On Lies

The Uruk-hai


What is truth? (Source)

The Lord of the Rings consists of lies. Sauron tricked the Elves with the lie of the One Ring, while Gollum sought to ensnare Bilbo after he had first discovered the Ring with falsehoods. The Ring itself constantly threads the line between truth and deceit by promising a great power to any tempted to wear it; however, the Ring always seeks to return to the Dark Lord, or at the very least create a new Sauron out of he or she who wears it. It is not a shocking matter that most interactions with the notion of lies in Middle-earth has to do with evil in its various forms, but this is not entirely so. Many admirable characters have their own instances of creative flourishes and half-truths.

Consider, for example, Merry and Pippin in captivity. When Grishnákh the orc begins in secret to search their clothing, the hobbits suspect that he is looking for the Ring, and so play along to his desires. Implying, prodding, goading, suggesting are all utilized for the purposes of buying time and obtaining liberty: but do they lie? Other instances follow similarly ambiguous patterns: Aragorn withholding information about his quest from Éomer or Boromir’s death from his companions, Bilbo misleading his fellow hobbits at his birthday party, Gandalf’s uneasy half-truths before Saruman betrays him. Are these moments of falsehood? Does it matter if they are?

The question of lying has been at the core of philosophy since its inception, and the dispute over what makes a lie and whether it can be justified has raged for centuries. Socrates himself famously declared that “It is never right to do wrong,” and his firm stance against falsehood has been taken up again by Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant. Other scholars – such as Plato and Aquinas – offered more nuanced understandings, attempting to recognize aspects of the lie including intention, context, impact, and benefit. Could a doctor lie to his patient about the pain of a lifesaving operation so that the patient will agree to it? If no, then how do you temper truths that might hurt or kill those that learn of them; if yes, then where do you draw the line of truth and falsehood?

A far longer reflection would be needed to work out all the nuances of lying and truth. However, some considerations, weaving together various intellectual strands and enshrined by the majority of Christian churches, provide a framework of reflection. Lying at its purest form (mortal sin) is an evil that should not be performed, yet there exist instances where such a statement becomes either not a lie or is mitigated by circumstances. A white lie or a little lie for humor meets not the criteria of potency (at the worst, it is venial); a man who does not realize what he says is false does not possess the necessity of knowledge. When demanded for the truth from one who has no right to it (either in his intention or authority) one may remain silent (a spiritual pleading of the 5th) so as to not violate his conscience in either way. Lying is a complicated business.

Is The Lord of the Rings an illustrious example of honest in action? It is an open question. While no heroic character outright lies, stringent moralists could find some fault in the words and misdirections of hobbit and human. Yet, in all circumstances, it is the truth that is held in the highest esteem, whether that truth has been long forgotten, maintained through trial and travail, or simple at heart. Frodo maintains his word to carry the Ring; Aragorn ever seeks to keep his promise to Boromir about the salvation of Gondor. Amidst lies, even when justified or unavoidable, it is the truth that distinguishes the darkness from the light.

2015’s Reflection: “On Orcs


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