This essay is a collection of thoughts on a theme in the writings of Lewis and Tolkien which I was tipped off to some years ago. I was clearing out some items from our landlord’s garage, packing my bags for Massachusetts to begin my first year of seminary.
I was listening to a series of lectures entitled, “Preaching to a Postmodern World” – a joint project of Ed Clowney’s and Tim Keller’s which has long since been retracted from the publisher’s website.
These were released prior to the expansion of the Lord of the Rings into the world of film, and Keller was espousing the beauty of the series. He was hoping, he said, that its popularity post-film would make his illustrations more poignant with his New York audience. When asked how many times he had read the books, he replied: “I’ve stopped counting. Over and over again.”
When probed as to why, he said, simply: “Nothing does a better job of showing evil as evil, and good as good.”
That, quite simply, is the impetus for the theme I’ve chosen to explore this summer in my reading of Lewis and Tolkien. More specifically, I’ve chosen to hone in on a nuance on that theme which I believe is, perhaps, the chief and driving force in their work. These men did not happen upon the theme of virtue and vice.
Their efforts and commentary on it seem more intentional than that, almost conspiratorial.
Underlying their work there seems to be a continual undercurrent, a singular thread that holds all of it together. That thread, I believe, is a question: “How can we become good?” and, “Where do we go wrong?”
This question is interesting to me because, of everything Lewis and Tolkien wrote, it seems most pressing to our current times. Debates are raging within Christendom itself over the nature of virtue and vice. Even the current tussles over Christians and culture (Benedict Option? Church as Kingdom? Republican? Democrat? Libertarian? Homeschool vs. Public School?) are, in some measure, based on moral theory, as I think we will see below.
These are the questions of our time.
It’s difficult for me not to think Lewis and Tolkien are prophetic in this regard. There is the kind of prophet who sees mystically into the future, and the kind that deduces it by brute fact. Perhaps Lewis and Tolkien were a bit of both, for it seems in their writings that in some measure, they anticipated the future (or, more likely, that they saw America’s future in a slightly more progressive England), and carefully laid a pathway out of the moral stranglehold in which we’re now entangled.
They are voices, crying in the wilderness: “This is the way – walk in it!”
In the majority of this essay, I will focus on three prominent themes at play in the works of Lewis and Tolkien on virtue and vice. Certainly Lewis and Tolkien have much to say in this regard, and as is so often, many of the debates raging today amount to amorphous or conflicting definitions of terms.
We cannot decide how to be virtuous if we cannot define virtue. Neither can we recognize vice unless we see it clearly. On these points alone, Lewis and Tolkien – I believe – would cast a hearty ‘Amen.’
In the final component of this essay, I’ll be dealing briefly with ways in which Tolkien and Lewis give us a path forward – three tools, if you will, from the path of vice to the future of virtue.
These are not comprehensive. Lewis and Tolkien have much more to say on moral transformation (for instance, I don’t have room to comment on their laborious efforts to dismantle modern notions of education, and the sort of role that plays in moral transformation). But I’ve selected those themes I believe are the spokes to the wheels of Lewis and Tolkien’s further thoughts on the matter. In that way, I hope the final portion of the essay to be a kind of compass moving forward into their world, rather than a map, detailing its every nuance.
Part I: The Nature of Vice and Virtue
The Stakes of Virtue and Vice: What Kind of World do You Want?
Merry, Frodo, Pippin and Sam are ambling up the lane to their beloved home, The Shire. They have dismantled the power of Saruman, cast the ring of the Great Eye into Mount Doom, and witnessed the crowning of the rightful king. One expects, for all intents and purposes, that their return home will be one of joy. At last, they may enjoy sweet Shire tobacco, sit by the table to hear old Lotho’s tales, and write poetry under the shade of old, green trees.
Yet upon the hobbits’ return, they find a scene quite different. For one, the physical landscape has changed: the bright, green trees of the Shire have been felled. But the moral and psychological landscape has gone through its own transformation.
The joys of the Shire have been stripped from the locals: no beer, no weed, no eating beyond rations, no Inns, no “Shire Talk”. The doings of those in charge are cloaked in secrecy, name-changing, and paranoia. The Shire itself has become, in a sense, a shadow of Mordor.
In a poignant moment, Sam makes comment on the horror of it all: “This is worse than Mordor! Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.”
What was once depicted as lush, quaint, beautiful and full of joy has now been defaced.
Tolkien, in rare form, is careful to make clear the connection: all that we’ve seen in Mordor has come home. Even those in authority are explicitly linked to the look of orcs.
The cost of vice, for Tolkien, is beauty itself. All that was worth living for in the Shire is now gone.
Jill and Eustace stand on a moral precipice. They have freed Prince Rilian from his enchanted Silver Chair, and now they come face to face with the evil queen Jadus. As she speaks, the world of Narnia feels increasingly like a figment of their imagination, a specter of the past which has no real weight to bear on the Reality of the Queen’s cave.
Now they must choose: will they cling to the world of Aslan, or will they succumb to the seductive spell of the Queen?
As the Queen weaves her spell, however, the morose Puddleglum feels increasingly ill at ease. In a stroke of heroism, he walks over to the fire where the Witch’s spell brews, and places his foot stolidly into the flame: “what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell.” Then, in another stroke, he deals the Witch her moral deathblow:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.
Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
The ultimate appeal to Narnia for Puddleglum – and perhaps Lewis itself – is the very fact of the world itself. It is a better world than the one supposed by science, progress, enlightenment and rationalism. It is a far better world, even, than the Relativists will offer. To “live like a Narnian”, as Puddleglum asserts, is to live a life of virtue.
The engine of that virtue is a love of beauty. It is a moral vision for a world that is better than the one we have: a world full of wonder, intimacy, and joy. The Witch’s logic may have been airtight. In the end, however, it is beauty itself which defogs the minds of those under her spell.
In both of these passages, we see coming home to roost a theme which is prevalent in the writings of Lewis and Tolkien. They are both, in a sense, moving past logical argument for the existence of God, and the goodness of virtue. Rather, they are attempting to show its beauty.
They are asking us, in a phrase: “What sort of world would you like to live in?”
This, for Lewis and Tolkien, is in a very real sense the starting point for moral discussion. The question of right and wrong is not suited to ivory towers; it is rooted rightly in common experience. By keeping before us the beauty of a virtuous world, Tolkien and Lewis provide the moorings of ethical behavior: a vision of a better, more ethical society.
But the question is not merely societal for Lewis and Tolkien. There is, also, an individual component to ethics. So to the question: “What sort of world do you wish to live in?” could also be added: “What sort of life do you wish to live?”
Edmund is stuck up, from the beginning. He sees himself as intellectually superior to his young sister Lucy, and will do anything he can to prove it. The seed of evil is already planted within him. When he encounters the White Witch, his desire to be honored and his love of praise are the hooks she uses to reel him in. In the end, Edmund’s evil desires lead him to a moral crisis. The evil he does is far beyond what even he recognizes at the time.
Yet it is telling to note where Edmund’s moral transformation begins. It begins with Edmund’s coming to terms with the world he’s created for himself. He is made a slave, and driven to despair at the Queen’s lying promises. It is when the fresh, cold snow hits his face and sticks to his skin (much like Puddleglum’s foot in the fire), that he “wakes up” to the lies he’d been telling himself. He sees first hand the sort of world the Witch would create.
Upon seeing animals of Narnia gathering for a springtime party, she pronounces: “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self indulgence? Where did you get all these things?” After turning one of her victims to stone, Edmund in a very real way must ask the very Pauline question: “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.”
Boromir, despite his depiction in the Peter Jackson trilogy, is presented to us in Tolkien’s work as a valiant man of noble blood. And yet, his desire for glory and the pride of his people above all lead him to act shamefully toward Frodo.
Like Edmund, evil presents Boromir with a glorious vision of personal power: “a mighty king, benevolent and wise”. It is this vision which leads Boromir to attempt to take Frodo’s ring by force. When Frodo escapes, however, Boromir finds himself listless and sorrowful., ashamed at what he’s done. He feels, in the end, that he has failed the Fellowship, and failed his people.
Yet it is here where Tolkien draws the same point as Lewis: through Boromir’s failure, he has woken up to his own self-deceit. He has seen the destruction his vices have created, and he repents at the last, ushering some of Aragorn’s most beautiful words: “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”
In the end, Boromir’s moral transformation is complete. His self-destruction led him to see plainly the kind of world he was creating for himself, and, in the end, to complete the journey which few – as Aragorn notes – have ever completed: the journey toward repentance and restoration.
In the end, for both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s main characters, the choice is between, as Milton once wrote, reigning in hell or serving in heaven. This, it seems, is the question these men are provoking us to ask ourselves: Do you really want to live in the world vice creates for you – for us? Or do you aspire to something more?
They are laying down the stakes, urging us past our self-centered lenses, trying to compel us to see ourselves as part of the intricate web of the world. Will we choose the world of destruction, power, black and white, tastelessness, forlorn, ugly, and pragmatic? Or will we see the fruit of our evil labors, and choose instead a world filled with pleasure, beauty, song, dance, merriment, and joy? Will we choose to pursue that world which, as Psyche says, is “the place where all the beauty came from…my country, the place where I ought to have been born”? Or will we make the world in our own image, where we are king, and we reign in ugliness from our self-appointed thrones? For in the end: “All get what they want…they do not always like it.”
The Power of Virtue and Vice: Which Way Are You Going?
This offer of a new world, a different society, a life filled with beauty, pleasure, company and joy compels a different sort of question: Is it possible? In answer to this, both Tolkien and Lewis answer a resounding yes, though not in quite the same fashion. Tolkien is much more qualified and cautious; Lewis much more radical.
This no doubt stems from the nature of their own conversion experiences. Nevertheless, both of them are assured of one thing: moral transformation is not only possible – it is happening.
Mark, at first, seems like any other normal citizen. He is trying to make his way in the academic world, and is struggling for a post. Indeed, I think it his normalcy we are supposed to “notice”. He is a bland character, not a raging villain. This is just the point. There is nothing extravagant about those who’ve gone wrong.
Mark has found himself in a web of bureaucratic evils. He is, at first, merely seeking a higher post at his college (something to which Lewis could certainly relate!). He does so by taking up with Lord Feverstone, Busby and Curry. They seem to him to be “insiders”, to have access to the type of thing he wants.
Mark confidently asserts that he knows which side of the issues he’s on. Yet as he continues into the Inner Rings, he finds the pull toward “getting in” is enough to assuage his moral instincts. Turn by turn, the agenda he’s working under is unveiled: power mongering, progress loving humanity-hating. Yet with each step inward, Mark finds it ever more difficult to turn back. It begins with his writing a little, slightly deceptive article, “no bigger than a man’s hand”.
As time goes on, he becomes increasingly compelled to further deception, all drawn by “that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.” The phrase, “not yet” is very telling for Lewis. The implication is quite profound: there is a sense in which small vices lead to larger ones.
Indeed, once begun, the path downward is nearly inevitable.
Gollum was not always so named. He was Smeagol, once – a short, plump, greedy little squab of a hobbit. But one day, something catches his eye: a bright, shining ring at the bottom of a river. It is this singular vision which drives him, shortly, to madness. He murders his friend, and steals away to a nearby cave. There, sitting in the glum and darkness, Smeagol soon becomes Gollum – the hideously strong, thin, bony, slimy, writhing and wrath-filled creature obsessed at every moment with his Precious.
What once promised Gollum freedom, and power, has now become master over him. He is able to be coerced by those who wield it. He is seduced by it at the Forbidden Pool. Gandalf says of him that the ring was “eating up his mind” until, at last, “the torment had become almost unbearable.”
Indeed, Gollum, in the end, has all the characteristics of what we today term an “addict”.
Though his quest began perhaps innocently enough, the murder of Deagol and the subsequent coverups degenerated Gollum’s character to the point of what seems, at times, no return. “Gollum” has taken over the person of “Smeagol”, even going so far as to continuously argue him into submission.
Though Gandalf still holds out hope for him, the hope is but little. For in the end, as Gandalf notes: “It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the ring that decided things.” Gollum’s moral transformation is nearly complete – he is no longer the hobbit he once was. He has become, quite literally, a moral monster.
Tolkien and Lewis see moral transformation as a constant, not a potential. We are steadily growing closer to heroism or villainy, virtue or vice, freedom or captivity. Lewis will comment later that this transformation is the essence of eternity:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
We are all experiencing moral transformation.
Sin, according to Lewis and Tolkien, is like a cancer, and it is not benign. It grows. Each bad deed leads to the next; each moral decision has implications for who we become. Evil leads to further evil. Good leads to further good.
The Subtlety of Virtue and Vice: Things are Not Always What They Seem
Hobbits, of course, are not always what they seem. It is perhaps one of the reasons Gandalf loves the study of them, for they are always “full of surprises.”
The most ordinary characters we encounter are often the most extraordinary. Farmer Maggot may be a crotchety old overprotective farmer, but by the end of the trilogy, he is portrayed as a hero.
Though physically they are small, hobbits are described, time and again, as being “stout” of heart. Frodo, for example, though frail, resists with incredible vigor the poisonous effects of the ring of power. In a way, Bilbo’s mithril armor works as a kind of metaphor for being a Hobbit – there is more to them than meets the eye.
We see the same irony at work in the character of Aragorn. At first, he looks haggardly, even dangerous. Even he admits to the Hobbits that his looks are against him. Yet Bilbo’s song of him gives away his secret: “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost.” As the story goes on, we see glimmers of Aragorn’s true character – he is a powerful, regal king, full of majesty and virtue.
It is often, for Tolkien, the common, plain things which carry the most virtue. Though the Elves are filled with beauty, the items they create are simple in appearance. The rope of Lothlorien, for example, “looked slender [but] it proved strong enough to bear many men.” Though the Elven boats are light as a feather, they are able to carry many men. The drink of Glorfindel is plain, clear, and has no taste, “but strength and virtue seemed to flow into all their limbs as they drank it.”
The common look of virtue is a prevalent theme in Tolkien, summarized well by the counsel of Elrond: “You will meet many foes, some open, and some disguised; and you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.”
This counsel is much needed for Frodo, who must not only see virtue through plane garb; he must also see through the “kind”, “friendly” and “smiling” face of Boromir later. For it is not until Frodo resists that he sees Boromir for what he is: “His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.”
The very same pattern is at play later in the Two Towers, when the broken fellowship encounters Saruman. Tolkien purposefully portrays Saruman as sweet, musical, wise, and beautiful in comparison with the crudeness of Gandalf and Theoden Tolkien makes a point, several times, of noting the similarity – on the surface – of Gandalf and Saruman, since Gandalf is “Saruman as he should have been.” Unlike the way he is portrayed in the films, Saruman is portrayed as living up to every good expectation – at least originally – of his reputation. In fact, Saruman is able to portray himself in any fashion suitable to his purposes, and Gandalf warns his friends of this device since they are not wise enough to resist this deception.
Virtue, for Tolkien, is often hidden in plane – even humble – garb. But vice has its own disguises; it often comes to us as beautiful and pleasant, until we resist its devices.
Toward the end of the final book in the Narnia series, a rumor has set afoot among the people of the land: Aslan has returned. Yet from the very first page, we see that this is the work of charlatans. Shift, an ape, is merely interested in using Aslan as a tool for personal gain. Though upon close inspection the donkey Puzzle looks ludicrous, his lion costume is sufficient, from a distance, to fool and deceive most of the Narnians.
Though Puzzle is a bit of a victim in all this, he himself is deceived by being told to think on “how much good we could do.” This deception proves a challenge to even the most faithful members of Narnia. Common theological catchphrases are used to justify the false Aslan’s actions, particularly: “He is not a tame lion”. Taken the wrong way, even Jewel the Unicorn flirts with false belief.
Lewis, here, is commenting on a theme prevalent in his writing: evil is often cloaked in the guise of goodness.
We see this as well in the villains he selects in the other stories. His arch-villains are characteristically queens, beautiful in speech and appearance. Queen Jadis is a case in point. She is beautiful, like the White Witch, and her beauty has an enchantment over prince Rilian. Her voice is sweet and musical, but leads Jill, Puddleglum and Eustace to the path of death and destruction. Yet her chief desire is to be obeyed; to have power over others. She makes an appeal to wisdom, a sort of appeal to beauty in itself, as opposed to ignorance and foolish talk concerning Narnia. Yet her only desire is to see others suffer in the same way she herself suffers.
The theme of hidden virtue is more subtle in the Narnia series, but is nevertheless present.
Narnia’s heroes, after all, are children – something even more striking when one sees them at battle in the films! When they first arrive in Narnia, often times they are laughed at or mocked by those whom they are sent to help. Upon first meeting them, Trumpkin the dwarf proclaims: “I suppose I’d better go back to King Caspian and tell him no help has come.” This, obviously, serves Lewis’s purpose in writing for children. But the very fact that Lewis does write for children is telling also: virtue may be found, for Lewis, in the unlikeliest of places.
We see this exemplified in a comic way through Puddleglum. Puddleglum is a real sourpuss throughout his adventure in the Silver Chair, always seeing the downside of things and casting a pall on his circumstances, even when trying to be optimistic. Yet it is he – not Rilian, or Jill, or Eustace – who in the end sees through the Witch’s guise and snuffs out her evil spell. It is he who gives one of the greatest speeches in the Narniad: “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia!”
For Lewis, evil is a seductive force, enticing us in by the hook of our egos and the force of its beauty and subtlety. It appeals to our love for wisdom, and uses any enchantment it may to do so.
But virtue may also be subtle. Unlike Tolkien, for Lewis, virtue is not always subtle – it often comes brashly bounding in, rather like a lion. Virtue is bold and shining. But often times, it is carried through by the unlikeliest of peoples – Shasta, Jill, Eustace, the Pevensies, Puddleglum.
These are those who are often able to see past the masks of deception, for they have little ego on which to place evil’s appeal.
Part 2: The Journey to Goodness
This final portion of the essay will observe three ways both Tolkien and Lewis give us tools on the path toward virtue. Two of these have quite large divergences, and one is fairly homogenous. It’s important to note, however, that it’s really impossible to deduce real ‘prescriptions’ from works of fiction, so these are guesses, at best, and may not be real contradictions at all. However, I still believe it will be fruitful to see the way the author’s natural philosophies take root in their fiction, and how they appear to be at odds, and in agreement, on the path to virtue.
The Story of Virtue and Vice: The King’s Return vs. Progress
When Faramir describes his people’s descent into corruption, he describes it as a “lulling” process. Men were not made to do evil – they were made to believe no good was to be done. Playing upon their love of glory, they are eventually convinced that no war is at hand, and they ought to spend their time decorating their ancestors.
A nearly identical description is applied to the men of Rohan. It is for this reason that Gandalf is despised by places infected by evil: he is telling a narrative which conflicts with men’s desire for comfort and glory. He is attempting to draw people into a story bigger than themselves, and so is called a “meddler” and a bringer of bad tidings.
For Tolkien, this seems to be a key in drawing men into virtue: they must be drawn into the larger narrative.
For Theoden, this takes the intervention of Gandalf himself. The spell cast over him must break, opening his eyes to the truth of the world around him. In fact, much of the introductory conversation between Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan prepares us for this.
When the Riders ask Aragorn whether we walk “on the green earth” or “in legend”, he responds: “A man may do both…For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”.
Tolkien is pointing us most explicitly to one of his grand themes in moral transformation: we must recognize that we, too, are living both on the green earth and in a legend ourselves.
We are living in a “true myth”.
This is why Tolkien’s most exemplary character and protagonist, Samwise Gamgee, monologues at length about he and Frodo’s role in a grander narrative. Samwise wonders aloud whether they are not living out a kind of tale, and is taken in by the thought.
Yet this is where Tolkien and Lewis greatly diverge. For it is key in Tolkien that Samwise does not believe he will play any great part in the tale. Rather, he laughs at the thought when Frodo presents it. This is placed in opposition to Tolkien’s villains, especially Saruman.
Saruman wishes to use the power of the palantir to play a heroic effort in the narrative at work. Though he understands the narrative, he wishes to be a great hero in the tale – a desire which Tolkien sees as in itself corrupt.
The same is true in the fall of Boromir. Both men, seeing the narrative but desiring to derive glory from it, fall in the end.
On the contrary, not only Samwise but also Aragorn, Gandalf and Faramir feel that their role in the story is likely small and fruitless. Faramir does not see himself as a great hero, so is able to flee the temptation of the ring. The noble Beregond has as much to say in his discourse with Pippin: “This is a great war long-planned, and we are but one piece in it, whatever pride may say.”
Nothing could more clearly state Tolkien’s point on the intersection of narrative and virtue. The narrative must be recognized, but it must never be co-opted. Tolkien’s heroes are most exemplary, for him, when they fight in the face of despair, knowing they will do little or nothing for the cause of virtue. Thus, Gandalf’s famous line to Pippin: “There never was much hope…just a fool’s hope.”
Lewis, too, believes that seeing and believing the narrative of Aslan is key in moral transformation.
In fact, one may describe The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a battle of narratives: that of the White Witch vs. that of Aslan. The same may be said of Til We Have Faces. Orual cannot become virtuous precisely because she cannot bring herself to believe – or acknowledge her belief – in the narrative of the gods, as does Psyche.
But there is something distinct about the way Lewis weaves this, for he is almost completely at odds with Tolkien. For Lewis, the path to virtue is to see the narrative, and acknowledges the great, weighty part one does have to play in it.
In perhaps the most telling passage on Lewis’s views, the Pevensie children are introduced to Aslan for the first time in the House of Mr. And Mrs. Beaver. Where this takes places is key, for it is smack in the center of the story, just where Lewis, as a literary artist, knows he can most effectively place his main point.
And what do we find there?
We find Lewis’s ideas about narrative and moral transformation. He beautifully – perhaps unlike any author before or after – is able to keep Aslan as the protagonist of his story, without sacrificing the central role of the children themselves. For Lewis, both God and we are the protagonists of the world’s story, an overwhelming thought but precisely the appeal of the Narnia books.
The way he puts it is like this, in the mouth of Mr. Beaver: “The quickest way you can help him is by going to meet Aslan…once he’s with us, then we can begin doing things. Not that we don’t need you too. For that’s another of the old rhymes: When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone Sits at Cair Paravel in throne, The evil time will be over and done.”
This is a loaded passage for Lewis, since it contains all that is unique and enchanting about the Narnia series. There is here both great humility in the narrative’s dependence on Aslan. But there is also nearly incredible dignity in the weight the place of the children play in the story.
They are both central, even if the children are completely dependent on Aslan. In fact, they are not only the heroes of the story: they are here to take up the spoils of war, and become the rulers of Narnia itself. It is they who will put the White Witch’s rule to rest.
We see also what it is to reject the narrative of Aslan when we reach The Last Battle. Once again, the book could be described as a battle of narratives. Like Tolkien, Lewis does not hold only two competing narratives against one another. Both Saruman and Gandalf believe the narrative, but they take it differently. The Riders of Rohan and the men of Gondor have rejected the narrative altogether. In the same way, The White Witch and Aslan hold competing narratives.
But there is a third option, just as dangerous: a rejection of the narrative altogether, as we see in the Last Battle. Lewis cleverly ties together the ideas of relativism – that “Tash and Aslan are one and the same”, with a rejection of the grounds of moral transformation.
We see this come to fruition in the character arch of Ginger the cat. She wants to know for certain that by this phrase Shift means that “Aslan means no more than Tash?” For if that is true, says Ginger, what is truly being said is that no deity exists at all. Much like the villains of the Space Trilogy, and Uncle Andrew himself, then, Ginger with great delight realizes that the narrative has been rejected. This makes room for a new narrative – one which serves those in power. And the perfect title for this narrative is “progress” and “enlightenment.”
Ginger knows, as did Lewis, that this, in reality, is a justification of any single agenda those in power wish to play out. “Progress” is a gigantic fill-in-the-blank, and once people have bought in, any number of moral degenerations are possible.
Yet Lewis is also careful to hone in on the central weakness of this narrative: it is false. Or rather, the tale weaved is more true than Ginger would like it to be. For in the end, Ginger, along with others, have invited in deities they did not believe in. And this is, in the end, their very judgment.
For Lewis and for Tolkien, narrative is absolutely central to virtue. Yet they differ in the way they approach our own role in the narrative.
For Lewis, virtue begins when we see and accept the weightiness of our role in the story. For Tolkien, virtue begins when we decide to play a small role in the grand narrative, rather than view ourselves as heroes.
Both men have their own strengths, here.
Tolkien prepares us well for the inevitable setbacks and failures of virtue. Things do not happen in our world as they do in Narnia. Yet Lewis helps us to keep before us what is truly going on under the surface. In the end, then, the difference is likely one of emphasis.
Tolkien emphasizes that in our experience true heroism rarely looks so. Lewis emphasizes the unseen world: though it may not look so on the surface, our role in the world’s redemption holds great and eternal weight.
For both of them, the key to societal transformation is held in the words of Frodo, when he arrives once again at the corrupted Shire: “For one thing, I see that you’re behind the times and the news here…The Dark Tower has fallen, and there is a King in Gondor.” No passage better describes both author’s stance on the position of virtue in this world: it is bolstered, energized, and sanctioned by the truth of the narrative: the King has returned.
Evil is defeated. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply behind the times.
The Cultivation of Virtue and Vice: Gratitude Vs. Gluttony
If we were to ask Tolkien and Lewis of the nature of virtue, I believe both men would reply in harmony: virtue is a love for what is good.
This definition may seem simplistic enough, but it is far from secularized views passed off as virtue today. More properly, it is a theory of virtue, rather than a theory of ethics. Ethics may be done in ivory towers, much in the same way as Saruman. Virtue, however, begins in the heart. It is a beating desire for what is good, and a distaste for what is evil. In fact, “taste” is a central metaphor for virtue and vice in both Lewis and Tolkien, as we will see below.
In Tolkien, we see this in the way Gollum responds to the Elvish gifts, in many ways the embodiment of virtue (though certainly not of perfection). Sam describes the Elvish rope he’s received from Galadriel as “thin, but…tough; and soft as milk to the hand. Packs close too, and as light as light. Wonderful folk to be sure!” Yet when the silver rope is placed upon Gollum’s neck, he protests: “It hurts us, it hurts us….It freezes, it bites! The Elves twisted it, curse them!” The same rope described as beautiful, elegant and durable by the Hobbits is worthy of cursing to the corrupt Gollum. The same is true of the elves’ lembas bread. The same which gives health, life and strength to the Hobbits is “dust and ashes” to Gollum.
The point Tolkien is drawing from these – and other – encounters, is simply that goodness, virtue, and life are more akin to a taste than an analytic deduction of circumstances. To be virtuous, one must desire virtue, one must acquire a taste for it. And once you have delved deep down into misery, cold, pale fish will eventually be the only serviceable food. You have acquired a taste for death, rather than life.
On the other hand, Tolkien’s heroes are those who appreciate the goodness of life in and of itself. They are enjoyers of simple pleasures – beer, trees, good food, song and dance. This is a description of Hobbits, yes.
And no, Hobbits are not the embodiment of virtue per se.
However, Tolkien purposefully casts Saruman and Sauron as those who have no appreciation for these things. If Hobbits are not the embodiments of virtue, they are at least exemplary in this regard. When Sam returns to the Shire, it is the loss of these simple pleasures for which he mourns. When he sees all the trees of the Shire felled, it is “as though this was the last straw” and he bursts into tears.
Treebeard’s description of Saruman’s corruption is perhaps most telling, here: “He is plotting to become a power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
Nothing could better describe Tolkien’s take on virtue and vice. Virtue is gratitude – Vice cannot be content with things as they are, but only loves them insofar as they are helps in domination. Evil sucks the world into itself, and shrinks it. Good looks about the world in wonder, and it expands and flourishes.
We see the same pattern in Lewis.
We see in Lewis that “taste” is very much a metaphor for moral transformation. We see this most clearly, perhaps, in the character of Eustace. Eustace, at the outset, has only a taste for facts, textbooks, and raw information. Though the sea of Narnia is described as sweet and delightful to others, Eustace finds it makes him sick. Reepicheep, who is of Narnia through and through, is the most distasteful character on the ship to Eustace. However, after coming to the end of himself by taking on the dragon’s form, Eustace is able to see, for the first time, the King of Narnia: Aslan. Though Aslan commands Eustace to shed his own skin, time and again, he cannot.
This is incredibly telling of Lewis.
Positive moral transformation was not normal. To “try” to become good is like “trying” to enjoy a food one dislikes. We can choose to act on our desires, but we cannot choose our desires themselves.
But for Lewis, the presence of Aslan in his stories makes this moral transformation possible. For in the end, it is Aslan who tears into Eustace’s skin, and commences his moral transformation. It is then, and only then, that Eustace recognizes his hatred for Narnia was truly a distaste for Aslan himself. Though Eustace has not experienced complete moral transformation, his tastes have changed: he has been taken off the path of darkness, and placed on the path of light; the path that leads to the source of light itself, Aslan’s country.
For Lewis, then, moral transformation is not normal. It is supernatural. By submitting to Aslan’s surgery, each of us can be taken off the path which promises only to consume us.
Years ago when I first read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I could not understand the thematic relationship between Reepicheep’s search for Aslan’s country and the continuous perils of temptation.
But after understanding Lewis’ emphasis on the nature of virtue, I think for Lewis the themes were perfectly intact: the way to overcome vice is the pursuit of virtue. It is a desire for Aslan’s country which impels us toward the straight and narrow path here and now.
Indeed, Lewis makes the point himself in Mere Christianity: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” For Lewis, the path to virtue was the pursuit of our chief and highest desire – heaven itself.
If we were to see any discrepancies between Lewis and Tolkien on this, it would be these.
First, Lewis holds moral transformation as a prominent and continuous motif. Tolkien does not. Again, this is probably somewhat true of the way each looked at the world, and characteristic of their own experience of Christianity. But it is also good to note that Tolkien looks characteristically “above the surface” in his writing: he is trying to present life as it is. Lewis is continually coming “under the surface” – showing what is going on from a heavenly perspective. So the pervasiveness of moral transformation, compared to Tolkien’s relative sparsity (only Theoden and Boromir show any signs of it), may be stylistic.
But they also shade differently on the question of how virtue is desired. For Tolkien, we desire what is good when we simply desire the good before us: good food, good homes, good friends, good music. When we cultivate a gratitude and taste for these, we are not tempted by lures of power.
But for Lewis, we must look beyond these things. The Reality to which they point is, in a very Platonistic sense, Aslan’s country, our true home. It is only by looking beyond what we have, to what all the good things symbolize, that we can truly appreciate them; and for Lewis, this was indeed the path to virtue.
Again, Tolkien may here have very well agreed. Certainly Lewis would affirm gratitude for the world here; certainly Tolkien would affirm hope for the next. We cannot be sure whether they would have agreed, however, on the relationship between the two. In any case, both men see evil as a cultivation of gluttony in the most Chestertonian sense, and gratitude as the seed of virtue.
The Strength for Virtue and Vice: Community vs. Bureaucracy
Finally we will examine Lewis and Tolkien’s third key in moral transformation. We have seen already that key to virtue is the embracing of the world’s true narrative, and a cultivation of hope-infused gratitude.
But by what means?
For both Lewis and Tolkien, one of the answers, at least, is community. But before we get to that, let’s examine first what Tolkien and Lewis saw as the enemy of true community: bureaucracy.
Why would this be so? It is because for Lewis and Tolkien, evil is essentially a form of self-deception, and that is the heart of bureaucracy.
Lewis explicitly comments on Edmund’s moral degeneration various times as a kind of self-deception:“but he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed, that she wouldn’t do anything very bad to them”…even though he knows “deep down inside him…that the White Witch was bad and cruel”.
We see the same sentiment in Digory, when he is confronted about ringing the Witch’s bell. At first he claims he was under an enchantment, but at Aslan’s prompting admits: “No. I see now that I wasn’t.”
In Gollum, Tolkien gives us a rather incisive view of the relationship between self-deception and evil. Gollum has been claiming, to this point, that the ring was given him as a gift. But in truth, Gollum knows what he did to acquire the ring: “The murder of Deagol haunted Gollum,” says Gandalf, “and he had made up a defense, repeating it to his ‘precious’ over and over again…until he almost believed it.” It is the guilt and shame of evil which leads us to deceive ourselves about it. And it takes community to pull us away.
This is why Frodo insists on calling Gollum Smeagol – he will continue to present the truth before him, trying to coax him out of his self-deceit. He is bringing darkness into light.
What has this all to do with bureaucracy? It seems that for Lewis and Tolkien both, bureaucracy was dedicated entirely to the art of self-deception.
If community is about bringing darkness into light, bureaucracy’s agenda is just the opposite.
The goal of bureaucracy is to make darkness light; to remove us far from reality, to create a false world of our own. The goal is to cover up sin with political speech; to remove our eyes from the consequences of our actions by removal from the actual situation; to appeal to our desire for power through endless rings for insiders.
We see this most clearly in the Hobbits return to The Shire, in the final chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Shire is now in the charge of “The Chief”, and is not allowed to be called by his name, Lotho Nor are the hobbits allowed to see him. The authorities discourage and ban any “excess” or enjoyment of things in themselves (see previous section), though it comes out that the authorities themselves are smuggling it all for their own pleasure
“Plain talk” is discouraged, or “talking off-hand like”. Politic speak is the only proper speech.
Those under Chief’s charge are both self-important and scared. Everything is governed by a litany of rules and regulations. Tolkien explicitly compares these authorities to orcs. Here, industry is promoted above all, and this in the name of progress. All the trees have been felled in the name of industry.
In essence, what was once a natural community has now become a bureaucracy – and it has destroyed all that once was virtuous about the beloved Shire. It has made any appeals and opinions formed by the local community null and void, and placed all decision making power into the hands of those who don’t understand, or care for, the local situation: “He’ll do what Sharkey says. Because if a Boss gives trouble, we can change him. See? And if little folks try to push in where they’re not wanted, we can put them out of mischief. See?”
The reason the political powers are against “plain talk” is that politic language is a manner of disguising the true cruelty of the institution.
We see an almost identical situation in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. When Prince Caspian and crew arrive on the Lone Islands, they are told: “You can’t see his Sufficiency”. The place has become a bureaucracy, where the guests are not welcome on grounds of not being in the minutes, but are welcome to make applications. Against Prince Caspian’s plain assertion of power, the chief appeals to abstractions – graphs, statistics, economics, etc..
The appeal to Caspian against his right to be king is all in the name of “progress” and “development” – more vague, political terms for using power against the weak. One of Caspian’s first tasks is to make the Island free, saying, “I think we have had enough of governors”
We see all of this in the Space Trilogy as well, even more explicitly, particularly in That Hideous Strength. Here, the evil powers distill mankind’s nature to simple chemical compounds – they have rejected the narrative.
The character Mark is compelled by his desire to be in the Inner Ring, something to which bureaucracy appeals (after all, “When had he ever done what he wanted?”). This is unique in Lewis – for he not only sees the evil of bureaucracy, he also seems to quite understand its appeal. It is the carrot on a stick promise of belonging to the Innermost Ring, which one never seems to finally achieve: “…the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things”.
This, for Lewis, is where most of our modern evils occur: “The most evil things occur ‘in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
This type of atmosphere allows all of the evil going on beneath to seem quite agreeable, even sophisticated to those on the inside.
This is also why, like the political powers of the Shire, “Plain Shire Talk” is forbidden in That Hideous Strength as well: “Making things clear is the one thing the DD can’t stand,” replied Miss Hardcastle. “That’s not how he runs the place. And mind you, he knows what he’s about.”
On the contrary, we see the greatest good in the Lord of the Rings flowing from community, and the bonds of friendship.
Though Frodo’s intentions of bearing the ring alone are profound, his wisdom is surpassed by the simple intuition of Samwise. Frodo rather quickly admits that he is glad at this, and that this was the good plan of Providence all along. We will find later that the mission would indeed have failed without Sam, for he rescues Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
In a telling moment, Gandalf, after having received the counsel of all the greatest minds in Middle Earth, states simply: “I think, Elrond, that it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom.”
Indeed, the very title of the first book gives Tolkien away: “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Community is also key in the moral transformation of Lewis’s Orual. We can see plainly from the outset of Lewis’s work that the chief malady of Orual is self-deception. She “sees” the palace of the gods, but claims later not to have seen. The voice of truth speaks cleanly and clearly to here, even in her worst of moments: “She is ten times happier, there in the Mountain, than you could ever make her. Leave her alone.” Later she will admit plainly that she had buried her guilt: “Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant.”
Two things are instrumental in Orual’s awakening to her past guilt. The first is her own pen – her own self-reflection: “They used the pen to probe my wound.”
It is imperative to see that before Orual uses her pen to this effect, she leaves the confines and bureaucracy of the palace, and heads out into the wild of the world. It is this which enables the gods to wield their second instrument in her: a community of commoners. No one in Orual’s kingdom would dare speak truth to her – that is not the design of a bureaucracy. The now eunuch Tarin tells her plainly of her cruelty to Redival. It is the common looking Ansit, Bardia’s wife, who speaks truthfully to Orual about her cruelty to her husband. It is by going out of her self-confining palace that she is first amazed by the joy of the people in their simple religious ceremonies. In a penetrating line, Orual admits at the last: “The voice of the gods had not changed in all those years, but I had. There was no rebel in me now.”
For Lewis, then, community – not bureaucracy – is the tool through which we are able to overcome self-deception. The path to corruption always begins and ends with separation from the community, as we see in both Edmund and Eustace (both of whom explicitly comment on their loss of community).
If we are to travel the road of virtue, we must leave first the road of isolation.
This is an instance of almost conspiratorial similarity between Lewis and Tolkien. I had not been turned on to these themes in my last reading of them each, but side by side it becomes plain that they are sending a very pronounced message: if you would have moral transformation, don’t look to bureaucracy. Look to the simple joys and hardships of a community who will speak the truth in love, and unveil the darkness within.
Indeed, this is the very invitation of Tolkien’s Fellowship over and again. The hobbits will not even destroy Saruman, since the invitation to virtuous community is his only true hope of redemption. In his own way, Tolkien is opening the door to us as well: will we leave the confines of our self-made palaces? Will we seek the truth about ourselves through the words of others? Will we leave the comfort of home, and take up the road to virtue?
This essay has been, for me, a journey indeed.
We have seen the way that Tolkien and Lewis characterize virtue and vice: they are the foundation of the sort of world we’re creating. They are not stagnant, but dynamic and synergistic realities. But they are not always plain: virtue and vice are often cloaked as the other. We have also seen some practical takeaways for taking the path toward positive moral transformation. We must first embrace the true narrative of the world. In light of this, we must cultivate an attitude of gratitude and wonder for the world itself. In order to do this, we must become part of a restorative community.
Certainly there are many areas in Lewis and Tolkien where I find inconsistencies, and disagreements.
But on the issue of moral transformation, it is difficult for me to see chinks in their armor: these men were masters and philosophers of virtue, and it shines through in their writing.
In fact, the more I’ve traveled this road, the more I’ve become convinced that moral transformation is, in its own way, the very heartbeat of Tolkien and Lewis. They are almost too consistent, and too harmonious, for it to be otherwise.
Perhaps this essay may further the conversation on what it is they wished to say. It certainly has encouraged me onward toward that road. But perhaps I could not articulate myself better than Mr. Bilbo himself, in what I believe to be the entire theme of Tolkien’s work:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.
 Return of the King, pg. 366
 Ibid, pg. 344
 Ibid. pg. 367
 Ibid, pg. 360
 The Chronicles of Narnia, Kindle location 10418
 Ibid, location 10422
 Ibid, location 460
 Ibid, location 591
 Ibid, 1562
 Ibid, 1582
 Romans 6:21
 Dr. Ryan Reeves, “Tolkien Themes: Part 2”.
 The Two Towers, pg. 354
 Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 448
 Fellowship, pg. 454
 The Two Towers, pg. 18
 Ibid, pg. 18
 Till We Have Faces, pg. 75
 Ibid, location 16711
 The Space Trilogy, location 6759
 Ibid. pg. 7286
 Ibid. Location 8294
 Ibid. Location 8447
 The Two Towers, pg. 285
 Ibid. pg. 375-377
 Ibid. pg. 60
 Dr. Reeves, “Themes in Tolkien Part 1”
 The Two Towers, pg. 303-305
 Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 60
 Ibid. pg. 61
 Lewis, C.S., “The Weight of Glory”, pg. 45
 Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 53
 Ibid, pg. 150
 Ibid, pg. 196
 Ibid, pg. 223
 Ibid, pg. 312
 Ibid, pg. 178
 Ibid, pg. 193
 Ibid, pg. 193
 Ibid, pg. 194, pg. 442
 Ibid, pg. 384
 Ibid, pg. 439
 Ibid, pg. 239
 Ibid, pg. 309
 Ibid, pg. 446-447
 Ibid, pg. 449
 The Two Towers, pg. 234
 Ibid, pg. 125
 Dr. Reeves, Lecture 10: Themes in Lord of the Rings
 The Two Towers, pg. 219
 Ibid pg. 232
 The Chronicles of Narnia, location 16875
 Ibid, page 16998
 Ibid, location 17006
 Ibid, location 17096
 Ibid, location 508
 Ibid, location 9052
 Ibid, location 9719
 Ibid, location 10075
 Ibid, location 10415
 Ibid, location 10518
 Dr. Reeves, Themes in Narnia
 Ibid, location 3494
 Ibid, location 10422
 The Two Towers, pg. 363
 Ibid, pg. 160
 Ibid, pg. 149
 Ibid, pg. 45
 Dr. Reeves, Themes in Lord of the Rings
 The Two Towers, pg. 407-408
 Ibid, pg. 408
 Ibid, pg. 367
 The Return of the King, pg. 43
 Ibid, pg. 100
 The Chronicles of Narnia, 1156
 Ibid, location 1182
 Ibid, location 17354
 Ibid, location 17368
 Ibid, location 18036
 Ibid 18040
 Ibid, location 18474
 The Return of the King, pg. 351
 Dr. Reeves, Themes in LOTR, Lecture 1
 The Two Towers pg. 273
 Ibid, pg. 284
 Ibid, pg. 290
 Return of the King, pg. 366
 The Two Towers, pg. 96
 The Chronicles of Narnia, location 4851
 Ibid location 5170
 Ibid, location 5788
 Ibid, location 6242
 Ibid, location 6242
 Ibid, location 6273
 Ibid, location 6297
 Mere Christianity, pg. 134
 The Chronicles of Narnia, location 1281
 Ibid, location 1284
 Location 16158
 The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 62
 Return of the King, pg. 343
 Ibid, pg. 344
 Ibid, pg. 344
 Ibid, pg. 347
 Ibid, pg. 347
 Ibid, pg. 350
 Ibid, pg. 361
 Ibid, pg. 366
 Ibid, pg. 351
 The Chronicles of Narnia, location 5524
 Ibid, location 5559
 Ibid, location 5595
 Ibid, location 5595
 Ibid, location 5569
 The Space Trilogy, location 11621
 Ibid, location 13313
 The Weight of Glory, pg. 154
 The Screwtape Letters, Preface
 The Space Trilogy, location 7810
 The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 457
 Ibid, pg. 457
 Ibid, pg. 310
 Till We Have Faces, pg. 133
 Ibid, pg. 138
 Ibid, pg. 253
 Ibid, pg. 254
 Ibid, pg. 256
 Ibid, pg. 259
 Ibid, pg. 272-273
 Ibid, pg. 280
 The Chronicles of Narnia, location 5842, and 1562
 Return of the King, pg. 369