Ringwraiths and Industrialized Evil

“Tolkien is a very subtle author, and you can say there is a distinction in his work between what happens to the Wraiths and what happens to the Orcs. They are both images of evil—one being more dangerous than the other—but they seem to operate in different ways. In some ways the idea of a Wraith is a very 20th century one. You feel that Wraiths don’t get much fun out of evil, they are not doing this for simple human motives like anger, or revenge, or bloodthirstiness, or lust, or whatever. The fact is, it’s not at all clear why they are doing it. They seem to have lost their personalities, they have turned into nothing, and yet they are powerful forces. This has a resonance with a century in which you could say that evil has very often been carried out by bureaucrats, by people in nice offices with white collars who listen to the stringed quartet in the evening, who are kind to their kids and dogs. But, just the same, they sign the orders, they put people on the trains, and those people never come back again. It’s all been industrialized.”

—Tom Shippey, in “Maker of Middle-Earth.”

One thought on “Ringwraiths and Industrialized Evil

  1. I like Shippey. As an Anglo-Saxonist, he “gets” Tolkien.

    The wraiths are best understood in light of their Numenorian past. Have you read the Silmarillion? I’ve been reading Tolkien for nearly 25 years now, but when I first read the Silmarillion, it opened up a whole new world for me with respect to the LOTR. In fact, I don’t think one really enters into the depth–un embarras de richesses–of Tolkien’s trilogy without wading into the broader legendarium (of which the Silmarillion is only a sliver.)

    What a gracious gift is Tolkien!


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