New Warhorn Media post by Jake Mentzel:
New Warhorn Media post by Jake Mentzel:
Had an epiphany when you were talking about Nikabrik. That part of the story doesn’t ever seem right to me, because he’s a traitor, right, so he deserves a greater punishment. But he gets a more dignified burial than the other “vermin” that were cast into a pit.
But you said he was kind of a Gollum character. That Lewis has a good understanding of the effects of sin over a long period, that it turns you bitter and sour. So Nikabrik isn’t a creature that’s wicked by virtue of being a wicked thing, like the werewolf or the hag, that just deserves having its head cut off. (all of this is what Brandon said, I believe)
Tolkien’s treatment of Gollum bothers me, too- he’s a wicked, murderous creature who snatches babies from their cradles and EATS THEM. And that’s just a small part of his evil. He needs to die. Sure, we can leave that job to the proper authority, and not have Sam do it, but any just ruler would have him executed immediately. (Then Tolkien would have to find another way to get the ring out of Frodo’s clutches, but the dude was a great writer. I’m confident he could do it.)
And then you have Saruman. What a fiasco. Same idea there- mercy shown where it is actually UNJUST to do so. The consequences of this failure are grievous for the shire folk, even unto death for some of them.
Thinking all this through today, my epiphany is this: these characters are functionally apostate. They are NOT more deserving of mercy than a just plain wicked character. They are deserving of greater punishment because they knew what was good and they trampled it under foot.
Really great thoughts on the Bacchanal.
I agree, it makes no sense for Aslan to countenance that sort of an orgy.
“We don’t make an uneasy truce with idols.” Great, pithy point from Nathan. In fact, whenever Israel did that, it made God really really angry.
This reminds me very much of Lewis’ touch-of-the-divine argument defending (?) the sodomy at his boarding school.
Those are interesting thoughts all. I am always fascinated by the way authors mete out justice to their villains. It has to not only make moral sense, it has to make emotional sense given the story being told. I wonder if that’s not behind some of Tolkien’s decisions. Yes, in a cosmic sense, Gollum deserves to die. But somehow as readers we wouldn’t feel good about seeing any of our heroes dispatch such a pathetic creature. So they stay their hands even where they probably shouldn’t (in real life).
I dunno, I think I’d feel pretty good about it.
I wouldn’t want to watch such an execution in real life, but that squeamishness shouldn’t inform my sense of justice.
Tolkien answers that question earlier in the story, when Frodo says that Gollum deserves to die. Gandalf replies:
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
As the story goes on to show!
Yes, I remember that bit. And I agree that it’s not Frodo’s place to execute that judgement. But just because Frodo can’t, doesn’t mean no one should. God gave us rulers and the death penalty for a reason, after all, and He didn’t set it up so that we could just decide NOT to do it, if we thought it would be better or wiser.
Also, Gandalf is arguing here that if we can’t give life, we oughtn’t to take it, even if the person is deserving of death. That does away with capital punishment entirely, which is not only very foolish but also completely unbiblical.
I don’t want to be too much of a nerd here, but I have thought about this.
I think Smeagol deserves capital punishment for his deeds, but who would meet that out? The Steward of Minas Tirith? Theoden under the influence of Grima? I wouldn’t expect the Elves to do much, clouded by their own immortality and infinite sadness and despair - disguised as patience - and desiring only the “West.” Aragorn is truly needed to restore justice to Gondor. It’s all wrapped up together. And it’s a lesson for our own country if we would hear it. Capital punishment is right for certain crimes but it’s not a sign of justice of it’s only a punishment for poor people or minorities.
I see Smesgols life and death also as an outworking of the Ainulindale. Melkor broke from the harmony of the Ainur and sang his own discordant song. But Iluvatar wove it into the overall Music. It would have it’s effect - there would be problems in Middle Earth - but righteousness would be done in the end.
Turning my nerd off now. And plan to comment on Prince Caspian soon as well.
That’s a great question, and I thought about it a bit myself. I think the best place for it to fit in the story as it currently stands, is when Faramir’s men see Gollum in Ithilien. Faramir has the authority and the means to execute that kind of justice, and he’s got the will to do it. I know Frodo wants Gollum as a guide, but justice should take higher priority, and it would save him and Sam a lot of grief.
Definitely agree about the desperate need for Aragorn to take his rightful place, and about the lesson we need to learn as well.
I’m just a big nerd and there’s nothing I can do about it (don’t really want to, tbh )
Under the laws of Gondor, Faramir should have put Gollum to death merely for fishing uninvited in the Forbidden Pool. Gollum himself pointed out the injustice of this, and Faramir extended mercy to him. One imagines that if Boromir had been there instead, he would have put Gollum to death and taken Isildur’s Ring from Frodo, both in the name of justice.
It is a consistent theme throughout Tolkien’s books that the heroes are ready to do violence to prevent injustice when it is happening, but they are reluctant to do violence for the sake of safety or merely to right an old wrong. Instead they allow malefactors like Gollum and Wormtongue to go free in the hope that they might come to repentance. Such an attitude, I think, reflects God’s patience when He delays the judgment of the world and of individual sinners.
Moreover, the heroes leave their safety and justice in the hands of Providence, and in doing so they are rewarded. Gollum sends the Ring to destruction when Frodo was unable to do so; Wormtongue casts down the Palantir that enables Aragorn to distract Sauron and discover the danger of the Corsairs of Umbar. Of course, as author Tolkien made the story come out the way he wanted, but I think it is true that when we leave vengence to God, we open the door to being blessed in ways we do not expect.
I really appreciated two interlocked things in this podcast. 1) Y’all were really hard on the Bacchus scene. 2) Y’all still gave the book a lot of lamp-posts (you still liked the book). One scene can be very questionable at best but the whole can still be good.
I also want to say one thing about Bacchus. I think Bacchus’s presence is problematic for smart guys like you, and for Lewis as well. But the first time I read this, I’d never even heard of Bacchus. I had no frame of reference. And while its true that if you wanted to write a drunken-orgy scene from a child’s perspective, Lewis’s way would work. But its also true that if you are a child with no idea what a drunken orgy is, Lewis’s narrative would not begin to explain it. Its just a crazy party. A bunch of kids get together for a birthday party. They are running all over the place. The sugar from the candy and the soda and the birthday cake is coursing through their veins as the go “bat-ape.” They have a great time, and later they really can’t remember what happened, except it sure was fun. The Bacchus party is the same.
In that way it’s kind of like food sacrificed to idols. We aren’t to participate in worshipping pagan deities, but you aren’t doing that merely by eating food that went through a process you don’t understand or affirm or aid. And you aren’t doing it by reading a story that has a weird party which you also don’t understand or affirm.
From a kid’s perspective its far less problematic than from an adult’s.
That said, I wish Lewis had chosen a different device. Their could have been a wild party followed by Aslan’s discipline instead of his participation. Their could have been a less wild Bacchus-free celebration. I think this is one of Lewis’s many attempts to bring in paganism and baptize it. That was often “his thing” as y’all have said and I affirm.
Sometimes I like this approach. It can be illustrative and helpful. I’m not going to toss out the four cardinal virtues because they came from Plato. And I’m not going to toss out the entire idea of Mars, the war-god because he is pagan. He can highlight virtues that I need to grow in - being manly, unafraid to take up the figurative sword and fight.
But sometimes this approach is no more than problematic (at best!), which is what you see with Bacchus. What I think we are reading is a failed attempt to baptize a pagan idea. I give his effort an A but I wish he’d never attempted this particular scene.
It’s interesting to me that one of the central aspects of Old Testament worship was to literally feast in the presence of God. I really wish Lewis would have drawn on this for his celebration instead of acting like pagan revelry can be wholesome.
“A consistent theme…” Yes. And in the case of those who have the authority of the sword, I think their reluctance is not just, wise, or righteous. And it gets people killed.
The point of the death penalty, as prescribed in the Bible, is to do all three of those things you mentioned: prevent injustice, protect the innocent, and right a wrong. A Godly ruler is commanded to punish evildoers. He doesn’t get to let them off the hook, even if they do repent. It’s his job to take vengeance in this particular way.
Even in the Bible, the death penalty was not always applied to those who deserve it.
When it comes to Tolkien, I think you are letting your omniscience as a reader cloud your judgment. The authority of a civil magistrate is limited, and he cannot punish whomever he thinks has done wrong without first having jurisdiction and an objective demonstration of guilt.
Certainly Faramir thinks Gollum has done great crimes, but none of those occurred in Gondor, and he has no actual evidence. Sure, it feels good when good guys kill the bad guys in movies, but do we really want the local sheriff putting someone to death simply because he feels certain that person committed a great crime somewhere else in the past?
And should Wormtongue be put to death without a trial merely because he seemed to be a traitor even though he denied it? Do we really want the state to execute people merely on the basis of appearance and accusation?
And when wicked heads of state can be convinced to give up all power and go into exile and thus free a nation from oppression, should someone presume the authority to hunt them down and assassinate them anyway? Saruman would have had no power to do anything to the Shire if there were not already bad hobbits eager to assist him.
I suppose King David should have had himself killed after what happened with Uriah?
tosses grenade, pokes head back down
I’m definitely not interested in pushing for an unbiblical standard for evidence or witnesses.
But there is evidence of Gollum’s wrongdoing, is there not? Both Aragorn and Gandalf could testify to it, at least.
As for Saruman, Gandalf was well able to take care of him, but he didn’t. That was a grievous mistake on his part, and I don’t understand how he came to make it. I thought he was wiser than that.
But seriously, I guess he should have. I don’t really know. What happens to kings who murder?
Obviously God didn’t want David to die, or else He would have taken care of that.
The evidence of Gollum’s crimes really came only from Gollum’s own testimony, which was obtained under coercion (Gandalf put the “fear of fire on him”). And neither Gandalf nor Aragorn had magisterial authority to condemn Gollum; nor were his crimes committed in the jurisdiction of Gondor or the Elves of Mirkwood. So it seems dubious to put Gollum to death for past crimes on such grounds. Nevertheless, since he was the cause of present mischief, Gollum was imprisoned, or released into the custody of Frodo.
By Gandalf’s own testimony, he was unable to do anything to Saruman while Saruman still held the power of Orthanc, and Treebeard released Saruman from Orthanc against Gandalf’s wish. It’s true that Gandalf could have done something to Saruman when they came across him on the road while returning from Minas Tirith, but there was no point to it since Saruman was bereft of power, and any grievous consequences that came after that arose only because some hobbits cooperated with Saruman in evil.
It would probably be helpful to keep in mind that Tolkien was a monarchist, and he likely viewed a wizard, just like a king (even King David), to not be under the jurisdiction of any earthly authority. From this perspective, it was proper to resist Saruman when he was in the process of working evil but not to punish him when his power was gone. Alternatively, one could say that it would have been righteous for David to kill Saul when he had opportunity (twice!) since Saul certainly deserved it, or that it is righteous for the U.S. to kill various malefactors around the world as a matter of justice rather than war.
And I think it would be even more helpful to keep in mind that Gandalf viewed his own authority as ministerial rather than magisterial, and indeed this was the sort of authority granted to the wizards by those who sent them from across the sea. Gandalf claimed the authority to advise, but he did not claim the authority to rule, and I think this attitude preserved him from the downfall that came to Saruman, who desired to rule.
I agree with you all that Lewis’s “romp” is disturbing in many ways. That being said, I don’t think he is depicting an orgy or even out of control revelry; even though I disagree as to where he draws the line and I don’t think he is effective in what he set out to do, I think he is trying to show that Aslan is not a God of “prigs”, but is rather a God of freedom and celebration (sad old donkeys became young again, dogs were freed, etc.)
But why Bacchus? I agree too that these pagan gods are demons and I’m glad they have been buried. Still, why would Lewis have chosen Bacchus?
Bacchus was the god of wine and the harvest—the god of joy and provision. This seems fitting given the tyranny that has hitherto been over the land. (In terms of his association with orgies, Livy does say he was, but if my memory serves me, Euripides has a man torn to death because he is trying to spy on the all woman celebration that is in no way sexual. Granted, the frenzied tearing to death of a man is problematic for other reasons.)
Bacchus was associated with mystery cults that sought eternal life. They did things (at various times and places) like worship corn seeds (because they “die” and come back to life when planted), drink wine and eat bread that represented the body and blood of their “savior”, and even had ritual washings in a river (like baptism) to cleanse them of their “sins”. Men like Lewis argued that God allowed or even inspired these practices to prepare mankind for the Gospel of Christ. Men like Justin Martyr and other fathers said demons inspired these practices to ape the truth that would be revealed in Christ and to hide the truth by making it common place (and a lot of thinkers of the “enlightenment” would indeed argue that Christians borrowed from these mystery cults.)
There was a lot that anticipated Christ in these mystery religions, but without “Aslan”, without God, these things became frightening and wicked. I wish Lewis would have been clearer here or elsewhere at what he was trying to convey in this passage, and he draws the line of acceptable “revelry” beyond what I am comfortable with, but I don’t think he was in anyway condoning the sin associated with Bacchus.
So sorry I haven’t found time to reply before now.
Maybe I’m not remembering the books as well as you are, but I thought there was enough evidence of Gollum’s crimes for him to be executed.
The odd thing about Gandalf not dealing with Saruman is that he’d spent centuries caring for the people of middle earth- he was wise and far-seeing- he loved the shire very much- he understood Saruman’s remaining power and his wickedness- and he did nothing. That doesn’t ring true to me.
In any case, my point, at bottom, is that Tolkien was wrong to write his book this way. His “mercy” to these wicked characters is actually injustice and violence towards the righteous and innocent. It’s a little strange to me that this should be so, because I find the book to be excellent in most other respects, and I didn’t expect him to be so wrong on this- it’s quite a glaring error.
How dare you?!?!?!