The Relevance of Tolkien’s Unfinished Work “The New Shadow”
“However, in his unfinished sequel to The Lord of the Rings, The new shadow, as good as The Silmarillion, Tolkien presented a different view of human nature, one that was more realistic and more concomitant with his Catholic upbringing.
RR Tolkien would have turned 130 this month, and despite the apparent simplicity of his works, there are important lessons to be learned from his fantasy world. However, Tolkien’s work teaches us more than just the self-destructive nature of evil, the corrupting effects of power, the dangers of arrogance and the desire to impose order. For one of the recurring themes in Tolkien’s works is the human tendency to become sated with the good and to stop seeing the bad for what it is.
In the fictional and, in many ways, idealized world The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit humans are seen as inherently good, while evil is not part of our nature but rather external, embodied by the dark Lord Sauron and his ring of power, whose destruction leads to the triumph of good and prosperity on Earth middle. However, in his unfinished sequel to The Lord of the Rings, The New Shadow, as good as The Silmarillion, Tolkien presented a different view of human nature, more realistic and more concomitant with his Catholic upbringing.
The re-emergence of “Shadow”
The new shadow takes place about a century after the events of The Lord of the Rings, towards the end of the reign of Aragorn’s son, Eldarion, and is told from the point of view of Borlas, son of Beregond, one of the minor characters of the original trilogy. Borlas discusses the nature of evil with Saelon, one of his son’s friends, then learns from Saelon that more and more people are unhappy with the state. Salon suggests that Borlas go with him to find out more about it, and Borlas decides to follow him, thinking that “[p]Perhaps I have been kept so long for this purpose: that one still live, sane, who remembers what preceded the Great Peace. Perfume has a long memory. I think I could still sense the old Evil and know it for what it is.
The people of Gondor, having lived in peace for decades after the fall of Sauron, have forgotten the true nature of evil, for there still remains “a few will not be satisfied, and to the end of their lives, they trouble their hearts about their neighbors, and the City, and the Kingdom, and all the whole world. People tend to miss the good – and if we don’t watch out for the bad it will reappear sooner or later, just as happened with Gondor when it gave up its watch over Mordor and after the fall Sauron’s finale, which saw “an outcrop of revolutionary plots” and “rise of Satanic secret religion”. Humans need a source of identity and meaning, and in the absence of a common national history , we are beginning to resort to modern cults like QAnon and other radical ideologies to bridge this gap.
When there is no external enemy to fight, a common threat that can unite people and thus provide a clear perception of what is good and what is not, humans, with their need inherent in uncertainty and the problems to be solved, begin to “invent” and exaggerate the seriousness of the remaining social ills – a point I have underlined somewhere else. This explains why, after the end of the cold war, the polarization and animosity towards his political adversaries has begun uprising in the United States – the absence of an external enemy redirected people’s “negative” energy and attention to “internal enemies”. Generations that did not live in the era of true evil cease to appreciate past achievements and the existing system, because they had no part in its creation and sacrificed nothing to defend it, and therefore , do not appreciate it as much as their ancestors.
In a preface to the first edition of The origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that “[w]We can no longer afford to…reject evil and simply regard it as a dead burden that alone will bury in oblivion. The obliteration of the memory of the true nature of evil will prepare for its reappearance; it is no coincidence that the recent rise in the approval of Josef Stalin happened at the same time as the Russian government had become more repressive. Indeed, according to some polls, half of Russians are still unaware of the Stalinist repressions. In such an atmosphere, it should come as no surprise that last month a Russian court liquid the country’s oldest human rights organization, Memorial, whose work focused on exposing the victims of Soviet repression, thereby ridding the country of a crucial part of the collective memory of the Terror Red.
Go beyond the Shire
In a letter dated May 13, 1964, Tolkien wrote: “Since we are dealing with Men, it is inevitable that we concern ourselves with the most regrettable characteristic of their nature: their rapid satiety with good. That the people of Gondor, in times of peace, justice and prosperity, may become discontented and restless. This “inevitable boredom of Men with the good” Tolkien considers it an intrinsic characteristic of nature: “There are enemies whom such walls will not prevent from entering.
Tolkien’s distinctly Christian belief in a fundamentally flawed human nature, our tendency to “fill ourselves with good”, which makes possible the reappearance of evil, is present not only in The new shadow. In Akallabêth, the fourth part of The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells the story of the fall of Númenor, an ancient island country of humans granted long life and superior abilities by the Valar as a reward for their aid in the war against Morgoth, a primordial personification of evil. For a long time after the fall of Morgoth, the Númenoreans lived in peace and prosperity, but became discontented when they began to desire immortality. And that ultimately led to his downfall.
One might think that this attitude contradicts Tolkien’s words in The new shadow that evil came with Melkor (later known as Morgoth), not because of any inherent human flaw: “Men did not come with these discords; they then entered as a new thing directly from Eru, the Unique, and that is why they are called His children. However, Tolkien’s disenchantment with his contemporary world, his resentment of the industrialization of England, is a recurring theme in his work, particularly the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, which is Tolkien’s conception of an ideal rural England that has been lost in the past. There is thus a conflict between Tolkien’s personal view (no doubt influenced by his Catholicism) of human nature as fundamentally flawed and his desire to protect his fictional fantasy world from these negative influences, which may also explain why he decided not to finish The new shadow.
The greatness of Tolkien’s work lies in the recurring relevance of the fundamental questions he addresses. In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise encourages his master, Frodo Baggins, saying that “[t]there is good in this world… and it is worth fighting for. In the era of resurgent relativism, believing in the existence of timeless truths that we can live for – and sacrifice if necessary – is a way to make sense of our post-truth world.
A quote often attributed to Edmund Burke reads: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. At Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, young and carefree hobbits must leave the comforts and pleasures of the Shire to face and ultimately defeat the growing threat of evil. Thus, only active participation in public life can help keep evil at bay – political amnesia and the apathy of ordinary citizens underlie today’s polarizing culture dominated by fringe elements of the spectrum. Politics. In order to prevent our perceptions of what is right and what is wrong that can happen from changing, it is important to retain in our collective memory the recurring nature of evil and its true character: something Tolkien reminds us to do through his works..
Sukhayl Niyazov is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The National Interest, The American Conservative, City Journal, Foundation for Economic Education, Public Discourse, Law and Liberty, among others. He can be found on Twitter @Sukhayl_Niyazov and Medium @fallibilist