Academic journal article Mythlore

"It Had Been His Virtue, and Therefore Also the Cause of His Fall": Seduction as a Mythopoeic Accounting for Evil in Tolkien's Work

Academic journal article Mythlore

"It Had Been His Virtue, and Therefore Also the Cause of His Fall": Seduction as a Mythopoeic Accounting for Evil in Tolkien's Work

Article excerpt

IN A MUCH-QUOTED LETTER TO PUBLISHER MILTON WALDMAN, Tolkien admits that the driving purpose for much of his fiction lay in creating "a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story" that would be dedicated to England in lieu of the mythology that he believed she currently lacked (Letters 144). For Tolkien, a philologist as well as a medievalist, the appeal of such an undertaking lay in the same place as its greatest challenge: the resulting narrative should seem to demonstrate its own mythopoeic process while also being a "finished" product itself. In order to satisfactorily emulate a genuine mythology, Tolkien's project would need to read as if it were a collection of tales: tales of different ages, varying degrees of symbolism and historicity, and originally told by multiple voices even though ultimately assembled by a single hand. At the same time, though, this supposed collection would also require some unifying cultural flavor, as if its constituent pieces all belonged to some identifiable group.

While Tolkien uses many strategies to create these impressions throughout his legendarium, (1) one of the most notable can be found in his treatment of evil. In the same letter to Waldman, Tolkien explains his conviction that "all stories are ultimately about the fall" (Letters 147) and that the Elves, who are the central people of his mythology, must "have a fall, before their 'history' can become storial" (Letters 147). This penchant, however, reflects more than the structuralist requirement of mythology, or that necessity of multiple "mythical elements" which would demand an Evil simply to oppose Good (Levi-Strauss 40-41). Instead, Tolkien uses his conception of a cosmogonic Fall to raise--and in a way, even to answer--a version of what is known colloquially as the "problem of evil": why evil exists in the presence of an "omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect" deity (Tooley 1.1, par. 5).

In spite of these grand stakes, though--or perhaps because of them--one of the most crucial means by which Tolkien manages this specific treatment of evil has been regrettably overlooked. Critics have certainly discussed evil in the legendarium in a variety of ways, variously maintaining that Tolkien was inspired by the romantic doom of the Northern sagas, in which the mortal hero will die at the hand of a stronger evil (Shippey), or that Tolkien creates an omnipresent sense of evil that cannot always be directly encountered (Birzer), or even that he offers a surprisingly "fragmented, illegible image of the binary tension between good/evil" (Battis 921). (2) Despite the variety of these approaches, though, little to no mention has been made of seduction, which is an understated but recurring motif throughout the legendarium.

Tolkien makes use of narratives of seduction in a number of ways: most visibly, to let his implied mythmakers establish a mythological basis for evil itself, but more subtly, also to account for a range of both evildoers and redemptive possibilities. First, there is no Manichaean power in Arda: although Morgoth is the source of evil in creation, he is not coequal or coeval with Eru Iluvatar. Second, and more importantly: Tolkien must find a way to have his mythmakers express this belief, without the implied text devolving into a religious treatise rather than a collection of myth.

Although the word "seduction" carries explicit sexual connotations in contemporary discourse, earlier definitions stress other meanings. Etymologically, in fact, seduction is couched in terms of deceit. Drawing from the Latin se ("away") and ducere ("to guide or lead"), early sixteenth-century English usages stress first "The action or an act of seducing (a person) to err in conduct or belief; allurement (to some course of action)" and second, "the condition of being led astray" (Oxford English Dictionary [OED] 1.a., 1.b.). Other definitions specify the persuasion of a soldier or subject "to desert his allegiance or service" (OED 2), the enticement of "a female child" to a marriage unsanctioned by her parents (OED 3. …

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