21 November 2012

Guest Post: 'Temptations and Corruptions, pt. 2'

Here is the second part of David Rowe's (@TolkienProverbs) article on "Temptations and Corruptions."


by David Rowe

"In the first of this pair of blogs, looking at the question, ‘Why do good people go wrong?’, I looked at the danger that besets those who trust too strongly in themselves, while also mentioning a significant knock-on effect: that humility breeds co-operation and collaboration (eg. the Fellowship, the Council of Elrond, the Last Alliance), rather than the desire to command.

I finished with Sam, under temptation to claim the Ring, falling back on his ‘plain hobbit-sense’, and that is the point from which I’ll continue.


Sam would never describe himself as much more than a simple gardener. Like his Gaffer and many other hobbits, he has had no formal education – such things as ‘learning your letters’ being treated more often with suspicion than respect. While rich in ‘real life’ experience, the Shire is therefore peopled in the majority by the unschooled and illiterate.

In contrast, elsewhere in Middle-earth learning and aptitude is at times so advanced that it supersedes what even the most brilliant contemporary scientist is yet capable of: Jewels can be crafted to permanently capture light; Rings can be forged that bring power or enslavement; minds can commune from afar through Seeing Stones. Arda abounds with technical brilliance.

However, cerebral cleverness is far from all it’s cracked up to be.

Beginning with Feanor, the creator of the Silmarils and the greatest in skill and understanding of all the Eldar, the repeated lesson is that knowledge (and the power it brings) more often leads to prideful downfall than to wisdom. For example, the influence Melkor gained over Feanor was due to a hunger for greater expertise and dexterity; likewise Sauron became the teacher of Celebrimbor the Ringmaker by exploiting his desire for ever-greater technical ability.

These Noldo learned greatly and became great, only to be overtaken by tragedy and death.

This same process is just as much at work in the latter days of Middle-earth. Denethor was the master of the lore of Minas Tirith, with records and learning compiled over millennia, but his sharp mind was overthrown when desperate need led his honest pursuit of knowledge to the peril of the palantir. Saruman, the Man of Skill, ‘long studied the arts of the Enemy himself’, but his great power through mastery of lore (again reflected in his use of a palantir) became his downfall. He was clever, yes – clever enough to devise his own Ring of Power as well as many as-yet unseen machines of war – but in seeking knowledge above wisdom, he brought about his own downfall.

Wherever you look in Arda, from Aule the Smith and the Dwarves to Lotho Sackville-Baggins and Ted Sandyman, cleverness without wisdom leads inexorably to pride, and pride (as we all should know) comes before a fall. The perverting effects of great knowledge, skill, and technological advancement show them for the great temptations they truly are. Knowledge is power, and good people go wrong when their technical abilities out-reach the astuteness to implement them wisely.

But the Gaffer? Farmer Maggot? Sam Gamgee? Unschooled and barely literate maybe, but at no point are they deceived by pride or by the deceits of others. Shire hobbits of their ilk smelled a rat the moment Lotho knocked down the Mill and fill its replacement with ‘wheels and outlandish contraptions’. Good plain hobbit-sense has a lot to say for it."

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