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Lord of the Rings and Evil by Breda O'Brien

Two of the men in my life, my husband and elder son, are die-hard Tolkien fans. My ten year old son has read and re-read his copy of the Lord of the Rings until the binding gave up in protest and began to shed leaves as gently as one of the trees in the Shire.

In contrast, I was at best a lukewarm fan. My son and my husband brought me last week to the extended director's cut of the Fellowship of the Ring, My husband sensed early on that all was not well. It was not difficult to discern, he said drily, given the way my whole body was shrinking back against my seat in a kind of mute protest. When the film finished, my son asked eagerly what I thought. I paused for a long time, and then responded, " I thought it was grim, unrelenting, and violent." A bonding moment, it was not. My son was disbelieving. "You mean you don't think it is the most fantastic film you have ever seen?" Well, no. Yet as the week wore on, I realised that what I was shrinking from was not the film itself, but the sense of threatening evil which pervades the three and three quarter hours.

I began to glimpse for the first time why Tolkien's work has an enduring fascination. It is not just the detailed creation of a parallel but recognisable world, but the way in which the book wrestles with the nature of evil. Recent times would cause anyone to consider the nature of evil. We were reminded again of the carnage of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and the relatives' long wait for justice. Then there was the Prime Time special on child pornography. One friend told me she was undone simply by watching a trailer for the programme, which showed a person sitting at a computer screen. There were no graphic images as the screen was blacked out, and all you could hear was the sound of a child crying. It was enough. My friend could not sleep, haunted by the sound of a child abandoned to horror.

And what about Armin Meiwes smiling face, on trial in Germany for mutilating, killing and eating a man who gave his consent to the whole grisly process? Miewes' defence revolves around recourse to the concepts of assisted suicide and euthanasia. He claims that he was merely fulfilling the wishes and fantasies of the other man. Just how do people lose their moral compass to this extent? Even given the numbers of Internet sites dedicated to cannibalism and mutilation, Miewes is an extreme example. In one way, it is much more frightening to think of ordinary people, the kind of people who queue in front of you in supermarkets, compulsively watching images of small children being abused.

The Lord of the Rings portrays, not in a crude allegorical way, but in the complexity of its characters, the progressive and addictive nature of evil. Gollum, the hobbit once called Smeagol, by progressive exposure to the ring which represents ultimate evil, becomes a foul greedy creature, consumed by desire to re-possess the ring. Gollum is an addict. Yet no-one is immune. Even sturdy Frodo, who has no desire to wield the power of the ring, and whose most fervent wish is that he had never heard of it, succumbs eventually simply because of constant exposure to it.

It is an insufficient answer to blame the Internet, with its easy accessibility and ability to form virtual communities where people are confirmed in their choices, no matter how intolerable they seem to others. Miewes might have killed someone with or without their consent if the Internet has not existed. Yet the existence of the Internet both amplified and gave some kind of approval to his desires. Before the advent of the Internet, it is unlikely he would have met one person, much less be able to converse with dozens, who shared his compulsion. There is a progressive nature to such compulsions. How many consumers of child pornography were gradually de-sensitised first by our soft porn culture, later by dabbling in harder porn featuring adults, and then becoming jaded and turning to child pornography? This is a highly unpopular thesis. It is true that a certain percentage of people are only attracted to children, but even these people will find it easier to justify their desires in a generally permissive atmosphere towards sexuality. Anyone who is critical of the nature of the culture we live in regarding sexuality, will be branded as repressive.

C.S. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of Tolkien, though to my mind a less gifted writer. Nonetheless, he had some penetrating insights. He said that every age is most afraid of the vice that they are least likely to succumb to. Therefore, a cruel age will fear being too soft; a lazy age will fear the damage done by a stringent work ethic. Our age fears repression of sexual urges, because it is the sin least likely to affect us. As a result, attitudes once considered extreme, such as the viewing of pornography, creep closer and closer to normalisation. In our psychologised age, which explains everything away in terms of childhood events and early conditioning, perhaps we need to recover the concept of responsibility. People become what they are through repeated choices. Ready availability of child pornography makes it easier to succumb, but it is still a choice. The more one becomes immersed in it, the more addictive it becomes.

It is not enough to blame loneliness and excessive drinking, as one person convicted of possession of child pornography did recently. Nor is it enough to recoil in horror from those who do such things, or to retreat to some cold and lonely high moral ground. I still maintain that the Fellowship of the Ring is grim, unrelenting and violent, but it is a potent reminder of the power and attraction of evil, and that no-one can be sanguine about his or her ability to resist. Indeed, it is often those who are arrogant and see themselves as better than others who are more susceptible.

Most susceptible of all, perhaps, are those who dismiss concepts like evil as no longer relevant to our understanding of human motivation.

(originally published Dec 2003 in the Irish Times)