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Local or Systemic Moral Ambiguity
How Tolkien and Some Modern Writers Treat Moral Ambiguity
J. R. R. Tolkien has been criticized for painting his characters as unrealistically black-and-white, without room for moral ambiguity. This criticism shows up recently in the discussion about the Amazon Rings of Power show; it's showed up before on the streets; it's showed up famously from George R. R. Martin:
The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, "What the hell were we fighting for?"
Tolkien's defenders have responded that the overall sweep of Middle-Earth history does contain moral ambiguity (say, among the First Age Noldor, or Second Age Numenor) or that some individual characters in Lord of the Rings have mixed motives. These defenses aren't wrong; they do bring out real points of Tolkien's story and world. However, I think they miss another real difference between Lord of the Rings and much modern speculative fiction. The popular criticism isn't as incorrect as Tolkien's fans tend to make it out. Tolkien shows us some morally-ambiguous characters but morally-unambiguous causes and institutions; most modern authors make all of them morally ambiguous. These lead to two different sorts of story.
Since Martin is the most prominent writer who's levied this criticism against Tolkien, perhaps the best modern fiction to contrast here would be Martin's own Song of Ice and Fire. However, I haven't actually read it. So instead, I'll focus on two modern speculative-fiction series I have read and enjoyed: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. (I thoroughly recommend both of them.) Like Tolkien, both Hunger Games and Black Prism focus on individual protagonists from backwater regions coming into sudden prominence and becoming key figures in political conflict between sides that could be called "good" and "evil", eventually involving actual war with our protagonists centrally involved.
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The setting of these modern works is very different from Middle-Earth, as even the reputation of Hunger Games makes clear. In Hunger Games, our protagonist from downtrodden, starving District Twelve must fight the oppressive dystopian "Capital"... only to find, when she at last contacts her hoped-for allies of "District Thirteen", they're just as power-hungry and eager to move in and start their own oppressive regime. The Black Prism is a somewhat more Tolkienesque setting of secondary world fantasy, following (primarily) Kip the illegitimate son of the "Prism" (roughly, emperor) of the "Seven Satrapies" as he is brought to the capital - the Chromaria - to learn magic and politics amid a growing war. As the Chromaria's hypocrisy and corruption and evils become more evident as he rises to prominence, and some of his friends choose to switch sides to the self-proclaimed king who promises to end corruption and slavery, he must decide how to respond and what side to take.
In both these modern works, our protagonist (Katniss or Kip) has generally-benevolent motives and is truly trying to fight for good. But, they learn they can't trust any institutional allies - either side of the war - in that. Even before Katniss realizes that District Thirteen is just as autocratic as the Capital, she learns to resent them for trying to exploit her propaganda value. Even before she finds District Thirteen, she learns through hard experience that all her friends - Haymitch and Cinna and Peeta and Gale - all have their own motives and schemes they're using her as a tool in. Similarly, Kip hopes that his father the Prism will accept him and he'll gain a place in the Chromaria; but his father is busy with his own affairs, the Chromaria proves corrupt and evil even if it still stands for good in some sense, and his one friend joins the enemy. Everything around our protagonists proves ambiguous at best even if helpful in limited ways. Kip is confused which cause he should support (and we readers question it along with him); Katniss temporarily regrets the cause she did support.
In contrast, Tolkien doesn't present the institutions or causes in Lord of the Rings (or in most of his legendarium as a whole) as morally ambiguous. His moral ambiguity is in his characters on a personal level. We may doubt Denethor's commitment or personal feelings, but we don't doubt that Gondor is in the right and that everyone and everything would be better off if they defeat Mordor. We don't even need to worry that a Gondorian victory will let Denethor go on executing injustice and doing worse evils. His flaws are on the personal level, and it's clear that Faramir is hurt by his death at least as badly as he was by his disfavor in life. We never see any injustices he does as a ruler, or that Gondor does as a country.
This's one sense in which we can see George R. R. Martin's famous (or infamous) quote elsewhere in the same interview:
Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine?
In Hunger Games and Black Prism, we see people oppressed by unjust laws, and children starving without the rulers caring. There, from those effects, we can see that the governments' policies are unjust. On top of this, Black Prism lets us hear the government officials themselves - but we don't even need to hear them like that; we can see their folly and badness from their policies' effects.
Tolkien, on the other hand, doesn't show us anything like this. He doesn't even ask about Aragorn's tax policy or famine relief policies in any way. Nor does he show or tell us about the policies of Denethor, Eomer, Theoden, or even the Hobbits of the Shire. It never comes up, neither onstage nor mentioned by any character. We see the civilians evacuating the Pelennor Fields, but we don't learn how they were fed away from home. Unlike in Black Prism or Hunger Games, we can guess they were somehow fed; we don't see Bregil or Beregund fearing their relatives would go hungry - but we don't see who did it or how. Similarly, we hear of "thousands of willing hands" repairing the Shire after the Scouring, but we don't learn how they were funded or who organized them (we might guess Frodo as Deputy Mayor, except that it's flat-out stated he didn't do it). Even their military organization isn't elaborated on, for all the armies we see onstage. We can tell that Tolkien thought about it - historian Bret Devereaux has some great articles analyzing how the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the War of the Ring are firmly grounded in real medieval history - but he glosses over these details in the book. So, we don't see any flaws their policies might have here, or any injustices they might have. Because of this, we don't see any potential downsides of a Gondorian victory.1
Those of you who're familiar with Lord of the Rings might be wondering why I'm even pointing out any of this. Surely, Sauron is so bad that anything would be better than his regaining the Ring and winning the war! And yes, I agree! But my point is, Tolkien doesn't even pose that comparison. Brent Weeks shows us all the flaws of the Chromaria, so vividly that we can feel them and we can ask with his characters whether they're worth supporting. And then, Weeks shows us that the Color Prince winning would be even worse, so his protagonist ends up supporting the Chromaria after all. Tolkien doesn't do that. He doesn't even start to approach that. He doesn't show us any notable flaws in Gondor and Rohan at all, because that's not the story he's telling.
Perhaps this's unfair; we do see some injustices in Rohan. On the personal level, Theoden is a flawed and uninvolved ruler. Worse, on a national level, they've oppressed the Dunlendings and (at least in the past?) hunted the Wild Men of the Woods "like beasts." Yet Tolkien's protagonists quickly solve the personal problems and (it seems) start solving the national problems. The Rohirrim treat the Dunlendings well after their victory at Helm's Deep; and on the same page where we first learn that the Rohirrim hunted the Wild Men, they promise not to do it anymore.
Even more significantly, Tolkien's narrative doesn't dwell on any problems or qualms. We don't spend time with the Dunlendings or Wild Men absorbing their grievances, or with a Gondorian peasant experiencing whatever hypothetical misgovernance Denethor might be doing. We don't meet anyone who genuinely sympathizes with Sauron or anyone who's genuinely glad about his rising power, even when we meet people who begrudgingly work for him. We read elsewhere (in Unfinished Tales and Peoples of Middle-Earth) hints that Gondor was founded on colonial exploitation... but (aside from having happened millenia ago), that gets maybe two mentions in passing in Lord of the Rings. Everyone we meet firmly detests Sauron, even when they're orcs working for him. And, except for a very few exceptions like those orcs, nobody wants to give in to him.2
We're invited to empathize with the servants of evil, such as when Sam sees the dead Southron in Ithilien, or when first Theoden and then Gandalf and then Frodo urges Grima to leave Saruman. But we're never invited to sympathize with their cause. "I pity even his slaves," Gandalf says - but to him and to Tolkien the storyteller, that pity doesn't make him question his own mission.
In Tolkien's world and story, we see moral nobility. We see unselfish people motivated by good causes, even when they're in places of institutional power. We can call Tolkien's way of telling things "local moral ambiguity." In more modern stories, which we can call stories with "systemic moral ambiguity", our protagonists usually want to do good - but they're powerless, and people in power are primarily motivated by selfish goals. In Hunger Games, it doesn't seem possible to be powerful and good. In Black Prism, we see by the end that it is possible - but even there, it's very hard, and even our protagonist and his allies have to make some ugly choices on the way.
In some ways, Tolkien's local moral ambiguity gives his characters a simpler challenge. But the simpler challenge doesn't make things easy. Rather, it removes distractions and lets the story focus on the difficulties that remain. Frodo and Sam can struggle through all sorts of challenges on their clearly-good quest with the sheer certainty that they can't turn back. They can argue over whether to trust Gollum without wondering whether this might make them rethink their quest. Similarly in Gondor, Pippin and Beregund and Gandalf must choose whether to save Faramir while knowing all their hopes rest on the battle outside. If this were happening in a more modern story with systemic moral ambiguity, we would have more elements entering into the choice. But because of those extra elements, the decision feels fundamentally different. When Katniss goes against orders to infiltrate the Capital, we already know that her commanders don't have her best interests at heart - or the world's. If her decision loses them the battle, she in the book, and we outside it, might well think her agency is worth the defeat. The whole choice is different from the starker decisions in Tolkien's world.
So, we need both sorts of story. Tolkien's local moral ambiguity is simpler than systemic moral ambiguity. But neither of them is inherently a worse story to tell in any sense. Our modern writers tell a story of moral judgment which couldn't be told if the choice were obvious. And, Tolkien tells a story of moral strength which can't be told the same way if the cause was conflicted. As Devereux says, in Tolkien's story, "the question is not 'can the men of Gondor resist' but will they?" I can rephrase that: the question also is not "should the men of Gondor resist", but instead simply, will they? Both sorts of stories can of course be told in better or worse ways, depending on the skill of the writer and on the assumptions with which the audience comes to the book. But both are valid stories.
Tolkien wasn't blind to this distinction. He'd fought in World War I himself, and later agreed that war was regrettable. Even in World War II, we can see from his posthumously-published letters that he strongly supported the war but he was very alive to Britain's flaws and how they might be exacerbated by victory. He did occasionally write this into fiction; his play-script The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son strongly criticizes the English leader Beorhtnoth without supporting the Vikings whom he was fighting. But it was quite possibly as a response to World War I that Tolkien preferred to tell less-morally-ambiguous stories: he started writing about Middle-Earth while in a field hospital during the war.
Not every modern story has full institutional moral ambiguity. For example, Harry Potter shares some aspects of both types of story. The Ministry of Magic is an adversary to Harry at just about every turn; it's only saved from being clearly evil by its incompetence. Yet, not every institution is so evil. While Hogwarts does contain some evil teachers (even if we can't blame it for Crouch and Umbridge, there're still Quirrel and Lockhart), Hogwarts itself and Dumbledore its headmaster are constantly portrayed positively. The shift in Rowling's tone mid-series occasionally forces her to portray Dumbledore as making serious mistakes, but by the end, there's no doubt who and which clearly-defined side is in the right. Harry could, if he wanted repeat what he said in Second Year: he's still "Dumbledore's man."
I suspect that it says something about our modern culture that we now keep telling ourselves stories of morally-conflicted causes and institutions. In the 2008 Prince Caspian movie, the scriptwriter had High King Peter be angry at having been sent back to a childhood in England (rather than accepting, like in the book), and feel like rivals with King Caspian (rather than graciously deferring to him, like in the book). "I think that’s really the way it would be in real life," the actor simply explained. In the modern world, apparently, this is not even a conclusion but an unquestioned assumption. This would say bad things about our own trust in institutions... except we can see the same thing all around us every day, as the news calls out the flaws in every institution in the culture.
Both sorts of stories are useful in the world. Martin says, "The vast majority of wars throughout history are not like [Tolkien's morally-unconflicted] war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity." He's not wrong. Morally conflicted causes will be with us as long as this world lasts. But when we do find a cause that is worth standing firm - even Martin admits they exist - then we need Tolkien's story as well. And now, in an age where the vast majority of our stories do tell of systemic moral ambiguity with morally-conflicted causes and institutions, we need Tolkien's style of local moral ambiguity all the more. Let's not fault it.
And we can suggest some shortcomings! Even aside from what fanfic writers might have invented, or the moral decay Tolkien considered in his abandoned sequel (the bits he finished were published posthumously in Peoples of Middle-Earth), Devereax suggests with historical evidence that Rohan's victory at the Pelennor Fields, won by (aristocratic) cavalry, might lead their elite to ignore or denigrate their (commoner) infantry levies.
Not even Denethor! This's the single worst misinterpretation in the Peter Jackson films, I think - when Jackson has Denethor, in his insanity, call for surrender. In the book, Denethor quite literally chose to die rather than see Sauron's victory. Either Jackson doesn't get his character, or he simplifies him anyway into a simple dichotomy of "for Sauron or fighting him." Unlike what Jackson did to Faramir, there isn't any plot or exposition excuse here.