The Choices of Master Samwise
It is peculiar to listen into the casual conversations of the vile creatures that threaten to very continued existence of the kingdoms of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men. Immediate evidence of their disunity, their treachery, their affection for torture and torment, and disquieting characteristics are made known in the listening. Yet so too are less obviously binary features: the suspicion of power and of being used as pawns and sacrifices, the questioning of leadership and of decisions made by those far away, the wrestling with history and creation of imagery about major events in the past of their people. Perhaps most startling of all is the brief moment of reminiscence and longing, when Gorbag says:
“‘If we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’
‘Ah!’ said Shagrat. ‘Like old times.’”
In the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, it is mysterious to develop sympathy in some capacity for the servants of the antagonist. Its as uncouth and distasteful as saying one can empathize with the soldiers of the Third Reich, with the slavers of the Atlantic Triangle trade, or with the crucifiers of Christ. From such reflection we naturally recoil; such a consideration we instinctively reject. Yet it is a hard truth: in spite of crimes and sins and horrors, there are decent and average people who partake in them. Whether through misguidance or coercion, ignorance or passion, for necessity or due to events outside of their direct control, men and women participate in horrors beyond imagination and justification. They are persons with families and friends, with doubts and fears, with dreams; they are persons that could well be us.
Tolkien never fully finalized his view on the nature of the orcs, in particular on whether they were inherently evil or potentially redeemable. Nevertheless, we know that while all men sin, no man is inherently evil. Amongst the great tragedies and travesties that civilized people have ever committed are those who had the potential to stand against the foul winds of opinion, to reject the dreadful deed which they were committing, to embrace a life of virtue and goodness, and they chose wrongly. There were Nazis who loved their neighbor while approving genocide; there were masters who fought for justice and righteousness while keeping their fellow man in chains; there were Romans who piously refrained from any measure of wickedness while nailing God to a cross. What they believed, or did, or supported is abhorrent and worthy of condemnation; so will our grandchildren say of us, and their grandchildren of them. One can recognize the depths of depravity which they fell while also having empathy for those that fell. The paradox of justice and mercy demands judgement for the sin while forgiveness for the sinner.
This is a hard reflection, and a harder truth: all the more necessary is it for us in these Lenten days, as we near Jerusalem and Calvary, as we bear witness to a world brimming with sin and sinners. As Gandalf said at the start of our pilgrimage, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Every man is a fallen man; every woman is a woman on the brink. We are unwise to convince ourselves that some humans are inherently or irreconcilably evil, that there are some associations or actions that erase the imprint of the good, true and beautiful of the person. In may come to pass that we are forced to reject, or battle, or even kill our fellow man who aligns himself with the devourer who would devour all. Even so, our hearts will ever possess a disquiet of enigmatic empathy for the forces of the enemy, until a time beyond the circles of this world.
2015’s Reflection: “On Choice”