandalf rebukes Denethor by likening him to ‘the heathen kings’ of old when he chooses death for himself and Faramir, a comparison Denethor has already embraced on his own (RK 5.iv.825; vii.852).

Yet Gandalf acknowledges the truth that led the Steward to despair: ‘… listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory’ (RK 5.ix.878, italics original; cf. 5.vii.853). In the end, as long as the Ring exists, no courage, no strength, no will in Arda can defeat Sauron without becoming Sauron, and the quest to unmake the Ring has never been more than ‘a fool’s hope’, another point made by Denethor and conceded by Gandalf (RK 6.iv.825; vii.852). That much power will crush or corrupt anyone in the end. It is as evident in the struggle within Frodo as it is on the battlefields of Gondor. No one who partakes of the substance of Arda Marred, whether by nature or by adoption, or who seeks to order it, change it, or to keep it from changing, can successfully resist. Only Bombadil who takes Arda as he finds it is beyond the pull of the Ring, and even he could not stand against Sauron; what makes him immune does not make him a savior (FR 2.ii.265).[3] The rest of us must simply fail: ‘the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however “good”’ (Letters no. 191, p. 252).

This courage to face an ineluctable universal defeat is, as W. P. Ker, followed by Tolkien, called it, ‘perfect because without hope’ (Ker, 57-58; Tolkien, M&C 21). The pity Gandalf urges upon Frodo is analogous. It cannot defend the Ringbearer against the pull of the Ring any more than courage can succeed against the assault of Sauron. Yet its hopeless perfection also defies all refutation of its worth. Pity, however, opens a door that strength and courage, reinforced by grace, can hold open for a time. The pity Bilbo felt for Gollum, which Frodo and Sam, too, came to share, and the mercy they each chose to show him allowed the hope, however increasingly slim, that he could be healed, and preserved each of them from becoming another Gollum. More than that, as Gandalf intimated in The Shadow of the Past, pity may well have a role to play in a much larger and providential plan. Doom, as Tolkien knew, is as effective an agent of man’s ‘sufficient tragedy’ as hamartia (ἁμαρτία, M&C 15). Doom hung over Túrin Turambar, but it was his character and mistaken choices that brought it down upon him and so many around him.[4] Bilbo was ‘meant’ to find the Ring, and his ‘sudden understanding’ may have been granted by Providence, but his revulsion at the thought of killing Gollum was all his own and it came first. His choice both embraces his doom and avoids the mistake, the ἁμαρτία, that sufficed to make Sméagol into Gollum.

As he told Gollum’s sad story in The Shadow of the Past, Gandalf said that Gollum was ‘bound up with the fate of the Ring’ and had ‘some part to play yet’ (FR 1.ii.59). It is in precisely this connection, as we know, that the pity of Bilbo would prove critical. So, it is reasonable to think that he, too, was meant to have the Ring and to keep it hidden away until Bilbo came along. His embrace of his doom, however, made his story a tragedy at once. Just as sparing Gollum was all Bilbo, so the murder of Déagol was all Sméagol. Bilbo took a ‘leap in the dark’ (Hobbit 133). Sméagol’s leap was of a very different kind. Seeing something he wanted, he went straight to murder to obtain it. As A. C. Bradley pointed out in his lectures on Shakespeare, when the Witches prophesy that Macbeth will be king, ‘[their] words … are fatal to the hero only because there is in him something which leaps straight into the light at the sound of them’ (1991, 320, emphasis mine).[5] Doom and ἁμαρτία are compounded in the sudden tragedy of Sméagol (and Macbeth and Túrin). Yet the slow descents of Bilbo and Frodo nevertheless establish that their keeping of the Ring also ‘ends in night’, a phrase Tolkien uses to describe the heroic world as the Beowulf poet perceived it (M&C 23). It is just as apt here.

[1] Ker 57-58: ‘The Northern gods have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.’ Note Tolkien’s slight misquotation of the final phrase.

[2] Tolkien (2014) pp. 169-86 believes (nor is he alone in this) that there are problems with the text here. He considers lines 168-69 and 180-88 later interpolations, which makes ‘Swylc wæs þeaw hyra / hæþenra hyht’ – ‘Such was their custom, the hope of the heathens’ (lines 178-79) – a more forceful and poetic judgement on the Danes here.

[3] See Letter no. 144, p. 178-79: ‘The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken “a vow of poverty”, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.’

[4] Thus the commentary of Rosebury (2008) 15 on The Children of Húrin: ‘[I]n reading the narrative it is difficult to take seriously the idea of Morgoth as a master-manipulator of events. Few of Túrin’s fatal decisions are, in fact, forced upon him. He acts as he does because of the kind of person he is, and that is, in turn, at least as much a consequence of what happens to him as of his innate temperament. (Morgoth is, of course, the direct or indirect cause of most of what happens to Túrin, but that does not make Túrin his puppet: rather, he improvises around Túrin’s own actions.)’ On Túrin and Oedipus, see Dimitra Fimi (2013) 43-56.

[5] In the second section of his first lecture on Macbeth, Bradley is discussing Macbeth’s Fate and the Witches. So ‘fatal’ is quite literal, as the emphasis indicates. Given Tolkien’s emotional engagement with Macbeth and his familiarity with Bradley’s lectures (published 1904) on it – he checked them out of the Exeter College library in 1915 (Cilli, 2019, 26) – Bradley’s view of how Macbeth succumbs to evil, i.e., from within, may well have influenced Tolkien’s portrayal of, among others, Boromir and the Ring. In TT 4.v.670 we learn that the thought of being king had occurred to Boromir long before he fantasized about it aloud to Frodo on Amon Hen (FR 2.x.398).

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