The claim may (and probably will) admit of some controversy, but with the Barrow-Wight I will begin to seriously press the notion that Tolkien incorporates an Augustinian view of evil in his depiction of evil beings.  The claim will likely grow stronger as the hobbits travel nearer to Mordor, but I want to start pointing out the scraps of evidence early.

 

What I should do first, by all rights, is offer a concise account of what exactly an Augustinian view of evil involves.  This is rather a tall order for me at present, since I need time to think about several passages in Augustine and Aquinas; so for this post I’ll only mention a few things about the Barrow-Wight that may prove interesting in light of future posts on evil.

 

Our first and only description of the Wight himself is that he is a “tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars” with “two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance.”  The likeness to a shadow seems to be a stock simile with Tolkien when it comes to his especially evil creatures.  The light-like eyes contrast with this, of course; as does the seemingly very corporeal grip that is “stronger and colder than iron.”  I’ll point out that this is an apparently contradictory set of characteristics:  an insubstantial visible form, but a (seemingly) very substantial grip.  There are other ways of pointing out the dichotomy:  darkness and coldness, for example, are privations of light and warmth; but a strong grip isn’t a privation of anything, since it is rather a sort of power.

 

Still on the subject of the grip, one of the most effective things about the encounter with the wight is that fact that, when Frodo is inside the barrow, he gets a close-up view of a hand and arm, but nothing else.  The spectre of the hand—the part that tries to behave like the whole, or the part that is severed from the body to which it belongs, first by description and then by Frodo’s actual knifestroke—horrified me more than anything else as a child (with the exception of the well in Moria).  I emphasize the fact that Tolkien gives us only the hand and arm for two reasons.  First, it is part of the art of ghastly story-telling to recognize that, though corpses are bad, parts of corpses are worse. And second, it is another way of depriving us of any clear and distinct picture of what form this being actually has.

 

Frodo’s experience of the Wight’s dwelling seconds all this.  The barrow is dark and cold; and the strange light, when it comes, seems (inexplicably) to be coming not from the barrow but from Frodo himself.  The wight’s song is a dreary and “formless stream of sad but horrible sounds,” full of words that are “grim, hard, cold… heartless and miserable.”  At least half of these terms (including that most important term “formless”), again, are privative.  Moreover, even when the wight’s words do “shape themselves” and become intelligible, their shape still concerns privations:  coldness, the sun failing, the moon and stars dying, the land withering.

 

Finally, lest there be any more doubt about the matter, Tolkien’s own authorial commentary on the song makes the point about privation explicit:  The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.

 

All of this, of course, combines to create an impression on the reader that will raise problems here and in many descriptions to come.  Evil is associated with the cold, the dark, with night and shadows, with mutilated forms and parts of forms and deformed forms.  And yet, for something that that is deformed, shadowy, and generally deprived of good things, evil in Tolkien’s world is remarkably stern, strong, and—well, substantial.

 

As I hope to point out later, these are the same classic problems raised by the Augustinian view of evil.  I wish I could say that Tolkien’s narrative and poetic answer to the problem persuasively complements Augustine’s philosophical answer; but as I don’t recall the core passages from Augustine or Tolkien himself clearly enough, that is a series of posts that will have to wait.

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