I am becoming more and more intrigued by Tolkien’s evil creatures, especially the more powerful ones like Balrogs, Ringwraiths, and fallen Valar (or Maiar or whatever Sauron is).  Tolkien was an intelligent Catholic, and it would therefore be expected of him to assume an Augustinian/Thomistic view of evil across all worlds—a view in which evil is not a substance but a privation, not something that exists but something negated from existence.

This view, of course, leaves an elephant in the room when it comes to explaining why evil beings cause so much harm in the world.  (How, we ask, could the atrocities at Auschwitz be said to derive from a “nonexistence”?)  It also complicates a fictional world where evil beings can wield incredible powers that cause supernatural harm.  So the question is, Does Tolkien really assume any such Augustinian account of evil while imagining the actual operations of Barrow-wights and Wraiths?

The encounter with Ringwraiths on Weathertop clears up none of these problems, but it does give us a glimpse into what might be called the “psychology of Ringwraithery.”  I want to highlight two things about the operation of evil in this chapter.  The first is about perception, and the second is about the will.

About perception, the easiest way of putting things is that the Ringwraiths don’t quite inhabit or perceive the waking world that we do.  As Aragorn discourses at length: 

They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us…. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.  Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell.  We can feel their presence—it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly.

In short, the Ringwraiths do not live in the world of substance, but of shadow.  So far so good… it is a very Augustinian way of structuring their psychology.

But whence, then, come their powers?  Or, rather, first of all, what exactly are their powers?  I find that this question is not so easy to work out.  The Wraiths live in a world of shadows, but apparently they are solid enough to wear cloaks, ride horses, and wield knives.  They are also responsible for causing certain privations (as all respectable evil beings do), such as darkness and cold.  But I find their most interesting power to be Temptation.  Frodo knows he is in the presence of a wraith when he has an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring.  And this is important, at least as far as Augustine is concerned.  For Augustine thought that evil did not exist anywhere except in the Will; and even in the Will, evil was not a reality in itself.  Evil consisted in the perversion of the Will when it turned away from the highest Good to seek something else.

The brilliance of the attack on Weathertop is that these themes of perception and will come together.  By putting on the Ring, Frodo succumbs to an evil will.  Simultaneously, the wearing of the Ring causes him to enter the world of the Ringwraiths and see as they see.  The altering of his will alters his perception:  evil beings appear to become more substantial, and what the other Hobbits perceive to be merely black shadows, Frodo now perceives as clearly-delineated kings with robes and helms and hands.

All this leads to the question:  Does the “substantiality” of evil in Middle Earth in fact have to do more with the perspective that it is seen from?  Do evil beings seem more powerful precisely in proportion as they have control over the perceiver’s will?  And if a perceiver’s will is not corrupted—as in the example of Tom Bombadil—does evil in fact not seem to be substantial at all?

I have a suspicion here that I am equivocating the terms “substance” and “power”, and “evil” and “evil thing.”  I shall have to turn to culling out a few more definitions from Augustine.  But in the meantime I find the idea highly suggestive that, in the case of the unfallen Valar and certain uncorrupted characters like Bombadil, evil beings really appear to be nothing.