A ticking bomb in Lord of the Rings?
In the second chapter of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo that he has confronted Gollum and learned from him the true nature of Bilbo's Ring. At first, Gollum stuck to the story that it was a birthday present from his grandmother. In order to get to the truth – that he found it in the Isen river – Gandalf admits that he had to resort to extreme measures.
"I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling."
Does this mean that, in order to discover a crucial piece of information, Gandalf, Tolkien's supreme representative of beneficent wisdom tortured a helpless captive? And if so, does it follow that Tolkien thought that it is sometimes OK for a good and wise person to resort to torture?
1: “Servant of the Secret Fire”
When Gandalf says that he “put the fear of fire” on Gollum, what does he mean?
Throughout the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is particularly associated with fire. In the very first chapter of The Hobbit, we are told that he used to make “particularly excellent” fireworks. In the final chapter of Lord of the Rings we discover that he is the bearer of one of the Three Rings for the Elven Kings Under the Sky – Narya, the Ring of Fire. When confronting the Balrog in Moria, Gandalf claims to be “Servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor." Anor is simply “the sun”. The Secret Fire seems to be connected with the Imperishable Flame: the aspect of Illuvator through which He inspired the Ainur to create the Ainulindale.
In Valinor, Gandalf was Olorin, the wisest of the Maiar. He lived in Lorien, the domain of Irmo, who is associated with visions and dreams. We are told that when Olorin visited the elves in secret “they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their heart.” So “The Secret Fire” which Gandalf claims to serve may be something like “divine wisdom and inspiration” -- perhaps even “the Holy Spirit.” Certainly, Cirdan the shipwright, who hands Narya to Gandalf, thinks that its fire-powers are strictly metaphorical: “This is the ring of fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.”
2: “Gandalf the Grey Uncloaked”
When Bilbo refuses to give up the ring, Gandalf threatens to become angry, and says that if this happens “You will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.”
Gandalf – like Saruman, the Balrog, and indeed Sauron himself – is one of the Maiar. The Maiar are spiritual beings: their physical bodies are repeatedly said to be like clothes: necessary, and inconvenient to lose but not part of their essential nature. But the five Maiar who became the Istari (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and, er, the other two) are a special case. They are not merely wearing their bodies. Rather, they are:
"Clad in the bodies of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of the earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain....and this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seduce the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty...."
When Gandalf threatens to uncloak himself before Bilbo, he is clearly threatening to “reveal himself in a form of majesty” – to show Bilbo his true nature. When he “puts the fear of fire” on Gollum, I think he is doing something similar. I don't think he dangled Gollum over a bonfire until he talked: I think he gave him a glimpse of his true nature as Servant of the Secret Fire.
In the Bible people who see God or one of the angels have a tendency to be Sore Afraid: not because they think that the angel is going to do something to them but, well, just because. Gandalf is demonstrating to Gollum and Bilbo that if they saw him as he truly is, they would no longer be capable of disobeying him.
3: “The Problem of Pain”
In 1948, Tolkien had a disagreement with C.S Lewis, possibly over Lewis's History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. When he realised that he had hurt his old friend's feelings, Tolkien wrote to Lewis to apologize. In the course of the letter he wonders whether "hurting someone" is necessarily a bad thing:
“Pained we cannot help being by the painful." he wrote "I regret causing pain, even if and in so far as I had the right....It is one of the mysteries of pain that it is, for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent, however hard. But it remains an 'evil' and it must dismay any conscience to have caused it carelessly, or in excess, let alone willfully. And even under necessity or privilege, as of a father or master in punishment, or even of a man beating a dog, it is the rod of God, only to be wielded with trepidation.”
(By “master”, Tolkien presumably means “schoolmaster” or “teacher”. Although old fashioned in many ways, the Professor was probably not a supporter of slavery.)
This recalls C.S Lewis's argument that Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" applies only to individuals qua individuals and can't be taken as an endorsement of pacifism:
"I think the meaning of (Jesus') words was perfectly clear: "In so far as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back" – even, one would have assumed, that in so far as you are a magistrate struck by a private person, a parent struck by a child, a teacher by a scholar, a sane man by a lunatic, or a soldier by the public enemy, your duties may be very different, different because there may be motives other than egoistic retaliation or hitting back."
Like Tolkien, Lewis said that while pain was evil, it could be a necessary evil:
“In saying that the infliction of pain, simply in itself, is bad, we are not saying that pain ought never to be inflicted. Most of us think that it can rightly be inflicted for a good purpose - as in dentistry or just and reformatory punishment. The point is that it always requires justification. On the man whom we find inflicting pain rests the burden of showing why an act, which in itself would be simply bad is, in those particular circumstances, good.”
Gandalf certainly hurt, or threatened to hurt, Gollum, if not physically then emotionally. He says that he acted “harshly” and that Gollum snarled and whimpered. However, he did not do so carelessly, excessively or willfully. He was not motivated by “egoistic retaliation”. As an emissary of the Lords of the West, with the backing of Illuvator, he was clearly, in Lewis's terms “a magistrate”, with the authority to use force in the common good.
So that's all right then.
4: “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”
Lewis and Tolkien both use corporal punishment as an example of pain being inflicted for a good purpose. One imagines that this is largely theoretical: it's hard to imagine that Tolkien often gave Christopher a clip-round-the-ear.
According to C.S Lewis punishment is just only insofar as it is deserved. It might be useful and effective to sentence someone to nineteen years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread, but it isn't justice because it goes far beyond what the crime deserves. Modern day systems in which people are sent to prison for life for a third offence of petty theft would, on Lewis's view, be examples of despotic force, not just punishment. For Lewis, superficially liberal ideas of “reforming” and “curing” criminals instead of punishing them are very dangerous. No-one would claim that 20 years in jail is a proportionate punishment for shoplifting; but it may turn out that twenty years in a mental institution is what it takes to “cure” someone of their kleptomaniacal tendencies.
“It is vile tyranny to submit a man to compulsory 'cure' or sacrifice him to the deterrence of others,unless he deserves it.”
When he was a young boy, Farmer Maggot caught Frodo scrumping on his land, and beat him. On Lewis's view, Maggot was giving Frodo a punishment which he arguably deserved and was arguably proportionate to his offence. But Maggot added a warning that if he caught Frodo thieving again, he would allow his dogs to kill and eat him: a completely disproportionate consequence which Frodo couldn't possibly have deserved. Of course, Maggot isn't interested in treating Frodo justly: he's merely protecting his land from young varmints by any means necessary.
(Incidentally: when the aforementioned Mr. Lewis's shed was vandalized by some Oxford youths, he complained that he wasn't allowed either to give them a thrashing or set his dog on them. If he had done so, he says, he would have been accused of sadism “by journalists who neither know nor care what that word, or any word, means.” It's political correctness gone mad, as he unaccountably failed to add.)
Obviously, Farmer Maggot wouldn't really have killed a child as a punishment for petty theft. Frodo says that he knew this perfectly well. But the fact that the threat was made had the desired effect. Frodo kept away from Maggot's land for 30 years – even as a man in his 50s, he is still rather scared of him. Equally obviously, Gandalf wouldn't really have turned Sam into a toad or beat down the doors of Moria with Pippin's head.
Gandalf is always making threats he has no intention of carrying out. He says that if Butterbur forgets to deliver his letter, he will roast him -- fire, again -- but in actual fact, he puts a spell of surpassing excellence on his beer. In Moria, he says – perfectly fairly – that Pippin should take first watch “as a reward” for putting everyone in danger by dropping the stone down the well: but he actually sends him off to bed and sits up all night himself. (And while we're here: even if Mithril is really worth ten times more than gold, the monetary value of Bilbo's coat can't literally be greater than the whole Shire; and unless by some esoteric definition. Bombadil is not “alive”, Treebeard isn't actually the oldest living thing in Middle-earth. Gandalf, as he himself admits to Frodo in Rivendell, often says things he doesn't really mean.) So when Gandalf puts the fear of fire on Gollum, he may have been making another purely symbolic threat.
What the wizard and the farmer have both done is to draw attention to a power that they do, in fact, have – fierce dogs and magical fire -- not because they would really use them, but in order to establish their status with respect to the person whose behaviour they want to influence. One occasionally sees women with small children saying things like “I won't tell you again...” or “I'm going to count to three...” in a severe voice. No specific threat is made, or carried out, but the child gets the message that Mummy Means Business.
5: “It was pity that stayed his hand.”
Gandalf's severity when interrogating Gollum is in contrast to the mercy which Bilbo showed when he was in his power. This act of mercy is one of the actions on which the whole book turns. Frodo suggest to Gandalf that Bilbo should have killed Gollum because of what he has done and what he is:
“Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now, at any rate, he is as bas as an Orc, and just and enemy. He deserves death.”
Gandalf's reply is one of the most famous passages in Lord of the Rings.
"Deserve it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."
When Frodo finally meets Gollum, either he or Tolkien remembers Gandalf's words slightly differently:
“Deserve death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? The be not to eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends....”
Gandalf could have argued that Gollum's offences were not quite bad enough to deserve the death penalty. He could have argued that the Ring had so much control over him that he wasn't fully to blame for his own actions. He might have said that Bilbo was neither a soldier nor a hangman, and therefore had no authority to kill Gollum, however much Gollum might have deserved it. Instead, he appears to fully accept that it would have been “just” to kill Gollum, but to reject the whole idea of “justice” -- to regard it, in fact, as almost comically irrelevant.
What he says, in effect, is:
1: It's an unjust world and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances. Trying to redress the balance by killing one person who you happen to think deserved to die won't make the world any juster over all. There will still be lots of other living people who deserve to be dead, and you certainly can't do anything about all the dead people who deserve to be alive.
2: We never know all the facts about a particular case; so we can't possibly know what the consequence of killing a particular person will be. If you knew that killing someone would have a beneficial effect on the rest of the world, then it might, in principal, be right to kill them. But we never do know that. We therefore have no basis on which to make life or death decisions.
“But Gandalf,” said Frodo “The very wise can no more see the consequence of leaving Gollum alive then they can of killing him: so our ignorance could just as well be used as an argument against showing mercy – or, indeed, against taking any action at all. And not taking action presumably has unforeseeable consequences of its own.”
“Indeed,” replied Gandalf “But you need a far greater degree of certainty to demonstrate that an action which is in itself bad (murder) is on this occasion good then to demonstrate that an action which is good in itself (mercy) is on this occasion bad. And setting him free is less irrevocable than killing him.”
3: If Frodo were right that Gollum was “no different from an orc” -- incapable of remorse, unable to repent, beyond reformation – then killing him might, in principle, be a good act. But in fact, no human or hobbit is ever in this condition. It is possible, however unlikely, that Gollum will some day reform and Gandalf takes it for granted that Gollum's reform would be a desirable outcome.
And here, I think, is the problem. Gandalf rejects Frodo's theory of retribution in favour of an essentially utilitarian view of justice. There is a moral obligation to try to cure Gollum; there is absolutely no moral obligation to punish him. But it may nevertheless be right to do bad things to Gollum, if those bad things happen to be useful. The end justifies the means. At the time of this conversation Gollum is in prison: not because he deserves it but simply because it is necessary to restrain him. Far from trying to make him suffer in payment for being a murderer and a traitor “The wood-elves treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.”
(“Elvish prisons nowadays” said Frodo “Holiday camps, more like. It's political correctness gone mad.”)
As we've seen, this allows Gandalf to show a very great and sometimes surprising degree of mercy. Over and over again, he refrains from doing bad things to people who deserve to have bad things done to them. He rewards Butterbur for his negligence; he refrains from punishing Pippin for his recklessness. He tells sets Wormtongue free even though he has said in so many words that “to slay him would be just”.
But it also, on occasion, it allows him to be extremely cruel. He doesn't put the fear of fire onto Gollum because he deserves it, “for his own good”, in the hope that it will encourage him to become a better person. He is not “wielding the rod of God” in punishment. He hurts Gollum because Gollum's suffering is useful to him at that moment.
6: “The burned hand teaches best.”
At the end of book 3, Pippin looks into the Palantir of Orthanc – another reckless action which puts not merely his friends, but the whole of Middle-earth in terrible danger. When the danger is passed, he tells Gandalf that he had no notion of what he was doing.
“Oh yes you had,” said Gandalf, “You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly...No, the burned hand teaches best. After that advice about fire goes to the heart.”
“It does,” said Pippin. “If all the seven stones were laid out before me now, I should shut my eyes and put my hands in my pockets.
“Good!” said Gandalf “That is what I hoped.”
Gandalf is not asking us to imagine a tyrannical father holding his son's hand in a flame as a punishment; he's pointing out that people learn by their mistakes; that sometimes the only way of teaching someone is to allow him to make mistakes; and that making mistakes is usually painful. The fire doesn't punish you for putting your hand in it; it simply burns you because that's what fire does. It is, of course, very striking that Gandalf should once again pick on fire as his example. I wonder whether we should see Gandalf's treatment of Gollum as similarly morally neutral; as if Gandalf had said: “I do not will Gollum's pain, but as a matter of fact, disobeying me is very painful. I let Gollum see just enough of that that he didn't want to disobey me any more.”
7: “Like a whipped cur whose master has patted him.”
Both Lewis and Tolkien take it for granted that parents and schoolteachers sometimes have to inflict pain on children and students. Tolkien's second example, of “beating a dog” scores even less points for political correctness. When a human being uses pain in the training of a dog, he is not doing so for the dog's benefit. And justice, in Frodo's and C.S Lewis's sense, would simply not feature in the discussion. (“I am going to rap you on the nose with a rolled up newspaper because the poo on the carpet is an offence against the tao, and your sore snout will restore the moral equilibrium.”) The human being is simply using his superior strength and cleverness to mould the animal's behaviour into a form he happens to find useful, aesthetically pleasing or convenient – a house pet, a guard, or a hunter.
Now, Gandalf's relationship to an evil hobbit is much closer to that of a dog owner to an un-housebroken hound than of a schoolteacher to a naughty pupil. We are talking about someone who participated in the creation of the universe and has had direct personal intercourse with God. Might we not say that he has a perfect right to do to Gollum whatever it takes to make him behave as he needs him to?
C.S Lewis came down mostly against the idea of vivisection, but he conceded that a Christian might, in good conscience, torture an animal if he thought that it would benefit the human race. I think that Lewis's image of the conscientious Christian vivesector comes close to the way in which Tolkien imagined Gandalf's cruelty to Gollum:
“If on grounds of our real, divinely ordained, superiority (to animals) a Christian pathologist thinks it right to vivisect, and does so with scrupulous care to avoid the least dram or scruple of unnecessary pain, in a trembling awe at the responsibility which he assumes, and with a vivid sense of the high mode in which human life must be lived if it is to justify the sacrifices made for it, then (whether we agree with him or not) we can respect his point of view.
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