Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

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The Satanic Presence in Middle-earth

The Satanic Presence in Middle-earth

In The Road to Middle Earth, T.A. Shippey describes “the history of Genesis” as the “most obvious fact about the design of The Silmarillion”. Shippey compares Tolkien’s Creation myth with “a summary list of doctrines of the Fall of Man common to Milton, to St Augustine, and to the Church as a whole”. Satan is, of course, a central figure in the story of the Fall of Man in Genesis.

Melkor, later known as Morgoth, is Middle-earth’s equivalent of Lucifer, or Satan. Melkor is described by Tolkien as “the greatest of the Ainur” as Lucifer was the greatest of the archangels. Like Lucifer, Melkor is the embodiment of, and the primal perpetrator of, the sin of pride; like Lucifer he is intent on corrupting humanity for his own purposes. Melkor desired “to subdue to his will both Elves and Men, envying the gifts with which Ilúvatar (God) promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be master over other wills”.

The parallels with the Old Testament become even less mistakable when Tolkien describes the war between Melkor and Manwë, the latter of whom is clearly cast in the role of Lucifer’s nemesis, the archangel Michael. Manwë is “the brother of Melkor in the mind of Ilúvatar” and was “the chief instrument of the second theme that Ilúvatar had raised up against the discord of Melkor”. 

The link between Melkor and Lucifer is made most apparent in the linguistic connection between them. As a philologist, Tolkien employs language to synthesize his own Satan with his Biblical archetype. The original spelling of Melkor, in the earliest drafts of the mythology, is Melko, which means “the Mighty One”; Melkor, means “He who arises in Might” – “But that name he has forfeited; and the Noldor, who among the Elves suffered most from his malice, will not utter it, and they name him Morgoth, the Dark Enemy of the World.” Similarly, Lucifer, brightest of the angels, means “Light Bringer”, whereas the Jews named him Satan, which means “Enemy” in Hebrew. Linguistically, therefore, “Morgoth”, “Satan” and “Enemy” share the same meaning. They are the same word in three different languages. “Morgoth” and “Satan” clearly represent the same primal “Enemy” of humanity. Tolkien’s intention, both as a Christian and as a philologist, in identifying Melkor with Lucifer is plain enough. 

In the earlier drafts of the mythology that pre-date the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Melkor’s role parallels that of the Biblical Satan. He is the primal bringer of discord into Ilúvatar’s Design and he harbours a desire to have dominion in the world contrary to the will of Ilúvatar. In the later versions of the myth, the role of Melko, now known as Melkor, becomes more complex, itself a reflection of Tolkien’s increasing concern with theological intricacy, yet Melko-Melkor-Morgoth always remains essentially a depiction of Satan.    

Taking his inspiration, perhaps, from the Book of Isaiah (“Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning” – Isaiah 14:11-12), Tolkien says of Melkor: “From splendour he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless … He began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness.”

Shortly after this description of Melkor, Tolkien introduces Sauron, the Dark Enemy in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is described as a “spirit” and as the “greatest” of Melkor’s, alias Morgoth’s, servants: “But in after years he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the Void.” This brief depiction of Sauron in The Silmarillionunveils the evil power in The Lord of the Ringsas being directly connected to Tolkien’s Satan, rendering implausible a non-theistic interpretation of the book’s deepest moral meaning. 

In Morgoth’s Ring,volume ten of The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien is preoccupied with the figure of Melkor-Morgoth. “Above all”, wrote Christopher Tolkien in his foreword to Morgoth’s Ring, “the power and significance of Melkor-Morgoth … was enlarged to become the ground and source of the corruption of Arda.” Whereas Sauron’s infernal power was concentrated in the One Ring, Morgoth’s far greater diabolic power was dispersed into the very matter of Arda itself: “the whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth’s Ring.” The pride of Melkor-Morgoth had “marred” the whole of material Creation just as, according to the Christian doctrine of the Fall, the pride of Lucifer-Satan had marred the very fabric of the world. 

If, however, the Shadow of Morgoth had fallen across the face of Middle-earth, marring it terribly, Tolkien asserts with Christian hope that the final victory would never belong to Morgoth. “Above all shadows rides the Sun,” Samwise Gamgee had affirmed in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and Tolkien uses the childlike wisdom of the hobbit to express deep theological truths. The Sun is a metaphor for Ilúvatar, the All-Father, God Himself, and the shadows a metaphor for evil. The final triumph of Good, i.e. God, and the ultimate defeat of Evil, was spelled out by Ilúvatar himself in the Ainulindalë, at the very beginning of Creation. Referring to Melkor’s introduction of disharmony into the Music of the Ainur, Ilúvatar warned his Enemy of the ultimate futility of his rebellion: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself had not imagined.” Eventually even the evil will of Melkor will understand that all its evil actions have been the unwitting servant of unimaginable Providence. “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.” Sauron is mighty, and Melkor is mightier still, but, as Frodo exclaimed at the Cross-roads, “They cannot conquer forever!”





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