The Banality of Sauron, etc.

by Sarang Gopalakrishnan

Auden reviewing part III of Lord of the Rings:

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. 

The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.

This idea appears repackaged in a much later poem on the Soviet invasion of Prague:

August 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips. 

I doubt that Auden meant the analogy between Sauron and Brezhnev seriously; this is just an example of his inveterate recycling habit — lines in the early verse, as someone said, lived a migratory existence, and similarly with ideas in the later work. And while it is smug to think of one’s opponents as morons, I think the connection here is interesting because it draws what was — to me — an unexpected parallel between LOTR and, say, The Good Soldier Svejk, in this notion that the hero of a quest is a middling, perhaps even a picaresque, character (picaro meaning rogue) flitting between the ogre’s blind spots. And there are connections with fairy tales as well, esp. the notion of the “third son” (another Auden obsession) who is not outwardly promising but is fated to win the princess.

What’s different about LOTR, I suppose, is the ethical choice to fight left-handed. It would be wrong to ignore this aspect of the books, but it does seem to me that the basic “solution” to the problem of evil that’s suggested here is that good, by choice or necessity, is effectively not omnipotent.

This connection also brings up a question I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to, which is whether the difference between picaresque and Odyssey-style epic — which is to say, most epic and quest literature; any long work of fiction in which “unity of action” is impossible and a lot of the events are there to flesh out and diversify the fictional world — is one of narrative emphasis or of structure/storyline. Could one rewrite LOTR as a picaresque in which Frodo and Sam go into the world looking for adventure and in which the ring business is a pretext for their exploring the world? How much would one have to change the plot? Similarly, how essential a plot device is Odysseus’s homesickness or Aeneas’s plodding sense of duty? Why can’t a picaresque be an epic quest for money and a spouse? (Much of Malory is akin to picaresque in its lack of direction.) Is it that the ending of one is intrinsically more provisional because the wheel of fortune keeps turning but Troy/Sauron won’t rise again?

Could one make an RPG based on Candide?

Piece crossposted with The Glass-Bottom Blog